2009-02-20 / Community

Meet a Holocaust Child Survivor Who Helped Melt the Cold War

Anton Suchiniski (center with hat), the Ukranian man who saved the Zeiger family by hiding them in his root cellar for 27 months, with the family and descendants of those whom he had saved. Photo was taken at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where Anton was named one of the "Righteous Among the Nations." Anton Suchiniski (center with hat), the Ukranian man who saved the Zeiger family by hiding them in his root cellar for 27 months, with the family and descendants of those whom he had saved. Photo was taken at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where Anton was named one of the "Righteous Among the Nations." Moorestown entrepreneur, international businessman and cultural impresario Shelley Zeiger will share with the community how his family survived the Holocaust by hiding for 27 months in a cramped hole dug under a cellar, with no room to move, only candles for light, and only each others' bodies for heat. While they hid, more than 5,000 of their Jewish neighbors were murdered in the Nazi's almost successful attempt to make their city "Judenrein," "empty of Jews." Only one other family survived.

The program, free and open to the public including middle and high school students, will be held on Sunday, Feb. 22, at 3 p.m. at Congregation Beth Israel at 2500 Shore Road, Northfield. It is sponsored by JCRC the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, STAR (Sisters Together Against Racism), and Congregation Beth Israel.

Anton Suchiniski was considered the "town fool" of Zborow, a Ukranian town of about 10,000, about half of whom were Jews. Anton hid 6-year-old Shelley, his brother, Michael, their parents, and two orphan girls in his attic while they secretly dug out a primitive shelter under Anton's root cellar. For the following 26 months Anton kept their secret even while the local militia and the Germans searched his home and interrogated him. Shelley remembers when the Germans camped in the cellar above their hideout, and how his family stuffed their mouths with rags so that no sound could escape. Had they been found, it would have been not only their end, but also the death of their benefactor.

Shelley's story about how he learned, decades after liberation, that Anton was still alive, brought him to America, arranged for him to be honored in the N.J. State Capital and in Yad Vashem as a "Righteous Among the Nations," built a monument in Zborow and said Kaddish over the graves of the murdered Jews, is truly amazing. But what makes Shelley Zeiger's life story so awe-inspiring is what he has done with his gift of life. Harnessing his passion for democracy and freedom, his gratitude towards his adopted country, and his indefatigable energy, Shelley has spent the past five decades carrying out what he saw as his mission: to foster democracy and improve international relations through economic development and cultural exchanges from the depth of the Cold War to today's challenging Russia/US relationship.

Two New Jersey Governors have dubbed Entrepreneur, Investor and Impresario Zeiger as the "Unofficial Ambassador to the Soviet Union"; and his dedication to the economic and cultural revitalization of New Jersey's historic capital city, has earned him statewide recognition and the sobriquet "Mr. Trenton."

As an impresario, Zeiger was the driving force behind the 2005 visit to America of former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He also brought the Bolshoi Ballet and many other Soviet cultural events to Trenton, Atlantic City and many other U.S. cities.

In 1987, Zeiger made international headlines when he forged the first U.S.-U.S.S.R. joint venture, bringing American pizza to Russia, opening the "TrenMos" restaurant in Moscow, and making Trenton and the Lenin district of Moscow the first U.S.-U.S.S.R. "Sister Cities." In Israel he promoted cultural, commercial, and educational exchanges and developed joint business ventures between American and Israeli citizens. And as a philanthropist he raised funds for Chernobyl relief efforts in the Ukraine, created scholarships at area colleges, and supported the Trenton Arts Center.

Zeiger and his wife, Marion, sister of area physician George Groch, live in Moorestown, N.J., near their two grown children, Jeffrey and Jennifer, and four granddaughters.

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