Remember those who survived unspeakable horror
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November is Holocaust Education month. It’s a time to remember how the Nazis tried to exterminate all the Jews in Europe, and pledge to never let something like that happen again.
It’s also time to remember those who survived that unspeakable horror. Over the past number of years, I’ve been privileged to interview some of those Holocaust survivors for this newspaper. Those were unforgettable experiences.
One of the people I interviewed was Angela Orosz-Richt of Montreal, the youngest Canadian survivor of Auschwitz.
Her mother was three months pregnant in May 1944 when she and her husband were deported by the Nazis from Hungary to Auschwitz. Her mother kept her pregnancy a secret from everyone, Orosz-Richt told me, adding her mother was experimented on by the infamous Auschwitz death doctor, Josef Mengele.
Her father died in the camp, but baby and mother survived. They were liberated on Jan. 27, 1945, by the advancing Russian army. In 1973, Orosz-Richt immigrated to Canada from Hungary. For decades she lived a private, busy life, saying nothing about that experience.
That changed in 2015, when she returned to Auschwitz on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp. “I woke up,” she said of the visit. “I realized God spared me for a reason. It opened my eyes to the need for me to tell my story.”
She went on to tell her story across Canada, and in schools in Montreal where she lived.
“As the years go by, I see how important the work of education is,” she said, noting she still meets people who don’t know about the Holocaust. “We need to tell people the Holocaust is true, it happened.”
Another survivor I had the privilege to interview was Stefan Carter. He was just 14 when he last saw his mother alive. It was 1942, and the two of them were ordered by the Nazis to leave their workplace and assemble at the Umschlagplatz, or collection point, in the Warsaw Ghetto.
With a nod of his head, an SS soldier sent Stefan — who was tall for his age — back to the factory. “They thought I would be good for labour,” he said.
His mother was sent to a train at a nearby railway siding and, ultimately, to her death at the Treblinka concentration camp.
“She was sick,” said Carter. “She may have died on the train on the way, or in the camp. I don’t know.”
For Carter, those memories from long ago are still fresh in his mind, as is his escape from the Ghetto. “It was a miracle,” he said of how relatives managed to smuggle him out and arranged for him to be hidden in the homes of Polish Christians.
In 1948, at the age of 20, Carter emigrated to Canada, settling in Winnipeg where he studied medicine and became a renowned heart specialist.
In his retirement, Carter spent time telling people about his experience and warned about the dangers of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial and distortion.
“We have to constantly keep talking about it,” he said. “The stories of survivors have to be told over and over again.”
I also spoke to Susan Garfield, also of Winnipeg. As a young girl in Hungary, she kept a diary about her experience of hiding from the Nazis to avoid deportation and death.
“The reason I am writing this diary is that, many years from now when my smooth face will be a map of wrinkles, I may show it to my children and grandchildren,” she wrote when she began it. “I want to give account of the war-filled years, the strife, the persecution, and many more heart-rending things.”
Garfield was just nine when her father was taken to a slave labour camp where he died. She started the diary when she was 11, in 1944, when her mother was also taken to a camp where she also died.
Alone, Garfield went into hiding, using false documents and constantly moving from place-to-place to avoid being captured by the Nazis. She lived that way until 1945, when the Russians arrived.
Looking back, Garfield said simply: “I somehow managed.” After the war, she was miraculously reunited with her diary. In 1947, she began writing in it again, catching up on her life during the war and her decision to immigrate to Canada.
For her, the diary is a way to “counteract those who say it didn’t happen. I am here to say it did. I saw it.” She also wants to “speak up for those who died, and for those who are still suffering because of their experiences during the war.”
Listening to the stories, I was always in awe. And not a little intimidated; who was I, a non-Jewish person who grew up in safety and privilege in Canada — someone who had never known racism or been attacked because of my religion — to ask them questions about such a terrible time? It didn’t feel right.
But they always put me at ease, letting me know they wanted to share their stories. They were glad for the opportunity to let more people know about what they had experienced.
I’m glad I got a chance to talk to them. Soon there will be no survivors to interview. Each year the number of those who lived through the Holocaust gets smaller. That’s why, if you get a chance, go and hear a survivor in person — before it’s too late. I can promise you will be moved by the experience. You might even be changed. I know I have been.
For a list of Holocaust Education Month events in Winnipeg, go to the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada website at www.jhcwc.org/programs/
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
Updated on Saturday, November 5, 2022 2:14 PM CDT: Adds link to Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada website
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