The lessons of the Holocaust figure prominently in FSWC’s education programs that promote the principles of inclusion, social justice and democratic values. In addition to the important historical facts behind Nazi Germany’s murder of six million Jews, we bring this dark chapter to life through the Holocaust survivor testimonies of those who, against all odds, survived the genocide.
Since the inception of FSWC, Holocaust survivors have discussed the horrors of concentration camps at our educational workshops and events. We are deeply grateful for their participation and for their strength in sharing their difficult personal journeys with young people, with the hope it will help prevent such a horrific tragedy in the future.
We are honoured to introduce you to some of the incredible men and women who have given so much of their time to contribute greatly to Holocaust education in Canada. The short summaries below and accompanying videos offer only a brief glimpse into the lived experience of antisemitism and trauma each of these people endured in their younger years duirng Holocaust.
Sadly, with the number of survivors constantly diminishing, the day is fast approaching when there won’t be anyone left who can give first-hand testimony of the excruciating reality Jews faced under the Nazis. All the more reason it is imperative to forever preserve and revisit these stories as part of the legacy of survivors.
“At Auschwitz, 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.”
Max first came face-to-face with the evil of the Holocaust as a young boy. In 1944, at the age of 15, while celebrating the Passover holiday with his family in their home in Moldava in the former Czechoslovakia, Nazi soldiers kicked open the front door and seized their most cherished possessions. Gendarmes forcibly removed Max and his family from their home, deporting them to the notorious Auschwitz death camp. At 15, he survived the selection process and became a slave labourer. In addition to the horrific conditions at Auschwitz, where his mother and siblings were sent to the gas chambers, Max also overcame a horrific beating and a forced “death march” near the end of the war. Of his entire large family, only Max and two cousins survived the Holocaust.
Max last saw his father on July 9,1944, with only a short time in which to say goodbye. His father asked him — if he survived — to tell the world what had happened at Auschwitz. After his liberation, and facing new difficulties in Communist Czechoslovakia, in 1949, he immigrated to Canada where he has dedicated the past several decades to educating people about the Holocaust. As an active participant in the March of the Living and Compassion to Action educational programs, he’s made multiple journeys back to Auschwitz with thousands of students and adults alike. In 2016 Max released his memoir, “by Chance Alone’ which was the 2019 Canada reads winner
“When you had somebody, a sister, cousin, you had someone to live for… So, the three of us were in the camp and now, for sure, we had to live for each other.”
Gerda’s story is one of perseverance and the love of her family which kept them alive throughout the horrors of the death camps. Born in Upper Silesia, Poland in 1925, She was only 14 when the Nazis took her father away in October 1939. The next year, Gerda, her mother, and sister were deported to the Jaworzno Ghetto. In 1942, she was sent to the Ober-Altstadt concentration camp, where her sister was interned. Her mother joined them in 1943. Gerda remembers their bravery in the face of sadistic Nazi guards, explaining, “When you had somebody, you had someone to live for.”
Conditions in the 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, Gerda regained her freedom but had lost her childhood. Of her extended family of 172 people, only Gerda, her mother and sister survived the Holocaust.
After spending four years in a refugee camp and then immigrating to Israel, Gerda moved in 1953 to Canada, what she calls “the best country in the world.” In 1962, she became one of the first survivors in Canada to share her personal experiences in the concentration camp at local schools and, eventually, across the country.
“He looked at me, I swear to you, for two seconds and indicated, ‘that way.’ Just with his finger. He never said a word.”
Born in Subotica, Serbia in 1930, Bill spent his childhood surrounded by family and friends of all backgrounds in rural Serbia. In 1942, during Passover, his mother sewed a yellow star onto his jacket, for which he was taunted and ridiculed at school. Two years later, his family received “relocation orders.” 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, revealing their destination – Auschwitz.
Bill and his father were sent to the right for work while his mother, young sister and other relatives were marched to the left. This was the last time Bill saw them. He and his father were later transferred to Dachau in Germany and worked as slave labourers, building 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, his father succumbed to typhoid fever nine days before liberation in 1945. For 20 years, from 1998 until his death in 2018, Bill visited schools and addressed conferences, recounting his story to Canadians of all ages, during which his main message was one of hope and personal responsibility.
“I was 16 or 17 when we heard what was going on in Germany. We read the newspapers, we saw right away the Romanian government was not against Germany and 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.”
Joseph (Joe) vividly remembers the fragile existence and fear his family experienced during the Holocaust. Born into a musical family in Suceava, Romania in 1922, he faced little antisemitism in his early childhood. Joe enjoyed a happy youth playing the violin and was a proud member of his school’s orchestra. In 1933, when he was 11, the Nazis took power in Germany. After Romania allied with the Nazis in 1940, Joe was shocked to see the indifference of his neighbours as increasingly harsh antisemitic laws took effect. He knew his musical aspirations were now impossible. In 1941, Suceava’s small Jewish community was ordered to leave their homes with whatever possessions they could carry and report to the train station. There, around 100 people were packed into each cattle car and the doors locked.
