Benjamin L. Sieradzki, a Holocaust survivor, husband, father of two and grandfather of three, died July 1 at his home in Berkeley. But those who knew him well say his legacy will thrive for years to come — both in his family and in the local survivor community he held so dear.
Born 84 years ago in the industrial town of Zgierz, near Lodz, Poland, Sieradzki was the youngest of five children. His parents ran a small textile plant, and his childhood was generally comfortable.
In 1939, when he was 12, the Germans invaded Poland, and his father was among the prosperous Jews in town dragged from their homes, beaten and held for days in the basement of a local Catholic church. The family spent the next five years on dwindling rations in the Lodz Ghetto.
In September 1942, his mother was beaten by Gestapo agents who had come to the ghetto during the night. Afterward, both his parents were loaded into a truck headed for the Chelmno extermination camp. “This scene will be forever indelible in my mind,” he told j. in a 2007 interview.
Sieradzki and his sister Anna were deported to Auschwitz in August of 1944. There, Sieradzki stayed alert for opportunities to be put on labor teams. He succeeded in getting sent to Stoecken, Germany, to work in the Continental Rubber Factory, but a few months later, all the men working there were sent to the Ahlem concentration camp.
In April 1945, when American soldiers liberated the camp, Sieradzki was 18 years old and weighed 80 pounds. After recuperating in a German hospital, he traveled to Sweden, where he lived for eight years, training as a mechanical engineer.
In 1953, he traveled to the U.S. on a visa, and while studying and working in Los Angeles, he went on a blind double date with a friend and fell in love with his future wife — his friend’s date. It was the beginning of a relationship Sieradzki’s son, Michael Sarid, calls “extraordinary.”
“Even as his own health began to fail … he went to the ends of the Earth for my mom,” said Sarid, who legally changed his last name in 1999 in honor of his father: “Sarid” is Hebrew for remnant or survivor.
Ben and Gloria Sieradzki were married in 1955, and Ben became a citizen in 1957. Soon after, they moved to Berkeley and had sons David and Michael. Sieradzki worked as a mechanical engineer in the food industry.
Sieradzki was known as one of the most outspoken survivors in the Bay Area survivor community. He served on a board of Holocaust survivors organized by Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay, managing emergency funds provided to survivors in need. He kept in touch with a tight-knit network of other survivors in the East Bay.
“He went to every meeting, every event,” Sarid said. “He’d be the one driving other survivors who were in worse shape than he was.”
Sarid — now the Los Angeles–based Western regional director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum — added that his father’s proud identity as a Holocaust survivor had an obvious, undeniable influence on his children.
“He raised his kids as strong Zionists and members of the community … and he certainly wasn’t one of those survivors who never talked about it. I give my mom a lot of credit there, too,” said Sarid. “From their early days together, she really encouraged him to talk about it at a time when no one was.”
After he retired, Sieradzki decided he wanted to know more about his family’s history, and began researching artifacts from the war. That work led him to Vernon Tott, a soldier from Iowa who was 20 when he helped liberate the Ahlem concentration camp.
Sieradzki remembered that he and other survivors had had their pictures taken as the camp was being liberated, and he wanted to know what had happened to the photos. In 1995, he put out an inquiry in an army newsletter, and Tott responded. The photos — which showed groups of emaciated prisoners in clothes just given to them by the American soldiers — had been in a shoebox for 50 years. Eventually, Tott and Sieradzky located nearly 30 other Ahlem survivors in North America.
Tott and Sieradzky became friends who talked frequently on the phone and researched together, until Tott’s death from cancer in 2005. Sieradzky and other Ahlem survivors were honored in 2004 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “It was a real high point for him,” said Sarid.
Sarid said anyone who knew his father describes him as a deeply caring, loyal friend, and that his spirit absolutely lives on in his children and his granddaughters.
“We grew up with him telling us bedtime stories about life in Poland before the war, and I know my brother told those stories to his own kids,” said Sarid. “His life, his stories are a permanent part of our family lore.”
Ben Sieradzki is survived by his wife, Gloria; sons David Sieradzki of Bethesda, Md., and Michael Sarid of Santa Monica; and three granddaughters. Contributions in his memory may be made to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Western Regional Office, 9911 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90035; Young Judaea; or the Berkeley chapter of Hadassah.