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Holocaust survivor tells story to thousands of children via global talks, book

Sidney Finkel, a Holocaust survivor who lives in Tucson, with his memoir, ‘Sevek and the Holocaust: The Boy Who Refused to Die.’ (Debe Campbell)

Sidney Finkel ended his self-imposed silence in 1993 about Holocaust survival as a child. At the insistence of his daughter, Ruth, he shared the story with his family of the young boy born Sevek Finkelstein. Born in Poland to a well-to-do family of seven, he lived an idyllic childhood until World War II. For the next six years, from age 6 to 12, he was thrust into the horrors of ghettos and Nazi death camps, where four of his immediate family and dozens of extended family and friends were murdered. After liberation, he was sent to school in England and left for Chicago when he was 18.

Finkel says he felt unburdened by bringing his story to light. Sometime later his son Leon asked him to share the story with a group of students. Reluctantly accepting the invitation, he unveiled the story to mesmerized children. Surprised by their rapt attention and engaged response, he realized a new calling in life. Since then, he has shared his story with more than 100,000 people, mostly eighth-graders, across the country and around the world.

“Everyone started asking me when I would write a book,” Finkel recalls. “I didn’t think I had a book in me, but one summer I decided to take off and write it.” In 2006, that book became “Sevek and the Holocaust: The Boy Who Refused to Die,” which has sold more than 25,000 copies. “It has done well for a self-published book,” he says.

“Friends didn’t want me to lose my voice in the book. I tried to write it in the image of an 8- or 9-year-old boy. It is deliberately through the eyes of a child,” he says. Kirkus Reviews calls it a poignant memoir with a refreshing absence of melodrama or pomp. Goodreads rates it 4.5 out of five stars.

The book and his personal appearances evolved into a teaching tool that is used by classes around the country. Pima Community College uses it for Holocaust study groups. “The ideal is if the students read the book and then I go and speak to them. They get very involved,” Finkel says, sharing a comment from a 13-year-old in Indiana. “He told me, ‘I’m like Sevek. I refuse to die.’” The boy had survived three brain surgeries. “I get letters from adults who heard me speak in sixth grade and say it still affects them. People who listen to Holocaust survivors, they are never the same. It is difficult for a kid who listens to this to become an anti-Semite.”

He spoke to an adult audience in Germany. “They were very good when I spoke. Since World War II the German government has been very good to the survivors. They don’t get enough credit for all they’ve done. Every month I get a pension, and they pay for my medications.” A German government grant administered through Jewish Family & Children’s Services also pays for weekly housekeeping.

Today, his presentation has been modified with a professionally produced video. Finkel introduces and then plays the video, concluding with a question and answer session. The most asked questions continue to be: “Does it stay with me still? How it affected me, and about forgiveness,” he says. And to Holocaust deniers, he says, “it’s not about the facts, it comes from hatred.”

He believes it is essential that children be educated about the past. “They need to understand the Holocaust happened, and that people are capable of committing acts of unspeakable atrocity toward each other. At the same time, they need to grasp what powerful forces hope and perseverance are, and how vital they are in allowing people to survive and thrive.”

Finkel was married for nearly 50 years when his wife Jean died.  “That was the most tragic thing in my life when she died. But, part of my survival skills make me go forward. Tragedy is part of life and life is good. Part of the drive is to live. Without it you would die. Part of my Holocaust education was that dead is dead. I lost a lot of my empathy, so what is tragic to a normal person is not to me.”

A “sun bird” for a decade, Finkel moved to Tucson full time four years ago. “You have a choice. I wanted to live and be happy and in a relationship.” He now shares his life with Barbara Agee. They found each other on the internet. “It was a buyer’s market. I had my choice of many professional women. I’m still here and enjoy my life. I have a nice house, a beautiful car, children who love and adore me, and a loving relationship.”

Finkel continues his speaking engagements. “My five children and grandchildren are very involved with this effort. They will carry on speaking and promoting the book professionally. My daughter is now retired and she is very involved in promoting it on Facebook.”

At 86, he enjoys socializing, card games, reading on his Kindle and smoking cigars. He learned to swim at age 70 and now loves it, hitting the pool three or four times each week. “I’m in good health and will live ’til my 90s,” he predicts. “Hey, another four years, that’s a gift, right? Living in Tucson is wonderful, it’s paradise. I’ll continue to be active, keep living. No drama! Peace and harmony, that’s what I like.”

For more information about Finkel’s history and his book, visit www.holocaustspeaker.com.

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