The Azrieli Foundation is a Canadian philanthropic organization that supports a wide range of initiatives and programs in the fields of education, architecture and design, Jewish community, Holocaust commemoration and education, scientific and medical research, and the arts. Their Holocaust Survivor Memoirs program was established in 2005 to collect, preserve and share the memoirs and diaries written by survivors of the twentieth-century Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe who later made their way to Canada.
Riddle Films are producers dedicated to capturing the worlds of the performing arts and culture and making them accessible to as broad an audience as possible. Their work airs on television screens, online and at film festivals around the world, including CBC, Bravo, PBS, YLE, Canal+, the Toronto International Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival, the Rotterdam International Film Festival, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
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Judy Weissenberg Cohen was born in Debrecen, Hungary, in 1928. She survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and other concentration and labour camps and came to Canada in 1948. Judy lives in Toronto.
Sisters Kitty Salsberg and Ellen Foster were born in Budapest, Hungary. They survived the Budapest ghetto hiding in a bomb shelter. They came to Canada in 1948. Kitty lives in Toronto. Ellen passed away in 2022.
Amek Adler was born in Lublin, Poland, in 1928. He survived ghettos, labour camps and concentration camps, and was liberated in April 1945. He came to Canada in 1954 with his wife, Ruth. Amek passed away in 2017.
Leslie Mezei was born in 1931 and grew up in Gödöllő, Hungary. He survived the Holocaust in Hungary by staying on the move and posing as a non-Jew. He came to Canada in 1948 and lives in Toronto.
Sam Weisberg was born as Avraham Gajer in Chorzów, Poland, in 1927. He survived several Nazi camps, including Plaszow. He came to Canada in 1955. Sam passed away in 2019.
Ephroim “Johnny” Jablon was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1926. He survived several forced labour and concentration camps. He came to Canada in 1948.
Margrit Rosenberg Stenge was born in 1928 in Cologne, Germany. She and her parents survived the Holocaust by finding refuge in Norway and Sweden. Margrit came to Canada in 1951. Margrit passed away in 2021.
Maxwell Smart was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), in 1930. He survived the Holocaust by escaping deportation and hiding in a forest. He came to Canada in 1948 and lives in Montreal.
Joseph Schwarzberg was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1926. He survived the Holocaust by assuming a false identity and worked for the Resistance in France. He came to Canada in 1968. Joseph Schwarzberg passed away in 2022.
Anita Ekstein was born in 1934 in Lwów, Poland (now Ukraine). She was smuggled out of the Skole ghetto and was hidden with Polish Catholics during the Holocaust. She came to Canada in 1948 and lives in Toronto.
Tibor Benyovits was born in 1932 in Budapest, Hungary. He survived the war working for an underground Zionist organization. He came to Canada in 1962. He passed away in 2020.
Arthur Ney was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1930. During the war he was imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto but escaped before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He hid in a Catholic orphanage until his liberation and came to Canada in 1948. Arthur died in 2016.
Anka Voticky was born in Brandýs nad Labem, Czechoslovakia, in 1913. She and her family survived the Holocaust by living as refugees in Shanghai, China. In 1948, they immigrated to Montreal, Canada. Anka died in 2014 at the age of 100.
Leslie Vertes was born in Ajak, Hungary, in 1924. Living in Budapest during the Holocaust, he survived by using a false identity. Shortly after liberation he was sent to several labour camps by the Soviet forces. After the Hungarian Revolution, Leslie immigrated to Canada. Leslie Vertes passed away in 2022.
Elsa Thon was born in 1923 in Pruszków, Poland. During the Holocaust she was confined in ghettos, joined the Jewish underground and assumed a false identity, and was then betrayed and imprisoned in several forced labour camps. After the war, she lived in Israel and Argentina before immigrating to Canada in 1980. Elsa passed away in 2019.
Rachel Shtibel was born in 1935 and grew up in the village of Turka, Poland (now Ukraine). During the Holocaust, her family was forced into the Kołomyja ghetto and then went into hiding until liberation. In 1957, she immigrated to Israel, then to Canada in 1968. Rachel lives in Toronto.
