Living Testimonies: Voices of Survivors on Holocaust Remembrance Day
On January 27, we solemnly observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day (IHRD), a day designated by the United Nations General Assembly to honor the six million Jewish victims and millions of others who perished during the Holocaust.
The significance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day transcends mere commemoration. Established with a dual purpose, it serves as both an official acknowledgment of the victims of the Nazi regime and a global platform to promote Holocaust education, aiming to prevent future acts of genocide.
The stories of those who survived wield a profound influence in the pursuit of remembrance and education. In the narratives that follow, some of Circle of Care’s Holocaust survivor clients share their wartime experiences. Their willingness to recount these stories ensures that the Holocaust remains a living memory, compelling humanity to confront the past and construct a future founded on understanding and tolerance.
All client names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Miriam was born in northeastern Poland and has fond memories of being a little girl and playing with her next-door neighbour’s two young daughters, who were around the same age as her. Miriam had two sisters, but the girls next door also felt like family. Miriam was just 13 years old when the war began and things changed. She was no longer allowed to play with her neighbours or go to school and her family was required to follow a curfew. Miriam remembers feeling confused and upset by these changes. She didn’t understand why her family was being treated as outcasts.
Her father was called to do an unknown labour job and was picked up by a wagon not long after. Miriam doesn’t know what happened to her father, but later realizes that he was likely sent to a death camp. Shortly after that, Miriam’s mother was also picked up. She told Miriam and her two sisters to go hide with her neighbours. Miriam never saw or heard from her parents again.
When the war started to get worse, their neighbour told them that they would need to leave. Miriam and her sisters connected with their cousins and went into hiding for almost five years.
One experience from this time stands out in Miriam’s memory. She remembers running through a field with her sisters and her cousins while being shot at. One of her cousins had Down Syndrome and wasn’t able to run as quickly as the others. They were being pulled along by two of her other cousins. One of Miriam’s cousins was shot and fell to the ground. Miriam remembers being told to just keep running, to leave the cousin behind, and just keep running.
“You can imagine the fear, trauma, guilt, and sadness she must have felt after experiencing this at a young age,” says Julia Szpytka, Miriam’s case manager. “But, to this day, Miriam is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and has this warmth about her that reminds me of a loving grandmother. I have worked with her for a few years now, and I am truly honoured to know her.”
Esther was born in a small town in Hungary, close to Budapest. She was the youngest of three daughters and she had a very happy childhood before the war started.
Esther was 10 years old when the war first broke out. She was very scared when Nazi soldiers entered her city and rounded up the Jewish people. The Jews lost their business and stores. Esther and her family were placed in a ghetto, a segregated location away from the rest of the city. She remembers having to wear a yellow star all the time. Food was scarce, and the ghetto was extremely crowded.
At some point during the war, Esther, her mother, and her two sisters were herded into cattle cars and transported to Auschwitz. She didn’t know what was happening. The days blended together but Esther thinks the trip lasted around 10 days. There was little water and no food or washroom facilities. Many in the car died during this time. Every few days, the guards would open the doors and dump the dead bodies onto the ground before moving on.
Eventually they arrived at Auschwitz. As soon as they left their cattle car, Esther was separated from her mother. She later asked someone in her barrack where her mother went. They pointed to a chimney with thick black smoke billowing out of it and said ‘that’s where your mother went.’
During her time in Auschwitz, she and the other children were woken up at 3am every day and were forced to stand outside in the winter cold for hours. If anyone brought a blanket or anything to keep them warm, they were shot.
A few times Josef Mengele, an infamous physician who conducted inhumane experiments, performed a selection from amongst the children. One day, Esther was selected because she was very little and skinny. She was taken to the barracks across the road, but when no one was looking she ran back to the barrack where her sisters were. That night, all the other children that Mengele had selected were taken to the gas chambers and killed.
Over the next few years, Esther and her sisters were transported to Dachau and then Bergen-Belsen. In April 1945, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British army. Unfortunately, her oldest sister passed away from typhus not long after liberation due to the poor conditions they had endured in the camps.
Esther immigrated to Canada in 1959, got married, and has two children and four grandchildren.
“Esther has told me that the experiences she went through is something she can never get over, and it’s in her mind every day. However, despite her painful history, Esther was able to continue on and build a life for herself,” says Shira Hershenfeld, Esther’s case manager. “Her story is a testament to her resilience, strength, and perseverance.”
Irene was born in Romania.
During the beginning of the war, when Irene was just seven years old, the Nazis took her father away to conduct some pharmaceutical work. He was sent home injured and died soon after as a result of his experiences.
Her mother was taken from Irene when she was young, and passed away when Irene was only 15. After this, her grandparents took her in. They ended up placing Irene in a Catholic school to hide her from the Nazis, and this proved to be successful until the war ended. After the war, Irene reunited with her grandparents, but their reunion did not last long, as both her grandparents passed away soon due to old age.
