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How A Mass. Woman Learned Her Family's Full Holocaust Story06:44Download

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When Severin Fayerman died last year, his daughter Kris Fayerman-Piatt, a Milton native, thought she knew all there was to know about her father’s Holocaust story.

But it turned out she knew only a part of it. The pain of the Holocaust apparently caused her father to keep his true identity buried deep inside until the day he died.

'This Was All New To Me'

Six months after he died, Kris received an email printout in the mail. The subject line read: “Our fathers were 1st cousins.” It was from her second cousin. Kris was shocked and surprised. “I didn’t even know this side of my family existed,” she said.

“I am sorry about your loss," the email began. "After a hiatus of more than 25 years of attempting to get my father Severin with your father Severin. ... Unfortunately ... it never occurred.”

Kris Fayerman-Piatt holds a picture of her father, Severin Fayerman, before he came to America. (Michelle O’Berg Figueroa for WBUR)
Kris Fayerman-Piatt holds a picture of her father, Severin Fayerman, before he came to America. (Michelle O’Berg Figueroa for WBUR)

The email contained more news.

At age 60, Kris learned that she was Jewish. It was there between the lines of the email -- a mention of a bar mitzvah and a trip to Israel.

“This was all new to me because I didn’t know my father was Jewish,” Kris said.

Her father being a Holocaust survivor, naturally the question had come up before. But he had always said no, they were not Jewish, and that he had been arrested as a Polish laborer.

No German Products

After surviving Nazi death camps, her father settled in the United States. Kris grew up in Pennsylvania, the edge of Dutch country, in what she called “a very traditional '50s, '60s household.”

Her father did everything to distance himself from the Holocaust. “When we were younger he refused to buy German products. German cars were never allowed in our family,” she said.

However, one exception was made for comedy. “He was the loudest to laugh at 'Hogan’s Heroes,' ” Kris recalled with a nostalgic smile.

Throughout Kris’ childhood there were clues about his father’s identity. For instance, Severin knew seven languages. One of them stood out: Hebrew.

“He always insisted that Hebrew was just part of the curriculum," Kris said. "I now realize that was not true. The Hebrew was because he was from a Jewish family.”

Language, it turns out, would help Severin survive the Holocaust.

“When I went to high school I had the choices to take German, French or English," Severin recounted in his memoir, "A Survivor’s Story." "My father advised me to take English. I actually wasn’t very happy about it. Little did I know it would help save my life." When Severin learned a Nazi guard wanted to learn English, Severin offered to teach him and therefore was deemed useful. Severin credits English -- along with blacksmith skills, ingenuity and luck -- for his survival.

'Try To Live'

Now with the email, Kris’ father’s secret was beginning to take shape. For Kris to learn more about her father’s journey, she decided she had to take a journey of her own -- to Brooklyn to meet her father’s cousin. Like many immigrants of the era, her father’s cousin Severin had changed his name to Sidney Schlesinger.

When Sidney opened the door, it was like opening the door to her past. “I felt like I was looking at my grandmother, who died in the 1990s. He’s a very small man -- very spry, very spritely, sparkly eyes. It was clear that this was really my blood relative. He kept jumping up and down. For a man of 97, he had enormous energy,” Kris recounted.

When Kris said her father had always denied his Judaism, Sidney quickly interjected, “Oh, you are definitely Jewish. Your father and I went to synagogue together.”

It turns out Sidney had his own Holocaust story. Unlike Kris’ father, whose family survived, Sidney’s family had not.

“I am the only one who somehow survived," Sidney told me. "I will never forgive the Germans for killing my young parents, my wife and my beautiful sisters. I remember their blonde hair and beautiful blue eyes.”

Sidney recalled seeing his mother for the last time. “I saw my mother and she said, ‘Do you see where I am going? ... To the crematorium. Try to live.’ Those were her last words. Life has to go on no matter what.”

Life did go on for the two cousins, but with a schism: Sidney would embrace his faith, settle in a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn, and work in real estate. Severin would deny his faith, move to Pennsylvania, and own a hardware company. Sidney's son Isaac once described it as “comparable to a pair of laser beams that are one degree off from each other; the longer the elapsed distance, the greater the divergence.”

But why did Severin hide his Jewish heritage? Sidney thinks he knows why.

"Another Holocaust," he said.

It’s that fear, Kris now believes, that drove her father to affiliate with a Christian church.

She remembered one Sunday morning over breakfast, her father informing her and her brother that he’d arranged for a neighbor to pick them up and start going to church. “We were baptized in the Presbyterian church. I don't think I stepped after that into a Presbyterian church for about 20 years,” Kris said in between laughter.

Kris now believes her father remade his own identity in order to protect his family. He’d seen the worst of humanity as a 17-year-old. He recounted this both in "A Survivor’s Story" and in the 1999 documentary with the same name:

I don’t think I will ever forget my first entrance into Auschwitz. It became dark. I remember walking on the slippery road toward the camp. On both sides there were barbed wires and there were towers on which soldiers stood with machine guns. ... There was a smell of burnt human flesh.

Severin would go on to spend the next year and half under those towers and chimneys. Severin was assigned to dig trenches, which were necessary as the crematoriums were open 24 hours a day.

He was separated from his parents, sent to Birkenau and Buchenwald, but upon his liberation at the end of World War II, he’d remembered an agreement his family made to meet in Salzburg should they survive. Severin went to the office of prisoners of war in Salzburg and when he asked if his parents had been, the officer stared back in silence and then told him that, in fact, his parents had been in there every day trying to find their son.

Sidney Schlesinger in his home in Brooklyn, upon receiving the Kiddush cup that belonged to his grandfather and father, who both perished in the Holocaust. (Courtesy)
Sidney Schlesinger in his home in Brooklyn, upon receiving the Kiddush cup that belonged to his grandfather and father, who both perished in the Holocaust. (Courtesy)

The Kiddush

In their meeting in Brooklyn, Sidney asked Kris if she’d seen a small silver cup.

“I had remembered seeing a small silver cup on my Dad's dresser," Kris said. "It was dark and tarnished. It looked like a child’s cup.” Not knowing its meaning, she sent the cup to her father’s cousin. It turns out that this little cup was a Kiddush cup, a Jewish ceremonial cup, representing, of all things, salvation.

When Sidney saw UPS arrive with a small box, tears streamed down as he opened an enduring relic from the family he’d lost.

“I believe in God," Sidney said. "Someone is watching me from upstairs. My grandfather was making blessing in this particular cup. I was waiting for it for 70 years. I couldn’t sell it for all the money in the world.”

A cup. All these years sitting in Kris’ childhood home, it represented the secret of her Jewish heritage and to a man she didn’t know existed, some 200 miles away in Brooklyn, that same cup represented renewed blessing.

She gave the cup to her father’s cousin. In return, he helped her reclaim her Jewish heritage.

This segment aired on July 14, 2016.

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