Leo Zisman's parents, a brother and a sister were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, and he narrowly escaped death himself. But, for decades, he rarely spoke out publicly about the mass murder of his fellow Jews.
Now he is doing so with a fervor. The 81-year-old Cedarhurst resident is the central figure in a new documentary film about a group of young Jews he accompanied to Poland who were learning firsthand about the horrors.
"I believe it is my mission, to go and tell . . . the young generation what took place, the atrocities, the killing that took place in the concentration camps," Zisman said.
The film, "The Lion of Judah," which premieres Friday at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan, won awards this year at the Film Festival of Colorado and the Los Angeles Movie Awards. Its director, Matt Mindell, 42, is a Woodmere resident whose nonprofit educational group, the Jewish Enrichment Center in Manhattan, helped organize the trip shown in the film.
Mindell said he heard about Zisman a few years ago and invited him to speak to a group in their 20s who were taking a course offered at the center on the Holocaust and preparing to visit Poland. Zisman agreed to speak and asked to join them.
The film chronicles their visit to concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and to a mass grave for 40,000 Jews in Warsaw. It follows them to the Warsaw Ghetto, where thousands of Jews were warehoused or killed by the German occupiers, and where some staged an armed uprising.
One traveler, Adriana Celis, 27, a special-education teacher in Queens, said the trip was "a roller-coaster ride of emotions," and that Zisman was inspiring. The group also included a Long Beach surfer and a Massapequa event planner.
Once, when it appeared he and his family were about to be sent to a concentration camp, they hid in an underground bunker they built. After they were discovered and the Nazis were deciding who in the ghetto would die, his father told him to run, and he escaped. His father and younger brother did not, and were soon killed.
Eventually, he, too, was shipped off to several concentration camps and ended up in Auschwitz, where more than 1 million people died.
After the war, Zisman made his way to Brooklyn and lived with his only surviving immediate relative, his older brother, Berel. He went on to build a successful construction business.
Mindell said he wanted to make a film that was not entirely depressing, and that he found signs of hope in the way Zisman resisted the Nazis.
One day, Zisman told a group of boys whom SS guards were sending to the gas chambers at Auschwitz to line up in rows five abreast and start singing the Jewish hymn "I Believe" as they marched forward. The guards, astonished, sent Zisman and the boys to the barracks instead of to their deaths.
"For this generation, they need to hear someone who fought" the Nazi killing machine, Mindell said. He added that Zisman's "spirit never died."
"That's how he kept himself alive," Mindell said.
Zisman said the trip brought back searing memories. One was of a Jew who seemed near death in one camp, and told Zisman, "Don't forget me. Tell the people what they have done."
After Zisman retired several years ago, he decided he had not spoken out enough. "I didn't live up to what he wanted," Zisman said.
Now he has.