By Judi Markowitz
It is well-documented that Holocaust survivors suffered unbearable emotional wounds from Nazi persecution. For some, the wounds remained open and never healed. Survivors experienced PTSD, guilt associated with survival, depression, and anxiety disorders. Unfortunately, the children of survivors have expressed similar issues. I recently met a second-generation Holocaust survivor, Sigmund Glaser, better known as Ziggy. His story of reaching adulthood does not follow in the footprint of the oppressed —Ziggy broke the mold.
According to a 2015 study by Scientific American “Descendants of people who survived the Holocaust have different stress hormone profiles than their peers.” This would predispose them to anger and fear. But there are also opposing viewpoints. Many children of survivors are not plagued with these issues. They do not bear the scars of their parents, nor do they exhibit similar mental health issues.
Ziggy wasn’t traumatized by his parents’ experiences in the camps. He only wanted a normal childhood, which he was denied. This situation didn’t make him bitter or resentful—it propelled him to a higher level of resolve.
Ziggy was born in Munich, Germany in 1947. After living in Germany as a young boy, Ziggy’s parents, Samuel and Helen, moved to Detroit in 1956 because his father’s twin brother lived there, and Ziggy’s mother did not want to stay in Germany. The constant memories of the concentration camps unfolded before her there on a regular basis. said Ziggy. “My mother had nightmares of terror, torture, and death. But somehow my father was able to bury the past. He compartmentalized the horror of the five concentration camps they were forced to endure.”
Unfortunately, Ziggy’s father did such a good job of forgetting the past that it enabled him to move back to Germany– he abandoned his family. Samuel was disappointed with life in the U.S. and his family didn’t fulfill him. It was 1957 and Ziggy’s mother was now on her own with two children to raise and a limited income. Recalls Ziggy, “I stood up to the challenges as best I could. I had a Detroit News route, cut grass, plowed snow to contribute to our well-being — all of this starting when I was nine.”
In 1960, Ziggy’s mother decided she needed a change of venue for herself and the children, so they moved to Los Angeles. She wanted to become certified in cosmetology and friends from Poland were living there. They relocated and Ziggy, once again, started to work. He was 14 and found a job at a deli on Fairfax Avenue.
Ziggy attended school, had a bar mitzvah and the family seemed to be headed in the right direction — that is, until Ziggy’s mother became sick. Ziggy remembered that her illness created havoc: “When my mother became ill and was hospitalized, my sister and I were sent to several foster homes. It was painful.”
With the diagnosis of rheumatic heart disease and one amputated leg, Helen tried to start over. Her children were with her again and Ziggy learned to drive at 15 . He qualified for a special license that allowed him to drive since he was his mother’s primary caretaker. He recalls, “Things began to look optimistic for our group of three until 1964.” His mother’s health began to decline yet again and this time there was no lifeline to save her. Helen died in 1964. She was 40 years old.
Ziggy’s hope for his mother was that she had passed on to a better place. She had grown up believing in a God who would protect her, and she could never have imagined the atrocities she witnessed in the camps. Her life in Shonova, Poland was filled with friends and family, and everything revolved around Jewish values. Nearly all the people she loved were murdered. Ziggy said, “My mom couldn’t ever foresee such a wild and devastating storm. She didn’t see it coming.” The bad dream never ended for Helen.
During these trying times, Ziggy and his sister Edith were placed in Vista del Mar, a home for youth. Thankfully, their stay in the home was short-lived because Uncle Isaac and Auntie Genia Greener moved them back to Detroit. At this point Ziggy’s primary focus was to keep pushing forward. He couldn’t watch over his sister all the time since she was four years younger. Ziggy now had to look out for himself . He was only 16 years old.
