Written by Sadie Gurman
A father’s story offers lasting lessons about the Holocaust
The auditorium is full of antsy schoolchildren, squirming in their seats. They fidget and shift. Then, a modest, gray-haired man with a quiet voice steps slowly to the microphone. In spectacles and a light sports coat, he has a grandfatherly air. His voice retains a slight European accent as he takes the students back 60 years to his own childhood, one darkened by the horrors of the Holocaust. The children sit quietly in their seats.
An estimated six million Jewish men, women, and children were killed during the Nazi genocide of the 1940s. Jack Sittsamer—the man at the microphone—survived.
He tells his story. Nazi soldiers stormed his small Polish town when he was a boy. He watched them shoot and kill his father, a wounded war veteran unable to keep pace with the crowd as it was ordered to keep moving. He spent sweltering days trapped in cattle cars without food. He toiled behind the electric fences of concentration camps.
When he finishes recounting his memories, the youngsters in the auditorium throw their hands in the air, wanting to know more. There isn’t enough time to answer all the questions.
Emotional reflections wash over Sittsamer’s daughter, Paula Riemer, as she recalls the first time she saw her father speak publicly. From her seat in an auditorium, she marveled at his ability to relate to schoolchildren.
“He started out by saying, ‘When I was your age, I had a life just like you do, and then one day, everything changed,’” says Riemer.
Before his death last October at the age of 83, Jack Sittsamer told his story to more than 100,000 people.
Despite his openness with audiences, Sittsamer’s experience was painful for him to recount. Born in Mielec, Poland, in 1924, Sittsamer knew anti-Semitism even before 1939, when Nazis stormed his hometown, barricaded and burned its three synagogues, and killed the Jews who were praying inside.
Initially, the Nazis forced Sittsamer into a day labor camp. He built roads, bridges, and dams. His family—his father, mother, two brothers, and two sisters—remained in their home until soldiers kicked down their door in March 1942 and forced the entire family, including young Jack, to march with other Jews seven miles to an airplane hangar. When Sittsamer’s father couldn’t keep up, he was shot to death while the family looked on. His father was one of 300 killed during the march.
That was the last time Jack Sittsamer saw his family. They were separated, sent to camps, and slain. The next years he spent in deprivation, working grueling labor jobs in several concentration camps. In a stone quarry in Mauthausen, one of the worst camps, he carried heavy rocks, one on each shoulder, up and down 186 steps for 12 hours a day.
“My survival is luck,” he once told a group of listeners, “plain luck.”
When Sittsamer was liberated by American soldiers on May 5, 1945, he weighed 72 pounds. He took refuge in Eggenfelden, Germany, until 1949, when the United Jewish Federation helped him move to the United States. He settled in Pittsburgh and learned English in night school. For 36 years, he was employed as a sheet metal worker for Tyson Metal Products. When he retired, Barbara Burstin—a Pitt history instructor and Holocaust educator who also is affiliated with the University’s Jewish Studies Program—convinced him to recount his tragic experiences in classrooms and auditoriums, believing that a survivor’s story could shed light on the dangers of unbridled hatred.
Now, Paula Riemer and her brother, Murray Sittsamer, are honoring—and continuing—their father’s legacy. With contributions from family, friends, and students, the two have established the Sittsamer Fund for Holocaust Studies, which will advance Holocaust education at Pitt. The fund will help to bring other aging survivors into University classrooms so that students can hear and preserve these personal stories for future generations. The fund also will support students involved in related educational projects in future years, as survivors become increasingly scarce.
Jack Sittsamer’s ties to Pitt were strong. During his lifetime, he shared his story with thousands of Pitt students. His former wife, Maxine, worked for 19 years with the University’s facilities management department. His children are alumni: Paula Riemer (A&S ’77) works as the business administrator for Pitt’s economics department, and Murray Sittsamer (ENGR ’81) is president of a management consulting firm in Michigan.
“He didn’t want people to forget,” says his son. “He was determined to make sure the next generation knew the lessons of the Holocaust, not just the horrors.”
When he could no longer make classroom appearances, the elder Sittsamer invited students into his apartment, where they would gather around him to listen. In a class assignment in 2007, one student described a meeting with him as “one of the most impactful and valuable experiences I have ever had during my college education.” Another wrote: “I learned more than I could have imagined about one man’s story during the Holocaust …. This interview will stay with me forever.”
Thanks to the generous endowed gift from his children, the voice of a man once reluctant to share his past will endure. The story he lived to tell will teach and inspire others for years to come.