During his chilling tale of suffering and survival, Polish-born Michael Zeiger thanked the non-Jewish man most people in his hometown of Zborow considered the “village fool” for risking his own life to give the Zeiger family shelter from the Nazis during World War II.
Speaking before an audience of nearly 1,000 at the City of Newark’s 30th Annual Holocaust Remembrance on May 2 at the Robert Treat Hotel, Zeiger saluted Anton Suchinski, who faced grave danger for hiding Jews in a small bunker beneath his barn.
Students from 14 Newark public, private, and parochial schools, plus delegations from Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston and Golda Och Academy in West Orange, packed the hotel’s grand ballroom to take part in the commemoration.
Zeiger said Suchinski was an outcast because he was different from everyone else in his village; he was a jogger and a vegetarian, he spoke to the sun and the moon, he gave thanks to the rain for watering his vegetable garden, and he talked to the animals. “While everybody else felt sorry for Anton, my mother treated him with respect, and Anton remembered that.”
Once the Nazis took over Zborow, Suchinski warned the Zeigers they would be forced into a ghetto, then shipped to a concentration camp. He offered to keep the family out of harm’s way. At first they ignored his warnings. Then they were confined to a ghetto where “life was unbearable,” Zeiger said. They lacked food, water, and medicine; 20 to 30 people died each day.
One snowy night the entire family escaped the ghetto and, Zeiger said, he had to walk barefoot because he could not find his shoes. “My mother said, ‘Let’s go to Anton’s.’ He welcomed us with open arms.”
Suchinski, Zeiger said, told them, “Don’t worry. I will take care of you. I will not allow anybody to harm you. I am so happy you came to me.” Everyone in the family began to cry.
For 18 months Suchinski hid Zeiger, his parents, his brother, and two girls whose parents had been taken away. Suchinski and Zeiger’s father had dug the six-foot-by-four-foot bunker at night, with forks and spoons. “We couldn’t stand,” Zeiger said. “We could only sit and lie down. For 18 months, I didn’t see daylight.” The family subsisted on raw beets and potatoes and occasional pieces of bread.
At one point their space was invaded by insects and lice, so Zeiger and his brother, Shelley, had a contest “to see which one of us could squish more bugs.”
During those months, said Zeiger, “we were condemned to a living hell. But my father and Anton gave us hope and determination.”
Then, for six days in 1944, the family had no food or water. The Soviet army was on the verge of liberating Zborow, and some of its soldiers decamped on Suchinski’s property, right above the family bunker. “We could hear everything,” Zeiger said. While the troops were eating, his family was a few feet below them, starving. “It was torturous,” he said.
Their predicament became even more threatening when one of the soldiers dropped a bullet through the straw-covered ceiling of the bunker and it landed near Zeiger’s foot. The man probed for it with a bayonet, and as he was about to look below ground, a voice called out commanding the troops to evacuate. “In a matter of seconds they would have found us,” Zeiger said.
In July of 1944, they finally emerged from the bunker. “We didn’t look human,” Zeiger said. “We couldn’t walk. We couldn’t talk, because we didn’t use our vocal chords. We would only whisper. We couldn’t see. And when the [Russian] soldiers looked at us I saw tears in their eyes. They just couldn’t believe it.”
After being hospitalized they were told that their bunker had collapsed. “Had we stayed there another week we would have been buried alive,” he said.
When the Zeigers came to the United States in 1949 they invited Suchinski to join them. He visited for six months, but declined to move to America, saying he wished to die in the place where he had been born.
Michael Zeiger became a successful wine and liquor wholesaler with a home in Randolph, with his wife, Rochelle. They have three children and nine grandchildren.
In 1987 he learned that Suchinski was gravely ill. A year later several members of the Zeiger family returned to Zborow to see him. The visit became a media event covered by reporters and television crews. “Anton was instantly transformed from the village fool into the village hero,’’ Zeiger said.
Up until his death at age 97 in December of 2002, Suchinski received support from the Zeigers. At his request, Zeiger family members escorted him on a visit to Israel, where he visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and saw his name inscribed as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, rescuers of Jews during World War II, adjacent to that of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who is credited with saving 1,200 Jewish lives.
At their last meeting, Suchinski begged Zeiger not to forget him, and he hasn’t. His grandson is named Anton and every year he and family members say Kaddish on the anniversary of Suchinski’s death.
A children’s book about the family’s ordeal and Suchinski’s role in their survival — “The Secret of the Village Fool” (Second Story Press) — was published in 2012.
“When we needed help, Anton helped us. When Anton needed help, we helped him. It’s the old saying: ‘Whatever goes around comes around,’” said Zeiger, who added, “I say to you young people: In spite of all the adversities we face in the world today, there is hope because of people like Anton.”
Prior to Zeiger’s dramatic story of his family’s survival, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka presented him with a proclamation saluting his courage and resilience. “We need to remember the Holocaust because we need to remember to do everything in our power to make sure it does not happen again,” said Baraka.
Noting that “unbridled nationalism leads to hatred and chauvinism,” the mayor went on, “And chauvinism leads to racism and violent fascism. Fascism leads to genocide.
“We need to understand that not just as people of the Jewish faith but as Americans and around the world as human beings, that isolationism is wrong and that hatred of one another leads to death…,” said Baraka. “The Holocaust of the Jewish people means the Holocaust of humanity.”