Every Holocaust Story Matters
To people on the street, my mother — Sheila Bernard z”l — looked like an average woman. She played tennis and golf; she enjoyed bridge, opera, theater, and many other things.
It was hard for the average American that she met to understand — or even imagine — the horrors she went through 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 heavy European accent, my mother would be horrified to speak about her experience in front of a group — but when the Holocaust deniers started raising their heads, she decided that it was important to become a speaker at the Holocaust Museum.
She didn’t want anyone to forget about her family, friends, and the six million other Jews who were slaughtered.
I often hear people talking about the Holocaust as if it was something that occurred centuries ago, maybe 500-600 years. 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.
The only thing that my mother wanted me to know was that a hero — a Polish Catholic 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 that he needed to take them that night into hiding in order to save them. Because Mr. Czyzyk was a sheriff, he had learned that the Nazis were going to liquidate the ghetto. He was an old friend of my great-grandfather and of our family. My mother Sheila was six years old at this time, and her father, aunt, and cousins had already been shot and killed by the Nazis during “Aktions” — killing sprees. Her world was already in shambles when she and her mother were hidden by Mr. Czyzyk in his potato bunker. Later, when it became unbearably cold, he moved them to his chicken shed.
Sheila was not able to play and sing outside again for two years. She told me that she was able to play with the chickens and straw, and always felt hungry, even though Mr. Czyzyk provided them with a weekly loaf of bread and a jar of water. “The miracle,” my mother told me, “was that Mr. Czyzyk died the week the war ended. Had he died any sooner, we would have been found and killed by the Nazis while looking for food.” Shortly thereafter, her mother died, leaving Sheila an orphan at age eight.
As far as I am aware, out of the 15,000 Jews in Chelm, Poland, Sheila was the only Jewish survivor who lived in Chelm during the Holocaust.
After the war, Sheila was found by a Jewish agency and sent to Munich to strengthen her enough to make the voyage to Israel in 1947. In Israel, she attempted to have her hero honored posthumously as a Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. She knew that his descendants might never know of his heroism, because his wife and children left him during the war, fearing for their own lives.
My mother was afraid that 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.
I received an email from Yad Vashem in 2014, saying that they had located Mr. Czyzyk’s family and he was finally being recognized as a hero. My family and I were shocked, but his family even more so! Sheila correctly predicted that they would never learn the story of their grandfather’s heroism.
We first connected with the Czyzyk family on Skype, video chatting for almost three hours the first day. This was the first time that Mr. Czyzyk’s family heard the story of their grandfather’s heroism. There were many tears.
In 2014, 25 of my family and friends traveled to Poland to meet Mr. Czyzyk’s 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 recently traveled to Israel together to see Mr. Czyzyk’s name engraved on the Wall of the Righteous at Yad Vashem.
As a result, Mr. Czyzyk’s heroism lives on for future generations of his family — possibly changing the course of their family journey. If it weren’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 that Mr. Czyzyk’s family received.
The importance of telling each and every story of the Holocaust is now clear to me — and we must continue to do so.
Nira Berry is a keynote speaker, a TV host, a laughter therapist, and a life coach specializing in happiness and stress reduction, as well as a wife and mother of two.