I often hear people talking about the Holocaust as if it was something that occurred centuries ago, way back, maybe 500 years ago. “There are many more pressing things going on today, so why bother with going over the past,” a man said in my synagogue’s coatroom recently.
It’s not a random piece of history to me, as the daughter of two survivors, the Holocaust is tangible. It has a feel to it; a shape; a color and dimension. Sadly, it was never talked about in my home growing up. I understood without being told, that the horrors my parents endured were too painful to bring back. This was a common occurrence in many survivors’ households.
To people on the street, my mother, Sheila Bernard z’l, looked like an average woman. She played tennis and golf; enjoyed bridge; opera and skiing. It was often hard for the average American she met to understand or even imagine the horrors she suffered as a child during the Holocaust.
She didn’t talk about it much, so most people had no idea. A shy woman who spoke with a European accent, she normally would be horrified if asked to speak publically, but when the Holocaust deniers started raising their ugly heads- she decided it was important to become a speaker at the Holocaust Museum not wanting anyone to forget about her family, friends and the slaughtered 6 million Jews.
I was not aware of her story growing up. The only thing she wanted me to know was that a hero, a man named Czyzyk, rescued her in the middle of the night when she was in the ghetto with her mother, Bela Perec z”l. He told them he needed to take them that night into hiding to save them. He had found out the next day the Nazi’s were going to liquidate the ghetto. Mr. Czyzyk, a Polish Catholic policeman, was an old friend of my great-grandfather’s and our family . My mother was six years old, her father, aunt and cousins had been shot and killed by the Nazi’s during ‘Aktions’, killing sprees. Her world was already in shambles when she and her mother were hidden in Mr. Czyzyk’s potato bunker. Later they were moved to a chicken shed when it became unbearably cold, never to be able to play and sing outside again for two years. She felt lucky to have the chickens to play with, and to receive a loaf of bread and a jar of water weekly by Mr. Czyzyk. She never knew his full name, and exactly the week the war ended, he died, followed shortly thereafter by her mother.
Out of the 15,000 Jews in Chelm , my mother, was the only Jewish survivor who lived in Chelm during the Holocaust.
After the war, Sheila, orphaned at age nine, was sent to Israel. There she attempted to have her hero honored posthumously as a Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. She knew that his descendants may never know of his heroism because his wife and kids left him during the war. She was afraid his remarkable life-saving story would die with him. So she took action. She searched unsuccessfully for his family her whole life, and after she passed away, it became my mission.
In 2014, I received an email from Yad Vashem, that they located his family and he was finally being recognized as a hero.
We were shocked, but his family even more so! My mother correctly predicted that they would never know the story of their grandfather’s heroism. We connected with the Czyzyk family first on Skype, video chatting for almost three hours. This was the first time Mr. Czyzyk’s family heard the story of their grandfather’s heroism. There were many tears.
Twenty-five of my family and friends, in 2014, travelled to Poland to meet Mr. Czyzyks’ family, and together we honored him at the Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations ceremony at the Nosyk synagogue in Warsaw. Since then, we have become one family. We chat every two weeks and have travelled to Israel together recently to see Mr. Czyzyk’s name on the Wall of the Righteous at Yad Vashem .
As a result, Mr. Czyzyk’s heroism lives on for future generations of his family to know about- possibly changing the course of their family journey. If it wasn’t for his heroism, I wouldn’t be alive nor would future generations of my family
We can never underestimate the power of one kind gesture, as it says in the Talmud, “He who saves a life, it’s as if he has saved the world.” This is also what it states on the medal his family received.
The importance of telling each and every story of the Holocaust is clear to me.
Nira Berry is a keynote speaker, TV host, laughter therapist, life coach specializing in happiness and stress reduction, and wife and mother of two. She has an upcoming book on this topic.