"Everyone must do the maximum that they can"
Yesterday, along with some 50 teachers attending a break-away session at Yad Vashem's Teachers ‘conference, I was privileged to "listen in" on an intimate conversation between David Zucker – who as a young boy escaped with his family to England – and his daughter – Shulamit Imber, Pedagogical director of the International School for Holocaust Studies. Zucker's family moved from a small town in Poland to the larger German-controlled town of Boytem in 1921. (After WWI, the area was placed under German control, granted by the League of Nations.) The city of 100,000 had around 10,000 Jews, and Zucker's father was a mainstay of the Jewish community – the cantor, shochet (ritual slaughter) and mohel (circumciser). A group of young men gathering at their home every Shabbat to hear his learned father, and their house was always filled with family, friends, Torah learning as well as German culture, including opera.
Zucker gave us a unique glimpse of Jewish life in Germany the 1920s, from the viewpoint of a young boy. The community and its resources were small, and while there were both an active Reform and Orthodox congregation, during the cold winter months, the two groups held Friday evening prayers harmoniously together – saving the cost of heating an extra building.
The Zionist Zucker family encouraged Zucker's older sister and brother to emigrate in the mid-1930s and fulfill their dreams of living in Eretz Israel –something that seemed perfectly natural at the time. Zucker was nine years old when the Nazis came to power. Boycotts of Jewish-owned shops ensued; the town was filled with people wearing pins that supported Hitler. Zucker was refused entrance to middle school where four of his siblings had previously studied although he passed the entrance exam (the class was suddenly "full"), and things began to change for him. In 1936, Zucker left his parents, and traveled with a cousin to Danzig, where he spent six months living with the mother of his stepmother so he could go to school.
Around this time - in the summer of 1936 – Zucker's father went to visit his sister in England for a family bar mitzvah. Sensing the encroaching danger for the Jews in Germany, she encouraged him to get a job in England in the Jewish community in Cardiff. Despite the pleas of the Boytem Jewish community – promises of a lifetime job! – the family left Boytem, their possessions in a handcart, in the middle of the night to join their father in England.
The city of Boytem was due west of Auschwitz, and the Jews of Boytem were among the first to be deported to the extermination camp. The promise of a job serving a Jewish community in Leeds provided the Zucker family with the necessary permission to emigrate to the UK, thereby saving their lives.
We listened to two moving recordings of David's father – Shulamit's grandfather – filling our classroom with beautifully sung liturgical passages that essentially saved his family from death.
Remarking on his immense inner strength, David told Shulamit: "It is in my genes – everyone must do the best they can.”
David Zucker went on to become a construction engineer, building among other things the model of Jerusalem now on display in the Israel Museum (for many years at the Holyland Hotel), the Carmelit in Haifa and Heichal Shlomo. In 2008 he was named "Patron of Jerusalem." Today, his daughter Shulamit dedicates her life to helping educators around the world meaningfully address the Holocaust in their classrooms and beyond.