A Holocaust Survivor's Journey into His Family's Past

June 7, 2023

Community Update

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In early 2023, a history club at a school in Dusseldorf, Germany uncovered findings about the family of Holocaust survivor Gershon Willinger. A few months later, FSWC Tour for Humanity Director Daniella Lurion travelled to the school to help the students share the revelations with Gershon, who now lives in Toronto. What they presented left him deeply moved.

History club at a school in Dusseldorf, Germany uncovered findings about the family of Gershon Willinger, who spoke with students over video.

A Reflection by Daniella Lurion, FSWC's Tour for Humanity Director

An unsolicited email sent from 3,000 km away arrived in my inbox in January of this year. It was from a teacher, writing on behalf of a history club at a high school in Dusseldorf, Germany.

It would give way to many subsequent emails, leading to an incredible journey to Germany, back into the past.

The history club, known in German as the “Stolpersteine AG,” is an after-school, volunteer club where students have taken it upon themselves to research the fate of the 41 Jewish students who attended the school between 1900 and 1945.  As the original school building sustained only minor damage during the Second World War, it is still home to a vast archive of books and records in the basement.

Through their research, the students uncovered that seven of the 41 students perished in the Holocaust. One of them was Guido Willinger, who attended the school in 1915 and 1916, preceded by his brothers Kurt and Izmar in 1912 and 1913.

After attending the school, Guido later married Edith Helene Rothchild, and they would go on to have two children - a daughter, Rita, and a son, Gershon, who was born in 1942, less than a year before both parents were deported and murdered at the Sobibor extermination camp.

Gershon survived the war and today lives in the Toronto area with his family and is an active Holocaust survivor speaker for FSWC. I have had the pleasure of knowing Gershon for more than eight years, and have listened to him share his poignant testimony with students and adults across Canada.

When I first spoke with Gershon about the students’ findings, he was speechless. As Gershon, like many other survivors, never had a connection to his birth parents or any extended family, even a glimpse into his family’s story is a beacon of light in the darkness. A chance email from Germany forged a connection no one thought possible. Suddenly, Gershon’s father and two uncles had student ID cards, teacher grades and a home address and family business.

In March, I was fortunate to spend the entire day at the school. We began with a talk to Grade 11 students in an advanced history class. Over the course of 90 minutes, I recounted the story of Simon Wiesenthal and gave background on FSWC. Students were particularly interested in the idea of “Nazi hunting” and the concept of justice, even so many decades later.

FSWC's Daniella Lurion speaking to Grade 11 students in Dusseldorf, Germany.

We had a very interesting discussion on coming to terms with a dark past, prompting one student to question if it was possible to be “patriotic” in Germany today. Students wanted to know what Holocaust survivors today think about Germany and its people. I explained to the class that every survivor I have spoken with is quick to state that Germany today is not the same as it was during the Holocaust, and that, unlike some other European countries, it has come a long way in acknowledging its past.

Over the lunch hour, organizing teacher Markus Bussmann kindly showed me the various places the Willinger family lived and worked in Dusseldorf. Their original house still stands, as does the building where Gershon’s grandmother, Rosa Willinger, once owned her own womenswear store. State records from 1913 indicate she was the sole owner, and that her husband, Sammy, worked as a salesperson.

Front door of the house where Gershon Willinger's family lived prior to the Second World War.

Building where Gershon Willinger's grandmother owned her womenswear store.

I spent the afternoon speaking with a Grade 9 history class, where the conversation turned to questions about how the Nazis could identify and target Jewish people. Many students had difficulties grasping why Jewish people were singled out, especially given how assimilated they were. The comment that came up repeatedly was, “they were just regular German people.”

FSWC's Daniella Lurion speaking to Grade 9 students in Dusseldorf, Germany.

That day, the history club gathered at 3:15 p.m. for a special meeting. We arranged a video call with Gershon back in Toronto. Taking turns, students approached the screen to share their findings with Gershon. He was extremely touched. Many survivors do not have a complete family history, so any new information is a precious gift.

Students in the history club shared their findings with Gershon Willinger and his wife, Jane.

Discovered ID cards of Gershon Willinger's father and uncles at the school in Germany.

For nearly two hours, Gershon and his wife, Jane, interacted with the group of 15 students and four teachers. Conversing in both English and German, topics ranged from the Willinger family history to the student archive, to questions about Gershon today. He was able to share parts of his Holocaust testimony with the club and show them photos of his life today, including his children and grandchildren.

The history club has existed at the school for more than 20 years; to date, Gershon is only the second descendant of the school’s Jewish students from the early decades of the 20th century that students have been able to make contact with.