The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jewish men, women and children in Europe. In 1933, the National Socialist (Nazi) party, led by Adolf Hitler in Germany, rose to power. The Nazis promoted hateful, antisemitic beliefs that included the idea that Jewish people were racially inferior and the root of all of Germany’s economic and social problems. Once in power, the Nazis immediately began to restrict Jewish citizenship, rights and freedoms. These restrictions led to violent attacks, persecution and, eventually, to the establishment of gas chambers and death camps (also called concentration camps). For the Nazis, this was the “Final Solution” to the Jewish question. The purpose of the “Final Solution” was to rid Europe of every last Jew.
The Nazis also targeted other groups they deemed inferior, including Roma people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, some Slavic peoples (including Poles and Russians), Communists, Socialists and anyone with differing political or ideological agendas. However, the Jewish people were the only ones targeted for complete annihilation.
The end of the Second World War also brought an end to Nazi rule in Europe. Unfortunately, the end of the war did not end the hatred and persecution of Jewish people. While the establishment of the modern State of Israel provided an opportunity for the safe return of the Jewish people to their ancestral home land, racism and antisemitism (Jewish hatred) remains an increasing concern despite the lessons learned in the Holocaust. That is why every generation must be educated about the past. We must remember the horrors of the Holocaust, and the hatred that gave birth to such incomprehensible destruction and death, so we can learn from our history and avoid repeating the same mistakes. We must listen to the survivors of this genocide and share their stories. Above all, we must never forget the horrors they experienced, if we hope to prevent future generations from suffering a similar fate.
Max was brought face to face with the absolute evil of the Nazi Holocaust as a teenager. While celebrating the Jewish Passover holiday with his family in Moldava in the former Czechoslovakia in 1929, Max remembers how soldiers kicked down his front door and forced them to hand over their most cherished possessions. Eventually, Max and his family were placed on cattle cars and deported to a death camp called Auschwitz, where he lost most of his family, including his mother and siblings, when they were sent to the gas chambers. When Max asked where his family went, the Nazi officers told him they had “gone to the chimney.” He never had a chance to say goodbye. Max recounts a story of tragedy and loss, but also of courage as he fought for his life for over a year in the most horrific conditions in multiple camps and, finally, on a death march that lasted for days.
After living in Canada for many years, Max began to share his story to educate new generations about the lessons of the Holocaust, and on the importance of standing up for freedom every day.
“There was an officer who was selecting people….All I remember is my mother, my grandparents, two little brothers, my mother holding the baby, and my aunt, being marched up to the left. I never saw them again.”
Gerda’s story is one of perseverance and the love of her family which kept them alive throughout the horrors of the death camps. Although her father was taken away in 1939, Gerda, her mother and sister ended up in the Oberaltstadt concentration camp in Sudetenland together. Gerda remembers their bravery prevailing over fear of the Nazi guards, explaining, “When you had somebody, you had someone to live for.” However, the conditions in the labour camp were horrific and included regular beatings from officers. Gerda eventually attempted to jump out of a window to her death, but was saved by another prisoner at the last second. When the camp was liberated in 1944 she regained her freedom but had lost her childhood. After spending four years in a refugee camp and later immigrating to Israel, today Gerda is proud to live in Canada – “the best country in the world.”
“When you had somebody, a sister, cousin,you had someone to live for… So the three of uswere in the camp and now, for sure, we had tolive for each other.”
Bill spent his childhood surrounded by family and friends of all backgrounds in rural Serbia. He remembers the German army and their Hungarian collaborators marching into town and life gradually beginning to change. During Passover in 1942 his mother sewed a yellow star onto his jacket, for which he was taunted and ridiculed at school the following week. It was not long before the family received “relocation orders.” Upon arrival at the local train station, the family was loaded into a boxcar with hundreds of other people, where they spent two days and two nights in horrible conditions without food or water. At the end of the second day the train finally came to a halt and revealed their destination – Auschwitz. Bill and his father were selected for work while his mother and eight year old sister were marched away, without so much as a moment for goodbye. The men went to work constructing a large underground factory in inhumane conditions. Bill credits his survival solely to his father, who took care of him and often gave him an extra ration of food. Tragically Bill’s father succumbed to typhoid fever 9 days before liberation. Bill has been sharing his testimony with Canadian groups of all ages since 1998, and participating on March of the Living since 2006. The message he conveys is one of hope and personal responsibility.
“He looked at me, I swear to you, for two seconds He looked at me and he said “that way.” Just with his finger. He never said a word”
Joseph vividly remembers the fragile existence and fear his family experienced during the Holocaust. Born in Suceava, Romania in 1922, Joseph remembers very little antisemitism from his early childhood. Born into a musical family, he spent happy years playing the violin and was a proud member of his school’s orchestra. Joseph was 11 years old when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. By the time Romania came under German rule, Joseph was shocked to see the indifference of Romanian neighbours as increasingly harsh antisemitic laws were passed under Nazi influence. Joseph knew that his musical aspirations were now impossible. In 1941, the small Jewish community of Suceava was ordered to leave their homes with whatever possessions they could carry and report to the train station. At the station, 80 to 100 people were packed into each cattle car and the doors locked. The Leinburd family were terrified of what they might find at their destination.
