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Felix Opatowski

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Born
June 15, 1924 Lodz, Poland

Map of Mukacevo, Czechoslovakia

Immigrated
1949 Toronto, Ontario

At fifteen, Felix Opatowski begins smuggling goods out of the Lodz ghetto in exchange for food. In 1943 he is deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he is recruited as a runner for the Polish Underground and implicated in the plot to blow up the crematoria.

About Felix

Felix Opatowski was born in Lodz, Poland, on June 15, 1924. He was liberated in Austria by the US army on May 9, 1945, and worked at a US army base where he married his wife, Regina, in 1947. Felix and Regina arrived in Toronto in 1949; they were married for 69 years. Felix passed away in 2017.

Photos and Artifacts

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    Felix's father, Nathan Opatowski, seated in the front row, far left, in the forced labour camp in Poznań stadium, Poland, circa 1940.

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    Felix and his friends in front of the American military club on the US army base in Gmunden, Austria, where they worked after the war. Felix is seated in the front row, far right, and his friend Jakob Artman is in the back row, centre, circa 1946.

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    A remnant of Felix’s prison uniform from Birkenau showing his prisoner number.

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    Dr. Klaus, the Jewish doctor in the Melk concentration camp, who looked after Felix in the Melk hospital. The photo was taken in Gmunden, Austria, circa 1946.

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    Felix and Regina’s wedding, June 16, 1947, Gmunden, Austria.

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    Felix and Regina in Gmunden, Austria, 1948.

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    Jakob Artman, Felix’s friend who helped him survive in Auschwitz-Birkenau, circa 1948.

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    Felix's Certificate of Identity, which served as his travel visa to Canada in 1949, issued by the International Refugee Organization. (Photo 1 of 2).

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    Felix's Certificate of Identity, which served as his travel visa to Canada in 1949, issued by the International Refugee Organization. (Photo 2 of 2).

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    Charles Coward, the “Count of Auschwitz,” a British prisoner of war in Buna-Monowitz (Auschwitz III) who took part in resistance activities and tried to help Jews. He was later named a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The photo was taken circa 1950.

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    Felix and Regina’s daughter, Esther, age 3, 1950.

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    Felix and Regina with their daughters Miriam (left), about one year, and Esther (right), six years old. Toronto, circa 1953.

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    Felix's family in 1964 on a cruise in Miami Beach, Florida. His wife, Regina, and daughter Esther are in the back row, and in the front (left to right), son Nathan; daughter Miriam; and Felix.

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    Felix's daughters, Esther and Miriam, with their grandparents, Hillel and Bronia Gnat, at their uncle’s wedding at Adath Israel in Toronto in 1966. Left to right: Esther, a relative, Hillel, Bronia and Miriam.

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    The house that Felix built in 1967 at 48 Purdon Dr., Toronto, where the Opatowskis lived for twenty-five years.

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    Felix's mother-in-law, Bronia Gnat, (left); his wife, Regina (centre); and his aunt from Portugal, Sarah Krull (née Opatowski), circa 1970.

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    Felix and Regina on their 25th wedding anniversary, 1972. The photo was taken by their daughter Miriam.

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    Felix and Regina’s son Ami in Toronto, 1981.

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    Felix at the Birkenau monument, 2003.

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    The ruins of crematorium II, Birkenau, 2005.

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    Felix, third from the left, at the gates of Auschwitz on a 2005 trip organized by Beth Emeth synagogue for the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the camp.

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    Felix and his wife, Regina, at the tree planted in Charles Coward’s honour in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 2005.

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    Felix and his wife, Regina, with their granddaughters Leora (left) and Naomi (right) in Auschwitz, 2005.

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    Felix in front of the ruins of Barracks 24, where he was incarcerated in Birkenau. Felix, left, is beside Rudy Fidel, a pastor from Faith Temple in Winnipeg, and Rudy’s wife, Gina, on a tour they took in 2009 to re-visit Felix’s past.

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    Felix with Gina Fidel in Birkenau in 2009, standing in an area of the Neutral Zone, where Felix worked when he was an inmate.

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    Felix and the Opatowski family at granddaughter Leora’s wedding. Left to right: Felix's son Ami; Toby's wife, Jodi; grandson, Toby; daughter Miriam; great-grandson, Jackson; daughter Esther; granddaughter Leora and Leora's husband, Rafi; granddaughter Naomi; Naomi's husband, Michael; wife, Regina; Felix; daughter-in-law Susan; granddaughter Brooke; granddaughter Fern; and son Nathan.

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    Felix and Regina at their granddaughter Leora’s wedding, Toronto, June 13, 2010.

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    Felix and his great-granddaughter Chloë in 2011.

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    Felix and Regina with their great-grandchildren Chloë and Presley.

