Maurice Siidmarc’s last name is as unique as the tattooed number he bears on his left forearm, a reminder of his internment in Auschwitz.
More than 100 students at Montclair State University crowded into a room in the student center on Oct. 29 to hear the 82-year-old from Long Island give his testimony, beginning with his childhood as a Jewish boy, then Maurice Skoczyla, growing up in Bedzin, Poland, about 50 miles from Cracow.
Siidmarc spoke to the journalism class The Holocaust and the American Press at the request of Professor Ron Hollander, a family friend.
“It is urgent that we hear the voices of Holocaust survivors in the few years they have left, because they will soon all be stilled,” said Hollander.
Siidmarc told the students that his long “night of hell” began on a Saturday in September 1939, when he was 12, with Germany’s invasion of Poland. The Germans massacred the Jews in Bedzin and set fire to the synagogue; Siidmarc saw the shul engulfed in flames from the second-floor of the building he lived in and heard people yelling and shouting from the streets below.
“I saw a man with his clothes burned and his body yellowish,” Siidmarc told the students, his voice filled with emotion. He said he heard “nothing else but crying and tears.”
Following the massacre at Bedzin, the town was turned into a ghetto. Siidmarc said his father told him, “Let it be like this and hope for the best.”
Nine family members lived in one room in the ghetto for two-and-a-half years, suffering enormous deprivations. Because there was no bathroom, Siidmarc said, they used a bucket instead.
By 1943, the Nazis declared that Bedzin would be “Judenrein,” free of Jews. When Siidmarc’s brother Jacob was marked for deportation, the whole family went with him.
“The trip to Birkenau was very hard to explain,” said Siidmarc, “no air, you choke, tears.”
When the train of cattle cars they were in arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Siidmarc did not get a chance to say goodbye to his father. He got pushed to the side and was rushed to the barracks, where he and the others were stripped, had their hair cut, and received their tattoo numbers.
With trembling hands, Siidmarc removed the braces he wears for his carpal tunnel syndrome and rolled up his shirt sleeves to show the six-digit number tattooed on his forearm.
“I was no longer Maurice,” he said, “but a number.”
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, Siidmarc’s barrack was next to the crematorium. “If anyone asked what the crematorium was, they went there,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it, that human beings were getting cremated.”
Siidmarc was later sent to the Nordhausen concentration camp in Germany — he was among only 2,000 people to survive out of the 42,000 on his transport — then to Bergen-Belsen. When he was liberated by the British in April 1945, at the age of 17, he weighed about 70 pounds.
Before the Nazi invasion of Poland, Siidmarc said, he had 92 relatives; by the end of the war, only seven cousins remained alive.
To honor the family he lost, he changed his last name from Skoczyla to Siidmarc, taking the first initials from his brothers’ and sisters’ names as a lasting commemoration of their lives.
Surviving the Holocaust, Siidmarc told the students, taught him not to fear, and he chooses to live by what his father taught him, “Do whatever you do but please dislike, do not hate. Go your own way, but don’t hate.”