David Zajac was born in 1938 as the Holocaust was taking hold throughout Europe, but escaped the fate of so many other Jewish children through the quick thinking of his mother and sympathetic officials and the aid of the French Resistance.
Zajac will be keynote speaker Sunday, April 22, at the Marasco Center for the Performing Arts at Monroe Township Middle School during the annual Yom Hashoa program of the Henry Ricklis Holocaust Memorial Committee.
This year’s event, The Youngest Holocaust Survivors, will also feature a processional of survivors with Monroe Township High School students, a candle-lighting ceremony, and the video “The People of Ricklis” about survivors in the community.
Two Monroe High School winners of an annual essay contest, Victoria Jett and Sara Mohamed, will read their works. An exhibit showing the lives of other young survivors, created by Harold Lichtenstein and his granddaughter, Amanda Koncius, will be on view.
Zajac was born in Paris, where he lived with his parents and older brother. His father was drafted into the French military, where he served until the Germans overran the country.
“They started to take away the Jewish men,” said Zajac in a phone interview with NJJN. “My father was taken to an internment camp outside Beaune-la-Rolande, from where we thought he would be liberated.”
That never happened; Zajac’s father was sent to Auschwitz in August 1942, where he died.
When round-ups of women and children began, Zajac recalled, a French inspector came to the house to take him, his brother, and his mother away. His mother, Ella, who was doing laundry, asked him to return in a half hour so she could pack a suitcase.
“He must have been sympathetic and understood what my mother was trying to say,” he said. “She quickly packed a valise and went to my aunt’s house, her younger sister, whose husband had already been taken away. We left Paris by train going south to the free French zone.”
However, every few stops the Gestapo would board and ask for identity papers. When Zajac’s aunt handed over her papers, which said “Juif,” she was immediately hustled off the train; she also died at Auschwitz.
“My mother could not say an anything,” said Zajac, who moved to the Regency at Monroe from East Brunswick almost six years ago. “When the Gestapo asked her, she showed him papers in French. People had different cards and identity papers so she showed him something that did not say anything about being Jewish.”
Unfortunately, at a later stop, a suspicious Gestapo agent had the family taken to a French internment camp for Jews, gypsies, and communists. From there, people were generally deported to death camps.
After nine months at the camp, its commandant — who was French — inexplicably liberated the family and two other women and their children.
“We don’t know how or why — maybe he was sympathetic — but we had papers,” said Zajac, whose family was taken to a ghetto in the Pyrenees Mountains near the border of France and Spain.
They were later smuggled out by the French Resistance. The family was taken to a farm whose owner and sons were Resistance members, where they remained for three years until liberation.
Returning to Paris, the family found a French family living in their apartment and went to live with a cousin whose husband had been murdered and whose three children survived hidden in a French convent.
After the war, it took Zajac’s family five years to acquire permission to enter America.
A chemist, Zajac is retired from the regulatory affairs department of a pharmaceutical company. He is now a substitute teacher at East Brunswick and South Brunswick high schools, where he often speaks to students about the Holocaust.
“My hope,” he said, “is that we never forget about the atrocities and inhumanity caused by the Nazi regime.”