Attending Henry Ford High school in Detroit in 1964, Ziggy began to feel comfortable. He worked several jobs, including L.G. Haig, a shoe store, and as an attendant at a Shell gas station. Ziggy also joined AZA , a Jewish fraternity, to meet other teens. But just when life seemed to take a turn for the better, things went sideways. The months were numbered at his Aunt Genia and Uncle Isaac’s house
Ziggy was passed around like a baseball on the field. The next pitch took him to a distant cousin’s house in Oak Park. That situation turned out to be untenable and Ziggy was on his way again to a series of homes. The game finally ended when Ziggy rented a room in the neighborhood so he could stay in the school district.
The punches kept coming, but Ziggy fought back like a champ. In 1965 Ziggy’s father finally decided to take the two children back to Germany. His sister had no choice in this decision; she was 12 years old. But Ziggy was determined to make it on his own. Remembering that his mother wanted a better life for the family in the United States, Ziggy then developed his personal philosophy: set goals, focus, work hard, and achieve. He stayed in Oak Park as a tribute to his mother.
Ziggy decided that he had to carve out a new path for his life. With the friends made at Oak Park High School, Ziggy found comradery, loyalty and families that genuinely cared for him. They were like Spanky and Our Gang — all committed to helping one another and enjoying the adventure along the way. Says Ziggy, “My friend Bruce Harris was the mastermind and then Irv Elkin came onboard too. They conned their parents into letting me crash until I was ready to fly on my own.”
His friends and their families all pitched in. Irv’s dad made sure Ziggy had a warm coat from his clothing store, Bruce’s dad took care of his dental health. Jerry Kwaslow’s family had Ziggy see a doctor regularly–Dr. Lloyd J. Paul. Ziggy had his own HMO before they were popular. Cousins Morry and Harry Greener helped Ziggy get oriented to his new environment. He learned to blend in with friends and be part of the group.
Ziggy felt like a middle brother to his cousins. Others such as George Mann, Mark Berkley, and Jeff Olstein welcomed Ziggy into their homes for meals and to hang out. The list of friends was long and Ziggy says, “These guys were always there for me. They are the pillars of my life. Some I see weekly, some monthly, and some are not in my circle anymore. But I still feel like a brother to them, and I will never forget their friendship. I am indebted to them all.”
Graduating from Oak Park High School in 1966 was a high point in Ziggy’s life. He also received a small scholarship to attend Eastern Michigan University. Ziggy reflected that the scholarship wasn’t for his grades, but possibly for his perseverance. He had to work while going to school and, ultimately, couldn’t afford to live in the dorm and moved several times.
Then Ziggy took a job in a morgue because it offered free rent. The morgue was combined with an ambulance service too. So, Ziggy went on runs to help people in distress but there was a problem—Ziggy couldn’t tolerate the sight of blood. To make a tough situation worse, Ziggy was accidentally cut while working and developed hepatitis. He was hospitalized for three weeks. Then a new plan was hatched to ensure his continued health. Uncle Isaac and Ziggy’s gang of friends rescued him while he recuperated.
In 1967, Ziggy decided to fly to Munich, Germany to see his father and sister. He used the last of his savings for the trip. His father had remarried and now had a daughter. Upon arrival, Ziggy immediately knew his stay would be short-lived. This was the country his mother despised. Ziggy says, “I didn’t hate my father because he was a survivor–I respected that.” They became friends even though Ziggy only considered him as “The Biological.” But Ziggy did give him credit. He says now,” My father taught me to forgive, forget and move on.”
While in Munich, Ziggy helped his father in his electronics store, and they even seemed like a family for a short while. A vacation was planned. The Glaser family traveled to Italy and at 21, Ziggy met Rosalind Bloomberg, a 22-year-old from Leeds, England. A romance was in the works.
When Ziggy returned to Germany, he corresponded with Rosalind by mail. Ziggy was invited to stay in Rosalind’s home. He took the offer and lived with her family for almost a year in 1968. They were incredibly good to Ziggy. But he felt the pressure of Rosalind’s family. They wanted a marriage, to buy the couple a home, offers for a decent paying job. It was all too much, and Ziggy was in a quandary.
