HOLOCAUST REMEMBERED — Some 2,000 students gathered at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon March 17 for a presentation by Holocaust survivor Bill Glied. (Photo by Kiply Yaworski)
SASKATOON — When Holocaust survivor Bill Glied was taken with his family to Auschwitz, he was close in age to some 2,000 students who gathered March 17 to hear his story at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon.
Describing his childhood growing up with a mother, a father and a younger sister, as an ordinary student who loved playing soccer, Glied connected with his young audience, sharing heart-wrenching details of his life, including being taken with his family to a Nazi concentration camp at the age of 13.
“My mom, my dad, my sister, my grandparents, all of them (were) murdered under this terrible regime, and I feel that I have a moral duty — a duty to tell what has happened during those terrible times in the hope that some of you guys will grow up with the resolution that you will do the right thing, that you will not allow a terrible thing to happen again,” he said.
Gliede’s testimony at the Catholic cathedral was part of an annual Holocaust Education Program presented by Congregation Agudas Israel, Saskatoon’s synagogue. The 87-year-old Holocaust survivor was also the guest speaker at a Holocaust Memorial held March 19 at the synagogue.
Born in Subotica, Yugoslavia, where his family had lived for some 200 years, Gliede said life was good in the ethnically diverse community before the 1941 invasion by the German army and their Hungarian collaborators.
“From that moment on, my life at school changed,” he said, describing how he was kicked off the soccer team, and how the new teacher moved Jewish students to the back of the classroom.
“All of a sudden people started making fun, started making rude jokes, calling me a ‘Jew boy,’ and what was the worst part of it, the teachers never reprimanded the kids about doing pranks and bullying us. Only after the Holocaust, after I came to Canada and started studying about it, did I find out that there were specific orders to the teachers not to interfere in the action of the kids.”
Persecution of Jewish residents in the community began to escalate: phones and vehicles were confiscated, Jewish doctors were not allowed to treat non-Jewish people, and Jewish women were only allowed in stores in the late afternoon. Glied’s mother was required to sew a yellow star of David on his school jacket; he could not go out without it.
“We were forbidden to go to the movies, we were forbidden to go to restaurants,” Glied said. “We were put in a position where we were different, where we were segregated, where we were known as the Jews.”
One day in 1944, Glied came home from school to find his parents sitting at the table, and he knew something was wrong. “My dad said we just got an order that we are going to be relocated. We are going to be resettled somewhere in the east of Europe, he didn’t know where. But my dad said, ‘Don’t worry, they said I’m going to be working, but mom will stay home and look after the two of you; there might be a school there. The war is going to be over, we are going to go back to our town and things are going to be good again. But we have to leave tomorrow.’ Tomorrow — one day’s notice.”
Allowed to take only one small suitcase, Glied and his family left their house the next day, along with other Jewish community members. “We slowly shuffled out toward the railroad station. On the two sides of the street I remember people lined up: kids that I knew, that I went to school with, buddies; people that my father knew, customers, friends,” he said. “No one said a word. No one said good luck. No one said ‘I will hide you.’ No one said goodbye. We just shuffled out to the railway station.”
Expecting to board a train such as he had travelled on in the past, Glied and his family were loaded onto a cattle car. People were jammed in — men, women, children, including the sick, and a person lifted up in a wheelchair — and the doors were slammed shut.
“For two days and two nights we were in that box car. No food, no water, no hygienic facilities whatsoever,” he said, describing the suffering and the humiliation of the journey.
Finally the trained stopped at what he later learned was the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. “I am convinced that this little parcel of earth . . . is the worst place in the world,” said Glied. “More people were condemned to death on this little part, and were sent to sure death, than any other part of the world.”
An officer was directing people either to the right or the left.
“Eventually my row came up. He looked at me, I swear to you no more than for two seconds. He didn’t speak to me. He looked at me and pointed me to the right. He looked at my dad and pointed him to the right.”
Glied’s mother and his eight-year-old sister were among the larger group directed to the left.
“It was so fast, so terribly chaotic, that I didn’t even know what was happening. I was scared, I held onto my dad,” he said, describing the moment when he lost sight of his mother and his little sister.
“It happened so fast. I didn’t know what happened to them. They disappeared. They disappeared from there and they disappeared from my life — because I never saw my mom or my sister again. I never said goodbye, I never hugged or kissed them.”
Glied later found out that his mother and sister were among those who were killed in the gas chambers, locked into a room fitted with showerheads. “A German officer went to the roof and dropped down a container of poison gas on these people and they all died a horrible death. My mom, my sister . . . all of them there.”
