When a skinhead painted a swastika on a pillar outside the Hillel Jewish University Center in 2003, the judge imposed an unusual sentence.
The disturbed teenager would have to meet with Holocaust survivors and listen to their stories — “as part of sensitizing him to the significance of the swastika,” former Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation Director Linda Hurwitz recalled.
Jack Sittsamer was one of those survivors.
Hurwitz couldn’t recall exactly what Sittsamer told the skinhead, but she knew how he spoke to him.
“He didn’t lecture anyone. There was just this quietness he had about him, and his willingness to listen,” Hurwitz said. “He had this compassion for other’s suffering. He didn’t feel superior because of his suffering.”
It was those qualities that made Sittsamer such an effective speaker at any of the hundreds of engagements where he recounted his Holocaust experiences. Whether he was giving “a sense of hope” to a class on the North Side, as their teacher later said, or to a group of Wilkinsburg kids coping with drive-by shootings in their neighborhood, Sittsamer’s story was timeless. It offered strength, even hope.
He told the Wilkinsburg kids, “‘you will get through this. You still have to care about the relationships that are in your lives, and not give up,’” Hurwitz said.
Sittsamer died Sunday following a bout with cancer. He was 83.
Born on Dec. 30, 1924, in Mielec, Poland, Sittsamer was just a teenager himself when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, which began the grim odyssey that changed his life forever.
The Nazis put him to work in an airplane factory not far from his home. They forced marched the prisoners to the plant and shot anyone who could not keep up. Sittsamer’s father, a disabled veteran from World War I, was among the hundreds who were shot.
The Nazis transferred Sittsamer to no fewer than six camps in Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia and finally Austria where he was liberated on May 5, 1945. Of his immediate family — his parents, two brothers and two sisters — he was the sole survivor.
The Federation brought Sittsamer to Pittsburgh in 1949. He married his wife, Maxine, got a job as a sheet metal worker at Tyson Metal Producers, and worked there for over 30 years while raising his son and daughter. He rarely talked about his experiences.
“I met most of the survivors when they were retiring and had time to talk,” Hurwitz said. “Most of them didn’t speak when they were raising their families.”
His new mission as a public memory of the Shoah began in the ’80s when he gave an interview to Barbara Burstin for a book.
“He had never spoken before and he agreed to be interviewed,” said Burstin, also a former Holocaust Center director. “That was kind of the start of our 30-year friendship and professional relationship because I then brought Jack into high school classes and my college class. He was exceptional; he’s always been there.”
Speaking publicly for the first time was challenging for Sittsamer, recalled his son, Murray.
“He had a heart condition afterwards; he really had a lot stress doing it,” Murray said. “My dad was a blue collar worker; he never did public speaking, so the combination stressed him out, but he was driven because it was the right thing to do, and Barbara was really helpful with that.”
After that, Sittsamer never said no, when asked to speak. Working closely with the Holocaust Center, he appeared before an estimated 100,000 people over 19 years, retelling the events he endured, no matter how troubling.
He recalled hauling heavy rocks by hand in a quarry as a veritable slave laborer. More darkly, he remembered burying his own father after he was shot on the forced march.
“He always felt badly portraying the pain people felt hearing his story,” Hurwitz said. “He didn’t want to be the bearer of that sad story; he did it because it was something from which they would learn.”
He spoke to children, adults, at schools and civic groups.
For 15 years, he was president of the Holocaust Survivors Association, and frequently gave interviews to the media on a variety of Shoah-related issues.
His story was highlighted in a play titled “Mazel,” the last production of the Jewish Theater of Pittsburgh.
And his work was recognized when he won the 2006 Jefferson Award for Public Service.
As the Holocaust Center developed programs for the children and grandchildren of survivors (Legacy) and a means for family and friends to learn the stories of survivors after they’re gone (Adopt–A- Survivor), Sittsamer influenced both efforts by his example.
“He was a role model for activism, for engagement,” said Edie Naveh, the current director of the Holocaust Center. “I think it’s because of his engagement in the community, his passionate engagement, that others (including Sittsamer’s daughter, Paula Riemer, who’s involved with both programs) were inspired to continue by being involved in the center.”
In many ways, “Jack was really the voice of the survivors in our community,” Naveh added.
In addition to his children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild survive Sittsamer.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)