cywiak, seymour (simcha)
Wyszków, Lomza, Sosnowiec, Poland; Syktyvkar, Siberia; Saratov, Russia
Seymour (Simcha) Cywiak was born in Wyszków, Poland, around November 24, 1933, to Alter Cywiak and his second wife, Sara Feiga Zylkewicz Cywiak. Of his three or four brothers, only Elchonon (Chunen) found him after the war. He also had a sister Rachel and a brother Nachum. “All I remember about him was that he was able to fix little watches and I wanted him to teach me how.”
Before World War II, half of Wyszków’s population of 9000 were Jewish [http://www.iajgsjewishcemeteryproject.org/poland/Wyszków.html]. The Cywiak family was religious and also included Seymour’s grandparents. Seymour was too young for school, so he went to cheder. Seymour’s parents had a store that sold fast food, a “yatala diner.” “We made good money from smugglers who came from one city to another to sell livestock and all kinds of things on the market…. My job was to make the ice cream.”
In 1939, the Germans attacked Wyszków. “It was only about 30 or 40 kilometers from Warsaw, the capital of Poland, and to get to Warsaw you had to cross the bridge over the Bug River in Wyszków. They were bombing that bridge so nobody can get through….
“I remember it vividly. Hitler was bombing our town… and they made everybody put ‘X’ tapes on the windows so they wouldn’t shatter when he drops the bomb. I was asleep and I was near a window and they woke me up. ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’ I put pants on and we were going to the woods. My father and mother had to take care of themselves because my job was to take care of my grandparents; they were very old. I had a bicycle and hooked it up to a wheelbarrow and pulled them with my bicycle until we got to the woods.
“We finally met up in the woods. I recall the bombing lasted about four hours. People were running back and forth. Towards the evening, it calmed down. They didn’t bomb the woods because they had trouble seeing. We stayed in the woods the whole day and also at night. While we were in the woods, my mother wanted to get dressed with a babushka to make her look like a Gentile lady. She wanted to go back home to see what she could save, including the golden rings that she had accumulated; and maybe she could get some food and bring it back to the woods. I wanted to go with her and she wouldn’t let me…. Meanwhile, my father was busy looking for a place where to stay and he finally found one.
“In the back of the house were hundreds of horses. The Germans came to the window and wanted to know to whom do these horses belong? My father said to them take them, we don’t know. So, the German soldier didn’t pull the trigger, and took the horses. I remember hiding under my father so he won’t see me, so he won’t shoot me…. They didn’t bother us anymore.” Seymour does not remember what happened to his grandparents.
The Cywiaks had the option to go to their daughter Chava’s home in Lomza, but, at first, they made a decision to stay in town and then see what happens. “Our house was still standing. When we decided to leave Wyszków, we just left the house. Later, there was an agreement between the United States and Poland that we were supposed to be compensated for any property that we had, but we decided that paying the lawyer to take care of it cost more than what the house was worth…. Finally, they made the decision to go to Lomza. We stayed there for a short time, then my father and mother were able to rent a one-bedroom apartment; I don’t even know if there was a bathroom.”
In the meantime, Sara Feiga found Chunen, but she sent him away because she was afraid they would take him to the military. “So, I’m the only one with them. Suddenly, out of nowhere, in the middle of the night, somebody knocks on the door and I get up to see what is going on. Russians already occupied that city and there’s a truck waiting outside and we have to go in the truck! We went on the truck and the truck simply went to a train station and the train took us to Siberia… me and my parents. Don’t know anything about my brother. Don’t know anything about my sister; we didn’t know anything. And we wound up in Syktyvkar, Siberia.
“It was a nice big city in Siberia. There were quite a few Jews in Siberia that went there because it’s very, very cold and the Germans and the Russians, nobody, goes there…. Siberia was all wooded and there were so many mosquitos there that they were eating me up alive and I swelled up…. My parents finally found a room to rent in somebody else’s house. They had a big oven for baking bread, so we slept on top and it was warm…. We had some Zloty, Polish money, and we were able to live through it. We stayed there because it was quiet. It was Russia and there were no bombs.
“My brother finally shows up out of nowhere. We thought we’ve got my brother, he can help out. But they wouldn’t let him stay. They took him to the Russian army…. He didn’t know anything about serving in a war, he was never taught. But he learned how to drive those huge Chevrolets and they gave him the job to deliver bombs to the place where they needed them and coming back he had to pick up German prisoners and bring them to Siberia.
“My father was very, very religious and he did not tolerate eating bread on Pesach, you have got to have matzo, period. My father says he would rather die than to eat chometz on Pesach. And yes, he died…. My father was lying on the floor and it was so cold, I couldn’t bury him. In Siberia it’s all the ice. Finally, the Russian Russia army found my brother and he showed up and was able to find a sled and a horse to take my father to the cemetery.
“He couldn’t stay. He had to go back to the Russian army. So, I am left with my mother. My mother gets sick and they take her to the hospital. I am alone. How do I survive? Well, we had a little stove. It was burning wood. We can always get wood in Siberia. There was plenty of wood. And I just kept warm. I have a next-door neighbor who worked in a restaurant. She used to bring soups, potatoes just for me to survive…. My mother was in the hospital and I couldn’t get there. I didn’t know what to do. Somehow, I was able to send a message to my brother that our mother is sick. She’s dying. And he came and he found me. He realized she is dying and I said to him, ‘Look, I want to see my mother, if she is dying.’ But since I was too young to go into see her, they won’t let me go in…. So, I go in the back of the hospital, my brother is in the room, and I climbed up the brick wall, and he opened up the window and caught me, pulled me in. I was able to see my mother and then I hugged her around and she died right in my arms. Just like that. She didn’t want to die until she sees me.
