Mendel Good was born in Nowy Sącz, Poland, in 1925. His entire family, comprising one hundred people, including his parents, two brothers and only sister, were murdered in the Holocaust.
Mendel survived two ghettos and seven concentration camps between 1939 and 1945. In one of the camps, he contracted tuberculosis, and spent three years recovering in Austrian hospitals after the war. In 1948, Mendel immigrated to Canada, where he married Valerie Blau, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary. Mendel owned and operated a tailor shop in Ottawa for fifty years. He then moved to Toronto to be near his three children and many grandchildren. Mendel chaired the Holocaust Committee in Ottawa for twelve years and was instrumental in planning a Holocaust memorial in 1978. He also co-chaired the Canadian Holocaust Survivors’ Gathering in Ottawa in 1985. For forty-five years, Mendel was a regular speaker at schools, churches, universities and the Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto. Mendel Good passed away in 2020.
Nowy Sącz was a beautiful city with both an old and a new section. Along with most of the Jewish population, which by 1939 numbered about 12,000, close to one-third of the total population of the city, we lived in the new section. It was a well-planned part of the city, with paved streets bordered by plants and attractive buildings.
I was brought up in a very happy, contented environment. While I may have been a typical child in many ways, including having a mischievous nature, I always treasured the time I spent with my family and showed the utmost respect to my parents and elders. The Jewish community as a whole was Orthodox. My family was traditional in their values and practices, and, judged by current standards, might be thought of as ultra-Orthodox. However, when held up against the standards of Nowy Sącz Jews during the 1930s, they were considered somewhat rebellious, choosing to wear more up-to-date clothing than was common in our community and insisting that our Jewish education be conducted in modern Hebrew rather than the Yiddish that we spoke at home.
We went to public school during the day and in the late afternoon attended a Hebrew school under the Mizrahi auspices. Two or three times a week, we were tutored in the evenings by Lithuanian Jewish tutors, whom my parents considered to be at a higher level in classical Hebrew. Education was extremely important to my parents, and I have always been grateful to them for giving us excellent opportunities to learn. I was proficient in Hebrew and read from the Torah as a bar mitzvah when I was thirteen. My parents provided us with a strong sense of our Jewish identity, which I held onto throughout the years of the war. Without it, I would have been lost. The strong foundation of Jewish values that I learned from my parents is still with me today.
My family had a love of theatre and even created our own little family theatre. When I was as young as four or five, I was performing in family plays. We enjoyed putting on plays, operettas, skits, musicals and readings for each other. For example, I performed in Tevye the Milkman by Sholem Aleichem, which later became the great musical theatre production Fiddler on the Roof. Other memorable shows produced by our little family were the play Bar Kokhba and the song “Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen” (Raisins and Almonds) from the operetta Shulamis by Abraham Goldfaden, the founder of modern Yiddish theatre. One special cousin of mine, Razel, was about eighteen and could play the part of much older women with great aplomb.
Some family members played musical instruments. I sang in vaudeville style as well. One song that I performed, with a cap perched on the side of my head, was about a prince with torn pants. Another time I sang a song about buying cigarettes — “buy me cigarettes that are dry, not wet from the rain.” My mother did not perform in these theatrical events but saw her role as making the house warm and loving for my father and all of us children. She loved my father, as we all did, and she respected him. This value of respect and love has stayed with me throughout my life. Our family environment was rich with music and stories, busy with discussions. We used our minds more than anything else.
In 1941 I was put in a cell in Nowy Sącz with many other young men and teenagers who had also been rounded up at the same time as me. After the horrible experience of spending two or three days together in cramped conditions fearing for our lives, we were shocked by the sound of boots echoing through the silence of the jail in the middle of the night. The noise of the key unlocking our cell at approximately 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning had a tremendous impact on me. Johann, the governor of the jail, aggressively and brutally herded us out of the cell. He forced us to run out of the jail, and I did not have time to tie the strings on my winter hat as I went down the stairs. It was a leather cap with earmuffs that stood away from my ears because of the untied strings. My haste in leaving the cell meant that the hat did not really fit snugly enough to protect me from the extreme cold on that winter night. I had to run to keep up with the line of young men. The entire group of us was forced to stand along a stone wall outside the jail.