Then Ziggy received a draft notice. By the time the letter was in his hands, Ziggy only had four days left to report to the draft board in New York City. Ziggy says,” I had a choice. I could marry Rosalind and become a citizen of the U.K. or go to Vietnam. I was scared of marriage at the time, so I chose the Army.”
As luck would have it, Ziggy’s orders sent him straight to Vietnam — the military police was his first assignment. Ziggy then volunteered as a typist — a job with the Provost Marshall’s Office. Taking a typing class at Fairfax High School in California saved him from reconnaissance missions. While on tour of duty at Cam Ranh Bay, he climbed the professional ladder and made quick rank.
Ziggy also served in jobs with the motor pool and the ammunitions record keeper. Ziggy confides that he was not the best with numbers; in fact, he couldn’t reconcile a checkbook. He made the job work — anything to stay out of the jungle. After a year in Vietnam, Ziggy was sent back to the U.S.and completed his service as an E5 — a commander in charge of a squad.
The G.I. Bill was now Ziggy’s ticket to a free education, and he readily took advantage. Ziggy went to New York and enrolled in a program to become an electronics technician. Vietnam vets also received a special school incentive, and this enabled Ziggy to simply be a student — it was the first time he didn’t have to work to support himself. Ziggy rented an apartment in Brooklyn, attended the RCA Institute, and was on his way to a secure future.
Moving back to Michigan and starting a new life was Ziggy’s goal. After receiving his certification in 1973, Ziggy rented an apartment in Southfield. While visiting his Aunt Harriet and Uncle Ron in Oak Park, he was introduced to a neighbor who lived across the street — Cheryl. His aunt and uncle said she was getting divorced, had two small children, and was a nice person. They went on a date, hit it off and married in 1974. Ziggy was 27.
Working for his own company, VTR TV, in Novi, Mich. brought Ziggy a great deal of satisfaction — that is until the economy changed. Much to his dismay, Ziggy had to close his doors. After this, he worked at several TV repair stores until a neighbor told him about a promising position right up his alley.
Ultimately, Ziggy found his ideal job working at Henry Ford Hospital in the electronics department. He continued with school using the G.I. Bill to obtain his FCC First Class license. Ziggy worked at Henry Ford for 36 years, and then moved on to new adventures — retirement is not in his vocabulary. Ziggy is still enjoying snow skiing, riding his bike, horseback riding, exercising, kayaking, and running a boot camp at La Fitness — the list is endless. Ziggy is now 75 years old.
Ziggy's rewarding life now
Cheryl and Ziggy had two children of their own and raised all four as one family. He became a father in the truest sense of the word — always available to listen, talk, teach and participate in their lives. They now have nine grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. They travel together and celebrate important milestones within the family. Ziggy said, “I didn’t want to spoil my children but I made sure they had a childhood and helped them out in any way possible.”
Ziggy’s life story sounds like a work of fiction. Unfortunately, he faced a difficult reality each day while trying to find purpose and meaning. With hope and determination, Ziggy moved forward and resisted the elements that could have pulled him under. He became strong in the face of adversity and learned valuable life lessons from his parents and friends.
Sigmund “Ziggy” Glaser is the true hero of his story. “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” he says now. “I survived the survivors. If I died tomorrow, I would have no regrets. I have accomplished everything I set out to do — I’m fulfilled and truly blessed.”
Judi Markowitz is a retired high school English teacher of 34 years. She primarily taught 12th grade and had the pleasure of her three sons gracing her classes. In addition, she taught debate, forensics, and Detroit film. Judi has four adult children and seven wonderful grandchildren. She is married to Jeffrey Markowitz, whom she met in high school.
Judi grew up in Oak Park, Mich. which had a stellar school district, with excellent teachers. The city provided activities for all–and there were even sidewalks. Judi moved to Huntington Woods as an adult, which is a half mile from her childhood home. She wanted the same experience for her children as she had growing up, and Huntington Woods provided that. The View from Four Foot Two is Judi’s first book.