Matt Csillag, a teenage golf standout from Syosset, used to hear his late grandfather, Joseph, talk about how lucky he was to have survived a Nazi concentration camp in Hungary. "He had to steal food for his family, and once he was on his deathbed and someone he knew got him back on his feet," Csillag said.
The rising senior at Syosset High School also has heard from his maternal grandfather, Oscar Cukierman, 88, about having been in a concentration camp in Poland. "He talked about having to hide under a bed and how he was one of only six of thousands to survive," the golfer said.
Csillag carried those stories with him recently when he marched into and out of the World Maccabiah Games in Israel, proudly wearing his USA team uniform, representing the country to which both grandfathers moved in search of better lives.
"I really feel like it changed me," Csillag said, having won a team silver medal in golf at the Olympic-style event that celebrates Jewish faith and heritage. "It was one of the most amazing things of my life."
It was a challenging golf experience, on the windswept Caesarea course redesigned by Pete Dye. Csillag, 17, had qualified in West Palm Beach last summer to be part of the U.S. boys squad, and was able to travel with his cousin Zach from Chappaqua and Elon College in North Carolina, who played in the men's division. Both teams finished second to the host country.
"I feel it showed me that I have to keep working hard and that I've got to get used to different conditions," Csillag said, adding that he would like to play college golf in the Ivy League next year. He shot 76 in his first round and said he didn't play as well after that.
The experience was priceless, though. "It was really cool. I played with a kid from South Africa and we're friends on Facebook now. I met kids from Great Britain, Canada and Australia. I loved hearing the accents. We talked about what they want to do, whether they want to come and study in America, the normal stuff people talk about. We didn't talk much about golf," he said.
"It also changed me spiritually," he said.
Before and between matches, his team visited the Kotel (Western Wall), the Masada, the Dead Sea and Yad Vashem, the world center for Holocaust research. "Those were life-changing things," he said.
So what that the traffic was a nightmare and the food was not always so great? "It was the best three weeks of his life," said his father, Ron.
The elder Csillag knows all the details of his father and father-in-law's stories. Words cannot quite describe what was going through his head and heart when he watched his son walk into that stadium in Jerusalem.
"It was the most exhilarating, wonderful feeling to see the comeback, the recovery, the redemption, whatever you want to call it," Ron Csillag said. "It was something, knowing that they tried to wipe you out, and now, here you are, thriving."
In one match, Csillag's older cousin caddied for him. They thought of Grandpa Csillag, and what he would have thought, watching the two of them. The teen golfer said, "We were going, 'Pop would have just been hysterical.' "
And extremely proud.
The 17th Annual William Floyd Scholarship Fund Golf Tournament will be Aug. 26 at Bellport Country Club. Email BTLib99@aol.com . . . The Life Center of Long Island Golf Outing will be Sept. 16 at The Hamlet Golf & Country Club, Commack. Call 516-647-8720.