Jack Zaifman had never wanted to tell his children about his wartime experiences while they were growing up in Trenton in the 1960s and ’70s.
He was afraid they would be horrified.
“My father was shot in the early days after the Germans marched into my hometown of Radom in Poland. Then they took away my mother, sister, and brother to Treblinka,” he told NJ Jewish News in an April 16 phone interview.
The annual humanitarian award that bears Zaifman’s name will be presented to two NJ educators who teach Holocaust and tolerance at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville on Sunday, April 22.
Zaifman — now 87 and a retired tailor who lives in Ewing — was incarcerated in Dachau and Auschwitz.
“There were lots of little whispers about his life,” recalled his daughter, Sally Kagan. “He would talk about it with adults, but if we came near, the conversation stopped.”
Without being specific, their mother, Gizella, would allude to his past.
“If any of us four kids got in trouble, she would say, ‘Don’t upset your father. He’s been through too much. You don’t know what he has been through,’” said Kagan.
“I wanted to erase it,” he said.
But now that his two sons and two daughters have finally learned the full story, Zaifman said, “In my kids’ eyes I’m a hero as a survivor of the Holocaust. I survived because of beautiful people.”
Two of those “beautiful people” happened to be Nazis, one a civilian, the other a sergeant in the German army.
When Zaifman was ill with typhoid and could barely move from his bunk in Auschwitz, the two men secreted him away to a village, where a Polish farmer hid him in a closet while he recuperated.
The story remained untold until 1977, when a New Jersey rabbi asked Zaifman to join him in speaking about the Holocaust at a local high school.
When the rabbi introduced him to 800 students, Zaifman said, “all I could do was cry. It took me quite a few minutes to compose myself. Then I looked up at those students and saw in their eyes compassion. I saw they would like to make a better world, for everybody, not only the Jews.
“So I promised myself then and there to tell my story.”
For the past 35 years, he has done just that, in churches, schools, and synagogues.
“When he talks it is straight from the heart, and he lets students know it is all about faith and tolerance,” Kagan said. “We want his legacy to continue. The message he has is so profound and so needing to be heard.”
To make sure it keeps resounding, in 2011 Kagan and Cantor David Wisnia, an Auschwitz survivor who lives in Levittown, Pa., created the Zaifman award. The program and presentation is a cooperative endeavor of the Zaifman family, the Julius and Dorothy Koppelman Holocaust/Genocide Resource Center at Rider University, the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education, and Adath Israel.
This year’s recipients are Ryan Murray, a history teacher at Watchung Hills Regional High School in Warren, and Michele Montrose, who teaches language arts in the Shamong Township School District in Burlington County. They will each receive a $1,000 check and 20 copies of Zaifman’s memoir, Tailor Made for Life: The Story of Survival During the Nazi Holocaust, in a ceremony that is part of Adath Israel’s annual Yom Hashoa program. Sharim V’Sharot, the Jewish choir of Central NJ, will perform.
Montrose, who teaches the Holocaust through literature, told NJJN in an e-mail that “it provides the opportunity for me to help students develop a deeper sense of empathy for all humanity, from their microsystems to their macrosystems.”
“This is not just Jewish history; it is the history of humanity,” wrote Murray. “I truly believe that if we are going to prevent another genocide from happening, it is important for every one of us to do our part to make sure the victims of genocide are never forgotten.”
“He never said anything about hatred,” Kagan said. “There were different stories I heard when I worked for him in his tailor shop. It was all about respect. It was all about making sure people felt you appreciated them. He would never tolerate us being prejudiced in any way toward anybody.”