The Story of Sidney Selig
By Gemma Blech
Sidney [once Siegfried] Selig, born in 1924 Frankfurt, Germany has decided it's time to tell his story. The years between his birth and now his Golden Years in Jerusalem, were long and hard. From his childhood in Germany, to his youth and adult years in the safe haven of America, then, finally after 32 years as Chazzan to the Ohav Sholaum synagogue of NY, Siggy, [as I have long known him], made aliyah to Jerusalem in 1987. Siggy is now wheel chair bound so it's now time that we put pen to paper to tell his Life Story.
Sidney's story starts before his own birth. He was the second child born to David and Gunda Selig. He had been preceded by a first born son who mysteriously died after 36 hours. The result was that the new baby Selig was excessively protected and when faced with the horrors of his childhood to come, he was quite unprepared. He describes himself as having been an immature and lonely little boy.
His father, David, was a prosperous shirt manufacturer in the days of stiff collars, cuff links and middle class respectability! He had left school at 14 to work in the shirt business, where he became increasingly prosperous, as he was a hard worker and his own best salesman. David Selig would leave home at 5:00am each Sunday and not return again till the following Friday. During the week, his wife and young son would stay home and a local gentile merchant, would deliver food and vegetables to the door. Siggy meantime was never allowed out of the home alone and so he never adjusted to the rough and tumble of the neighborhood.
By the late 1920's David Selig's realised his precious son needed to be well educated. While Siggy attended a gentile junior school, he engaged David Katz, a teacher at the respected Hirsch High School to teach Chumash to young Siegfried. Prophetically, Siggy remembers this faithful Shabbat teacher focusing unendingly on Parasha Lech Lecha [Genesis 12-17]. The story of Abraham leaving the land of his birth and uprooting for a strange land was to become a real source of strength in later years.
As the anti-Jewish ferment increased in the 1930's Siggy, was finally moved to the Hirsch High School which was the big Jewish school across town. But, it was while he was still at the gentile junior school that he learnt a lesson he will never forget. His teacher played the violin, and he taught his willing Jewish student that he must "learn to sing like a violin so no-one hears your breathing!" The long time chazzan learnt an early lesson well! But, it was at the Hirsch School that Siggy began his real love for Jewish education.
An early Frankfurt memory is the visit to the family home in 1936, by a gentile policeman called Peter Hörr who had been at school with Siggy's father. One day policeman Peter arrived at the family home unannounced. His job was to 'pick up Jews' but this visit was to say, "David make sure you get away from here, as I have already had to pick up too many Jews." Though this warning came in good time it was not until long after Kristalnacht [in1938] that young Siggy was finally able to escape to England, on one of the last of the Kindertransports.
But to backtrack briefly: In 1899 David Selig received a letter from his Uncle Joseph in the USA, telling them how well he was doing in his newly established cattle business, and encouraging the family to join him. The letter was proudly headed, 'Buyer and Shipper of Livestock and Fine Horses Ligonier, Indiana'.
A letter from America in those far off days was quite an event, but for all that, David Selig KEPT that letter until it became the crucial aid to their escape. By the mid 1930's no one could leave Germany unless they could present a document to the authorities from relatives proving that they were invited to the US. Without such a letter, they could not even enter the UK in transit for the US.
Thus the 1899 letter did indeed become the passport to freedom and safety for the whole family.
Finally, it was with much anxiety that the young Siegfried was sent off, alone, to England on one of the last Kindertransports. One important memory stays with Siggy about that traumatic departure. It was May 9th 1939 and the rules about luggage taken abroad were very strict. However, the Customs official suddenly heard that Siggy had been given a small portable typewriter as a Bar Mitzvah present. Inexplicably Siggy's father was sent home to get the precious present and that typewriter served Siggy for many years.
There still exists part of a handwritten journal written by young Sidney after their final arrival in the USA. [My clarifications in brackets].
He asks [about the Shoah in Germany]:
. How did all this start? Where were the original roots? The Christian religion takes its headline from our holy scriptures, from [a verse in] Leviticus
"to love your neighbor as yourself". The quotation is purposely in the singular, as each one has this responsibility on his own shoulders. What suddenly happened in Germany, where this quotation was true for hundreds of years? A sudden change from democracy to dictatorship; and yet wait, it's a fad, it cannot happen here. We of course are Jewish, but we are Germans, or so we thought. We live[d] very well with our non-Jewish neighbors in the truest sense of the quotation from Leviticus
Even as Siggy wrote and remembered some of the history of Hitler coming to power, he hardly knew then of the appalling depths of the 'Final Solution'.
Sidney writes too of the family journey from England to America by this time, thankfully, joined by his parents.
"The passengers had [had] an eventful trip; not enough [that] a war had started, the waters were rough all the way from England, but being chased by a U-boat for its gold bars cargo was truly not a pleasure
... At last security in sight - dry land! [It] turned out not to be so dry at all. There was lots of residue of a most recent snowfall visible all over the streets. On board one could see young and old, parents, grandp[arents], boys and girls, old friends, newly formed friendships [wondering] what to expect on this their first trip to the free land
.. Many came from KZ [concentration camps] or prisons [that] had stayed in England until their time period of awaiting their visa to the US
It's clear that the whole experience was quite overwhelming. We can be grateful for these brief pencil notes, from so long ago and written in English, which was still a relatively new language for the once German boy.
By the time the family reached America, Joseph Selig was dead and his daughter and son-in-law took over their father's responsibility for the small family. They sent them three train tickets to travel out to Minneapolis where they were now in the cockroach extermination business [!] explaining that they could work for him free, until their debt for the tickets etc was paid off. It was Siggy, now a slightly more mature 15 year old, who asked about not working on Shabbat and he was told, "There are no Shabbats here". To which Siggy replied: "No Shabbat and we dont come I never work on Shabbat!" He returned the train tickets with thanks for all that they had done not least in saving their lives.
So, this little family arrived in the US, and the decision was made to settle in Manhattan. Finding work in those pre Pearl Harbor days was never easy. But in spite of the difficulties Siggy never worked on Shabbat although there were gentile pressures around him to do so. Once he worked at Orbach's department store but then came the [long] High Holidays and his time at Orbach's came to an abrupt end!
Siggy's father died relatively young in 1951, leaving Siggy and his new wife Inge, to care for his mother. She lived with the young, [and later, not so young couple], until she was 82 years and it was only after her death, that Siggy and Inge could make their longed for aliyah to Jerusalem. Their belief had always been that the Messiah was coming soon and to Jerusalem and so they should be here, not in the US! Their disappointment was that so many of their American soul mates did not share their Zionist passion.
Once Sidney arrived permanently in Israel he became a faithful volunteer and fund raiser work he had begun even before he arrived. Both Shaarery Tzedek hospital and a Jerusalem Yeshiva in Har Nof have honored him and Shoshanna, most recently for their 55 years of marriage. On his 80th birthday the Jerusalem Academy of Dvar Torah honored him with a Keter Shem Tov [The Crown of a Good Name] and this in their splendid succa in the presence of Chief Rabbi Metzger.
Sidney is no longer so active, so instead he hands out little slips to all his friends and neighbors and occasionally strangers as well! It reads thus:
Say twice every day and learn by heart:
AT THE END OF EACH DAY
WE CAN HOPEFULLY SAY
THAT WE ENJOYED THE SUN'S RAY
AND BROUGHT SMILES ALL THE WAY!
A smile or two can never harm, surprisingly it will keep you calm!
Sidney Selig. Photographed by the author on Pessach 2007
from the July 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine