Dozens of boys packed into the school theater at the Boys’ Latin School of Maryland last week to listen to Holocaust survivor Rubin Sztajer’s story.
“You people are the future of this country,” Sztajer, an 88-year-old native of Poland, told the standing-room-only crowd assembled in front of him. “You go home to your parents, tell them how you feel about them, how lucky you are to have parents, grandparents, siblings.”
The Feb. 11 talk was hosted by the school’s Jewish Awareness Club in conjunction with The Louise D. & Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education’s Teens Can Identify program. What began as 15 kids interested in hosting a Holocaust talk quickly grew to around 60, said the CJE’s Zack Pomerantz.
Sztajer began by describing the events that led up to his being taken from his family.
It was on a Friday at the start of the war, he said, when his family decided to leave Poland on foot. They walked all day until sunset, when they stopped at a field to rest and eat. The next day, they ran into a soldier who told them that they had been liberated and that they could return to their home. They believed him.
“Monday morning the Holocaust really began for us,” he said.
Torah scrolls were taken from the synagogues and burned, and new laws were enacted that restricted Sztajer’s freedom to even walk on the same sidewalk as a soldier.
In the spring of 1940, he and his family of eight were relocated to a small one-bedroom apartment in a Polish ghetto.
“At 14 I had to grow up; I had to be a man,” he said, as he described to the boys how, with no access to stores, factories, jobs or transportation, he and his brother had to smuggle food from local farms to feed their family.
“April 12, 1942 is one day I will never forget,” said Sztajer. That was the day soldiers arrived to take him to a camp. His mother fought with the soldiers to hold on to her son, but she was overpowered. It was the last time he ever saw most of his family.
“I don’t know what happened to them,” he said of the mother, father, brother and two young sisters he lost in the Holocaust. “I don’t even have a grave to go to.
“They took my family, they took my freedom,” he continued. “They even took my name.”
At the first of six camps Sztajer was sent to, he officially became No. 25685.
He told students how, for the three years and three days he spent in concentration camps, he and the other prisoners were forced to work long days in the freezing cold and oppressive heat. They were given wooden-soled shoes and spent hours on end shoveling dirt from one place to another, and given little to eat.
“How any of us survived, it’s got to be the greatest miracle in the world,” he said.
In 1944 he was moved to another camp. He and the other prisoners were forced to walk through the snow to a train stop, where they were packed so tightly into a car they could hardly move.
“If there is a hell, I’ve been there,” he said, describing how every time someone died during the three days and three nights he spent in the car, the body would be put into a pyramid with the other dead so that there was more space for the living.
When Sztajer finished his story of survival, the students were silent. Some of the staff members who had gathered to hear him speak asked Stzajer about his two remaining family members — a sister in New York and a brother in Florida, neither of whom give public talks about their experience — and his relationship with other survivors. Another person asked whether he would ever consider writing a book about his life.
No, he said. “I don’t want to make any money on six million lives.” Besides, he added, “the story is not mine, it’s theirs.”
As the boys headed out the door to go to their final class of the day, some stopping to thank him for his talk, Sztajer shouted after them, “Don’tforget your parents when you get home!”