Johann had a machine gun in his hand. He just fired and shot us one after another. One after another, we dropped. Most of the victims were between thirteen and sixteen years of age. I fell with the others when a bullet hit my earmuff. Luckily, the leather earmuffs that were hanging down and not touching my head saved my life. The bullet went through the earmuff instead of my head. I fell automatically. There was no thought involved. My fall was unintentional, a reflex. I had no plan to fall and just reacted to the shooting. These were not normal circumstances, not part of normal life, so I instinctively reacted in the moment.
Johann’s gang of thugs threw us into a wagon with two horses. It was a wagon that was used to deliver flour to our bakery, and I knew the driver. Our bodies were taken to the Jewish cemetery. There, a large hole was dug and the grave was already prepared for us. The Nazis usually followed the wagons to the cemetery to give the last shot, der letzte Kugel: a bullet in the brains to make sure everyone who was shot was really dead. Quite a few SS and Gestapo had attended the mass shooting. They must have been impressed with the excellent job that Johann did, and since the night was very cold, they did not follow the wagon to the cemetery to make sure that we were dead.
Four people from the wagon were thrown into the grave and covered with lime. I was thrown into the hole on top of the first row of bodies. I was part of the second row and lay there in the grave with lime up to my groin. I listened for the sound of German speech or car engines. When I was almost certain that there were no Gestapo or SS present, I raised my head and told the gravediggers, Aaron Beilas and his son-in-law, “Ich bin am Leben.” (I am alive.) They knew me from Nowy Sącz and pulled me out of the grave. I don’t know why we were shot, and I was the only one of the entire group who survived. Aaron and his son-in-law took me into a little house in the cemetery and revived me with some warm wine. In the morning they took me back to my family in the ghetto. That was my first time in the Jewish cemetery.
Only a few people were left when we arrived at Ebensee in 1945, a concentration camp in the mountains of Austria. Ebensee was surrounded by electric wires. It was a terrible place, with dead and dying people lying everywhere. We were frail and barely able to walk as we passed through the gate to the camp in the torrential rain. After four days of marching, so many of those from the transport that left Melk had perished. The group of us who were left alive filled only one quarter of a barracks. I desperately wanted to stay alive, but when we arrived in Ebensee I lost my will to live and felt alles ist verloren, all is lost.
After the long walk with no food except for an occasional biscuit, the guards forced us into burning hot showers. Terrified, we thought that we were being gassed. We were then forced to stand, nude, outside in the pouring rain for hours. The cold deluge beat down on us as we stood, almost freezing to death, in the wooded mountains of Austria. We had nothing to keep us warm. Again, the Nazis did not have to shoot us. Exhausted, starving and broken-spirited, many of us dropped dead on the spot. People died of pneumonia. We all felt like animals; there was no humanity left in us.
I now think that I was very strong to survive that torture. The few who lived and were still able to work did slave labour in the mines. I understand that there was also some kind of manufacturing work at the camp. People were worked to death. Bodies piled up everywhere. We were lucky if we got a single potato peel in our watery soup in the evening. The Russian prisoners joked and said that was dinner. Hunger and death was all that we felt and all that we saw. I held onto life with my teeth.
I fell with the others when a bullet hit my earmuff. Luckily, the leather earmuffs that were hanging down and not touching my head saved my life. The bullet went through the earmuff instead of my head.
A tank approached the main gate of the Ebensee camp along with International Red Cross ambulances. It is difficult to visualize what happened; people who had been prisoners a minute before died on the spot from shock and happiness. The shock of liberation was too great for many to endure, and they collapsed where they stood. Bodies and more bodies were lying everywhere in the camp, piled up. The Red Cross nurses and doctors stood for hours on the other side of the fence, crying and looking at us, unable to enter through the gate. We felt sorry for them. They did not seem able to comprehend or bear what they were seeing.
The Americans of the 80th Infantry Division had disconnected the electric wiring and the first tank that broke through the camp gate was driven by a Jewish officer who sat on top of the tank. He wore a mezuzah, an encased parchment with special Jewish religious text including the Shema, and a Magen David, Star of David, around his neck on a chain, and spoke to us in broken Yiddish. Apparently, one of his parents was German, so the German language was mixed into his Yiddish. The officer spoke to me as he took the mezuzah off his neck and handed it to me. He said, “Meine mutter gab mir diese, wenn ich ging in das schlacht feld.” (My mother gave these to me when I went into the army/service.)
As a soldier in the schlacht feld (battlefield), he believed that the mezuzah was a lucky talisman that helped him to survive, and he gave it to me as a memento with hopes that it would also help me to stay alive. I broke down and cried because there was someone in the world who cared about me and all of us Jews. To hold the mezuzah in my hands was like holding a piece of the sefer Torah, the Torah scroll. I cried, knowing that there were Jews left alive who knew we existed and cared about us. In his pockets, the officer had a bunch of little mezuzahs that he distributed to a few prisoners who had made it as far as the tank.