Steve Rotschild was born in Vilna, Lithuania, in 1933. Along with his mother, he survived the Vilna ghetto and the HKP labour camp. After the war, he immigrated to Israel with his family in 1949 and from there to Canada. Steve passed away in 2020.
Maya Rakitova was born in Smolensk, Russia, in 1931. She survived the war in hiding in the Soviet Union. Maya came to Canada in 1981 and lives in Montreal.
Felix Opatowski was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1924. He survived the Lodz ghetto and several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. After liberation, he worked at a US army base and immigrated to Canada in 1949. Felix passed away in 2017.
David Newman was born in Chmielnik, Poland, in 1919. During the war he was imprisoned in the camps Skarżysko-Kamienna and Buchenwald. He came to Canada in 1951. David passed away in 2002.
Muguette Szpajzer-Myers was born in 1931 in Paris, France. She survived the war in hiding in the village of Champlost with her mother and older brother. In 1947, Muguette immigrated to Canada. Muguette lives in Montreal.
Eva Meisels was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1939. When the Nazis occupied Hungary, she and her mother were sent to the Budapest ghetto and liberated in January 1945. They came to Canada in 1956. Eva lives in Toronto.
Leslie Meisels was born in 1927, in Nádudvar, Hungary. His entire immediate family survived the Holocaust in several concentration camps. He immigrated to the US in 1958 and to Canada in 1967. Leslie passed away in 2018.
Alex Levin was born in 1932 in Rokitno, Poland. He escaped a mass shooting in his village and survived the Holocaust by hiding in the forest. After the war he joined the Soviet army, then came to Canada in 1975. Alex died in 2016 at the age of 83.
Nate Leipciger was born in Chorzów, Poland, in 1928. During the Holocaust he was imprisoned in ghettos and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other Nazi camps. He survived with his father, and they immigrated to Canada in 1948. Nate lives in Toronto.
Michael Kutz was born in Nieśwież, Poland, in November 1930. He escaped from a mass grave and survived the war by joining the partisans in the Belorussian forest. He immigrated to Canada in the early 1950s. He passed away in 2020.
Helena Jockel was born in Mukačevo, Czechoslovakia (now Ukraine), in 1919. She was imprisoned in Auschwitz in 1944 and was forced to go on a death march. After liberation, Helena returned to Czechoslovakia and immigrated to Canada in 1988. Helena Jockel passed away in 2016.
Andy Réti was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1942. He and his mother survived the Budapest ghetto. They came to Canada after the Hungarian Revolution and settled in Toronto.
Ibolya Grossman was born in 1916 in Pécs, Hungary. She survived the Budapest ghetto with her son, Andy, but her husband, Zolti, died in a labour camp. Ibi came to Canada in 1957. She passed away in 2005.
Elly Gotz was born in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania, in 1928. He survived the Kovno ghetto and the Kaufering subcamp of Dachau. After the war the Gotz family moved to Norway, then Zimbabwe, before Elly settled in Toronto in 1964.
René Goldman was born in Luxembourg in 1934. He survived the war in hiding in a children’s home, in a convent school and with rural families in France. After the war he lived in Poland, China and New York City before settling in Canada in 1963.
John Freund was born in 1930 in České Budějovice, Czechoslovakia. During the war he was imprisoned in concentration camps, first Terezin, then Auschwitz. An orphan after the war, John immigrated to Canada in 1948. He lives in Toronto.
Marguerite Élias Quddus was born in 1936 in Paris, France. During the Holocaust, Marguerite and her sister were hidden in convents and on farms. Their father was deported and murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Marguerite and her husband moved to Canada in 1967. Marguerite lives in Longueuil, near Montreal.
Marian (Finkelman) Domanski was born in Otwock, Poland, in 1928. He escaped the Otwock ghetto and moved between Polish villages, surviving the war posing as a non-Jewish herdsman. He immigrated to Canada in 1970. Marian passed away in 2012.
