When George Starkman jumped from the train carrying him to Treblinka, he thought he would die.
But, he told The Jewish Standard, "it would have been better to die than to be tortured. I jumped to be shot, not gassed." He knew what could happen, he said. He had had seen it with his own eyes.
The 90-year-old survivor, who dedicated a sefer Torah at Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood on Sunday, said he was not looking for honor and publicity. "I went through so much," he said. "But because we suffered, it is even more important to show the world that we are still here."
The Englewood resident, who lived for many years in West New York and then North Bergen, said he knew since the war that he would dedicate a Torah.
Helping to support the Torah carried by his son Steven, George Starkman under a chuppah held by grandsons Niel Starkman, left, and Josh Greenfest, prepares to march to Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah.
"When the war broke out," he noted, "Poland was split between Russia and Germany." Starkman and the rest of the 30,000 Jews who lived in the town of Kaliscz were forced to leave, rendering the town "judenrein."
"We were sent to Eastern Europe," he said, "and in January 1940 it snowed every day. Six hundred Jewish boys were sent to shovel snow in Lublin, day and night. When the Germans came, they came by sled, and the sleds were covered with sefer Torahs, like tarps. There were hundreds of [unwrapped] Torahs. We couldn’t do anything about it."
It was then that he resolved, should he survive, to dedicate a Torah.
"It’s been 60 or 70 years but there’s not a night when I don’t dream about it," said Starkman, who survived many concentration camps, including Mauthausen, and saw many terrible things. "What the Nazis did it’s impossible to get it into the brain. They did their job, then they went home and ate supper with their families. They had no conscience."
He believes his survival was a "miracle, but I don’t understand it." He said, "I ask myself, How can my sons be here? Why did I deserve to be saved?"
Many survivors, he said, ask themselves the same question. He noted that he has spoken about his Holocaust experiences to his children and grandchildren "because they should know about it, people should know what happened."
Starkman, who came to the United States in 1947 with the help of an uncle living in New York (his family in Europe had all been killed) met his wife shortly after he arrived and soon had children of his own. Two of his children live in Bergen County: son Steven and his wife Cherie live in Englewood, while daughter Fran and her husband Ira live in Teaneck. Son Jay and his wife Leah live in Georgia. He also has 10 grandchildren.
"I brought them up religious. They all went to yeshiva," he said. "It was difficult to do. I was penniless when I came."
He said he is outraged by rabbis who have suggested that "Jews died in Poland because they were sinners."
"Little babies shot in their mother’s arms or thrown against the wall where was the sin?" he asked. "How can they say this?" He said that he wrote letters to various newspapers taking issue with this view, "but they were not printed."
Starkman said he still has the notebook he brought here with him in which he recorded his wartime experiences. He said that he had started to rewrite it several times. But rendering it in English (he wrote it in Yiddish) proved too great a task, and he is now working with a cousin’s wife to complete the job.
The Englewood resident said he davens now at "the small minyan [at Ahavath Torah] because it’s like in Europe, like a beit hamedresh." Dedicating a Torah, he said, has made him "feel good." The Torah was dedicated in memory of his wife, Genendyl, and the members of his family who died during the Holocaust. The writing of the Torah was completed at the home of Starkman’s son Steven. The family together with friends and well-wishers then marched with the Torah to the synagogue.
It will be here "as long as Jews exist," said Starkman, "even if I won’t be here."