I have treasured this mezuzah for years and carried it in my wallet for safekeeping. In later years, when I was asked to speak about my Holocaust experiences in a North York synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, I found that I did not have the mezuzah with me. I was in the middle of telling a large congregation of worshippers that I had lost the treasured mezuzah when my daughter Beverly stood up and said, “Daddy, you gave it to me so I would always remember who I am.” I broke down and cried because I had been able to educate my daughter to remember who she is, just as I had wept when the officer first handed me the mezuzah in Ebensee in the first week of May, 1945.
After the war, I had no desire to ever set foot in Poland again and paid a Polish fellow to go back to Nowy Sącz to search for my family. He did go to the city hall and managed to get me identification photos of my father, my mother, my two brothers and myself, but not one single member of my family was left alive. I was the only one who survived from approximately one hundred members of my immediate family in Nowy Sącz. I searched for my family far and wide for two or three years in displaced persons (DP) camps across Italy, Austria, Germany and France. I put up signs and added my name and address to search lists all over Europe in an effort to find any remnants of the people I loved, the members of my family. I found no one. I only have my precious memories of my parents and siblings, and the treasured photos from city hall.
I was strong and healthy in 1948 and heard that there was a commission from Canada in Austria looking for labourers of all kinds, including tailors. The commission went to Ebelsberg, near Linz, where there was a large DP camp. I, like many other Jews passing through Austria after the war, wanted to leave Europe. I had no family ties to keep me there. Although the sum total of my knowledge of Canada was stories of Eskimos (Inuit) and igloos, I thought it was a good idea to apply for immigration to Canada. At the age of about twenty-two or twenty-three, I registered as a tailor and was summoned before the Canadian consul in Ebelsberg.
The commissioner said, “How can you be a tailor? You were fourteen years old when the war started and spent most of seven years in concentration camps.”
I replied, “Ich bin ein schneider.” (I am a tailor.)
The commissioner then asked, “Could you stitch a suit out of sand?”
I answered, “Yes.”
Of course he asked how I would do it and I replied, “If you cut it for me, I will stitch it!”
The commissioner took his stamp to validate my application and banged the table so hard that he almost broke it. My sense of humour helped me get to Canada just as it had helped me live through the war and liberation.
It did not take me long to make friends as I always loved people and made friends easily. It was remarkable how easily I fit into the life waiting for me in Ottawa. My biggest surprise came when I awoke for the first time in Ottawa on Saturday morning after arriving Friday night. I looked through the window in this new country and saw Jewish people going to shul. I was shocked. There were men wearing tallitim, prayer shawls, passing by on Murray Street where I was staying. I did not know that I was in a Jewish neighbourhood, and I followed the people to Sabbath services. There, I was approached by a man who greeted me in Yiddish and warmly shook my hand.
He said, “Du bist a Greener?” (Are you an immigrant?)
I replied that yes, I was a Greener, and he invited me to have an aliyah. I went up and read from the Torah for my aliyah. I said all my prayers by heart and the congregation went berserk! They were all so happy to have me. After that experience I was totally accepted by the whole street and neighbourhood.
I have worked hard during my life to educate both teachers and young people. A professor once complimented me on my English vocabulary while I was lecturing to professors at a university and asked which university I had attended. I replied, “Auschwitz.” The professor’s jaw dropped in surprise and he grabbed the sides of his head with his hands as it dropped to the bench in front of him.
While living in Ottawa, I devoted a lot of time to educating young people and lectured at many schools, universities, churches and synagogues. I continued this work when I moved to Toronto and spoke at the Holocaust Education Centre, and many other places where people came to learn. I tried to make my experiences and the history of the Holocaust accessible to other people; I spoke to thousands throughout my life. Commemorating the Holocaust was, and is, important to me.
It was both a dream and a nightmare to survive the Holocaust. When I was a young man, I dreamed of the life I was going to have, and my dream has come true. Although I still have nightmares about the Holocaust, when I wake up I am not confused. I know who I am and I know where I am. I am the happiest man on two feet because I survived, and together with my wonderful wife, Valerie, raised a beautiful family in a free country, Canada. I taught my children the same values as I learned from my own parents: to have respect and compassion for people, to remember who they are and what their roots are, and to love learning.