When Irene was 18, she met her husband. Together, they moved to the United States, where she worked as a medical illustrator. This career was very fulfilling for her.
Irene says her pride and joy is her family. She and her husband had one daughter. Their daughter was very ambitious and hard-working, and was accepted to Harvard on a full scholarship. Irene has three granddaughters as well.
“I’ve been working with Irene for four years now,” says Kyla Lipsman, Irene’s case manager. “She is truly an inspiration and a testament to resilience after a very traumatic childhood.”
Uri lived in Ukraine with his parents and his younger brother. When the war first started, Uri was 11 years old. While some Jewish people fled Ukraine, Uri’s family was not one of them, as his parents did not know where to go with two children. Troops moved through his town, and afterward, the bombing began. Uri’s father disappeared during this time and was never heard from again.
Uri, his mother, and brother hid in empty houses and observed the Nazis through the holes in the walls. He vividly remembers the swastika-wearing officers on motorcycles searching their town for Jews. While the Nazis were near, Uri and his family wouldn’t breathe to make sure they went unnoticed. While most of these officers followed Nazi protocol and rounded up the Jews, Uri observed that some of the officers would let some of those that were captured go free.
Many non-Jewish Ukrainians risked their lives to help Jews escape during this time. Those trying to escape would follow the train tracks to avoid getting lost. Uri’s family also tried to escape, but they were caught and taken to the ghetto. He remembers large fences with barbed wire at the top, and witnessed many deaths of people trying to escape.
The conditions in the ghetto were extremely poor. The people living in the ghetto were often beaten by guards, humiliated and starved. Typus and other diseases ran rampant. Many people died, but the Jewish people had no strength to bury anyone, and the officers did not care. Young men and women were taken from the ghetto to perform hard labour. Uri remembers counting 239 people living in the ghetto, but in the end, less than 40 people survived. He says that it’s a miracle that he himself survived.
One day, Uri was so hungry that he risked death to dig up potatoes from the garden. Unfortunately, he was caught and violently beaten up, then was put into a designated barrack to be killed the next day. A Ukrainian civilian noticed him there, came back at night and broke the lock, setting him free.
One day, Nazis came to the ghetto and took people to Pecioara (Pechora), the death camp in Romania. Uri was sent to work in the kitchens with a few other boys. One night, an SS officer told Uri to come with him. SS, short for Schutzstaffel, or Protection Squads, were the elite Nazi forces that were tasked with leading the “Final Solution,” the murder of Europe Jews. Uri thought the officer was going to kill him. The SS officer took to him to a spot where there was a hole in the fence, and told Uri to go. To this day, Uri doesn’t know why that officer helped him escape.
Uri was weak and unable to run far. He was terrified that he would be caught in the morning. Uri managed to find a home located in the woods and asked the home owners if they can spare him some food and clothing. The kind Ukrainian family helped him, and he went on the run, moving around to try to see if he could locate any family or relatives of his. He stayed in hiding for the rest of the war, always surrounded by death and fear. He recalls that as the Nazis were retreating towards the end of the war, the local river was red from all the bloodshed.
The area was liberated by Russian troops at the end of the war. Uri went on to complete his studies at university and become a professor at the University of Kiev. He immigrated to Canada in 2002.
“Uri was grateful that his story was able to be heard by our staff,” says Alla Iularji, Uri’s case manager. “Being able to share his experiences ensures that they are not forgotten.”
Jakob and Eva were born in Russia. Neither of them had an ordinary childhood. They were both under four years old when the siege of Leningrad started. The siege lasted almost three years and claimed the lives of many Leningrad residents due to starvation, disease and shelling. Both Eva and Jakob recall the bombing and the death that surrounded them.
In 1941, Eva’s father passed away due to tuberculosis. Jakob’s father went to war, leaving Jakob, his mother, and siblings behind.
Eva met Jakob when she was seven years old. The two became friends, grew up together, and later married at 18.
Before he was married, Jakob spent his time in a little jewelry store where he started his career as a jewelry maker. He became a very famous designer and jeweler in Leningrad. But, after he married Eva, she convinced Jakob to start a new life in Canada. They moved to Italy while they waited for their papers, and then continued on to Canada.
Once in Canada, Jakob found a job in a jewelry factory, where his hard work was noticed, and was later asked to take over more complex orders. Within two years, he was able to open his own jewelry store. During this time, Eva tried different career paths before finally coming across a position working with precious metals. Together, Eva and Jakob went on to create fancy and beautiful jewelry.
Circle of Care is honoured to provide care and services to approximately 1,500 clients through our Holocaust Survivor Services Program (HSSP), making us the largest Canadian grant recipient of funds from the Conference on Jewish Materials Claims Against Germany. Support for Holocaust survivors requires special understanding, knowledge and sensitivity, and nowhere is this more important than in case management.