The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

Zuzana Sermer

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Born
August 29, 1924 Humenné, Czechoslovakia

Map of Mukacevo, Czechoslovakia

Immigrated
1968 Toronto, Ontario

An only child, fifteen-year-old Zuzana Sermer did what she could to protect her father and ailing mother when the Nazis set up a fascist regime in her native Slovakia in 1939. Four years later, after fleeing to the supposed safety of Budapest, Zuzana and her fiancé, Arthur, instead navigated one treacherous situation after another. Survival Kit is both Sermer’s thoughtful reflections on the miracles of her survival and a testament to the power of courage, love and determination.

About Zuzana

Zuzana Sermer was born in the small town of Humenné, Slovakia. She married Arthur Sermer in 1945 and lived in Communist Czechoslovakia for the next 23 years. When the Soviets occupied the country in August 1968, the couple fled to Canada and settled in Toronto.

Photos and Artifacts

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    Zuzana's father, Samuel Weinberger. Humenné, 1925.

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    Zuzana, age 3. Humenné, 1927.

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    Zuzana's mother, Vilma (née Stern) Weinberger. Humenné, Czechoslovakia, 1932.

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    Zuzana, age 10, in her Grade 4 class picture, sitting beside the teacher in the second row, fourth from the left. Of her twenty-four Jewish classmates, only four others survived. Humenné, 1934.

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    Zuzana, age 12 (back row, centre), with her friends Irena (in front); Anna (far left) and Irma (far right). Humenné, 1936.

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    Zuzana, age 14, in her Grade 9 class picture, sitting in the second row, far right. Of her eight Jewish classmates, only one other survived. Humenné, 1938–1939.

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    Zuzana, age 14 (right), with her friends Vera (centre) and Betty (left). Humenné,1938.

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    Zuzana with her cousins in Humenné in 1939. In the back row, left to right, are Feri, Zuzana and Jozsi. Seated in front is Gyuri, a first cousin on her father’s side, and Erwin.

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    Zuzana and Feri. Humenné, 1939.

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    Zuzana, age 16 (right), wearing the mandatory yellow armband for Jews, with her friend Annie Moskovicova. Humenné, 1940.

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    Zuzana (right) with her friends Regina (left) and Berta (centre), all wearing the now-mandatory yellow Star of David. Humenné, 1940.

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    Zuzana (back row, left) on a Hashomer Hatzair camping trip in 1940.

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    Zuzana with her friends Ernie (left) and Ladislav Grossman (right), who wrote the screenplay to the award-winning film The Shop on Main Street (1965). Humenné, 1940.

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    Zuzana and her friends in Humenné in 1941. From left to right: Jan, Bela, Viola, Zuzana, and Jan, whom she helped release from prison after the war.

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    Zuzana on her honeymoon in the High Tatras after the war. 1945.

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    Zuzana and her husband, Arthur, with his brother Victor (left) and a friend. Bratislava, 1947.

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    Zuzana and her husband, Arthur, in 1950.

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    Arthur, Zuzana's husband, and his brothers after the war. From left to right are Eman, Victor and Arthur. Bratislava, circa 1950.

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    Zuzana and her husband, Arthur, with his brothers and their wives in Toronto in the late 1970s. From left to right: Zuzana and Arthur, Eman and Yolana, and Victor and Mary.

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    Zuzana and Arthur at their son Michael’s wedding. New York, 1983.

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    Zuzana and Arthur at their son Matthew’s wedding. Toronto, 1990.

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    Zuzana and Arthur with their grandchildren at their granddaughter Julie’s bat mitzvah. Standing in the back row, left to right, are David, Mark, Tanya, Nicole and Julie. In the front row, left to right, are Corey, Arthur, Jessica, Zuzana and Becky. Toronto, 1996.

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    Zuzana with the whole Sermer family at Julie’s bat mitzvah. Standing in the back row, left to right, are Zuzana’s granddaughter Nicole; her son Mark; her daughter, Tamara; her son Paul; Paul’s wife, Susan; her son Matthew’s wife, Lillian; Matthew; her son Michael; Michael’s wife, Margi; her granddaughter Tanya; and her granddaughter Julie. In the front row, left to right, are Zuzana’s grandson David; her husband, Arthur; her grandchildren Corey and Jessica; Zuzana; and her granddaughter Becky. Toronto, 1996.

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    Zuzana and Arthur with their children at their daughter Tamara’s wedding. Standing behind Zuzana and Arthur, left to right, are Michael, Tamara, Paul and Matthew. Toronto, 1996.

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    Zuzana's granddaughter Becky at her bat mitzvah. The Torah she is holding is the Czech Memorial Scroll originally from Uhlířské Janovice that was restored after the Holocaust by a philanthropic group in London, England. Connecticut, June 23, 2001.

The Book

Cover of Survival Kit

Survival Kit

For the second time, I found myself about to be interrogated…. I wouldn’t confess to being Jewish this time, knowing it would mean certain death. How could I die now, after all we had managed to get through? I would not allow myself to die by their bloody hands. These thoughts pumped courage into my veins.

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Survival Kit

Searching for Safety

Before these tragic times, Jewish life in Humenné was vibrant and had three places of worship. The Orthodox synagogue where my father had worshipped was the most widely attended, with an impressive new building that had been constructed in the early 1930s. Long before the war, when the Jewish community was thriving, the synagogue had commemorated all of the Czechoslovak national holidays and invited local dignitaries, including the mayor and even the colonel of the local military squadron, on significant national occasions.

When Jozef advised me of what had happened, I dressed quickly, asked him to stay with my anxious mother and ran looking for the Jewish Council representatives, hoping for assistance. I located one man whom I knew fairly well, but he was very discouraging. He told me that a transport was due again and the police needed to fill a quota of one hundred people by that evening. He concluded that it was pointless to go after my father. I left for the police headquarters alone.

I arrived at the headquarters at seven a.m. The building was still, as if in a deep sleep. The main office would not be open for another hour. I searched through the few hallways and finally found the officer on call, a man who was not familiar to me. His face was expressionless and he appeared to be totally disinterested in me or my dilemma. I urged him to release my father so that he might go home to his sick wife. I could not have pleaded more passionately if I had been down on my knees. I heard myself claiming that he had been taken mistakenly, that he was a Christian and his presence at the synagogue was a mistake. I promised it would never happen again. The policeman looked closely at the clock hanging on the wall. By this time it was seven fifteen. Without saying a word he left the office and with his finger indicated that I should follow him. I waited outside the office on the stairs.

When I finally saw my father almost half an hour later, he looked shattered, still clutching his navy-blue velvet bag that held his prayer book, tallis – prayer shawl – and tefillin – phylacteries. In my father’s pocket was the certificate of conversion. The officer made no comment about the bag, or its contents, and paid no attention to my expressions of gratitude either. Maybe his thoughts were elsewhere, or maybe he was nervous. Lucky for us, he didn’t seem particularly dedicated to the requirements of his job. I only wish that more officials in his position had behaved similarly. Eventually, he said, “Go. And go fast!”

On the way home my father and I held hands tightly as we silently approached our apartment. We arrived to find Jozef still there, waiting, with my mother. They stared at us, unable to believe their eyes.

When I re-examine this event, and the many others associated with my eventual survival, I wonder what force pushed me. What prompted me to go to the police headquarters? Did I lack the instinct for self-preservation? Maybe I wasn’t smart enough to see the danger I was in. Maybe, like most young people, I overestimated my invincibility. I could barely endure the places in which I was forced to hide, yet when my father was taken, I threw myself into the lion’s den!