PALM HARBOR — Aron Zygelman was never loose with loving words.
He worked endless hours as a painting contractor to give his family a good life. But his affection stopped short, blockaded by a massive wall — his past.
"I knew there was a Holocaust," said his daughter, Lisa Kaufman. "But I didn't know the extent that he went through until later on. I started asking him questions."
Finally, everything made sense.
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Mr. Zygelman was born in Poland in 1919. By the time he was a young man, Jews were under siege.
His family was forced into a ghetto. Mr. Zygelman worked in a Nazi kitchen, preparing food for soldiers. He wasn't allowed to eat.
When one of his friends tried to take a crust of bread, Nazis beat him senseless with the butt of a gun. He had to get out. His family begged him to stay.
He removed the armband that marked him as Jewish. He left his mother, father and two sisters, age 17 and 7. His third sister ran off on her own, too.
He lied and said he wasn't Jewish. He made it to Russia.
Mr. Zygelman eventually was captured and spent the remainder of the war in a Siberian work camp. The conditions there weren't as bad, his daughter said — he got bread and water. He learned his painting trade.
When the war ended, he returned to Poland to find his family. They had been sent to Auschwitz, to a gas chamber.
"He thought they would be safe," said Kaufman, 61. "He kept saying, 'I should have taken my sister.' "
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Mr. Zygelman married another survivor, started a family and moved to Israel. After 12 years there, they came to America.
He didn't do much for fun. If his family suggested going to a restaurant, he'd make an excuse about the cost. He hung around other Holocaust survivors.
"It was so hard to get him to smile," said his daughter. "If he enjoyed himself, I think he felt guilty."
But he softened slightly over the years. He taught his son and grandsons how to be painters. He laughed with his grandchildren.
"He made sure he was kind," Kaufman said. "If we were in trouble, he always helped us. As I got older and I would say, 'Dad, I love you,' he would say, 'I love you, too.' "
While living in a Palm Harbor assisted living facility, he began thinking about his past. He wasn't terribly ill, his daughter said. Just slowing down. On June 20, he died in his sleep. He was 89.
Recently, he had started calling out for his sisters.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.