“You can hear a pin drop when I tell my story,” says Sy Karfiol.
“You can hear a pin drop when I tell my story,” says Sy Karfiol.

‘My childhood ended’: Sacramento Holocaust survivor Sy Karfiol recounts harrowing tale for spellbound audiences

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Sy Karfiol was just a toddler in 1942 when Nazi soldiers stormed the diamond district in Antwerp, Belgium, and arrested his father, a Jewish diamond merchant.

He was too young to remember the arrest and his father’s immediate deportation to Auschwitz. He was too young to remember his desperate mother leaving him in the care of a Catholic family, who hid him and his older sister throughout the war.

He is not young anymore.

Karfiol, now 82, knows his story of wartime trauma and Jewish survival is a tale worth telling. As a member of the Sacramento-based Central Valley Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, he has told that tale to audiences, most often spellbound high schoolers, more times than he can count.

“You can hear a pin drop when I tell my story,” said Karfiol, who lives in Fairfield. “Kids say they never knew anyone went through this. They appreciate that the stories are real, and [that] we really suffered.”

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Karfiol has lived in the United States since 1954. He got a good education, earned a degree in engineering and later worked on the Apollo space program, helping his adopted country put a man on the moon. He has lived the American dream, but it wouldn’t have happened had his mother not saved him and his sister from certain death that fateful day.

His parents had left Poland in the 1920s, emigrating from Warsaw to Antwerp. Hitler invaded Belgium in 1940, the year Karfiol was born, and two years later came a raid on the Bourse, the city’s famed Jewish-dominated diamond district. Its employees were rounded up and its diamonds looted.

“When they grabbed my father, my mother got hold of a priest,” Karfiol recounted. “The priests [knew] that Jewish children were being slaughtered [and they] went from church to church and asked [fellow] priests to speak out. They would tell the people, ‘We have Jewish children that need to be hidden. If not hidden, they will be killed.’ My mother ended up taking me to a [Catholic] house near Brussels.”

He and his sister lived with a French-speaking family from 1942 to 1946. He attended church and went to a school run by nuns. The risk of arrest and execution those protectors faced was high. “They knew we were Jewish,” he added. “Everyone in the village knew we were Jewish children being hidden. There were Germans in the village and they would have killed [us] immediately. I didn’t know I was Jewish.”

Karfiol lived a happy and relatively normal childhood in those years. He was well fed, he played with the neighborhood boys, and he chased after German soldiers with a toy rifle made from a wooden stick. His mother would drop in routinely to visit. Then abruptly the visits stopped.

Sy Karfiol speaks to a crowd at the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Vacaville, May 22, 2022.
Sy Karfiol speaks to a crowd at the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Vacaville, May 22, 2022.

He learned years later that his mother and grandmother had joined the resistance, blowing up German train lines. Their hideout had been discovered, and both were murdered by the SS.

Months after the war ended, young Sy and his sister got the shock of their lives.

“One day there was a knock on the door,” he said. “It was Papa. He survived three years of Auschwitz. He came in and told me he was my father, and I didn’t want him. I kept crying and vomiting. I wouldn’t go with him. Sometime in 1946 he said, ‘From now on you will stay with me.’ I ended up back in Antwerp.”

The war may have ended for the nations of the world, but not for Karfiol’s father, who had miraculously survived the camps but emerged a shattered man. Once returned to his father, Karfiol says, “My childhood ended.”

His father frequently beat his son, often on the slightest pretext. Today, Karfiol says he understands his father suffered from PTSD, but it caused a rift. His father also enrolled him in the local cheder, where he studied Torah, learned Hebrew and got in touch with his Jewish roots.

When his father, newly remarried, opted to move the family to the United States, Karfiol found himself in a new land at age 14.

In time he adjusted. He attended college, majored in physics and engineering, and after graduating moved to Southern California in 1961 to work in the booming aerospace industry. Karfiol worked for Rockwell, which played a role in NASA’s lunar program.

“I knew the physics and the math,” he said of his pet project. “I wrote a trajectory program, which simulates flight from the Earth to the moon, so we can see what happens when the fuel gets used. They used that for the actual hardware they built [for Apollo].”

In Los Angeles, he also met his future wife, Beverly. They’ve been married for 58 years, moving to Roseville in 1997 after he retired. The couple recently returned from a trip to Israel, where Karfiol visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, an experience he found profoundly moving.

He also reconciled with his father, who lived well into his 80s.

The Karfiols’ lives together have not been untouched by tragedy. Their adult daughter passed away a few years ago from cancer. But Karfiol is dedicated to helping younger generations by telling his story and reminding them that freedom and tolerance are not always guaranteed.

“I realized so many people were interested in my story,” he said. “My story is just one story, There are millions of them.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.