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Gary Zamstein told stories of heroism and horror

NEW PORT RICHEY — Clad in a yellow sports shirt that matched his suntan, Gary Zamstein told some amazing stories about living through some of the darkest years in modern history. A camera rolled for two hours as Mr. Zamstein, then 83, spoke in a thick, Old World accent about escaping from a German work camp.

About hiding out with the Polish underground. About joining the Russian army and later participating in the liberation of Auschwitz.

From time to time, Mr. Zamstein, a butcher with no formal education, threw in Polish, German, Russian or Yiddish phrases.

The Florida Holocaust Museum recorded the interview in 2004 and honored Mr. Zamstein as a liberator.

Mr. Zamstein, a soldier whose jovial nature kept him going despite misgivings about shedding blood, died Jan. 26 of congestive heart failure. He was 90.

"He had no ego," said Mel Gavron, 62, who married Mr. Zamstein's stepdaughter. "He never bragged about it. You had to drag it out of him."

Mr. Zamstein grew up in a rural town in Poland that was overrun by the Germans in 1939.

"The way he explained it, all of a sudden one day there were airplanes bombing," his son-in-law said. "There were artillery tanks. It was a total surprise."

He fled into the woods but was captured and put in a work camp. Though he and his siblings survived the attack, he never saw his parents or extended family again.

Mr. Zamstein said he escaped by hitting a guard in the head with a shovel and running into the woods, dodging machine- ­gun fire. He foraged for food with others loyal to Poland, and sabotaged the Germans.

"He was one of those crazy people who would rush to tanks and drop hand grenades into little slots," Gavron said. "Other people would play it safe. He was never afraid of dying."

In the interview, Mr. Zamstein said he psyched himself up with the Old Testament story of Samson pulling down the temple: "I die, but they are going to die together with me," he said.

His facility with languages won him the respect of members of the Russian army he encountered in Poland. Mr. Zamstein served with the Russians, and was there when the Allies rolled into Auschwitz.

After the war, Mr. Zamstein was involved with the Irgun, a militant organization that opposed the British control of Palestine. He told his family he had participated in the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, a headquarters for British military and intelligence, in which 91 people died.

Mr. Zamstein told his family that for a time he lived with Menachem Begin, who later became Israel's prime minister and was also active in the Irgun. After the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 he stayed on. He had fought for Israel's founding, and came to know members of the Israeli legislature, or Knesset.

"As one who was at the center of the power infrastructure at the time of Israel and thereafter," Gavron said, "he frequently shared a table with … individuals such as David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Chaim Weizmann and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi."

Mr. Zamstein remained in Israel, serving in the army and overseeing construction projects for the government, including a nuclear facility, his family said.

His presence in Palestine leading up to the state of Israel is impossible to confirm.

"The official history of the Irgun does mention someone named Zamstein, but with a different forename," said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University professor who is writing a book about Jewish terrorist groups in Palestine. "He could well have had a different name in Palestine, which wouldn't have been terribly unusual.

"I gave up doing oral interviews, I only use archival sources for exactly this reason," Hoffman added. "Because it's just so difficult to verify these things."

In 1962, Mr. Zamstein moved to Chicago and got a job as a butcher.

For many years, Mr. Zamstein, who was Jewish, refused to enter a temple.

"He said, "I have so much blood on my hands, how can I go in and pray?' " Gavron recalled.

In the 1970s, Mr. Zamstein saw a rabbi, his family said, who convinced him that his actions were undertaken in a time of war and that he was blameless.

In 1987 he married Betty Luria, with whom he shared a love of ballroom dancing. The couple moved to Fort Lauderdale, then in the late 1990s to New Port Richey.

He never lost his fighting spirit, especially when it came to his granddaughter. At 70, he built her a tree house complete with electricity.

At 80, he slugged a much younger man who had knocked her down while boarding a plane in New York. Mr. Zamstein tracked the culprit down in the Tampa airport's baggage claim.

"We had to pull him off," said stepdaughter Janice Gavron. "The guy ran away," leaving his luggage behind, she added.

Betty Zamstein died in 2004. Mr. Zamstein's health had declined over the last year. He moved into East Lake Manor in Tarpon Springs, an assisted living facility. He entertained residents by bursting into Hava Nagila in a booming voice.

"He also sang Russian songs I didn't recognize," said Sylvester Remorca, 53, who owns East Lake Manor. "He spoke Spanish to the cook. We have another resident who is Russian and grew up in Egypt. They spoke both languages at the dining table, Russian and Egyptian. And the family had a friend who is Polish and they spoke Polish."

Mr. Zamstein returned to Poland only once shortly after the war, long enough to learn his family there was gone. He considered Israel his home country, but also maintained a strong bond with Russians, who helped the Allies win the war.

The family has retained the barest souvenirs of Mr. Zamstein's adventures — a passport and not much else.

"It's kind of like being in the witness protection program," Janice Gavron said. "You are all covered up."

She listens to the two-hour interview by the Florida Holocaust Museum every so often. When asked what she would miss most about him, she replied immediately with moist eyes.

"The stories."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

>>Biography

Gary Zamstein

Born: May 7, 1920.

Died: Jan. 26, 2011.

Survivors: Son Jacob and his wife Sheri; stepdaughter Janice Gavron and her husband Mel; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Gary Zamstein told stories of heroism and horror 02/09/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 9, 2011 10:09pm]
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