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Yad Vashem: A Personal Memory #787

07/21/2023 02:01:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Devarim

"This week’s Torah portion, Devarim, or “words” inspires us to use the privilege of speech to build rather than destroy." 

    Yad Vashem: a personal memory

It’s a long way from Grand Prairie, Alberta to Jerusalem, Israel. The distance is 6,230 miles.

And so it was in January 1998, as Sydney and Bronia Cyngiser and I boarded a Dash 8 prop plane to Grande Prairie from Edmonton, to enable 250 students, who had never met a Jew, to look straight into the eyes of the Holocaust.

Syd, Bronia and were good friends. As a bar mitzvah teacher in Edmonton, I tutored their grandchildren, and presided years later in Calgary at the wedding of their granddaughter, Jenna.

Syd, Bronia and their daughter, Francie, eventually became regulars at CTI’s Friday night Zoom service. But few knew their full story.

It was early April 1945, as the liberating French army approached the Vaihingen-Enz Concentration Camp. Certain of their impending defeat, the Nazis roused surviving prisoners and forced them to participate in what would later be termed a “death march.”

Most died along the road.

On that day in 1945, Syd was too weak to rise. He weighed less than 72 pounds, so the Nazis left him there to die. But they did not know Syd.

Over the next two years, he recovered in hospital. He met his beloved Sonia in a Displaced Persons Camp, and eventually moved to Canada, where the couple raised a son and daughter. And so, almost 53 years later, we boarded that northbound plane to Grande Prairie on a mission.

Earlier, during a working visit to an isolated First Nations community, I noticed a small swastika carved into one of the wooden beams of the local community center.

I asked the Chief how it got there, and perhaps more importantly, why it hadn’t been sanded away. He replied, “It’s just kids making mischief.”

There was a tense silence between us before the Chief continued, “So you’re Jewish. So, tell me, did the Holocaust really happen?” And at that moment, I realized that I had come upon a valuable opportunity.

The Chief and I spent some time speaking about the atrocities committed against both the Jews and First Nations in Canada and the United States. And we agreed to do something about it.

Enter Syd and Bronia, who—with support of three round-trip tickets donated by Canadian Airlines—flew north with me.

Meanwhile, teachers and the northern school boards did their part. Buses were loaded with students—many traveling up to two hours—to attend “a Holocaust symposium.”

That morning, these students from across northeastern Alberta, gathered at the Grande Prairie High School and looked into the eyes of two survivors. They watched a film, and then broke off into smaller groups to ask the Cyngisers questions.

“How did you fix your hair?” one child asked.

“Didn’t you get tired of eating the same thing?” inquired another.

“How is it you don’t hate everyone?” another child posed. 

Bronia and Syd answered patiently and lovingly. On that day, those 250 children, who are now probably in their mid-30s, grew up a bit. I believe their time with the Cyngisers remains with them to this day.

Two weeks ago, in Israel I shared the story of Sydney Cyngiser—who recently turned 99—with our Israel group as we toured Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center.

Yad Vashem is a museum hard to endure, but it takes on increased significance these days as we witness the recurrence of many troubling trends that existed worldwide prior to World War II.

As we approached the exit, I walked alongside Hazy, our museum guide, speaking to her about that first of a series of Holocaust trips to northern Canada, and this remarkable person, Syd Cyngiser, who—rather than lean on hate, suspicion and vengeance—chose strength, wisdom and kindness.

“He must be a remarkable man,” commented Hazy as we parted company. 

“You are right,” I replied.

Only a few hours later, as I checked my cell phone for messages, images of Yad Vashem—and that trip 25 years ago—passed through my memory.  It is said there are no coincidences in life, and perhaps that was never truer as I opened a text from Francie Cyngiser.

Dear Irwin and Patte

I hope your trip is going well.

I will speak with you when you are back but I knew you would want to know. My dad, may his memory be for a blessing has passed away.  He was peaceful and comfortable and that was all we could hope for - we will miss his gentle kindness, his quiet wisdom and his love and devotion, but we know that his legacy will live on forever in his growing family, and through the thousands of people he reached over the years through his work in Holocaust remembrance and his desire to work towards tikkun olam.  We are overwhelmed with the community’s stories of what a true pillar he was—always talking about his kindness.

The great sage Maimonides posed this question more than 800 years ago: “When is it that we stop teaching and learning?” And he answered, “Just before taking our last breath.”

Born during humanity’s darkest hour, Syd Cyngiser was in my eyes one of the world’s Lamed Vavs—one of the 36 great human beings that at any point in time occupy this earth, without whom, according to Jewish tradition, the world would not exist.

He was kind and patient. He inspired others—no matter what they endured—to embrace life and its possibilities. To never succumb to darkness. To teach Judaism as a joy and not as a restriction. 

I loved this man, who continued to inspire by example until his last moments. This week’s Torah portion, Devarim, or “words” inspires us to use the privilege of speech to build rather than destroy.  And that he did. His mantra was

“Be kind, be humble, work hard, do the right thing—not the easy thing—give back. There is always a lesson to be learned from someone if you only take the time to listen.”

You cannot understand Israel until you’ve paid a visit to Yad Vashem. 

It may be difficult for us—and especially our children and grandchildren who we want to protect—to visit Holocaust museums, whether here in Glen Cove, in Washington, in Jerusalem or throughout the world. But we must do so and thus enable Holocaust survivors to bear witness.

From the ashes of the Holocaust, to a classroom in Grande Prairie, to a holy place 6,230 miles away—those like Syd remind us that embracing life is a choice and that joy can only be truly embraced by understanding times of unbearable pain. 

That was Sydney Cyngiser. His family, friends and others he touched will carry him and his message forward. There are few people in this world who we can truly believe in. I believed in Syd Cyngiser and I will dearly miss him.

Shalom, Chaver. Goodbye, my friend. There will never again be anyone quite like you. 

Never again.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem. Kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784