After surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, including witnessing the murder of his father, Jack Sittsamer kept silent about his experiences for over 30 years.
But he finally opened up and, before he died, told his story to thousands of people through speeches, interviews, taped recordings — however he could reach them.
Sittsamer, who died last October, left behind a legacy of Holocaust education, speaking to more than 100,000 people about his life prior to, during and following the Nazi regime.
Now, in order to perpetuate that legacy, the Sittsamer family has established two endowment funds, one at the University of Pittsburgh, and another at the Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation.
The Sittsamer Fund for Holocaust Studies at Pitt will primarily bring survivors into classrooms to tell their stories and aid students and teachers to relate personal stories of survivors to others.
“My brother [Murray] and I are both alums at the university,” said Paula Reimer, Sittsamer’s daughter. “Dad had spoken to thousands of Pitt students through the classes of Barbara Burstin [a professor of Holocaust studies], so his name will go on in perpetuity.”
In fact, it was Burstin who was the first to persuade Sittsamer to recount his past, in an interview for The Chronicle in 1978. At the time, Reimer had not yet heard her father’s story.
“I knew he had been interviewed, and I knew when the paper was coming out,” she recalled. “I remember rushing home from work to read it. It struck me hard that as I was reading this for the first time, strangers were reading it also.”
Sittsamer was born in Mielec, Poland, in 1924. By 1942, the Nazis forced his family, along with the rest of the town’s Jews, to march seven miles to an airplane hangar. Sittsamer’s father, who had a leg injury from World War I, could not keep up, and was shot by the side of the road. His mother, two brothers and two sisters, were separated and sent to camps where they were murdered as well.
American soldiers finally liberated Sittsamer in 1945 after internment in at least five concentration camps. He lived as a refugee in Germany, until 1949, when the United Jewish Federation aided him in immigrating to the United States.
After coming to Pittsburgh, Sittsamer became a sheet metal worker at Tyson Metal Products, where he worked for almost 38 years. It was not until after his retirement that he began speaking to groups and individuals, telling his story and educating people about what Jews were forced to endure at the hands of the Nazis.
It was his quiet manner, contrasted to the images he exposed, which created such an impact on his audiences.
“Jack always came across as very low key,” said Burstin. “When he spoke, there was always just total rapt attention in the classroom.”
In addition to his work at Pitt, Sittsamer also addressed audiences through the Holocaust Center.
“Jack had a wonderful, modest and nuanced way of presenting his story,” said Edie Naveh, director of the Holocaust Center. “He had a quiet courage that electrified students and teachers and all who heard him. People listened. You could hear a pin drop when he told his story.”
Touching the lives of so many, in 2006, Sittsamer won the Jefferson Award for Public Service for his willingness to recount his experiences.
Reimer said that the funds established both at Pittsburgh and the Holocaust Center will, in the short term, be used primarily to enable survivors to tell their stories.
However, “the survivors are aging,” she noted, “and we are very aware that the first hand experiences will just be available in the short term. In the long term, we want to make sure that education of the Holocaust continues, and that our father’s mission is carried on.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)