My friend Rubin Sztajer was never one to mince words. He didn’t have the time or patience for false pleasantries or the politesse of polite society, and he didn’t fret over who might be offended by his frankness.
After all, Rubin, a local survivor of six Nazi death camps who died March 26 at age 94, had been to the depths of hell and back. And he was a man on a mission – to let the world know about the horrors of the Holocaust and to prevent that memory from receding into the dustbin of history.
But that meant always talking tachlis and being completely accurate about the Shoah. “Trust me, it was horrible enough,” he said to me on many occasions. “There is no need for any exaggerations or creativity.”
A case in point: I once wrote what I considered to be a fairly innocuous Passover-themed editorial years ago mentioning that inmates of Bergen-Belsen managed to sneak in some matzoh for their seder during the war. I obtained this nugget of information from a contemporary Haggadah.
Not long after my editorial’s publication, I received a phone call from Rubin. “Where did you get this nonsense?” he asked in his characteristically gruff voice with a thick Polish accent. I told him and he responded, “Please don’t believe everything you read. I was there and, believe me, nobody was eating any matzoh. We were all starving. We ate grass if we could. We didn’t even know what day it was most of the time, much less if it was Pesach.
“Please don’t believe everything you read in books, and listen to those of us who were there.”
That was pure Rubin. The intense pain and bitterness of what he went through during the war and the loss of much of his family – his parents, younger brother and two of his youngest sisters — during the Holocaust never left him or subsided. It was forever ingrained in his DNA, and he wouldn’t allow for rewrites of history in any way, shape or form.
I first met Rubin on a dusty dock in East Baltimore one gloomy morning years ago when an authentic wartime boxcar from Poland was slated to arrive by container ship. The boxcar, which transported Jews and others to concentration camps and to their inevitable doom, was to be taken to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., for permanent exhibition.
I watched Rubin stare at the boxcar with lonely, anguished eyes while the railroad car was unloaded onto the pier. I could sense he was transported in his mind’s eye to once again being that petrified kid from the small village of Klobuck who watched his entire world blow up. It may have been the only time I ever saw him rendered speechless.
Over the years, our paths crossed for a number of stories, and we became friendly. Rubin liked to make some noise if he felt the cause was just. One time, he called to urge me to write an article about survivors in town who were living in virtual poverty and, from Rubin’s perspective, not receiving adequate financial assistance from the organized Jewish community.
Rubin was also dismayed that Jewish day schools and supplemental educational programs around town didn’t invite survivors to speak more frequently at their institutions. “Most of the young people I speak to are Christian,” he said. “That’s good, but the Jewish kids need to hear us, too. We have an important message.”
Another time, he spoke to me on the record about the former incarnation of the Baltimore Holocaust Memorial and – because of its lack of aesthetic appeal — suggested “blowing it up with two sticks of dynamite.” (You can imagine how well that went down with local community leaders when I printed that line in an article.)
I heard Rubin tell his life story publicly on many occasions, at places such as the John Carroll School in Bel Air and Frederick’s Beth Sholom Congregation. Speaking in public about something as personal and painful as the Holocaust must’ve required reservoirs of courage and fortitude.
A friendly, gracious man with a wonderful sense of humor, Rubin connected with people from all walks of life – particularly young folks – because he never attempted to be flashy or put on airs. You knew he was genuine, humble, the real article. He spoke in a somber, low-key, respectful manner, befitting of the gravity of the subject matter, and never played the part of a showman.
“I’ve got my story to tell,” he used to say, “I don’t need to embellish or put on any kind of song-and-dance. I have nothing to hide. I just tell the truth.”
Perhaps that’s why he felt so strongly when other Holocaust survivors in the community, from his vantage point, played loose with the facts (consciously or unconsciously) or in any way exaggerated their stories. One in particular, who is no longer with us, suffered a highly publicized fall from grace when Rubin served as the catalyst for an investigation into her account of being a Holocaust survivor. The individual – considered one of the area’s most moving and articulate Holocaust speakers — was indeed a survivor, but some of her accounts were deemed not fully accurate or plausible by respected historians looking into the matter. The story made international headlines and served as fodder for the Holocaust-denying creeps, bigots, baboons and misanthropes out there.
But Rubin never backed down for a moment. He remained resolute that if someone said they were in Auschwitz or another camp for nine months (“Or even nine minutes!”), they’d better be damned sure and absolutely accurate. There was no room for any margin of error.
I recall once having a rather spirited conversation with Rubin about this matter over lunch in Towson. “Couldn’t you have just kept your suspicions to yourself?” I asked. “After all, she’d been through hell, too.” But he was having none of it, largely because he understood that all of the eyewitness accounts needed to be airtight to combat the legions of deniers after survivors like Rubin were long gone from the stage.
“Remember,” he said, “I lost a lot of family over there. There’s blood involved here. I’m not going to let anyone dishonor their memory. How dare they?”
The last time I saw Rubin was at a Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration three years ago at Fort Meade. I was working for the military installation’s weekly publication Soundoff! and someone in the garrison office asked if I could recommend an area Holocaust survivor to speak at their annual Yom HaShoah gathering.
I hadn’t seen Rubin in a few years, since he and his wife of 66 years, Regina, moved to Northern Virginia to be closer to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But when I called and asked if he would speak to hundreds of our troops stationed at Fort Meade about his experiences during the Holocaust, he didn’t hesitate for a moment.
“It would be my honor, of course,” said Rubin, who was liberated by Allied forces at Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, and came to America four years later. “After all, these are my heroes, the people who saved my life. It’s the least I can do.”
Seeing Rubin surrounded by those appreciative, respectful young soldiers and watching them listen attentively to his eyewitness accounts of living through the worst of tragedies (and surviving) is something I’ll never forget and always will cherish.
May Rubin Sztajer’s memory always be a blessing for those of us who had the honor and good fortune of knowing him.