Q&A: Roseville man survived Holocaust by hiding with Catholic family

Holocaust survivor Sy Karfiol, seen at his home in Roseville, speaks to youth groups to educate them about the genocide of World War II.
Holocaust survivor Sy Karfiol, seen at his home in Roseville, speaks to youth groups to educate them about the genocide of World War II. Courtesy of Sy Karfiol

Sy Karfiol, a grandfather from Roseville, wouldn’t be here if Catholics hadn’t rescued him from the Nazis as a 2-year-old boy in Belgium. His mother and grandmother were killed in the Holocaust, but he was one of thousands of hidden children ages 2 to 6 who lived to tell the tale.

Karfiol – one of about 200,000 remaining Holocaust survivors in 59 nations – will share his survival story at Sacramento’s Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) on Sunday. Roseville’s Marie Winkler will also share the story of her father, Joseph Winkler, a chemist, rocket scientist and inventor in Poland who was rescued from the Nazis by Nikita Khrushchev, then secretary-general of the Communist Party of Ukraine.

“Every year, we remember the 6 million Jews and millions of others who perished during the Holocaust as a result of maniacal hatred,” said Jewish Community Relations Council Chair Ryan Pessah. “It is our imperative to say ‘NEVER AGAIN’ to hatred and bigotry and to remember those who were lost and those who survived the most evil period in our history.”

Karfiol, a retired software programmer living with his wife in the Sun City community in Roseville, often takes area students back 73 years to one of the most horrific times in human history. Karfiol, who turned 75 Saturday, was born in Antwerp, Belgium, the son of a diamond dealer. His grandfather ran a factory in Frankfurt, Germany.

Q: When did your life change?

A: My father, Wilhelm “Willie” Karfiol, was taken away from the Bourse – stock exchange – in September 1942, and five days later he landed in Auschwitz. I lost over 100 people in my family – nearly all died in Poland. The Germans boarded up our house. My mother and grandmother found a way to get in through the back of our house to cook for Passover. But that night their neighbors heard cars and sirens, and the next day when the curfew was lifted they saw my mother and grandmother shot to death in the stairway. All we knew is my mom, Berthe Karfiol, stopped coming to visit us. I later heard she worked in the underground sabotaging the Nazis, and was decorated for it.

Q: How were you saved?

A: Before she died, my mom found a Catholic priest who was hiding children through the Jewish Defense League. Me and my older sister, Renee, who was 11, were placed with the Poelmans, a nice, blue-collar, older couple who had no children of their own and never raised their voices. He drove a tram, and on Sundays we went to Catholic church and played with other Jewish children who also had been hidden. Everybody knew I was Jewish – it was like Peyton Place. I had a dog and made friends very quickly. My sister, who’d already enjoyed an upper-middle-class life, didn’t like the Poelmans, who expected her to do dishes.

Q: What happened after World War II ended?

A: One day in 1946 there was a knock on the door, and there stood this ugly man who looked like a cadaver. From the moment my father knocked on the door, my sister was in his arms – she still recognized him. They moved back into the old house, but I didn’t want anything to do with him. I vomited and cried the whole time, and kept running back to the Poelmans’ house for six months. He said, “stop crying,” and sent me to a Jewish school and I became Jewish – before that I was very much a Catholic.

Q: How did your dad survive the gas chamber?

A: By volunteering for everything – whatever they wanted, he’d put up his hand. Auschwitz was not just made up of Jewish people – there were homosexuals, sick people, whoever the Germans didn’t like who could get packages and letters out to their families if they were written in German. So my dad would translate their outgoing letters into German in exchange for part of the care packages of food when they arrived. He got a job cleaning hospital floors, and boil weeds and bugs he’d collected into a soup. He definitely had the will to live.

On Jan. 27, 1945, the Russians liberated more than 7,000 remaining prisoners, who were sent on a ‘death march’ back to Germany. Many of them died on that march. But my father, who’d been bitten in the ankle by a Nazi German shepherd, had an infection and couldn’t walk, so they had to carry him out. He found his way back to Belgium in 1946, but it took him about a year to find us. He’d lost everything, but Jewish friends loaned him some money and before you know it he was back in the diamond business again. He remarried and moved to the United States, and in September 1954, I landed in New York. I majored in math and physics at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., then went to California and became a software programmer for 40 years and ended up in Sun City in 1998.

Q: Why is it important to tell students about the Holocaust?

A: Young people in general do not understand about how a person like Hitler can take over and imprison people and kill them. I want them to know this is something that can happen again. It has happened many times in history that Jewish people have been taken and killed. There’s an anti-Semitic uprising now throughout Europe. I have family that ended up in Paris right after World War II and have now left for Switzerland after living their whole lives in France. Jews have also left Norway, Belgium and Greece. Many Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, act and dress differently from other people; they won’t sit next to a woman on a plane because of their religion, and many people don’t like people who are different. I want people to know we are not terrible. We are nice people; we have good and bad.

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.

Yom HaShoah

What: Holocaust Remembrance Day

When: 7-8:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Congregation B’nai Israel, 3600 Riverside Blvd.

The remembrance includes traditional prayers, musical selections and a candle-lighting ceremony with survivors, children and grandchildren of survivors. Sign-language interpreters are provided by the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region’s Committee on Inclusion and Disabilities.

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