Tommy Dick was born in 1925 in Budapest, Hungary. He survived forced labour battalions and escaped from a firing squad. He hid in various hospitals until the end of the war. In 1948, he immigrated to Calgary, Canada, and passed away in 1999.
Felicia Carmelly was born in Vatra Dornei, Romania, in 1931. She survived the war in a camp in Transnistria, near the Ukraine. In 1959, Felicia and her family immigrated to Israel and came to Canada three years later. Felicia passed away in 2018.
Max Bornstein was born in November 1921 in Warsaw, Poland. He lived in Winnipeg but moved to Paris in 1933. During the war he was caught sneaking into neutral Spain and sent to a labour camp. He returned to Canada in 1947 and passed away in 2015.
Joseph Beker was born in Kozowa, Poland, on April 1, 1913. He was drafted into the Polish Army, then survived the Kozowa ghetto, escaped and was on the run until the end of the war. He came to Canada in 1948. Joseph passed away in 1988.
Bronia Beker was born in Kozowa, Poland, on December 9, 1920. Together with her husband, Josio, she survived the Kozowa ghetto and came to Canada in 1948. Bronia passed away in 2015.
Claire Baum was born on January 25, 1936, in Rotterdam, Netherlands. She and her sister lived in hiding with a non-Jewish woman they called Tante Nel. Her parents also survived the war, and they all moved to Canada in 1951. Claire lives in Toronto.
Judy Abrams was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1937. She survived the Holocaust by hiding first with Ursuline nuns and then in the apartment of a non-Jewish family friend in Budapest. She immigrated to Canada in 1949 and now lives in Montreal.
Anna Molnár Hegedűs was born in Szatmár, Hungary (now Romania), in 1897. During the Holocaust, she survived the Szatmár ghetto, Auschwitz-Birkenau, forced labour in Germany and a death march. After the war, Anna immigrated to Israel in 1950 and to Canada in 1952, where she died in 1979.
Pinchas Gutter was born in 1932 in Lodz, Poland. He survived the Warsaw ghetto, Majdanek and several other concentration camps. After the war he lived in England, France, Israel, Brazil and South Africa before immigrating to Canada in 1985.
Family and community were at the heart of Jewish life in Europe. Before the Holocaust, Jewish families came in all shapes and sizes: some people lived with their immediate family members and others lived together with numerous relatives including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Memories of family are often the most precious and the most painful to survivors of the Holocaust. Many watched their family members suffer and die during the Holocaust, while others were separated from their parents, children, or siblings. A few lucky families made it through the war together. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many survivors created new lives for their families in Canada.
Jewish life in pre-war Europe varied greatly in terms of religious practice, socioeconomic status, family size, and level of acculturation into European society. Some Jews lived as minorities in cities and others lived in shtetls – small market towns with large Jewish populations. Many Jews, especially in Eastern Europe, were observant and organized their daily lives around Judaism, while others were secular and defined themselves as Jews based on shared history, ancestry and customs. Despite the variation across and within Jewish communities in Europe, there were many commonalities among European Jews who shared religious and linguistic history, cultural traditions, and family bonds. Some of the most important aspects of survivors' accounts are their memories of life before the war.
Survivors’ accounts demonstrate the human impact of geo-political developments occurring in Europe in the lead-up to World War II and during the conflict itself. Some individuals responded to the Nazi threat by applying for hard-to-obtain visas for safe countries, and many were caught by surprise by German invasion and occupation. At the outbreak of war, people understood what was happening around them in different ways, and their memoirs tell us about their decision making strategies and struggles. After the Holocaust, some survivors continued to be affected by political developments occurring in Soviet-controlled regions.
For many centuries, Jews throughout Europe had experienced waves of oppression and brutality, including pogroms – violent attacks on Jews. During the Holocaust, the Nazis gradually implemented a program of state-sponsored antisemitism that surpassed the forms of discrimination and persecution that existed in Europe. After the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they confiscated property from Jews, denied them access to public places, and barred them from attending schools, owning businesses and participating in other aspects of civic and public life. In countries occupied by Germany, local governments supplemented German anti-Jewish measures by creating their own forms of discrimination and persecution.
