Jerry Blitzer was born in Poland in 1929 and spent his early years growing up in a comparatively well-to-do family in Kolbuszowa, a small town in central Poland. His father, part owner of a lumber mill and a flour mill, employed 120 people before the war.
Blitzer lost 31 family members in the Holocaust, among them his sister, three grandparents, aunts, uncles and first cousins. But he calls his survival a “parallel” Holocaust story because it happened “alongside” the Holocaust. Blitzer and his parents were among more than a quarter of a million people whose lives were unintentionally saved by Soviet leader Josef Stalin. They endured their own hardships in Siberia, unaware of the Holocaust that was taking place at home.
At the urging of Blitzer’s adult children, he wrote a book about his experience, called Through Ten Time Zones. In 2014, he printed 125 copies of the hardcover, 118-page volume for friends and family.
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The book was edited by Farla Klaiman, a freelance editor who now works for the Azrieli Foundation. To the best of Blitzer’s knowledge, there isn’t another full-length memoir that reflects his experience.
Klaiman said that while she’s not familiar with every Holocaust memoir, there probably aren’t many about survivors who ended up in Siberia. She noted that it was not Blitzer’s choice to leave his home – he saw his town divided, and he saw many people die. “He was definitely affected by the Holocaust, both personally and in terms of his extended family.”
She added that she was struck by Blitzer’s sense of humour and his openness to learning and taking advantage of new opportunities after his education was interrupted at a young age.
In 1940, Blitzer and his parents were living in Sambor, in the Soviet-occupied part of Poland, and they were sent to Siberia for refusing to become Soviet citizens. Blitzer’s younger sister had been left in the German-occupied area with her grandparents.
Blitzer’s mother had intended to return to her parents the same day she took her son to his father, one of many Jewish men who had fled east to avoid being sent to German labour camps. The crossing, at a border that was supposed to be open, didn’t go as planned. Mother and son endured a harrowing river crossing on foot and spent two days in jail before they were reunited with Blitzer’s father.
The trio was sent on an arduous journey in overcrowded trains with no toilets. They travelled beyond Irkutsk to an old Siberian mining town that Blitzer described in the book as “thousands of kilometres and 10 time zones away from home, ” where temperatures would dip as low as -60 C.
Isolated for the duration of the war, the displaced group of which Blitzer was a part refused to believe the stories they eventually heard about the fate of friends, family and an unfathomable number of other Jews who had been killed by the Nazis. At first, they thought the stories were propaganda.
Blitzer, who speaks seven languages, had a piecemeal education during as well as after the war, when he lived with relatives in Paris, then Antwerp.
In Paris, he attended the ORT school, which offered a combination of vocational and regular classes, and in Belgium, he became a diamond cutter and studied Jewish texts with a rabbi. Private English lessons that he had taken earlier proved useful when he moved to New York, where he lived for 15 years and became co-owner of a luncheonette.
In 1965, he and his wife, Fila, moved with their children to Toronto, where Jerry joined his brother-in-law in the lumber business.
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Now a grandfather of six, Blitzer retired at age 61 to devote himself to community work. Plaques, certificates and letters of appreciation testify to his dedication to organizations including Toronto Jewish Free Loan Cassa (now Jewish Free Loan Toronto), Jewish National Fund, State of Israel Bonds and B’nai Brith Canada.
He has been a frequent traveller to Israel, and went back to Poland with his wife in 1975, before such visits were common.
“People can’t believe that I remember everything,” Blitzer said, referring to the number of details he included in the book. On his visit to Poland in 1975, he directed a taxi driver to his grandfather’s house, recalling landmarks that he used to see when he visited every summer as a child.
He would encourage other survivors whose lives “were parallel to the Holocaust” to write about their experiences too.
Frances Kraft is a freelance writer who lives in Toronto.