Jews in the Land of Disney: Casselberry City Commissioner finds family thought lost in the Holocaust

 

October 29, 2021

Helen Katz

Part II

Sandi Solomon, three-term Casselberry city commissioner has found relatives who were thought to have perished in the Holocaust. Through a genealogy search that her daughter-in-law Sharon Fleitman of Atlanta had conducted while searching on the Facebook group's Jewish Genealogy portal, Fleitman discovered 31 pages of testimony that Henryk (Henry) Zyngier had given about his experience in the Holocaust when he lived in Tel Aviv in 1957. Solomon discovered her mother's first cousin, Henryk Zyngier, had survived the death camps. He had two children - Geoffrey Barlev and Helen Singer-Katz - whom Solomon plans to meet.

Henryk Zyngier returned to Lodz. His wife, Edjia, stayed with her sister, Dorka, as did 30,000 other Jews by the end of 1945. Unlike the larger cities like Warsaw, which was reduced to rubble, Lodz was fairly intact.

After the war Edjia and Dorka opened a millinery business. Zyngier worked with the sisters in the hat business for a little while. During this time Zyngier's relationship with Edjia grew and they married soon thereafter. A short while later, he and a partner went into the wool distribution business.


Life resumed. In 1946, 500 babies were born and as a result a Jewish hospital was opened to accommodate the growing baby boom. The Zyngier's son, Jerzy (Geoffrey) Zyngier (he later legally changed his last name to Barlev), was born in January 1948. Their daughter, Halina (Helen) Zyngier, followed four years later, born January 1952.

The Soviets took control of the country and after an election in 1947 it was officially a communist state. In 1952 upon the passage of its constitution it became known as the Polish Peoples Republic.

As a little boy Geoffrey remembers hearing his parents speaking to friends and family in whispers. When they wanted to talk about subjects that they didn't want him to understand they would speak Yiddish. Jerzy began to understand Yiddish and today remembers many conversations about the fate of their fellow Jews. After time passed, the conversations changed to talking about reminiscences, "Do you remember when, do you remember him...what happened to his sister?


As a child, Geoffrey was picked on. "They'd laugh at me, called me Lice Jew. I didn't understand why. I was Polish and I looked and talked like them. I was the only Jew and they used to throw stones at me."

He continued, "My parents were very secretive, I'm sure because of their past experiences and also because we were living under communist rule. When we went on a vacation to the Baltic Sea, I was constantly told 'Don't say anything to anyone. Don't talk to anyone.' I was filled with fear and anxiety my entire childhood. One morning the communist police broke into our apartment and found United States currency, which was illegal. We were terrified. My father was arrested and he spent nine months in prison. When he got out my parents used every penny to emigrate to Israel in 1956," Geoffrey said.


"Our trip to Israel wasn't without incident. We were driven to Warsaw by a friend of my father. We took a train to Czechoslovakia. When we crossed into Austria the train was stopped by Russian and Czechoslovakian troops. Looking out the window, I saw these Gestapo-looking soldiers with AK-47s. They came compartment to compartment. They asked for our papers and then searched our luggage. I was terrified. An hour or two later we crossed into Austria. I remember the look of relief on my mother's face. We went to Vienna, Austria, and I've never seen anything like it. The lights, the prosperity, everything was so shiny. We then flew to Athens, Greece, had a layover until we finally arrived in Israel the next day. We were liberated!" Geoffrey said.


The Zygniers lived with friends. "We were close to the beach and we lived four blocks from Ben Gurion's house. I felt for the first time in my life free. There was no crime. You could leave the door open. I remember as a boy seeing the Israeli Special Forces in their uniforms with the Red Beret. I wanted to grow up and be one of them. I used to stand on the top of the roof of our apartment and just look out at the sea and the city. I was healing."


Helen remembers bits and pieces of Israel as she was only four years old when they emigrated to Israel.

Zyngier preceded the family to Toronto, Canada, and stayed with Dorka and her family, looking for opportunities. During that time he did odd jobs. In 1958 the family left Israel for Canada, but had to come through the United States. Helen, Geoffrey and Edjia (by now Edith) landed in Idlewild Airport, now JFK. They took a train to the Canadian border, where they crossed and reunited with their father. They spent a week in Toronto and then moved to Brooklyn, N.Y.


