The young Nazi approached 13-year-old Szulem Czygielmamn as he walked on the sidewalk of Lubartowska Street in Lublin, Poland, and shoved him off the sidewalk. Szulem was lucky; Jews had died for less.
In this moment, he decided he was not going to have his identity decided by the Nazis. He tore off the white armband with the blue Star of David. Szulem would determine his own destiny.
Preserving Testimony 70 Years Later
“Don’t make me into a Holocaust man!” His look is intense as we ready ourselves for what will be a three-hour testimony, for USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive. “I am only agreeing to this for the sake of the future, not because of the past.”
I don’t know what he means by a “Holocaust man,” but I assume he means being typecast as a Jewish survivor of the Nazi genocide. The layers of meaning this label holds for his own identity don’t dawn on me until later in the interview.
Over the next few hours, the story of Szulem’s survival unfolds. His mother, father and twin brother, Avraham, decided to leave Lublin while it was still possible in 1940, and head to the smaller town of Belzyce, where they would be less conspicuous. Szulem kept his word and never conformed. He got a job in an electrical plant and avoided slave labor.
During the September action of 1942, his parents had a plan. The family would split up in the hope that some of them would survive. However, as Szulem soon learned, his father had been murdered. He found his father in a pool of blood in front of the synagogue along with many others. Szulem and his brother buried their father with their own hands, along with 149 others that were shot on the spot.
His mother decided Szulem was safer in Warsaw. He boarded the train and arrived there first as Henryk Gorski, then after the murder of his twin brother, became known as Jerzy Eugeniusz Godlewski. He lived with Poles, spoke Polish, joined the Polish Home Army, trained as a Polish resistance fighter and was critically wounded while fighting in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. After liberation and months of recovery, he joined the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization in the British Mandate of Palestine, and prepared fellow survivors to fight while they were awaiting to leave for Israel from Marseille.
Once in the new Israel, he joined the infant Israeli air force, fought in all the major wars and distinguished himself as a member of the aeronautic and defense community under his fourth and final name, Nimrod Ariav (affectionately known as Zigi to his friends). After a successful business career he retired in his late 70s. At 90 years-old, he has a lot to look back on with immense pride. But I hear bitterness in his tone.
“This is not the Israel I fought for. At times I feel more connected to Poland than I do to my own home.” He says in anger at the ongoing political situation in the country. “If there were protest barricades I would be on them right now, but at 90, my fighting days are over.”
There is a lot that attaches him to Poland, one of the main reasons being that he built a memorial around the old Jewish cemetery of Belzyce. His father still lies on the far right side of the mass grave he dug that day in 1942. He goes back there every October to pray Kaddish with his family.
I ask him about his message for the future. “I have no message.” He pauses for a few seconds. I sense there is a message. “To my children or to my grandchildren, I will say one thing: study, study, and be a Mensch – and that encompasses a lot of things, from A to Z – be a Mensch.”
His family gathers around him at the conclusion of the interview. He once again expresses not wanting to be a “Holocaust man.” It is only then that I realize his determination not to be subjected to a “Holocaust” label began on the day he tore off his armband in Lublin. From that moment, he was neither victim nor survivor of the Holocaust, even though he lived through it for six years. His resistance was a state of mind. He was fighting his own fight with the Nazis, one of self-determination.
At the end of the interview he sits with his wife, Odette, and his children, Ariel and Avi, as well as his doting daughter in law, Sari. They are gathered around him and talk about their commitment to telling his story for future generations. As he responds, he has tears on his cheeks.
“Now I can say that even if somebody might call me ‘Holocaust Man’, I couldn’t care less. He motioned to the family around him, “this is what’s important to me.”