In May 1943, a young Jewish boy and his parents were taken into hiding on a farm in Poland, after escaping the Siemiatycze Ghetto, ending up in a forest and having no other place to hide. The family that owned the farm eventually hid a total of seven Jews in a succession of bunkers for more than a year until liberation.
That young boy is now Sidney Zoltak, a member of the Claims Conference board of directors, representing the Canadian Jewish Congress. Earlier this month, he traveled back to Poland to witness his parents’ lifelong wish to have their family’s rescuers designated Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
The family had resisted being honored for fear that their neighbors in rural Poland would learn that they had saved Jews. Even today, the gentile family’s surviving son, who is now elderly, does not want to be publicly identified as a rescuer for fear of anti-Semitism.
For the seven months prior to liberation, Sidney did not see daylight. When news came that the Soviet army had arrived, Sidney’s family ran out of the bunker and fled, terrified that the Germans might return. They never said goodbye to their rescuers and could not visit them afterwards for fear that the neighbors would discover the farm family’s secret. “To be associated with Jewish survivors was not popular. They were afraid. That fear was real. It was also not very safe for any one of us to go out into the countryside,” Sidney writes in his account of his family’s rescue.
The pair had reunited before, when Sidney brought his family to Poland in 1997 and showed them the hiding places that had saved his families’ lives.
“There were 10 of us at our meeting with the family and the experience was so emotional that it is hard to describe,” Sidney writes. “I have since been back a few more times. Our guide knows that I am not going on a trip to Poland but to visit family.”
The ceremony honoring Sidney’s four rescuers, which included his friend’s deceased parents and sister, was held at the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw. When reunited with his rescuer, Sidney tried to search for memories of Polish words, bringing them back from the recesses of memory, while his onetime friend nodded his head and choked up with emotion. His son and granddaughter spoke for him, answering the questions and repeating the story once again.
“All stories must be recognized, all of us and the world needs to know about them no matter how much time has passed,” said Israel’s Ambassador to Poland, Zvi Rav-Ner, who presented the rescuer with a medal.
“Although I studied philosophy and should be able to explain to my little daughter the terrible horror that took place in this country, I cannot,” said Canadian Ambassador Daniel Costello. “Only through such individual stories are we able to understand what happened here. I am happy that among many tragic and cruel events there are also those that have happy endings.”
“This medal is primarily for those who have passed away,” stated the rescuer. “I am thankful to Sidney, that for so many years he was in touch with us, that has not forgotten us. We consider him a part of our family. “
The Claims Conference was the first organization to establish a program recognizing a Jewish obligation to support the brave non-Jews who had risked everything to rescue Jews. The Righteous Gentiles program, known as the Hassidei Haumot Haolam program, was created in 1963. In 1989, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) assumed responsibility for designating and funding newly recognized Hassidei Haumot, with funding from the Claims Conference.
Since the program’s inception, the Claims Conference has directly assisted a total of 784 non-Jews recognized as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem and has supported many more through allocations to JFR.
The farm family that saved Sidney and his family was not well-off nor were they looking to become heroes. But their compassion and firm conviction helped them make a choice that too few around them made. Their choice means that Sidney survived to raise a family and is with us today to bring in another new year.