West Windsor, N.J. – On Nov. 19, Mercer County Community College (MCCC) and the Mercer County Holocaust-Genocide Resource Center hosted a reception with the family and friends of the late Shelley Zeiger, a longtime champion for business in the city of Trenton. Special guest was Rebecca Upjohn, author of the award-winning children’s book, “The Secret of the Village Fool,” which tells the inspiring story of the Zeiger family’s rescue in Nazi-occupied Poland by an unlikely hero, Anton Suchinski, during World War II.
The event gave family, friends, and community supporters an opportunity to learn about the Zeiger’s family history and to act upon its lessons by contributing to the Shelley Zeiger Memorial Scholarship Fund, which will benefit MCCC students studying Business.
Shelley’s wife, Marion Zeiger, spoke of the decision to establish the scholarship in her husband’s name. “We decided to partner with the college to help the community. It is a fitting tribute to be helping students fulfill their American Dream as Shelley did,” Mrs. Zeiger said. She thanked all those who attended and donated.
Shelley’s son, Jeff, noted that the establishment of the scholarship “would have meant so much to my dad. It was important to him to complete the circle of life. If you do good things, good things will come back to you,” he said. Jeff has served on the MCCC Foundation Board since 2010.
Author Upjohn spoke of her creative journey in writing the book. She recalled her initial concern about getting the story right, especially for an audience of children. “I did not want to be didactic or sentimental or too frightening--and I wanted to tell the truth,” Upjohn said.
As recounted in the book, the Zeiger family – Mama and Papa, Michael and his younger brother, Shelley – lived a nice life in the eastern border town of Zborow, Poland. All that changed with the rise of the Nazis and the start of World War II. As the Nazis ordered the evacuation of the Jews from Zborow, a reclusive local farmer named Anton Suchinski offered shelter to the Zeigers and two orphaned girls. The six hid in a dug-out space beneath Suchinski’s root cellar for many months while the village was under Nazi occupation.
Through a series of interviews with the Zeigers, Upjohn says the story became personal. “Writing the book took me to places I never expected…to a root cellar in Poland and a man who let nothing get in the way of doing what was right. Even in dark times, there can be extraordinary courage and good. This book is a way to reconcile the brutal history of the Holocaust with a story of compassion and courage. We need to be reminded that heroes like this exist,” Upjohn said.
The Zeigers eventually reconnected with Anton, traveling to find him in Zborow (which by that time was part of Ukraine), bringing him to the United States to meet their extended family, and accompanying him to Israel, where he was honored at Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, an official recognition to non-Jews who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
MCCC President Patricia C. Donohue warmly welcomed the Zeigers and the other guests. “The college is so proud of its partnership with the Mercer County Holocaust Center, which has provided ongoing opportunities for learning and community connections.”
Student Diana Cifuentes, who is studying to be a teacher and attended the event with five classmates, says the Zeigers’ rescue story resonated with her in a powerful way. Currently employed at the Mercer County Special Services School District, she says her passion in life is to help others. “What is the meaning of life if not to give to others? You have to make a difference in this world,” Cifuentes said.
“The Secret of the Village Fool” is the winner of Canada’s 2014 Silver Birch Express Award and has received strong praise for its introduction of the difficult topic of the Holocaust to younger children. (The book is suggested for ages 8+.)
For more information about supporting this and other MCCC scholarships, visit www.mccc.edu/give or call 609- 570-3607.
Mercer Co. Holocaust-Genocide Resource Center
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