Decades later, Michael Zeiger’s memory of how he and his family were saved from the Nazis is still vivid.
And now, thanks to a children’s book, The Secret of the Village Fool (Second Story Press), a whole new generation will share that memory.
The book revolves around Anton Suchinski, the gentle little man dismissed as the village fool in Zeiger’s hometown of Zborow in Ukraine. Unlike the other town residents who mocked him, Zeiger’s mother took pity on Suchinski, and she would have her sons take food to him. When the Nazis closed in, hunting down Jewish residents, Suchinski risked his own life to create a shelter for her family in his root cellar. Thanks to his courage and generosity, they survived down there for two years, together with two young girls whose parents had been taken away, until the Nazis were driven from the town in 1944.
The man “risked his life and never asked for anything in return,” said Zeiger.
Zeiger, together with the wife and children of his late brother Shelley, will celebrate the publication of the book with its author, Rebecca Upjohn, on Wednesday, Nov. 19, at a reception, reading, and book signing at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor.
Speakers at the event will include Zeiger; Upjohn; Shelley’s widow, Marion, herself a survivor; her children, Jeffrey Zeiger and Jennifer Zeiger Cameron; and MCCC president Patricia Donohue.
Paul B. Winkler, executive director of the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education, will discuss the value of the book for schoolchildren learning about the Holocaust.
“Rebecca approached Shelley about a year and a half ago,” recalled Zeiger. “Shelley wasn’t well” — he died last September — “but he was able to tell her our story.” The book is illustrated by Canadian artist Renné Benoit.
Zeiger, the longtime owner of Admiral Wines, in recent years began giving talks about the Holocaust to audiences, including a recent gathering in New York of the Young Leadership Associates of the American Society for Yad Vashem and 3GNY. He lives with his wife Rochelle in Randolph; the couple has three children and nine grandchildren.
“About 160 people were there, young professionals who were very much interested in learning about the Holocaust,” he recalled. “They were so responsive.” Among other roles, he has worked closely with the Sister Rose Thering Endowment for Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange.
Zeiger’s family immigrated to the United States in 1959. Suchinski refused their invitation to come with them, but for many years they continued to send him food and clothing. They lost track of him during the 1960s but managed to find him again and resumed their support, ensuring that he was comfortable in his old age.
They brought Suchinski to the United States for a visit in 1989, and in 1992 met with him in Israel for a ceremony at Yad Vashem, which in 1974 had honored him as one of the Righteous among the Nations.
“He loved seeing how they grew their fruits and vegetables,” recalled Zeiger, who has played a major philanthropic role in Israel, including helping to found Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, and a number of orphanages. He has served on the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbinical College of America in Morristown.
“I see anti-Semitism flaring up all over the world, especially on college campuses,” Zeiger told NJ Jewish News. “There are people who believed it could never happen again. They’re wrong, in my opinion. There is still a threat of genocide around the world, and it’s our responsibility to educate Jews and non-Jews about the danger.”
Before his death in 2001 at the age of 96, Suchinksi, who never had any family of his own, asked Zeiger, “You and your family, please don’t forget me.”
Zeiger said, “It brought tears to my eyes. I gave him a big hug and said we never would.” Not only did they help Upjohn write the book, Zeiger’s son Chet named his son Anton.
“What goes around comes around,” Zeiger said.