Tracing his parents’ lives as survivors
A son finally pieces together their story of resilience
Jerry Zaks’ parents were in their early 60s when he asked them about their experiences in the Holocaust.
“I was unprepared for my mother’s reaction,” Mr. Zaks said. It was 1980. Mr. Zaks was newly married; now he and his wife, Beth, live in Mahwah, but then they lived in Framingham, Massachusetts.
Mr. Zaks had just finished reading Helen Epstein’s “Children of the Holocaust,” and, he said, “her work sparked my interest in talking to my parents who, up until then, had rarely spoken about their experiences.” His mother, Berta Goldstein, was born in Lwow, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine), and his father, Saul, was born in Bedzin, Poland. They met in 1945 in Stuttgart, Germany, soon after the war’s end; they married in 1946, moved first to the Bronx in 1949, and then settled in Queens, where Jerry and his older brother, Irving, grew up. Mr. Zaks knew this — but very little else — about his parents’ lives.
During a visit to their home, Mr. Zaks told his mother he’d read Ms. Epstein’s book. “She immediately burst into tears,” he said. “I thought she was upset, but she was actually relieved.”
“A common theme amongst children of the Holocaust is that parents don’t talk about the horrors they’ve endured to spare their children from knowing about them,” he continued. “What remains is an unspoken void felt by both parties. The kids can’t ask and the parents can’t speak.
“Sensing my mother might be willing to talk to me, I seized the opportunity to learn more.” Using a portable cassette recorder, he told his parents that he might seem curt and abrupt, interrupting them often to ensure his questions were answered. Looking back, Mr. Zaks acknowledges how little he knew about conducting an interview like this one.
Sitting with them in their living room from after dinner into the wee hours of the morning, he remembers running out of tape at midnight. Unconcerned with the status of his recording, his parents insisted on talking, veering off in many directions. “I tried to reel them in, but they kept going off on tangents,” he said. “They recalled the atrocities, they recalled the death marches, they recalled the camps, and they recalled the losses, but they couldn’t provide details like numbers, locations, or timelines.”
With just two one-hour cassette tapes, it was impossible for Mr. Zaks to have learned everything that his parents could have told him.
Sadly, and shortly after the audiotaping, both Berta and Saul Zaks died. “They died within 10 weeks of one another,” Mr. Zaks said. And it would be 30 years before he would return to his parents’ oral histories. “It wasn’t until after my retirement from IT consulting in 2016 that I sat down at my computer and dedicated hours to transcribing those tapes into 50 pages of narrative.”
Saul Zaks had had a stroke years before the interview, so it was hard for his son to understand everything on the tape. “No matter how many times I rewound the tapes, I couldn’t fill in the gaps,” Mr. Zaks said. “I just didn’t know how to tie the facts together.”
For Jerry Zaks, that’s when the real work began.
“There’s been no genocide in the world that is documented as well as the Germans documented the Holocaust, because they were so proud of their systematic killing,” Mr. Zaks said. He began putting the pieces of his parents’ story together by getting in touch with the Arolsen Archives, a German-based, internationally supported organization that works to preserve Holocaust-era information. It holds more than 30 million original Nazi documents, covering the lives of 13 million people. Mr. Zaks noted that only 20% of the archive is online. “It was a long and laborious process which included writing to them and asking specific questions,” he said. “It took over nine months to get my answers.”
It took him four years to learn the names of his mother’s parents, Mr. Zaks said; he learned more about his mother and her life when he searched for her using her Yiddish name, Tuszka.
Mr. Zaks learned some details from Heritage.com and Ancestry.com, and he also asked the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., if it could fill in missing information. “Surprisingly, I was also able to write directly to the archives of the concentration camps, who provided specific documentation pinpointing the locations of camps where my parents were interned,” he said.
