By all accounts, Yvonne Sytner Lutzner was a “beautiful, charming and magnetic” woman. As her daughter Jodie Garay explained, “There was something about her. People loved her.”
Garay doesn’t doubt that this quality helped her mother survive the Holocaust.
Born in 1934 in Antwerp, Belgium, she hid in plain sight under an assumed name through the Shoah and World War II. Sytner Lutzner, who was Jewish, stayed with two different non-Jewish families, even going to church every morning during her time with one of them.
After the war, while staying in an orphanage for Jewish children, Sytner Lutzner was spotted by a cousin in the Army, who put her on a refugee ship to America. Once there, “she was welcomed by her uncle, Louis Sitner, in Philadelphia” and raised by his daughter and son-in-law, Miriam Sitner Clibanoff and Louis Clibanoff, according to her family. And in 1954 she married “the boy next door,” Herman Lutzner, and raised a family with him in Havertown for the next 64 years.
“She was a positive and upbeat person,” Garay said. “She was so grateful to have family and to have created family.”
Sytner Lutzner died on Oct. 12. She was 87.
The Holocaust survivor is survived by her children Jodie Garay (Andrea Stanley) and Jeffrey Lutzner (Jessica DeGroot) and grandchildren Ella Lutzner Garay, Jocelyn DeGroot-Lutzner and Julian DeGroot-Lutzner. She is also survived by her little sister/biological cousin Lynne Selkow, the daughter of the Clibanoffs who grew up with Sytner Lutzner. The “sisters” talked every day for the rest of their lives.
“It’s just what we did,” Selkow said.
In August 1942, Sytner Lutzner’s brother had already been transported to Auschwitz, according to Garay. So her parents, Abram and Rosa Sytner, tried to save their daughter by paying a non-Jewish family to take care of her. The Sytners knew the parents, who lived north of Antwerp, because their son had gone to school with Sytner-Lutzner’s brother.
For more than a year, the young girl pretended to be Catholic and went to church every morning. The nuns and priest knew she was Jewish, kept it a secret and did not even make her take confession. Over time, Sytner Lutzner “kind of fell in love with the church,” her daughter said.
“I think she felt safe there,” Garay added.
Soon after, though, Sytner Lutzner no longer felt safe. One of the family members, Garay believes, was having an affair with a German soldier. But the underground network in Belgium helped transport Sytner Lutzner to a different family in Brussels, the Le Chats, with whom she stayed until the end of the war.
The young girl’s new guardians were “a bit older,” Garay said, with a daughter in her early 20s. And they treated Sytner Lutzner like a second daughter, giving her all the food, protection and comfort she needed.
“They loved her,” Garay said. “She loved them.”
Sytner Lutzner would have stayed with the Le Chats, but Zionist organizations were gathering Jewish children into orphanages for survivor parents to identify. Sytner Lutzner never saw her parents again, but she did run into that distant cousin in the Army, who filled out the paperwork that allowed her to emigrate.
Garay, whose mother told her everything about her Holocaust experience, is still not sure how, exactly, the cousin knew Sytner Lutzner was a member of his extended family.
“He found her,” the daughter said.
If he hadn’t, the young girl never would have met Herman Lutzner, who literally lived next door. Once they started dating when he was 26 and she 20, they became “inseparable,” according to Garay.
After they started a family, Herman Lutzner worked and she stayed home. As their daughter explained, her focus was her family.
She cooked great meals like spaghetti and chicken. She attended every sporting event that her children played in. Her unconditional love enabled them to “walk with confidence,” said Jeffrey Lutzner, who later went on to own a manufacturing company.
And once her children had children, Sytner Lutzner loved her grandkids even more unconditionally. Jeff Lutzner, his wife Jessica DeGroot and their kids Jocelyn and Julian lived in the Philadelphia area, so the kids would go over to their grandparents’ house in Havertown every Friday night growing up.
Yvonne Sytner Lutzner would cook dinner, and the four of them would play Scrabble, watch TV shows like “Reno 911!” and go for walks in a nearby park. The grandma even took care of the family dog, Meeko.
“She was a big proponent of spending quality time together,” Julian DeGroot-Lutzner said. JE