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    Women from the Opatowski family in Toronto in 2011. Left to right (back): Felix's daughter Esther; Esther’s daughter, Naomi; Felix's daughter Miriam. Left to right (front): Felix's grandson's wife, Jodi; Felix's great-granddaughter Presley; his wife, Regina; his great-granddaughter, Chloë; and his granddaughter, Leora.

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    Felix with the men from the Opatowski family in Toronto in 2011. In the back row, standing, is Rafi, granddaughter Leora’s husband (left); and Felix's son, Ami (right). Seated in front (left to right): granddaughter Naomi’s husband, Michael; Felix; great-grandson, Jackson; and grandson, Toby.

The Book

Cover of Gatehouse to Hell
2012 Independent Publisher Silver Medal Winner

Gatehouse to Hell

I was stubborn. I didn’t want to stay in Auschwitz. I didn’t want to go to the gas chambers.... I didn’t want to die there, and I kept pushing back.

Explore more of Felix’s story in Re:Collection

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Gatehouse to Hell

Cruel Lessons

When I settled into the bunk, I thanked my new friend and we started talking. I asked him how long he had been there. He said six or eight weeks and then offered to give me a few tips. For instance, as we were talking I was rubbing my arm where they had tattooed the number. “Don’t rub it,” he warned me. “It might get infected.” When I asked him what Auschwitz was all about, Jakob was straightforward. “It’s a very terrible place,” he said. “Nobody gets out of here alive.” He took me outside the barracks, pointed to a chimney and said, “The only way we’re going to get out of this camp is through that chimney.”

I could see a huge red brick building but I didn’t understand what he meant. When we had arrived in Auschwitz we walked to Birkenau from the railway station and we could smell something burning. Of course, we didn’t know there were crematoria in Birkenau. How could any normal human think that in the middle of the twentieth century they were burning human bodies? Those things were too farfetched for us to even think about. But when we came into the quarantine camp, we started wondering what kind of place this was. The kapos would point to the chimney and say, “That’s your destination.” The ghetto, the labour camps in Poznań... these were all terrible places. Still, there we didn’t talk about chimneys, we didn’t talk about crematoria, we didn’t talk about gas chambers.

Jakob was quick to advise me that I had to be extremely careful in the quarantine camp. He told me that the Germans would try to work me to death there. If I survived, they would just take me to another camp. I told him that I had just come from a labour camp and that Auschwitz couldn’t be harder than that. “Oh, yeah?” he replied. Unfortunately, he was right.

Many of us were indeed worked to death in that quarantine camp, with hardly any food. The guards took us out early in the morning and we worked at making roads and digging ditches for the sewers. We were doing all of this because the camp was expanding. There were lots of prisoners, so we didn’t have to work fifteen hours a day, but we were doing very hard manual labour. It would have gone much faster if there had been wheelbarrows to take the rocks and move them to where they were supposed to go. But, no, we had to carry them in our hands. The whole thing was designed, I would say, as a test to see if we were able to do this type of work. If we survived three months of the harshness of quarantine, then we qualified to go to the D camp in Birkenau, which was the men’s labour camp.

The atrocities that happened in quarantine were horrible. Dr. Mengele was a frequent visitor, although in the beginning we didn’t know who he was. He and the officers went through each of the barracks to choose people for all kinds of experiments. We saw men taken away and they never came back. We heard screaming.

Then there was the selection. After I’d been working in the quarantine camp for about two weeks, a kapo came into the barracks and announced that there was going to be a selection, that no Jews would be going to work the next day. The other inmates left and the Jews stayed behind in the barracks. At first I was happy to have a day off work. I was so naive that I didn’t know what the selection was for. I thought that maybe the Germans were going to pick the ones who were healthy for special work. To me, we were having a holiday.

Jakob was wiser. He told me that he had heard that people had to be very careful during the selection, advising me to make sure that I knew where my clothes were when I was ordered to undress, to stand up straight, to not ask any questions.

An hour or so later, I saw Dr. Mengele. He came in with his entourage, about half a dozen SS men, and one man in civilian clothes who was taking notes. We had to strip naked. Dr. Mengele sat down and we walked in front of him. He indicated which person should go to the left or to the right. When a person went in one direction, the civilian wrote his number down.

When it was my turn, I saw that the man didn’t write down my number. I thought when he took down a number it meant they were going to take that person to another labour camp. Jakob had told me that sometimes, if a person was lucky, the Germans would need him for other work. I thought that I had missed an opportunity. So I went back and I tried to tell him that he had forgotten to write down my number. One of the guards pushed me away. I was almost crying. I was stubborn. I didn’t want to stay in Auschwitz. I didn’t want to go to the gas chambers. I didn’t want to be cremated. I didn’t want to die there and I kept pushing back. Finally the guard gave me a good pushand I fell over to the other side. I was with the men who didn’t have their numbers written down.