From 2016 to 2019, Mr. Zaks went to the towns where his parents had lived, and the camps where they had been taken. “Part of my research was locating the towns through which my father walked on death marches,” he said. “My father was in numerous selection processes in Bedzin between 1940 and 1942”: his father was 22 years old when that process began. The final selection process, when Bedzin was declared Judenrein — cleansed of all Jews — resulted in the separation of my family,” he said.
Saul Zaks was sent to Blechhammer, a subcamp of Auschwitz, and Berta and her then-fiancé tried to escape to the West when the Nazis caught them in Krakow. Berta was sent to Blechhammer in 1942, when she was 22.
Ms. Zaks does not know whether his parents were interned there at the same time.
“From Blechhammer to Dachau, I traced my father’s movement,” Mr. Zaks said. “While his last internment was at Dachau, he was actually liberated in the farm fields of Germany on a death march out, when the Germans abandoned their posts.”
His mother’s last camp was Bergen-Belsen, where she worked in a kitchen. “Hearing that the end of the war was near, she collected kitchen tools, pulled mattress springs, and gathered sticks, preparing to fight for her life.
But Allied troops arrived, liberated the camp, and set the prisoners free before she had to use them. Once she was able to leave, she set off for Krakow.
“On her way to Krakow, she stopped at a displaced persons camp to freshen up,” Mr. Zaks said.
While she as there, she searched for her own parents; that’s where she learned that they were murdered. She also learned that her fiancé, too, had been killed.
While Mr. Zaks wishes he knew more about his parents’ lives before the war, his focus remains on the years leading up to it and through their liberation.
His quest for information has become a passion to teach and to tell. “Once I had gathered as much detail and documentation as possible, I created a timeline of their experiences, including deportation documents, ship manifests, concentration camp entrance and work order paperwork, false identification cards, infirmary physical examinations, and tattooed ID numbers,” he said. Since January 2021, he has used his IT background to put together a multimedia presentation for schools, churches, synagogues, civic organizations, and genealogy societies to keep the memory of the Shoah alive.
His talk, “Bearing Witness for My Family: Surviving the Holocaust,” traces his parents’ experiences. He speaks to students who are as young as 10. “It is not a history lesson with shock value,” Mr. Zaks noted. “It is a personal story of my parents’ resilience and survival.”
After spending years researching, studying, and immersing himself in the detail of the Nazis and their collaborators heinous crimes against humanity, he has tried to instill two important messages in his work. He’s given the message to his two adult daughters, Sheryl and Michelle, and to the audiences he addresses. “I stress the importance of having confidence in oneself to survive the most challenging of obstacles, and to look for and recognize signs of hate and injustice,” he said.
“Complacency is silence — and 80 years later, antisemitism and hatred still exist. We can never stay silent.”
The wisdom and stories of bravery he gleaned from interviewing his parents have led to his interest in helping others research their own families. His second talk, “Recovering the Past: Researching the Fate of One’s Family in the Shoah,” is a detailed explanation about how everyone can find, interpret, and translate details of their family’s Holocaust experiences.
Mr. Zaks tells students that the Nazis were close to building a museum to honor their Final Solution to the Jewish question. “They wanted the world to know how well they’d planned, laid out, and skillfully annihilated such a significant segment of the Jewish population,” he said. He ends his presentation with a photo of the Zaks family as it is today, spanning three generations, proving that not only his parents, aunt, and uncle survived, but so did the Jewish people. The Final Solution was a failure.
In April 2019, Mr. Zaks donated his parents’ audio transcript, 60 pages of text, to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. By searching the name Zaks on ushmm.org, readers can find the interview that Mr. Zaks’ aunt, Lily, did with Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation.
Mr. Zaks said that he has presented his program to many history classes. His name comes up on a variety of speakers’ bureaus in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. He has reached hundreds in his live presentations and has many active viewers on his YouTube page. “My parents taught us to survive and thrive at any cost,” Mr. Zaks said. “An important aspect of accomplishing this is through education.”
To learn more, go to www.geraldzaks.com or email Mr. Zaks at [email protected]