Deportation was the Nazi strategy for moving people from one location to another in order to subject them to ill-treatment and murder. In general, Jews were forced from their homes, from ghettos, or from other collection centres, gathered together under the pretext of “resettlement,” and packed into trains or trucks to be sent to an unknown destination. From 1942 to 1944, the Nazis organized transports of Jews from all over Europe to the newly operating killing centres in Poland, where the majority were murdered. Others were sent to various Nazi camps and sites with different functions located throughout Europe. Deportations were a transition moment from one stage of persecution to another and were marked by terrible fear and suffering.
Created by the Nazis as a way to persecute Jews in Eastern Europe and segregate them from the rest of the population, ghettos were designated districts within a city or town in which Jews were forced to live. Ghettos were often enclosed by walls and gates, and entry and exit from the ghettos was strictly controlled. Family and community life continued to some degree, but starvation and disease were rampant due to the miserable living conditions. Some ghetto inhabitants escaped, others resisted through smuggling – trading goods on the black market – while others witnessed or took part in armed uprisings, the largest of which was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Starting in 1941, the ghettos were gradually closed and Jews were deported to camps and killing centres.
Beginning in 1933 and continuing until the end of the war, the Nazis operated thousands of camps that imprisoned millions of people. The sites were located across Europe and included very different types of camps: concentration camps intended to detain so-called “enemies of the state,” transit camps where Jews were gathered before being deported, labour camps where prisoners became slave labourers, and death camps or killing centres where the sole purpose was mass murder. The most well-known camp was Auschwitz, a complex that included a concentration camp, a labour camp and a killing centre called Birkenau, which was established in 1942. Those who were imprisoned in camps were subject to forced labour, starvation, disease and brutal beatings.
Jews experienced violence throughout the Nazi period which increased with the outbreak of World War II. Many Jews were killed in the violence accompanying the German invasion and occupation of Poland and in ghettos set up throughout Eastern Europe. Violence and mass murder increased again in the summer of 1941 with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and implementation of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” – the Nazi plan to kill all Jews, including women and children. Initially this organized mass murder was carried out by mobile killing units that swept eastwards with the German army and murdered Jews in shooting operations near their homes. Later, murder was carried out by deporting Jews to killing centres equipped with gas chambers.
Resistance to Nazi Germany and its collaborators took several forms. Many Jews participated in armed uprisings that occurred in ghettos and camps across Eastern Europe, and others escaped into the forest and joined partisan units to harass the German occupiers. Across Europe, Jews took part in underground resistance movements that aimed to save Jews and disrupt the German war effort. Jews who continued to participate in religious, cultural and educational activities despite their desperate circumstances engaged in what scholars refer to as “spiritual resistance.” Throughout occupied Europe, non-Jews resisted too by helping and hiding Jews, working for resistance movements and finding other ways to combat Nazi Germany and its collaborators.
Life in hiding took various forms during the Holocaust. Some Jews were physically concealed in hiding places in apartments or barns, or in camouflaged shelters in the forest. Many others spent the Holocaust hiding in plain sight by assuming false identities and living as non-Jews. Life in hiding was precarious because the Nazis and their collaborators searched for Jews and rewarded people who turned them in. The punishment was severe for people who were found to be helping Jews in hiding.
A common theme in survivors' stories is escape. Some describe their family’s decision to flee from Nazi persecution or to go into hiding. Others speak of the moments in which they narrowly avoided capture or death by escaping from camps, ghettos, prisons or execution sites. Escape took great courage and often required assistance, and it was never guaranteed to succeed.
Many survivors credit their survival to moments of good fortune or fate. Sometimes these moments are attributed to faith, God or religion, but just as often they are not. Survivor accounts demonstrate that people made decisions without knowing what the outcome would be. Their escape or survival cannot be attributed to the special characteristics an individual might possess (their strength or bravery, for example), but rather to their being in the right place at the right time.
