A teenager’s tortuous journey from hell

April 25, 2017 by Michael Kuttner
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As part of Holocaust commemorations, survivors’ personal testimonies have become more important than ever…writes Michael Kuttner.This week I had the privilege to speak, in his home in Efrat, to an 89-year-old survivor whose experiences during those years exemplify not only tragedy but also faith and ultimately triumph in the face of unimaginable barbarity.

Siggy Weiser age 17, after the Shoah, in France

Siggy Weiser was a 16 year old teenager living with his mother and siblings in Satumare, Hungary, when his life turned upside down. His father had been stranded in the USA while visiting when war broke out and therefore Siggy’s mother had sole responsibility for coping with an ever menacing situation.

A deeply religious family in a town which had approximately 16,000 Jews most of whom were similarly Chassidic, the Weiser family was exposed to the usual level of Jew hatred common at that time. Siggy attended Yeshiva and in his words lived a sheltered life in the midst of a warm loving family. All this came to a shattering halt with progressively more anti Jewish measures such as the yellow star and the establishment of a ghetto. His home was just inside the ghetto wall so they did not have to move. However with Jews rounded up from surrounding areas the Jewish population grew to 30,000 and they ended up with five families sharing four rooms in his house.

Cover of the book written by Bruce Chadderton and published in Israel.
Photo on cover shows Siggy Weiser with his two younger siblings and
his mother in Satumare.
Postcard shown on the cover of the book is the postcard mentioned in
the article.
Translation of the postcard text is as follows:
Bochnia Ghetto Friday 18 June 1943
To my dear beloved children
I want to inform you that Thank God I am healthy
I hope to hear the same from you, forever, Amen
This week I didn’t receive a letter from you
I beg of you to quickly pay the emigration fee so that we can get permission
to leave and travel. Please do anything you can and also for Brandle.
Ask xxx the address of his son David
Regards and kisses to my dear beloved children
Your ever-loving father (Ignatz)
Ignatz Grunfeld was shot in “einsatzaktion” in August 1943.
Elazar Weiser was transported to his death at KZ Auschwitz in 1944.

In May 1944, Siggy’s journey to hell commenced when Hungarian fascists rounded up the Jews for deportation to Auschwitz. It was the enthusiastic local Hungarians who delivered their Jewish neighbours into the clutches of the Germans which highlights the fact that the willing assistance of the local population facilitated the murder of Europe’s Jewish population. Siggy explained that the local community was leaderless as the first Jews to be deported were the leaders of the community. As an innocent teenager, uninformed of the reality he was about to face, the journey in cattle wagons seemed to him to be an “adventure.” Little did he know of the horrors that awaited him at the end of his journey.

Arriving at Auschwitz with thousands of Jews he was approached by a prisoner in striped jacket and trousers who asked him how old he was. Siggy replied that he was 16. His questioner hastily told him that he was to say 18 because if he was 16 he would soon be leaving via the chimneys visible from the assembly point. Not realising at first the implication of this information Siggy thought that he would be able to escape by climbing the chimney. Passing in front of Mengele his fate was decided and he walked in the direction of those selected for slave labour while his mother and other family members were selected for gassing.

Somehow he managed to survive a starvation diet, primitive living conditions in the depths of winter and harsh slave labour. In January 1945 the forced “death march” commenced which many in their weakened condition did not survive. Eventually those still alive were loaded onto uncovered rail wagons, 150 per wagon packed in like sardines. By the time they arrived at Buchenwald there were only 15 in his wagon left alive. Liberated by American troops and nursed back to health, Siggy and his fellow survivors now faced the challenge of where to go next. In his words, “various Governments sent representatives to repatriate their nationals (political prisoners etc), but for the Jews there was nowhere to go and no families to be reunited with.” Siggy, by now 17, together with other youngsters decided that Palestine was the only place for Jews. The British however had other ideas and therefore he ended up in France where he spent a year in an orphanage before getting a permit to immigrate to the USA.

Reuniting miraculously with his father, Siggy managed in a short time to master the English language, having previously only spoken Yiddish and Hungarian. Night school followed and eventually this Yeshiva boy learnt electronics, engineering and the new technology of television. He married Shirley, another survivor his own age who had also lost her family in the Shoah and together they started to create a new life in America.

Siggy and Shirley Weiser in their home in Efrat 23 April 2017

From the anti-Zionist atmosphere of Satumare he and his wife became ardent Zionists – as he said “ I became a Ba’al T’shuva” someone who saw the light and recognised that only a strong Jewish State could guarantee that nothing like the Shoah would ever happen again.

In 1985 Siggy and Shirley made Aliyah to join their daughter in Israel, first to Ma’ale Adumim and then to Efrat where they now live. Their extended family has now increased to 55 members with 19 great grandchildren and in Siggy’s words: ”this is my revenge on the Nazis.” Strongly believing that the lessons and experiences of the Shoah must be transmitted to future generations, Siggy speaks to as many groups as possible. He has been to Poland nine times with students from Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem. This week of Yom Hashoah he spoke to local residents at a gathering in his home as part of the “zikaron b’salon” program where survivors retell their experiences in their own home.

AN AMAZING NEW ZEALAND CONNECTION:

 In one of those coincidences which can only be termed as miraculous, out of the blue a few years ago, Bruce Chadderton, a non-Jewish New Zealander living in Auckland, who specialises in collecting stamps related to the Holocaust, contacted the Weiser family with an amazing discovery. He had purchased on eBay a postcard written by Ignatz Grunfeld who was held in a Polish ghetto. Ignatz wrote to his brother-in-law in Satumare appealing for money because it was believed that on receipt of these funds he would be allowed to leave Poland. The intended recipient (who never received the postcard) was Elazar Weiser, a great-uncle of Siggy Weiser.

The connection was made between Bruce Chadderton in New Zealand and the Weiser family in Israel after Bruce had searched the archives of Yad Vashem. Amazing as it may seem via the wonders of modern technology this long-lost memento from the ghetto was rediscovered. Bruce offered to return the postcard to the family but they insisted he keep it and it subsequently featured on the front cover of a book on the subject written by him. It is dedicated amongst others to Siggy Weiser who after a journey to hell now lives in the Jewish homeland.

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