Haunting family photo inspires a Holocaust memoir

It all started with a fading photograph that hung over the fireplace of her parents' house. But what began as a family memoir has become an addition to the body of literature on the Holocaust.

June Sutz Brott's "Needle and Thread, a Tale of Survival From Bialystok to Paris" reads like a novel, but the tale it tells is all too true.

When the Oakland resident was growing up in Chicago, she used to wonder about all those strange people surrounding her father in the picture. Told they were relatives — grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts — she couldn't understand why she never had met any of them.

Through this fading photo of a dead family, the inquisitive girl was introduced to the Holocaust at an early age. The photo was taken in 1929 on a return trip to Bialystok, Poland, by her father, Ben, who had been smuggled out of that country when he was 12.

Many years later, Brott discovered that one young face in the picture that had haunted her was still alive.

Charles "Shleimeh" Zabuski, her father's nephew, had survived the Bialystok ghetto, the transports and a succession of work-death camps that claimed the lives of his parents, grandparents, brother, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins and his young wife.

Remarried and living in Paris, Shleimeh didn't want to talk about that terrible time when he and his American cousin first met. It took years, many translators and a lengthy stay in Oakland after his wife died to unlock his astonishing treasure chest of memories.

It took even longer for Brott to overcome her self-doubt and muster the courage to write for publication.

"When I started out, it was just going to be for the family," she said recently. "But, as I got more knowledgeable about the Holocaust, I knew I had to keep at it because if I didn't, nobody would, and it had to be preserved."

She had hoped to finish the project in time for her father's 100th birthday, but it was not ready in time. The Sun City, Ariz., resident, still vigorous at 101, accepted the gift a year or so late.

As for cousin Shleimeh (who is credited as author of "Needle and Thread," with Brott as co-author), the book was not only an exercise in memory but instrumental in the courtship of his future wife.

Brott explained: "When I first met him, I knew I wanted to talk to him and I knew he wanted to talk to me, but we had no common language. Once we finally began, we still couldn't communicate. Friends translated, one of my kids translated, all kinds of people translated in all kinds of places: Oakland, Paris and Portland, Ore."

Finally, Shleimeh decided to learn English and enrolled in a class.

The two-time widower had in his possession an original draft of the manuscript that Brott had sent him and romance probably was the last thing on his mind when he approached an elegant Frenchwoman also taking the class.

"He said, `I have this English something. Maybe we could use it to practice,'" related Brott. "Simone is now his wife."

Shleimeh had an incredible memory for detail, stretching back to the menu for Sabbath dinner during his childhood in Bialystok. It was up to Brott to impose order on his random recollections. The book is organized chronologically, focusing on particular anecdotes and incidents during each time period. With chapter headings like "Zayde," "Potato Pancakes" and "Sunflower Seeds," it becomes a very human document of an inhuman time.

Brott read some, but not a great deal of Holocaust literature as she was writing the book. "His [Shleimeh's] voice was so strong; I didn't want to let other influences drown it out," she said. And his voice comes through, loud and clear, with just a trace of vernacular that shows his unfamiliarity with English, without ever descending into parody.

Although Brott, now retired, was long employed as associate public relations director for the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, as a result of this project, she has become more involved in Jewish affairs. She is a docent at the Judah L. Magnes Memorial Museum in Berkeley, and has put together a slide show — "a kind of mini-history of anti-Semitism" — for the museum's outreach program.

Spurred by this initial publication, she is developing several ideas for other books. But no matter what else she may write, "Needle and Thread" always will hold a special place on the shelf.

"The story is told," she said. "The memory of my father's family is not lost. It's part of the Holocaust record now."