By Erin Garry
Determination was the mentality that Barney Sidler needed to survive the Holocaust, and it was the overall message he instilled in students at Hillel on Monday night where he told his story of survival.
Sidler, grandfather of senior Margo Bernhaut, was one of 11 family members to survive the Holocaust out of 118. Sidler was born on March 19, 1933 in Deblin, Poland. He lived in a three-room apartment with his parents, two older sisters, and an older brother.
Freshman nutritional science major Naomi Hoch was interested in attending because she knew there are not many Holocaust survivors left.
“It was very meaningful to hear how even coming from such little background, you’re able to achieve what you want with determination that no matter how much you suffer you can become someone successful,” she said.
When World War II began in September 1939, Sidler was six years old and in his first weeks of first grade, which quickly came to a halt.
“I felt so sad that I couldn’t attend school,” Sidler said, “I loved classes, and I had a crush on my teacher.”
Sidler’s neighborhood was turned into a ghetto in which the Jewish community had a curfew and could only leave with permission. His father served as a committee member and chairman of men from the ghetto who would report the happenings of the ghetto to the Germans. This position, Sidler later learned, kept the family from being separated and killed.
Often, Sidler recalled, the Germans would call all of the Jews into the market square, take babies out of their mother’s hands and throw them against a utility pole – an easy way to kill them.
“My cousin was shot because he was five minutes late,” said Sidler.
It wasn’t until January 1942 that the family was sent to a forced labor camp, due to the respect the Germans gained for Sidler’s father. Sidler was assigned to kitchen duty to sort potatoes. He would wear two pairs of baggy pants and would stuff potatoes to bring home for his mother to cook.
“Life was so miserable,” said Sidler, “but I got used to it because I didn’t know what else existed.”
Sidler lived every day not knowing what would happen next and described it as pure hell.
“Every day was the same,” said Sidler, “and there was no end in sight.”
He recalled how many tried to escape, but when the Germans found out, they would come into the camp and shoot every tenth person. Sidler’s brother tried to escape, but was caught and called to the market square to be executed. On the way, Protestant churchgoers hid him in a casket for several hours. He later returned to the camp using the name of a man who died two days prior.
Sidler and his family were sent to a camp where they were told to strip and shower. They all thought they were going to be gassed, but instead were given a striped jumpsuit with a number.
“You were only known by your number,” he said.
Sidler befriended a German doctor, whom was reminded through Sidler of his own son. This man ended up saving Sidler’s life by hiding him from the Gestapo in a laundry basket.
The entire time, Sidler’s father told him about an uncle they had living in Chicago and drilled the address into his head.
“If I was caught with paper, I would be shot on the spot,” Sidler said.
His father was shot two weeks before they were liberated. On April 15, 1945, Sidler was freed by the U.S. Army.
American soldiers were “crying, vomiting, and covering their eyes,” said Sidler.
Sidler, then 12 years old, was one of the youngest in his camp and his picture was featured on the cover of a Chicago newspaper, which his uncle spotted.
Sidler was reunited with his mother, brother and one of his sisters a few months later. A man in Northern Virginia sponsored Sidler and his brother to move to the United States. Upon arrival at Ellis Island, an officer informed them that their uncle had requested they live in Chicago with him. His mother and sister joined 18 months later.
Sidler knew very few English words and attended school to improve. He still faced persecution in America, as one employer asked him if he was Jewish and said, “Too bad Hitler didn’t kill you.”
“I defeated those obstacles and never looked back,” said Sidler.
Despite only completing a few months of first grade and one year of high school, Sidler opened his own electrician business. Later, after a bad back injury, he began selling insurance, a business in which he still works part-time. Sidler is now married with three daughters and nine grandchildren.
Freshman bioengineering major Alyse Messafi was encouraged to attend the event by her friends and was fascinated by Sidler’s “resilience and ability to overcome.”
Sidler is featured in the Skokie Holocaust Museum and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.