After being deported to Transnistria, in southwest Ukraine, Joe, his parents and his brother survived a death march from Moghilev to the town of Murafa, where they had to live in harsh conditions for more than two years before being liberated in 1944. They returned to Suceava and in 1946, Joe married Lala. They soon fled Communist Romania for Italy, where they spent two and a half years in a displaced persons (DP) camp. In 1949, they immigrated to Canada and started a manufacturing company in Winnipeg then Calgary. For many years, Joe was active in sharing his story with Canadians as part of Holocaust education programs.
“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.”
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.
All these years later, Faigie clearly remembers the sacrifices her parents made during the Holocaust to save their family after the Nazis confined Jews to a ghetto in Kovno, Lithuania. Born in Kovno in 1934, she recalls her mother covering up the yellow star that Nazis forced Jews to wear (to set them apart and make for easier control) so she could sneak out of the ghetto to exchange possessions for desperately needed food.
When the ghetto was liquidated in July 1944, Faigie and her parents were taken by cattle car to the Stuttof concentration camp. From there, her father was sent to the Dachau concentration camp where he was shot just days before liberation. At Stuttof, Faigie dug trenches while her mother worked as a nurse before they were sent to a series of forced labour camps. In January 1945, while on a death march in Poland, they were liberated by Soviet troops. In 1948, after living in a displaced persons (DP) camp in Austria, Faigie and her mother immigrated to Canada, eventually settling in Toronto. She worked in early childhood education for many years and since 1989 has been actively involved in Holocaust education. To this day, Faigie shares with audiences her belief in the need for people to be kind to each other. “If there’s hatred in your heart, there’s no room for love.”.
“On October 15, 1944, my mother, grandmother and I were at our home in Bucharest. By that time, Hungarian Jews knew what was going on around them. We knew what our fate would be. On that day, we were taken out of our home at gunpoint, with no idea of where we were going.”
Born in 1942 in Rechnitz, Austria, Andy is a child survivor of the Holocaust. He was only two years old when he, his mother and grandmother were forced out of their home in Hungary and into a Jewish ghetto in Bucharest. By then, his father and grandfather had already been sent to a forced labour camp. Andy was liberated from the Budapest ghetto on January 18, 1945 by the Soviet Red Army, a few months before learning his father had been murdered by the Nazis. They immigrated to Canada shortly thereafter.
Andy attributes his survival of the horrors of the Holocaust to the courage, resilience and sacrifice of his mother and grandmother, along with good fortune and grit. He believes that “every Holocaust survivor’s story is a love story; the love of life, family and freedom.” Since 1998, he’s been involved in Holocaust education. In 2001, he wrote The Son of an Extraordinary Woman, a sequel to his mother’s 1990 book, An Ordinary Woman in Extraordinary Times. In 2016, the two books were combined and re-released as Stronger Together. In comparing the hatred and destruction of the Holocaust with the resurgence of hatred today, he says the only way forward is through education, understanding and tolerance.
“By 1944, I was all alone. By that time, everybody was dead. It was an ongoing battle from day to day, who will live and who will stay.”
Vera was born in 1926 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where her family had lived for many generations. Her father held a high position in the Finance Ministry and the family led a comfortable middle-class life. Much assimilated, and having never experienced any antisemitism, they faced a far different reality in 1939 after the Nazis invaded the country and imposed strict measures against Jews. Eventually, the Nazis sent Vera and her family, and most other Czech Jews, to death camps in eastern Europe. In 1942, Vera and her parents and sister ended up in the Theresienstadt concentration camp where by 1944 she was the only one of her family still alive.
Vera met her future husband in Theresienstadt. After the war, they settled in Prague, before moving to Israel in 1949. They immigrated to Canada in 1961, settling in Toronto where Vera worked as medical technologist. Following retirement, she wrote her memoirs and several books about the Holocaust, while also speaking to schools about her experiences. In recognition of her contributions to literature, Vera was awarded two Honorary Doctorates and honoured with the Order of Canada in 2020.
Grateful to Canada for giving her a new lease on life, Vera’s message to younger generations is to remember that freedom is not a gift, and that it’s important to stand up to violence and bullying.
“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.”
As a child survivor who was only three years old when WWII ended, Gershon has few memories from the Holocaust. He was born in Amsterdam in 1942 after his parents had moved to Holland to escape Nazi Germany. He never knew his mother and father because when he was a baby, they gave him to a Christian family to keep him safe. When Gershon was two, someone reported to Dutch police that his foster parents were hiding a Jewish baby, which resulted in him being sent to the Westerbork transit camp. He was then transferred to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in September 1944 followed later by Theresienstadt which was liberated in May 1945. He returned to Holland and after the war learned his parents had been murdered at the Sobibor death camp in 1943.
When Gershon was 18, he decided to leave Holland, in part for its failure to protect his parents, and moved to Israel where he served in the army as a paratrooper. He later married and moved to Canada, completing a BA and MA before becoming a social worker helping homeless youth. In his presentations to students about the Holocaust, he tells them, “Don’t be a good person who does nothing; when you see something bad, stand up for what’s right!" Gershon, who has often expressed his gratitude for living in a free country, urges young people not to be bystanders to hatred or to take life for granted.
FSWC is deeply grateful for the participation of the many Holocaust survivors who discuss their experiences at our educational workshops and events. Their personal testimonies are critical to a compassionate understanding of this 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 testimonies with you.