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New U.S. Citizen Ken Dancyger: Born a Survivor

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“In my life, this was the first time I was making an active choice (of where to live),” Ken Dancyger said of his and his wife’s decision to be in the United States. Dancyger is one of the United States’ newest citizens. His life story also symbolizes American hopefulness.

Born in Bergen-Belsen

In 1942 during World War II, Jews were sent from the ghettos in Poland to either death or labor camps. Dancyger’s parents were each the youngest in their families and were sent to work at an ammunitions plant in Skarżysko-Kamienna, Poland. That’s where they met.

Dancyger’s father, Jack, volunteered to work in a German steam bath as a barber despite having no experience. That earned him extra food rations which he shared with Dancyger’s mother, Mania. People expected to die, so companionship was important and a year later a rabbi in the labor camp married them. “People were pairing off all the time for human connection and comfort,” Dancyger said.

A year later Dancyger’s parents were moved to another labor camp in Poland called Częstochowa. In the camps, seven of ten people died. “Percentages were not on their side,” Dancyger said. “I think my dad taking that risk to suggest he was a barber was why they survived.”

Less than six months later, Dancyger’s parents were transported to separate concentration camps in Germany, his father to Buchenwald and his mother to the Bergen-Belsen camp located 40 miles north of Hanover. Dancyger was born there on March 8, 1945. The camp was overcrowded with rampant disease, including typhus. About 18,500 people died there in that month alone, including Anne Frank.

Surviving the Impossible

“My mother was probably getting food from the other prisoners in her barracks. I think the German guards were looking the other way because pregnancies and births were not tolerated in the concentration camps. The child was killed and often the mother as well. I think because of the chaos and the coming of the end of the war, and a little bit of luck, my mother and I both survived.”

On April 15, 1945, when Dancyger was five weeks old, the camp was liberated by the British. In the coming months, 10,000 more people died because the disease was uncontrollable. The survivors were moved to German military barracks a mile away and the camp was burned down, as a way to deal with the disease. Dancyger and his mother lived in the barracks for the following three years, where his father also reunited with them.

Dancyger credits his survival to his mother’s youth and strength, and nurses, doctors and others in the camp protecting them. “We were lucky,” he also said.

Finding a New Home

After the war, many Polish Jews tried returning to Poland and were killed because the Poles were afraid Jews would try to reclaim their property, so Dancyger’s father didn’t consider that an option. In 1948 countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia began accepting Jewish refugees. Dancyger and his parents moved to Toronto, Canada, to live with his mother’s uncle, who had left Poland in the 1920s. He was her only surviving relative.

Dancyger grew up in Canada fascinated with the United States. In grade school during his breaks, he would go to the library to read everything he could on American film, culture, history and politics. During his first year at university he had a blind date with a high school senior, Ida Flint. She had just come back from a visit to a relative in New York City. Dancyger had no experience with the United States, but because he could discuss American life, especially the arts and culture “I got the girl,” Dancyger said. He and Ida would later marry.

Dancyger attended Boston University for a graduate degree in film from 1968-1971. Even though he wasn’t an American, he always advocated for American filmmakers and culture. “There was a hopefulness and an energy in American films that I always found deeply, deeply appealing and meaningful. The Holocaust is not an experience that generates hope, but my dad was always hopeful. That’s why he stepped forward and said, ‘I volunteer to be a barber.’ There was something about being entrepreneurial and hopeful that I identified with America.”

Dancyger and his wife moved back to Canada to start their careers and a family. Then in 1991, Dancyger was offered to be Head of Studies and later Chair of the undergraduate film department at New York University, so he and his wife moved to New York. Their two  daughters, Erica and Emily also moved to New York in 2000 and 2001, respectively, and both married Americans in 2003 and lived within three miles of their parents.

Things were falling together in the United States. “It then made a great deal of sense for us to be here,” Dancyger said.

An Application Leads to the Past

Dancyger and his wife applied for Green Cards in 2006, but he didn’t have birth documentation. In fact, Dancyger’s parents hadn’t told him much of his childhood. His wife jumped on the Internet and connected with people at the Bergen-Belsen museum and archive. They generated a survivors list from September 1945 which included Dancyger’s mother and father. That was the first time he'd ever seen that list, and it was only the start. He now felt an obligation to explore the past, present and future. “There was always the desire to reach out and try to find relatives who we thought were dead,” he said.

With the Internet and data becoming more available, he began finding more. Late in 2012 when the Dancygers already had their Green Cards and were involved with the citizenship process, they met with officials from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum who led them to more discoveries. Even though the Germans destroyed records for fear of incrimination, they found an affidavit written in German and signed by a woman who was present at Dancyger’s birth.

A Duty to the Future

When Dancyger was invited to attend a memorial service at Bergen-Belsen, he also discovered an exit visa for him and his parents when they had left for Canada in 1948.

Dancyger said, "One of the things I've learned in my search is that all kinds of people under threat saw it as part of their duty to the future to keep some records. And all this stuff coming out is a validation and tribute to the people who died, and also to the future. Survivors did these things because it meant something to them."

On Citizenship Day, on September 17, 2013, Ken and Ida Dancyger became United States citizens at the New York Public Library.

Ken Dancyger addresses fellow naturalization candidates and members of the audience at the New York Public Library
Ken Dancyger addresses fellow naturalization candidates and members of the audience at the New York Public Library

He had the honor to deliver the keynote speech. The audience connected with the story of his birth, coming to America, love for libraries, and finding ways to deal with trauma.

Ken Dancyger is the author of seven books about storytelling, directing and film including; “Alternative Scriptwriting” and “The Director’s Idea” and “Global Scriptwriting” and “The Technique of Film and Video Editing”   He is also considering making a film of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, which will take place in 2015. It would be about the survivors and their children.

The Green Card and citizenship processes deepened his relation to Bergen-Belsen. And now, after choosing to become American citizens, he and his wife feel a sense of belonging.