He and his father were sent to Dachau, near Munich, as slave labourers. Glied described the brutal conditions of work they did 12 hours each day, constructing an underground factory that was still unfinished at the end of the war, as well as the starvation endured by prisoners.
He also described a test devised by the German officers to determine if someone was fit to work: an ordinary chair was set out and each prisoner was required to step up on the seat. If they could not, they were sent to a sick camp, from which no one returned.
“One day in March of 1945, my dad couldn’t step up on the chair. I was standing next to him and I started crying, and the commanding officer called me out and asked my why.” Glied was then asked if he wanted to accompany his father to the sick camp, and he said yes.
“It was a death camp. People were there to die, because by then, the gas chambers were already liberated by the Russian armies,” said Glied. “I was 14 years old, and my dad was there, and I knew he was dying of typhoid fever, but there was nothing, nothing that I could do to save him. Nine days before the liberation, my dad died.”
Sick himself by this time, Glied was among those liberated from the concentration camp April 28, 1945, taken by stretcher to hospital.
“Eventually, the Canadian government gave permission to 1,000 Holocaust orphans to come to Canada, and because I had an uncle and aunt here, I had the opportunity to apply,” Glied said. He came to Canada in 1947. “I began working, eventually got married, had three daughters and eight grandchildren.”
Glied spoke briefly about testifying at the recent trials of two former SS guards, now in their 90s, saying it is important that the highest court in Germany has found the two guilty of participating in hundreds of thousands of murders at Auschwitz. He said he can point to that verdict when anyone raises the idea of the Holocaust being a hoax: “Listen to what Germany’s highest court says, because the highest court found these people guilty of this terrible crime.”
When asked by students what they can do today, Glied said that he urges youth to first of all be grateful for the freedoms they have in Canada.
“Kiss the ground that you stand on, because all of us Canadians take so much for granted: this absolutely wonderful country that we live in, where you can do the right thing, where you can think the right thing, where you can vote, where you can fight for what you believe is the thing to do. Nowhere else in the world has such liberty, such freedom as we have here,” he said.
“And when you go home, please kiss your mom and dad. I can tell you now that it is very difficult to grow up without them.”
Finally, Glied urged the students to be someone that a friend can count on -someone who will do the right thing and not become a bystander to evil or injustice.
“And then make a promise that today you will do a small good thing,” he said. “Imagine if all Canadians — 36 million of us — would do a good thing today, maybe that will be enough to change the world to being a better place to live in.”
MC Heather Fenyes of Congregation Agudas Israel also spoke, noting that the Holocaust did not happen overnight: “It began with dangerous speech, and from small seeds it grew to a vast killing machine.”
Hatred also plants seeds in this country, she said, pointing to the recent shooting of six innocent people praying at a mosque in Quebec and bomb threats against Jewish communities in Canada. “Each one of us here today must be a voice of change.”
Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky thanked Glied for his powerful testimony, and expressed appreciation to former Saskatoon Bishop Donald Bolen, who first offered the cathedral as a venue for the Holocaust Education Program in 2016, and to pastor Rev. David Tumback for continuing to welcome the event.
The rabbi described the Jewish concept calling for the repair of our world (Tikkun olam), and cited examples of healing and reconciliation: “The Jewish community of Saskatoon is very proud of our close relationship with our Catholic brothers and sisters. We are also inspired by those courageous leaders who are working hard for the healing of the broken relationships with First Nations in our country,” said Jodorkovsky. “May we learn from their example and their sense of responsibility, and may Bill’s testimony move us to repair and to heal our broken world.”
Tumback spoke on behalf of the Catholic community, also expressing thanks to Glied for his message. “What happens in the end is that truth prevails,” Tumback said. “By retelling this story that Bill told us, we ensure that such a tragedy will never happen again,” he added.
“We pledge ourselves toward healing of not only that relationship that exists between us and our Jewish brothers and sisters, but as Rabbi Claudio mentioned, with our First Nations people, and please God, that greater understanding come with all of our dialogue with all of our Muslim brothers and sisters,” Tumback added.
At the conclusion of the event, Judge David Arnot of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission joined Fenyes of the group “Think Good, Do Good” in recognizing the work of two educators in the community who are inspiring respect and helping to build strong citizenship: Scott Gay, a superintendent with Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, and Nancy Barr, a teacher with Saskatoon Public Schools.