The Holocaust ended Rubin Sztajer’s formal education. But after a life rich in experience, the 88-year-old Baltimore-area resident is finally earning his diploma.
The survivor of six Nazi death camps has frequently shared his story with reporters, historians, educators and thousands of students. Today, Dallastown (Pa.) High School is presenting Sztajer with an honorary high school diploma, a document long overdue for a man who has spent hours upon hours addressing students in their classrooms.
In a letter notifying Sztajer and his wife, Regina, that he was to be honored, social studies teacher Molly Dallmeyer explained why the school and school district had chosen to bestow the diploma.
“I know that this honor is one that is unexpected, but due to your presence at Dallastown and the lives you have touched through the years by sharing your story, I find that no one person can truly express how much you have made a difference not only to my own life, but on those of my students in my Holocaust Studies classes the past five years,” she wrote. “This honor will surely express our gratitude and thanks. If anyone is deserving of such an award by the graduates and families of Dallastown students, it would be you and the hope, perseverance and commitment you have made to teaching future generations about what it is to truly survive and live with dignity.”
Despite the value he places on education, the Holocaust interfered with Sztajer’s ability to complete high school.
“When the war broke out in Poland, I was 13, and my education ended,” said Sztajer, who lost his parents, three younger siblings and many other relatives in the Holocaust. “When I came here, I had to make a living and support a family.”
At first, he noted, it wasn’t easy.
“I hit the pavement for seven weeks trying to find a job,” he said. “I had no family, no money, no education, and I didn’t speak the language.”
Finally, Sztajer, at 23, met a Yiddish-speaking man in Baltimore who offered him a job in his wholesale warehouse. Although the job paid less than he was receiving from his public assistance check, he took the job.
“The first day I cleaned bathrooms and swept floors. You’ve got to start somewhere. I did pretty well,” he said, looking around his Timonium living room in the apartment he shares with his wife of 61 years. The room, comfortable and neat as a pin, is decorated with artwork and photographs of his three children and seven grandchildren.
“All of my kids are college graduates, and my last grandchild just finished college. A couple of them have master’s degrees,” he said. “Education was always the No. 1 thing for me and my wife. When the first kid came, we decided she would be a stay-at-home mother. Her job was to make sure all the children got good educations. Mine was to support us. Somehow we managed.”
Although he lacked a high school diploma and was therefore unable to get credits for courses he audited at Towson University while in his 70s, for the past three decades Sztajer has spent much of his time in school. It’s where he loves to be.
“I only speak to children. I give them hope and encouragement, and they realize there are so many opportunities for them,” he said. “I give them advice: ‘Go home and tell your family how lucky you are that you have them!’ Reading a book [about the Holocaust] isn’t the same. Seeing a person tell their story makes an impact. Kids [who have heard the story before] actually sneak in to hear me again. I don’t think anyone can say they’ve been hugged more.”
Simone Ellin is senior features reporter for WJW’s sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times.