“I was 16/17 when we heard what was going on in Germany. We saw the newspapers...we saw right away that the Romanian government was not against Germany, against what was happening [to the Jews]. They were kind of saying, ‘OK. Let it be so.’ Then started the bad stories . . . Jews were afraid to go in the streets.”
Faigie, an only child, clearly remembers the sacrifices her parents made to save their family during the Holocaust. She recalls her mother covering up the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear as a badge of identification, to sneak out of the ghetto and exchange their possessions for food. As a child of the Holocaust, Faigie’s life was miraculously saved twice. The first was on a day when she was taken from the labour camp where she was held with her parents to work at a different site with her mother. When she returned to the camp at night, she discovered all the children and elderly had been taken to Auschwitz. The second time was when she was very sick and a nurse saved her life by hiding her from the guards. Although Faigie’s father was taken to Dachau concentration camp and killed, she says she was lucky to have her mother with her, as there were so many orphans in the death camps. To this day, Faigie speaks to a wide audience to share her belief in the need for people to be kind to each other. “If there is hatred in your heart, there is no room for love.”
What happened that day? When I was at work with all the men and my mother? Trucks came and collected all the children and all the old people…. Later on we found out, the parents found out, that they were taken all to ‘Auschwitz’.”
Andy’s earliest memory of the Holocaust was living in a two bedroom apartment in a Budapest ghetto in the fall of 1944 with 27 other people. He recalls his mother and best friend huddling together, as they both placed their young children between them, and the feeling of how cold his friend’s feet were when they touched him. Even to this day, Andy finds it difficult to understand how anyone could hate him or declare that his life was not worth living, solely because he was a Jew. He credits his survival to his mother and grandmother and the strong relationship between his parents, along with their love of life. The ghetto was liberated in January 1945 and it was only months later that Andy found out that his father had been murdered by Nazis. In comparing the hatred and destruction of the Holocaust and the resurgence of hatred today, he believes the only way to eliminate hate is through education, understanding and tolerance.
“October 15, 1944… My mother, grandmother and I were home and by that time, the Hungarian Jews knew what was going on around them. By that time, we knew what our fate would be. We were taken out of our home at gunpoint… we had no idea where we were going.”
Vera never expected that Czechoslovakia, a country she believed was democratic and free, would deport 90% of its Jewish population to their deaths. This is the reality Vera had to confront as a teenager. In 1939, strict curfews had been imposed upon Jews in the capital city of Prague and eventually her family was herded onto a railway car along with many others Jewish citizens headed for the death camps in Eastern Europe. Vera and her family ended up in Theresienstadt concentration camp where inmates barely survived on a liquid diet of only 300 calories a day. By 1944, Vera’s sister and parents had died, leaving her to face the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust alone. Vera said the most difficult part after the war was coming to terms with what had happened. She is grateful to the Canadian government for having afforded her a new lease on life. Her message to younger generations is to remember that freedom is not a gift, and that it is important to stand up to violence and bullying.
“By 1944, I was all alone. Because by that time everybody was dead, it was an ongoing battle from day to day – who will live and who will stay.”
Gershon does not have many memories from the Holocaust. Born in Holland after his parents moved to Amsterdam to escape Nazi Germany, he never knew his mother or father; they selflessly gave him to a Christian family as a baby in 1942 to keep him safe. Gershon was eventually taken from his foster parents when the Dutch police found out they were hiding him. When he was just two years old he was sent to Westerbork (a transit camp) followed by Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt. In the summer of 1945 he was liberated by Russia – his earliest memory is of Russian soldiers giving him candy. Gershon eventually returned to Holland and found out after the war that his parents had been murdered in a Polish concentration camp called Sobibor in 1943, shortly after giving him up. Eventually, Gershon decided to leave the country that failed to protect his parents, and moved to Israel where he felt safe. In Canada Gershon worked as a Social Worker, mainly with disadvantaged youth between the ages of 0 and 21. He says he feels fortunate to live in a free country and urges young people not to be bystanders to hatred, or to take life for granted.
“My parents – I see them as resistance fighters because they selflessly gave up a baby to friends of theirs in the north of Holland where the town was all working for the resistance and I was hidden there.”
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC) is a non-profit human rights organization committed to countering racism and antisemitism and to promoting the principles of tolerance, social justice and Canadian democratic values through advocacy and education.
Grounded in the lessons of the Holocaust, FSWC is actively engaged in fostering the values of respect and acceptance, and in teaching the responsibilities of citizenship in a democratic society. The wisdom of Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal guides us in all our pursuits and achievements:
“Freedom is not a gift from heaven. One must fight for it every day.”
FSWC is deeply grateful for the participation of the many Holocaust survivors who discuss their experiences at our educational workshops and events. Their personal testimony is critical to a compassionate understanding of the most horrific chapter in human history, and to an appreciation of the profound meaning of “Never Again.”
We are pleased to have this opportunity to share their stories with you.