Newark—Memories of the small bunker where Michael Zeiger and his family hid for 18 months were brought to life as the Randolph resident recounted his story of survival—and of the man who risked his life to save the Zeigers—at Newark’s 30th annual Holocaust Remembrance Observance. Approximately 700 people, including Newark students, listened as Zeiger shared his piece of Holocaust history in Zborow, Poland (now Ukraine), and his new life in America after World War II. The event took place on Tuesday, May 2, at the Robert Treat Hotel in downtown Newark; this year’s theme was “We Shall Overcome.”
The state’s largest and oldest observance of the Holocaust focuses on memorializing Holocaust victims and educating city youth about the Holocaust. It was developed in 1987 by then-Mayor Sharpe James, who attended this year along with former governor James McGreevey, Newark council members and other local dignitaries.
Miles Berger, chairman and CEO of The Berger Organization, LLC and event chairman, opened the program, explaining its primary purpose: to educate the city’s youth about the tragic events of 84 years ago as a result of Hitler’s rise to power. He noted that the systematic persecution and execution extended beyond the Jews, citing the other groups who were victims and sharing some sobering statistics: 1.5 million children, two to three million Soviet POWs and two-thirds of European Jewry perished.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka reminded attendees that “Racism, fascism and genocide are wrong. Our job is to support the humanity in every human being, to make sure democracy is lived by all of us and to ensure that peace reigns…not hatred.” He read a city proclamation honoring Zeiger.
Speakers also included Rabbi Samuel Klibanoff of Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston, who cited the significance of the event aligning with Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), and Rev. Dr. Perry Simmons, Jr. of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark, who said,“‘We shall overcome’ must mean something to every generation.” The Art High School Advanced Choir performed “God Bless America” and “We Shall Overcome.” Pastor Ronald Slaughter of Saint James AME Church in Newark delivered the closing benediction.
Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest, called up several people to light the memorial candles. Among them was Malka Klein, a Holocaust survivor who has lived to see a fourth generation of her family born—a testament to overcoming Nazi atrocities.
Throughout Zeiger’s keynote speech a picture of Anton Sukhinski was projected; he was the illiterate Polish peasant who saved the lives of the Zeigers and two young friends whose parents were taken by the Nazis.
Sukhinski, himself barely surviving, was an oddity among the villagers, thought of as the town fool. The Zeigers—a family of wealth by comparison—treated him with respect and care, which he did not forget. The Zeigers lost everything to the Nazis and were sent to a ghetto; they escaped and returned to Zborow with nothing, and were spurned by all the residents except for Sukhinski. He and Zeiger’s father dug a bunker in a root cellar, doing so at night to hide the activity from neighbors for fear of being turned in and killed.
Six people lived in the four-foot-deep bunker for 18 months; the adults could only sit or lie down and there was no daylight. They survived on raw potatoes and beets, bread scraps and rationed water. After nearly being detected, the family was rescued by the Soviet troops.
“We could not stand, we could not see, we were swollen and we couldn’t talk,” said Zeiger of their physical condition upon their liberation. After the hospital, they were sent to a displaced persons camp, and came to the U.S. in 1949. They invited Sukhinski to go with them; he would not leave.
In 1988, Zeiger’s brother reconnected with Sukhinski while on a business trip to Russia. The entire extended family went to see him and were greeted by crowds and the media. Sukhinski became a village hero. He requested a trip to Israel rather than come to the States. The Zeigers took him there to visit Christian sites; he was honored at Yad Vashem, where his name is inscribed near Oskar Schindler’s as a Righteous Gentile. Zeiger has written a book about Sukhinski, “Secret of the Village Fool” and has a grandson named Anton; family members recite the mourner’s kaddish for Sukhinski every year.
In lauding Sukhinski’s courageous response to persecution, Zeiger spoke out about the world’s silence regarding modern-day genocide and about the rise of anti-Semitism around the world.
“We must condemn hatred, speak up, act and fight genocide,” he said. “It is our responsibility to make the phrase ‘never again’ meaningful. Young people must speak and the world will listen.”
In addition to the Berger Organization, which owns the Robert Treat Hotel, other sponsoring organizations and companies were the Holocaust Council of MetroWest, the City of Newark’s Department of Neighborhood and Recreational Services, the Newark Public Schools, the Betesh Group, Edison Properties, LLC, audible United Sales, Performance Food Group and the Manischewitz Company.
By Caryn Starr-Gates