Jeff Zeiger Recounts Father’s Survival of Holocaust
The powerful story that Jeff Zeiger recounted to Bunker Hill Middle School eighth-grade students on March 21st, at the request of ELA teacher Patty Bernhardt who arranged the visit, is the stuff of movies. Thankfully, this one had a happy ending.
The son of Jewish Holocaust survivor Shelley Zeiger, Jeff Zeiger told of his father’s family survival during the darkest days of the Nazi occupation, when Zeiger, then 7 years old, his older brother, his parents, Sonya and Irving Zeiger, and two young unaccompanied girls from the village were hidden from the Nazi soldiers by a Christian farmer named Anton Suchinsky. Suchinsky, who was unable to read or write and who lived alone just outside of Zborov, in the Ukraine, worked with the family to dig out a bunker by using spoons and hid the Zeiger family and the two girls for 18 months beneath the earth in a six-foot by eight-foot by four-foot hole.
“In 1942, those six people lay like a deck of cards in that hole, basically in a carved out grave, beneath the root cellar, for 18 months,” Zeiger said in sharing his personal history related to the extermination of six million Jews during this period. “Anton kept them alive by using a three-bucket system, lowering water in one bucket, food scraps in a another and using the third bucket to dispose of their waste. When the Soviet soldiers finally rescued them, there were no other Jewish families who had survived in the area. They were in really bad shape, looked like skeletons, and suffered from leeches and terrible sun poisoning when they were removed from the bunker. They spent the next five years moving throughout Europe through displaced persons camps, which were managed by the Red Cross.”
Eventually, the Ziegers journeyed to America by boat for two weeks with 1,300 Jews, and entered Ellis Island on December 22, 1949, with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Irving Zeiger opened a grocery store in Newark, NJ, and began sending monthly packages of food and clothing to Suchinsky. Because Suchinsky could not read or write, he acknowledged each of the gifts by sending back an envelope with a hand-drawn flower. In the 1960’s the letters stopped coming, and unable to locate him, the Zeigers assumed that Suchinsky had died. Until 1987, when on a business trip to Moscow, Zeiger met a man who had heard of Anton’s story of generosity and re-connected the pair. In May of 1988, the Zeiger family reunited in Zborov with Anton, who was now recognized as a local hero for risking his own life to save the lives of the Jews. Anton even visited America in November of 1991 and explained his willingness to help, “I knew they wanted to be alive. We all want to live, That instinct isn’t Jewish or Christian, it’s human.”
Zeiger, who tells his family’s and Anton Suchinsky’s remarkable story in schools three to four times a month, emphasized the importance of human kindness and empathy to his Bunker Hill audience.
“Anton was a little guy, but his spirit and his heart were huge, and he lived to be 98 years old,” Zeiger said. “We can all learn so much from him. First, do not make fun of somebody because they are different. Second, if you do good in life, the good will come back to you. And thirdly, ask yourself what can one person do? One person can do a lot. In the family of those six people who fought to live in a six-foot by eight-foot by four-foot hole for 18 months, 70 people are alive today because of what one man did.”
Moorestown native Jeff Zeiger shared the story of his family’s survival of the Holocaust with Bunker Hill Middle School students on March 22nd.
Jeff Zeiger poses with Bunker Hill Middle School English teacher Patty Bernhardt in front a picture of his father, Shelley Zeiger, and Anton Suchinsky who hid the Zeiger family in a bunker on his property for 18 months during the Holocaust.