Sidney and Bronia Cyngiser urge new generation to always speak out
I’ve never been able to watch Holocaust movies, from Sophie’s Choice to Schindler’s List to The Pianist, without suffering bouts of depression afterward.
Perhaps that’s all to the better, because if we’re not disturbed by the hatred that spurred the deaths of six-million men, women and children in Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s death camps, then we won’t be disturbed by other monsters stalking our world.
My marvellous friend Sidney Cyngiser, and his equally marvellous wife Bronia, both survived the death camps, though Sidney lost his mother, father and three sisters in those camps, and Bronia lost her mother and a sister in them, too.
Sidney, now 82, told me on the eve of 2000 if anyone had told him back in 1945 that he would live to see the 21st century he wouldn’t have believed them.
He was 21, skin and bones, and the doctors who came to assist kept passing him by to care for other patients, obviously because they thought he was a lost cause.
But he wasn’t. As frail as he was he fought on, coming to Canada in 1949, taking on any odd job he could as he learned English He married Bronia, who he had met in hospital in Germany, in 1951.
Cyngiser is certainly one of Canada’s most acclaimed—if I can use that word—Holocaust survivors, having spent recent years lecturing about his experiences in the camps, and campaigning against intolerance and hatred.
Just as he would have disbelieved anyone who had told him he would live into the 21st century, he would also have been incredulous if someone had also told him this past week he would have stood before Chancellor William Warren at the University of Calgary and received an Honourary Doctorate of Law degree.
“When the letter came in the mail, I thought it must be some kind of a joke,” he said several weeks ago.
Well, it was no joke, and with quiet dignity Cyngiser accepted his honour, his eyes becoming misty as he received a standing ovation after making his acceptance speech.
University officials couldn’t recall the last time an honouree received a standing ovation at a convocation ceremony.
A decade ago, Sidney showed me some faded photographs of his mother, father and three sisters.
The pictures still hold a quiet beauty and dignity.
This was a family with pride, with culture. A family with hope. a family of love.
Yet the world wasn’t as it should have been. For the Cyngiser family took a descent into hell.
Mother Frajndla was just 39 when she died in the gas chambers at Treblinka in 1942. Sister Jadzia, 16. Sister Luba, 14. Sister Lola, 8. His father, Abram, lived a little longer. He was 41 when he died in 1944 of malnutrition and exhaustion from forced labour camps.
Bronia watched the bodies of her mother, Saiga, and sister Frances, 15, being dragged out and dumped alongside the bodies of other victims, when she was just 13.
Places like Treblinka, Bergen Belsen and Auschwitz are not simply notorious historical names to Sidney and Bronia.
They and their family lived through them, or rather perished in them or managed to survive them.
In haunting detail, Cyngiser told his U of C audience of his experiences in the camps and of his love for the equality, tolerance, respect for human rights and democracy that is our country.
These, he proclaimed, are aspects of our lives we should never take for granted, for, as he pointed out somewhat poetically: “I have been to the other side of freedom.”
He then reminded listeners that, while 60 years ago, the world proclaimed ‘Never again’ after witnessing what irrational hatred can do, we are seeing the rise of religious and ethnic hatred again today.
Even after what Cyngiser has been through, he doesn’t hate those who took away his family and friends.
To live a life of hate, he contends, would only demean and degrade his own values.
He left his audience with a message: Do not choose to be bystanders.
“Count yourselves among those who make a difference. Do not remain silent or indifferent in the face of intolerance, hatred and injustice. Take action. Not to speak out, not to act, is to be an accomplice.”
So, my friends, let’s not be bystanders.
Rather, let’s be on the side of the Sidney Cyngisers of this world.