“Chunen went back to the army and somebody took me in and I slept there for a few days. I said, ‘It’s so cold. I cannot stay here anymore.’ I didn’t have the proper clothes. So, I hitchhiked south. Somebody took me in a truck and I went to Saratov, a city in Russia that had a Polish Consulate. I went to the Polish Consulate and said, ‘I am so and so. I can’t show you anything. I don’t have, they bombed the town. My parents are dead.’ He looked me up and said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right. That’s your name.’ So, they were able to find me a place where I could stay.
“I stayed there for a few months, and the war was over with Russia. I remember that Stalin said, ‘Anybody from another country than Russia is allowed to go back to their home country.’ Oh, I said to myself, wonderful, clearly, I will go back to Poland maybe. But who is alive over there? How do I find it? I don’t know…. So, I go to the Polish Consulate and got a visa to travel on the train and I went back to Poland. The train stopped in just about every city…. When I got to Sosnowiec, I happened to know there is somebody Jewish there trying to look for people and if they have no place to go, they are going to take them in. They were from a Kibbutz in Poland and they took me there. I got a bed to sleep. There must have been about 20, 30 people living in that house.
“That gave me a little time to figure out what am I going to do with myself. While I waited, I took a walk in the street. They told me, ‘If you are going to go on the street, you have to walk like this, pretending that you are carrying a gun so the Polish people won’t bother you.’ They hated the Jews over there. But they were afraid you are going to pull the gun and you are going to shoot. So, I went down on the street and that’s exactly what I did.” While he was walking, he ran into his brother’s childhood friend, Horowitz, who knew that Chunen was in a different town and in an Orthodox Kibbutz. The next day, “Somebody knocks on the door and they yell my name out and they say somebody is asking for me. So, I open the door and it’s my brother! I jumped on him and I flipped him over. He was much taller than I was and he was holding me and there he was. Well now it’s going to be a little bit better. He took me to his Kibbutz and I stayed with him…. I was able to do some black market just to survive.
“We were trying to make a decision, do we go to America, the United States, or do we go to Palestine? All of a sudden, the same thing happens, he gets sick. I have to put him in the hospital and they diagnosed him with rheumatism. While we were there, I said I am going to try to go into Palestine. And at that time was the ship Exodus.” After the ship was turned back from entering Palestine in July 1947, Seymour decided to go to the United States.
“In order to go to the United States, you have to show proof of birth. So, I go, I apply and they asked when I was born? I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure. So, they give me a list with all kinds of dates. I didn’t know, but I pointed and it happened to fall on November. Whether that’s the right date who knows, only God knows. They registered me and took me to a certain place where they kept the orphans to go to United States, Canada. While I was there, a German electrical engineer was there, and I liked it and I was picking it up.
Towards Christmas, Seymour was watching a show and sitting next to the housemother. When he told her that he going to be 16 years of age, “She said to me, ‘If you are past 16, one day, you cannot go to the United States. They won’t take you.’ The next morning, she took me to the American Consulate, and they registered me, I am all set….
“My time came and they flew me to New York and took me to a school for orphans in the Bronx. I enjoyed New York and did not want to leave…. But they found a place for me in Detroit and put me in a foster home with the Stein family. I didn’t know English, so they put me in an Americanization class…. When I finally got into high school, I was about two years behind, but I had a good teacher who helped me a lot. Then, I went to Wayne University for electrical engineering. I had trouble with calculus and English, so I changed to pharmacy school. When I graduated, I worked as a pharmacist at Revco Drugs. I was manager there…. I saved up money and was accepted to medical school, Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine & Surgery.”
Chunen, his wife, a survivor of Auschwitz, and their two children came to the United States and settled in New York. Their half-sister, Bracha Eilenberg had gone to Palestine when she was 15 and married a Holocaust survivor. Their cousin Rabbi Samuel Cywiak lived in Louisville, Kentucky, was a shoichet, and wrote a book “Flight from Fear.” Another cousin on his mother’s side, was the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Goren.
Seymour’s burning desire is to remember what his mother looked like. That is his prime urgency in his heart and soul, to see her face; to get a picture, to get more history about his mother. “I can’t remember what my mother really, really looked like. I can’t remember whether she was tall, blonde or had certain features. I know my father was short and had a little tiny beard. But my mother, I just can’t remember. I do know what she was like to me. I remember the love and the touch.”
For Seymour, “Survival is very important no matter how you achieve it. And it is hard when you are young and you lose your parents and your family, losing something from yourself, but you have got to keep on living. You’ve got to survive…. I think I got my strength naturally from within myself…. I had to do it because nobody is going to do it for me and I have to survive…. I survived to tell the story…. I did all right. I was very successful. I had my ups and downs, but I got lucky, I married the most beautiful woman and, not only that, the kindest in the world.” He married Anita and they raised three daughters, Heidi, Tracey, and Julie.
Date of Interview: August 25, 2015
Length of Interview: 86 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Kevin Walsh