2018-05-23 / Local News

A learning experience: One person can make a difference

By SALLY FRIEDMAN For the Voice


Teens from Adath Emanu-El and Covenant House at the May 2 event focusing on the lessons of the Holocaust. Pictured along with the teens were featured speaker Jeff Zeiger (front row, third from right), Adath Emanu-El Rabbi Ben David (front, at right), Jennifer Williams of Covenant House (front row, third from left), and Abby Wolf (middle row, center), Adath Emanu-El education director. Teens from Adath Emanu-El and Covenant House at the May 2 event focusing on the lessons of the Holocaust. Pictured along with the teens were featured speaker Jeff Zeiger (front row, third from right), Adath Emanu-El Rabbi Ben David (front, at right), Jennifer Williams of Covenant House (front row, third from left), and Abby Wolf (middle row, center), Adath Emanu-El education director. On a picture-perfect spring evening, clusters of teens were enjoying American staples like hot dogs and hamburgers on the Mount Laurel grounds of Temple Adath Emanu-El. It might have been any picnic - at least as it began.

That supper, however, was soon the prelude to a vastly different vibe.

As the young people moved indoors, the evening changed drastically in tone and content. The youngsters, Adath Hebrew High teens and young people from the Atlantic City branch of Covenant House, a well-known, shelter for teens facing personal and emotional challenges, came from vastly different worlds , and were to visit yet another vastly different one soon.

The subject at hand was the Nazi Holocaust. And the mission was a melding and blending among them as they heard of the horrors and renunciations of Jews during one of the darkest chapter of human history.

“Our goal is to bring these youngsters together to learn about that period, and to listen to a story about one family and its experiences,” said Rabbi Ben David, who had been eager to give both the local students, and visiting ones, a chance to learn and experience together as that story unfolded.

“Our local youngsters - and our visitors -will have the rare experience of hearing a Holocaust story as told by a member of that family decades after their lives and legacy were forever altered.”

The speaker that night was Jeffrey Zeiger, who had grown up in the safety and security of Moorestown, but whose family history was light years removed from those tree-lined streets.

Zeiger, now himself a father of two daughters, has dedicated himself to telling the Zeiger history.

A well-known and respected business leader of Zeiger Enterprises, a business development company which he ran with his late father Shelley, Jeff Zeiger has told his family tale to literally thousands of people.

And on that spring night, the youngsters, themselves from different worlds, came together to consider the strength of the human spirit, and the incredible goodness of one Christian who literally saved their lives while perilously risking his own.

That story began in Zobgrow, a small town in Poland where his father Shelley lived with his family initially in peace and safety.

But everything changed, he explained, as the specter of Nazism spreads through Europe.

As Jeff Zeiger talked to the teens about how dramatically those changes came, the stillness and shock were palpable.

It seemed that formerly friendly neighbors in this small Polish town turned their backs on the Jews who had once been accepted. As the malaise spread, so did the shock and horror at the betrayals.

But then there was one person known by almost all townspeople - as the town fool.

Anton Sukhinski was a soul so gentle that he could not bear to kill even an insect, He was a strict vegetarian at a time when that was almost unheard of.

But Shelley Zeiger’s mother always had been kind to Anton, and for no reason other than her own goodness. That genuine kindness would ultimately save the lives of her family and also of two Jewish teenage girls, their neighbors.

As Jeff Zeiger explained with obvious emotion, Anton, “The Fool,” a non- Jew who would be in great personal peril, insisted that the Zeiger family, including the parents, their two sons, and yes, those lost girls whose parents were missing, would take shelter with him.

And it came to pass that their hideout ultimately would be a underground hole beneath Anton’s barn which he painstakingly hid from view for his terrified “visitors.”

There was no light, and so little space that the underground occupants had to sleep in “layers” in their 6-foot by eight-foot by four-foot hideout.

Whatever food they had was supplied by Anton. At one point, the hidden Jews went for eight days without food. There was an audible gasp from the teen audience as they heard the desperate conditions and details of this unimaginable captivity.

The remarkable saga ends happily - if “happily” can be applies to such horrendous conditions and ever-present fear of discovery. After 18 long months in hiding, all six survivors miraculously lived. And so did Anton Sukhinski. After trying to locate Anton for years, the Zeiger family did find him, living basically his same life but no longer the town fool.

The Zeigers saw to if that their personal hero was recognized for his extraordinary heroism and named a “Righteous Gentile” at Yad Vashem in Israel.

The family brought him to America, and to their home, where they longed to care for him for the rest of his life.

But after some months, Anton Sukhinski announced that he wanted to back home. America was just too much of an adjustment for him.

But why tell this story decades later?

That became clear as the local youngsters and their Atlantic City visitors, broke up into small discussion groups to share their thoughts and feelings as they addressed discussion questions like why Anton did what he did, and the biggest one of all: against all odds, can one person truly make a difference?

The young audience members were all struck by the generosity of Anton, and by the hatred that fueled the fires of the Holocaust.

“It was a horrifying story - and it also was wonderful,” said one young man from the Covenant House contingent. “It makes me think that maybe, someday, I would do something like that because I’ve had a tough time, and some people are helping me.”

For Jeff Zeiger, who circulated around the room as the small group discussions took place, it was another reminder that the story of his family matters greatly, and that telling will hopefully inspire others.

“The more people who hear it,” says Zeiger , “the more Anton and my family will remind others that one person can save generations of others. And I am deeply grateful to be one of those others.” s

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