"New York was dirty and we were poor," said Geoffry. "My parents did piece work and were barely getting by. I hated it there. I was sent to Yeshiva (Torat Hayim) but went to public junior and high school – PS-149. I had to take two buses and the Puerto Rican kids were waiting for us. I was constantly fighting due to the prevalence of gangs. We had ours ... I remember that I could make the best, most accurate zip gun. I hated it there."

In New York, Helen felt like a refuge, an outsider. "We moved so many times I never thought Thanksgiving as a holiday applied to us until much later in my life," she said.

Her immigrant parents worked very hard, morning till night, doing piecework work in the clothing industry. "Not only were we children of Holocaust survivors, with all the trauma associated with that, but we were also refugees. That brings with it a whole other set of challenges. Because we came to this country with nothing, my parents had to work long hours to provide for us. As a result, I had to grow up quickly. At seven or eight years old I was cooking dinner or doing the laundry and cleaning the house. I also had to take care of much of the paperwork since my parent's English wasn't as good. Geoff and I learned at a young age to take responsibility for ourselves," Helen said.


Zygnier was bitter and sad. "He enjoyed watching movies that ended up with the Nazis and Germans being crushed and defeated. It gave him some sort of relief. He died a slow, excruciating death from cancer 1969," Geoffery recalled.

Geoffrey hitchhiked to Los Angeles. "I was a hippie. I enjoyed that time. For some reason I loved LA and I believe I was healing from the trauma I had for most of my life. People at that time were accepting, the landscape in California is beautiful and being on the West Coast gave me the distance to reflect and gain perspective on my life."


In 1976 Edith moved to Toronto to be with Dorka. While there she married a man and spent the 20 years of her life until her death in 2002. "He was a man of means so for the first time in her life my mother didn't have to struggle. Ironically his name was Henry Milchman. We called him Henry number two," Geoffrey said.

Geoffrey was in the international freight forwarding business for over 27 years. He co-authored a book titled, "Discrimination – Jewish Americans Struggle for Equality," which was in every junior high school in the U.S. and many Canadian schools from 1992–2002. He now lives in Crossville, Tennessee. It's far enough away from those dark places that Geoffrey had lived a long time ago.

Helen was 17 in 1969. After public school she attended Queens College and received her undergraduate degree in psychology. After school she lived in San Francisco for a brief period. She came back to NYC and took a job as a receptionist at Loeb, Rhodes, Co., which ultimately became Lehman Brothers.

She worked her way up the corporate ladder at Lehman Brothers to the title of senior vice president in investment banking, where she worked for 15 years.

She worked for Merrill Lynch as a financial adviser for five years. "I loved working on Wall Street, it was exciting. There were so many interested and talented people. I got to do a lot of exciting and challenging projects, sharpen my skills and be exposed to the world."

In 1987 she went to a conference for Second Gens, which changed her in several ways. For most of her childhood, and up to the point of the conference, she was in denial and avoided dealing directly with what had happened to her parents and the hardships they'd endured. Her attitude changed to acceptance and a quest to confront the issues that came with her upbringing. She also met her husband at the conference.

"As a 2nd Gen as well as an immigrant refugee I've had a difficult childhood. But this taught me to be resilient, instilled me with a strong ambition to do well in life and, I believe, a perspective about the world that is more insightful than the ordinary person."

Helen's son Daniel was born in 1989. She continued on her career path working with her husband in their company, Kasin Management, a commercial real estate brokerage firm and management company which is still active today. She now is also working with Coldwell Banker Realty, where she works selling residential real estate in Bergen/Hudson Counties, N.J.

Helen has lived in Ft. Lee, New Jersey since 1976, giving her the stability she's desires - living in one place for a long time.

"My father's birthday was yesterday. He would have been 107 years old," Helen said. "So, I went to Paramus to visit my father's grave. I took pictures of the gravesite and sent them to Sandi [Solomon]. It turns out her mother and father were buried [t]here, not that far away from my father's grave. If you think about it, Sandi's side of the family didn't even know we existed, that my parents were killed during the Holocaust. And here they're buried in the same cemetery. Coincidences in life are just amazing."

Helen added, "I was so thrilled to find that I had more family. Family is so precious because so many have died. I want to thank Sharon [Fleitman, Solomon's daughter-in-law who found the family through genealogy] for her perseverance and can't wait to meet her and all my cousins in person."

 

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