Setting aside a specific day for remembering the Nazi Holocaust is unnecessary to those who survived it. In fact, among the horrible events in Europe that occurred between 1939 and 1945, there are many dates survivors might choose to forget. Jack Cyprys, who was named “Zelik” by his parents and re-named “Jack” by his American coworkers 50 years ago, remembers more of them than one might think, but he doesn’t talk about them unless he’s asked.
Cyprys is small and slight, rosy-cheeked, and modest. His apartment at The Oaks at Menorah Park in Syracuse is immaculate. He’s lived there alone since his wife Renia died two years ago. He cleans the apartment himself, repairs and presses his own clothes, and keeps the candy and nut dishes near the television set filled.
For Jack and Renia, the war years were best put behind them. They met in the German displaced person camp of Feldafing, worked for several years at various jobs, emigrated to the United States in 1952, and were settled in Syracuse by the American Jewish Distribution Committee. Cyprys began working at the Dairylea Dairy on Burnet Avenue.
“We lived with an old lady, and she knew someone there who retired,” he explained. He was hired to pack cottage cheese, a union job, despite the fact that he barely spoke English. Soon he was taught pasteurization techniques until he was overseeing the entire pasteurization process. He became a working foreman, worked lots of overtime, and was eventually promoted to plant supervisor – “in charge of the supervisors,” he said. He retired from Dairylea in 1982.
Cyprys and his wife spent years renovating their house in North Syracuse (“I rebuilt the whole house”), while raising two children and working. During that time, he was not often asked about his experiences. “I never thought to write it down,” he said, gesturing at my pen and paper. His son and daughter are grown now, of course – Frederick Cyprys of Rochester and Barbara Kimber of Syracuse – and Cyprys has two grandsons; but he doesn’t talk about the war years much with his family either.
August 13, 1939
And yet when asked about the day the war began, Cyprys’s recall is surprisingly clear. August 31 is still emblazoned on his memory 77 years later, because it set in motion a series of unthinkable losses: youth, health, parents, sisters, grandmother, neighbors, and friends. “I remember it very well,” said Cyprys. “I really do.
“It was on Friday,” he told me. “I didn’t go to school that day because the war started, and Germany wasn’t too far from where we lived – 100 miles or so. We knew they would be soon here.”
How did they know, I asked him, since, as he emphasized, “we didn’t have telephones, we didn’t have televisions, and we didn’t have radios.”? Cyprys shrugged, his eyes focused on mine, his face serious but not betraying emotion. “I don’t know. We just knew it – I remember my father used to watch outdoors. He wanted to have all the people [in the family] indoors, everybody at home. I remember I helped him. The next day was Saturday.”
At age 14 he was set to work digging trenches, first in the Jewish ghetto outside Zdunska Wola, and then in a concentration camp in the much larger city of Posen. He and other able-bodied men and teenagers were transported there while his family stayed in the ghetto, crammed in along with the other 8,000 Jews of the city.
In Posen, “I was digging there, too,” he said. “I was digging a lot. I did a lot of digging there.” He worked barefoot, and wrote to his parents asking them to send him some shoes. His family somehow procured a pair of wooden shoes and mailed them to him. Somehow he got them. He is convinced that these wooden shoes saved his life.
After August 1941
While in Posen he learned that his family had perished. How did he learn this? “There was always someone who knew something,” he said. Cyprys lost his father, Moses, and his mother, Fradla. He lost Nacha, his older sister, and Esther, his younger sister. His grandmother disappeared. They died in the ghetto or in Auschwitz, where he presumes they were taken after he left for Posen in August 1941.
From there, the young Cyprys was transported to the village of Teuplitz in Germany, where he lived in a house with other young men and two German Jewish couples. Although he worked essentially as a slave for a boss to whom he had been assigned, Cyprys maintains that he was treated decently by the owner of the house and his wife. He had a bicycle and was able to go about the town on his own. Was the war ever discussed? Did the couple in charge know what was going on?
“Sure they knew. No, they never talked about it,” he said. “Everybody knew. But they played dumb.” He paused. “That was a good place.”
From Teuplitz he was sent by train to several concentration camps; staying longest in Auschwitz and, eventually, Dachau in Germany. Days before the May 1 liberation, Cyprys and a few others were taken from the camp and forced out on their own. They hid in an abandoned house and gorged themselves on bacon – the only food they found there. They heard tanks rumbling on the road, and peered out to see American soldiers on trucks. They ran outside. The first person they met was a Jew from Brooklyn. “He gave us oranges,” said Cyprys.
Why he survived and why Renia survived is not a question Cyprys speculates about much. “I don’t know. I was lucky,” he said. He recalled one march when other young men, weakened by hunger, were beaten and did not get up. He was beaten, too, but he got up.
I looked at him – this small man with the smooth, pink cheeks and observed, “You’re not a big man.”
“No,” he agreed.
“But you must be tough,” I said.
“Could be. It all depends on the work,” he offered as explanation. At Auschwitz, he claimed tailoring skills he did not have and worked sewing patches and repairing clothing. But by the time he got to Dachau he was ill with typhus and there was no work for him.
After May 1, 1945
In spite of starvation, and the sickening and inhumane treatment documented by scores of survivors in countless testimonies, Cyprys never felt hatred for the Germans as a people, after the war.
“No,” he said, “Not really.”
“Why not?” I asked, mystified by his calmness.
Recalling the days just before and just after the liberation of Dachau, when he and other starving men were wandering the countryside, Cyprys said, hesitating, “They were so kind.”
“Who?” I asked. “Who was kind?”
“The Germans,” he said. “After the war they were so kind, the people on the road. They gave us coffee, food. What could they do? They had to get better now, after the war, now that the Americans were taking care.
“What happened happened,” added Cyprys. “That’s it.”
I asked him what he would like to tell people today about what he and others went through. “I don’t have too many people to tell,” he said.
“Still, there must be something you think we ought to know?”
“How we lived,” he said. “We didn’t have food to eat. The soup was just like water; some bread maybe. We never saw a piece of butter.”
Jack Cyprys of Syracuse was born in Central Poland 89 years ago, in the city of Zdunska Wola. At the start of World War II, when he was 13, the Jewish community there totaled half the city’s population, roughly 10,000 people. The population dwindled to almost nothing during the Holocaust. Along with 3 million other Jewish Poles, the Zdunska Wola Jews were interned. Some disappeared. Most were killed or died of starvation. Roughly 200,000 Polish Jews miraculously survived. Most, like Jack, emigrated.
This year, International Holocaust Remembrance Day is May 4. The date changes from year to year in accordance with the Hebrew calendar. It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising in 1943. Another day of commemoration, Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27, commemorates the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945.
story and photo by Elizabeth Weinstein