Obituary: Sidney Cyngiser, 99, shared his story about the Shoah with generations of Alberta students

Sid Cyngiser z"l. Photo Credit: Marnie Burkhart for Here to Tell: Faces of Holocaust Survivors, photo exhibit and book.

by Sam Margolis, Canadian Jewish News 

(CJN) – Sidney (Sucher) Cyngiser, an indefatigable proponent of Holocaust education, who was often viewed as Calgary’s Elie Wiesel, died on June 27. He was 99. Cyngiser continued to share his story of hardship and tenacity with generations of Alberta students and educators well into his 90s.

“He has inspired thousands, especially young students, advocating for basic human rights, democracy, kindness, tolerance, multiculturalism and interfaith dialogue. The magnitude of his impact can be found in the many boxes of letters in his house which were sent to him by grateful students and teachers over the years,” his daughter Frances Cyngiser said.

Born in Lodz on March 15, 1924, Cyngiser’s memories were those of a happy childhood spent in Radom, Poland. His idyllic youth was abruptly shattered and turned into a living nightmare, however, upon the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, and he would perform slave labour throughout much of the Second World War.

After arriving at Auschwitz, Cyngiser survived a selektion, the process of determining which inmates would be executed and which forced into labour, by pinching his cheeks and brushing his clothes to make himself appear as healthy as possible.

He was later moved to the Vaihingen an der Enz camp along with his father, who died there from starvation and exhaustion. He was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. Cyngiser learned after the war that his mother and three sisters were murdered at Treblinka.

Having endured beatings, malnutrition and disease, Cyngiser weighed a mere 72 pounds when liberated by French troops on April 7, 1945. He spent nearly three years convalescing, first in a hospital, where he met his wife, Bronia, and afterward in a displaced persons camp. In 1949, through the sponsorship of his father’s aunt, Bella Singer, he immigrated to Canada. Bronia followed in 1951 and they were married soon after.

A proud Canadian citizen, Cyngiser found professional success in the furniture business and subsequently in real estate.

“He chose not to let his life be defined by the devastation of the Holocaust, but rather by his response to it,” said his daughter Frances. “Rather than being filled with bitterness anger and resentment, he chose to give meaning to his life by filling it with love, tolerance and understanding and a fervent wish for tikun olam—repairing our broken world.

“In the face of Holocaust denial,” she said, “he dedicated his life to bearing witness, believing that hope for the future begins with truth about the past.”

His commitment to educating future generations about the Shoah, led him to become a regular presence at schools, churches, community organizations and at Calgary’s Holocaust Education Symposium each year.

Consistently described as a gentle and generous soul, Cyngiser backed numerous organizations as an avid volunteer and philanthropist. Together with Bronia, he provided financial support to both the Jewish and broader Calgary community and was an ardent champion of Israel.

In addition to a Citizenship Award at the Calgary Jewish Academy and an annual scholarship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Cyngisers endowed a Multicultural Education Scholarship at Mount Royal University’s Bachelor of Education Program in recognition of student contributions to multicultural understanding.

The pair were involved with United Jewish Appeal and State of Israel Bonds, each having served as UJA division chairs and Israel Bond co-chairs. They also established a Holocaust Education Collection at Mount Royal University’s library and an endowment fund for Calgary’s Beth Tzedec Congregation’s Jewish Film Festival.

Cyngiser’s efforts were recognized on several occasions throughout his life.  Among the awards and accolades he received were the Alberta Centennial Medal, the Immigrant of Distinction Lifetime Achievement Award from Immigrant Services Calgary and an honorary doctorate from University of Calgary in 2006 for his contribution to Canadian society in promoting tolerance and understanding through Holocaust education.

On obtaining his honorary doctorate, Cyngiser urged the graduating class, “Do not choose to be bystanders. Rather, count yourselves among those who make a difference. Be engaged in your community and our society. Be aware of what’s happening in the world. Do not choose to remain silent or indifferent in the face of intolerance, hatred or injustice.  Speak out. Take action. Not to speak out, not to act, is to be an accomplice.”

In 1998, Cyngiser was among 50 Holocaust survivors across Canada to receive the Zachor Award, jointly created by the federal government and prominent Canadian Jewish organizations.

Echoing the sentiments of many in Calgary, Rabbi Ilana Krygier Lapides said, “Our community has lost a giant, a man of integrity, brilliance, kindness, and menschlechkeit. I had the honour and immense privilege of spending large chunks of my professional life with Sid. I watched him inspire, literally, thousands of adults and young people to respect one another’s basic human rights, to cherish democracy, and to treat others with kindness, regardless of their faith, ethnic background or religion.

“When Sid would tell his Holocaust story, normally cynical ‘too cool for school’ high school students would line up for ages just to have the opportunity to shake his hand. And he would treat every single one like they were a treasure. He would show them pictures of his family and genuinely smile at each student. Every person who heard Sid speak was changed for the better,” added Rabbi Krygier Lapides, who currently serves as assistant rabbi at Beth Tzedec Congregation and was formerly the director of programming and Holocaust and human rights education for the Calgary Jewish Federation.

Rabbi Krygier Lapides recalled hearing Cyngiser’s story hundreds of times. “Every time it was a revelation. He touched the hearts and minds of everyone who had the privilege to hear him. They only had to listen for a few minutes to realize how blessed they were to be in the presence of this humble, sweet, great man. Sid Cyngiser dedicated his life to making the world a better place. We cannot fill his shoes but we can live by his example.”

Cyngiser is survived by his wife Bronia; his children Harvey and Frances (David); grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

This article is reprinted from Canadian Jewish News.

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