SASKATOON — A childhood survivor of the Holocaust, Nate Leipciger was born in Poland in 1928, emigrating to Toronto with his father in 1948. He attended the 34th annual Yom Ha Shoah at Congregation Agudas Israel April 17, giving the keynote address.
Leipciger began by noting that there were many who risked their lives, their families, and sometimes entire communities in order to protect Jewish people during the Holocaust. “Would you have the courage to hide a human being not of your religion, not of your knowledge, a stranger who just knocked on your door?” asked Leipciger. “Those are the real heroes of the Shoah, the brilliant stars in the darkness.”
He and some members of his family were saved by such stars, who restored humanity to him, Leipciger said.
“I believe that we all have the capacity to do good, and we should do whatever is in our capacity,” said Leipciger. He spoke about the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto, Jewish youth and women who fought to the death rather than be taken. Sharing his own story, he said he was left alone in his generation, with only a father remaining of all his friends and family.
“As a child I did not know that being born Jewish meant an automatic death sentence,” he said, adding that he would be beaten up by his best friend at Easter because he was deemed to be “a Christ-killer.”
“These were my friends and yet their minds were poisoned against me because I was a Jew.” He added that much changed in 1965 when Pope Paul VI declared Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus.
Leipciger noted that during the Holocaust, the Nazis imprisoned and killed the spiritual leadership and intelligentsia, schools were closed, then businesses, then homes were seized as cities were declared “free of Jews.”
“By the time they came for us in 1943, many things had happened,” said Leipciger, explaining that Hitler saw there would be no consequences for what he was doing, as refugees were turned away from country after country. The only country to open its doors to Jewish refugees was the Dominican Republic. “By ’43 when we were taken from our hiding place, all of this was unknown to me as a boy of 15,” said Leipciger. “At age 12 I had gone to apprentice school and that saved my life.”
When the family was taken to Auschwitz (Birkenau), a Nazi pulled Leipciger’s father out of the lineup to work. His father realized that only by lying about his son’s age and capabilities could he save him from the gas chambers. He said the boy was 17 and that he had been apprenticed as an electrician. The officer thought Leipciger looked young for 17; he was in fact 15, but the officer let him go into his father’s line.
“My father knew what he was doing; he knew he was taking me out of the gas chamber line and putting me into the camp,” said Leipciger, who never saw his mother and sister again. They were taken with the others and “processed” in the gas chambers.
“Now when I got into the camp they took our clothes, they put a number on our arm, they shortened our hair, they gave us a lecture. They said your life span here in the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau is four months: either you go to another camp or you will be processed like the others in the gas chambers of Birkenau. Processed. My father and I both knew that processed meant murdered, processed with gas.”
Leipciger survived being in the biggest concentration camp, where 6,000 people were gassed every day, before being transported to several other camps before being liberated in Bavaria, emaciated and sick with typhus.
Leipciger’s liberation was the beginning of his journey as a survivor, and he urged Canada to continue to allow refugees from war-torn places.
“We cannot afford to say, ‘none is too many.’ We must respect the right of the refugee to come and share our good fortune.”
He urged listeners not only to bring refugees to safety, but to welcome them, because “we are our brothers’ keepers.”
“We pledge never to forget, and we recommit ourselves to re-ensuring it never happens again,” said Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky of Congregation Agudas Israel, before talking about Hannah Senesh, a young Jewish woman who parachuted into Yugoslavia to rescue Hungarian Jews during the Second World War.
Caught, tortured, and executed, she was a poet who wrote while imprisoned, “There are stars whose light reaches the earth only after they have themselves disintegrated and are no more. There are men, women, and children, whose radiance continues to light the world after they have passed from it. This light, which shines in the darkest night, are those who illumine for us the path.”
“Six million such lights shine brightly for us in the darkness,” noted the rabbi, adding that Congregation Agudas Israel was proud to open its spiritual home to the Saskatoon community during the most intense day of memory and reflection in the Jewish calendar. “Humanity witnessed how an entire nation and its allies designed and implemented a plan with the sole purpose of exterminating every man woman and child of a specific nation or ethnic group.” Without any political or economic motivation, killing the Jewish nation was an end in itself, Jodorkovsky noted, and one of the worst dimensions of humanity was revealed. Deaths were carried out by normal citizens who would work all day in a concentration camp before returning home to walk the dog. The word “Shoah” means calamity, and it reflects the magnitude of the tragedy and horrific characteristics, he noted, adding that the Shoah must not be trivialized.
Saskatoon Mayor Don Atchison noted how the Yom Ha Shoah has grown over the past 34 years.
“When I think of the Holocaust I think of the news reels when you see a ship coming full of Jewish families that are only feet away from the ports of North America and they’re all standing on the rail, and they’re looking at freedom, and for the ships to be sent away and sent back to Europe and certain death,” noted Atchison, before talking of some of the death camp sites he saw in Europe, and of the still-present anti-Semitism. “To think of six million Jewish lives lost: all of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and most of B.C. — gone. We belong to one race, and it is in fact the human race.”
Judge David Arnot, chief commissioner of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, noted that his organization was founded on the United Nations Human Rights Declaration, created because of the Holocaust.
“The civilized world was shocked, appalled, and ashamed at the end of the Second World War,” noted Arnot. “As a result, the UN Declaration of Human Rights was created. . . . We are all one human family, that comes directly from the declaration.”
While he noted Canada is multi-ethnic, it is also fragile in that the price of freedom is constant vigilance, and every citizen has the responsibility to confront ignorance and hatred.
“Words matter, and the power of words can maim,” noted Arnot, adding that maintaining both the rights and responsibilities of good citizens needs to be rigorously pursued.
“On behalf of the Catholic Church and the many Christian communities who understand that the Shoah is a memory we can never afford to forget, we are honoured to be present,” said Bishop Donald Bolen of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon. “Memory is deep within us, memory is sacred, and the Shoah holds a memory for the Christian community of the ways in which we were complicit in a profound and radical evil. The memory of Shoah for the world is a reminder of what human beings are capable of.”
Part of memory is story; giving witness to what God has done for us as both Jews and Christians is part of the community of faith’s message and responsibility, said Bolen, noting that Leipciger’s memories were an opportunity for transformation, to take on his story and memories as our own.
David Katzman presented Leipciger with the Miklos Kanitz Holocaust and Human Rights Education Award for his many years of sharing his own story. Kanitz was a Saskatoon congregation member and Holocaust survivor, who has since died.
The ceremony ended with the lighting of memorial candles, with Bolen representing Righteous Among the Nations, a memorial prayer for the martyrs of the Holocaust, and the blowing of the shofar. (See related story.)