Many Jews survived the Holocaust because they received help from someone who became their rescuer. Rescuers had different motives: some wanted to help a friend or loved one, others drew on moral or religious rationales, and still others were drawn to complex rescue and resistance networks to help those in need. People who helped Jews did so at great risk to themselves and their families. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Authority, created the title of Righteous Among the Nations to honour non-Jews who risked their lives to help save Jews during the Holocaust. If a person fits certain criteria and the story is carefully corroborated, the honouree is awarded with a medal and certificate and commemorated on the Wall of Honour at the Garden of the Righteous in Jerusalem.
Liberation arrived at different times and in different ways for every survivor. Some emerged from their hiding spots when the Soviet army liberated territories in the east, and others were freed by Allied armies entering concentration camps in Western Europe. Jews who had survived by hiding in the open decided when it was safe to put away their false identification papers and reclaim their Jewish identities. At liberation, many survivors found themselves thousands of miles from home, weakened by years of war and mistreatment, and uncertain about the fate of their family members. As survivors searched for loved ones and decided where to rebuild their lives, some continued to face threats of violence, hatred and discrimination.
Holocaust survivors were unable to immigrate to Canada until the liberalization of Canada’s immigration policies between 1946 and 1947. Among the first survivors to reach Canada were 1,123 youths admitted under the War Orphans Project between 1947 and 1952. Some survivors came to Canada directly from Europe, and others made stops along the way. Arrival in Canada was not without challenges and many survivors' stories of life in this country include episodes of adversity and prejudice. What was shared among all survivors was their determination to start new lives despite the traumas in their pasts. Canada became the eventual home of approximately 40,000 survivors of the Holocaust.
In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, survivors often learned that they had no homes or families to return to; others experienced renewed persecution in countries under Soviet control. Years later, the traumas they had faced continued to haunt many survivors. The long-term effects vary — from an avoidance of the past to persistent nightmares or to a constant struggle to come to terms with what happened to them and their loved ones. For some, sharing their painful histories with others is a way forward to help future generations avoid the horrific mistakes of the past.
Of the approximately 1,000 ghettos created by the Nazis to segregate and persecute Jews in Eastern Europe, the largest was located in the Polish city of Warsaw. In the fall of 1940, more than 400,000 Jews were eventually forced into the Warsaw ghetto, where they faced extreme overcrowding, violence, starvation and disease, and ultimately, deportation to the Treblinka killing centre. In one of the most significant acts of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, Jewish ghetto fighters launched an uprising in 1943 that lasted for several weeks before being crushed by Nazi forces. This special collection features the experiences of several young Polish Jews who ended up in the Warsaw ghetto, detailing their efforts to survive the ghetto’s harsh conditions and their perspective on the uprising.
One of the most notorious sites during the Holocaust was the complex of camps in Poland called Auschwitz, which included the death camp or killing centre known as Birkenau. Upon arrival at Auschwitz, some Jews were selected to be used as forced labour, and the rest were murdered in gas chambers. In 1943, camp authorities established a “family camp” for Czech Jews, and for several months some families were able to remain together before the selection. Jews selected for labour worked long hours in horrific conditions on a starvation diet, living in fear that every moment could be their last. From deportation to the camp on cattle cars to the forced marches from Auschwitz to other camps, this special collection outlines the experiences that survivors of Auschwitz endured.
In Germany, the Nazi regime systematically put in place anti-Jewish laws to humiliate and isolate Jews and cement their inferior status. The first steps in the Holocaust included robbing Jews of their livelihoods, possessions, civil rights and citizenship. As the Nazis extended their control in Europe, so too did they implement anti-Jewish laws in the countries they occupied, and collaborating states added their own anti-Jewish laws and restrictions. One of the most visible forms of persecution was the requirement for Jews to be marked with a star, which was first established in Poland in 1939 and subsequently adopted throughout most of occupied Europe. This special collection recounts the ways that some survivors experienced state-imposed persecution.
More than one million Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust, but some managed to survive. Many were sheltered by brave individuals, religious institutions or resistance groups who risked their lives to keep them safe. Others were left to fend for themselves, posing as non-Jews with false identities or seeking refuge in forests. Some children hid with their families, while others were separated from their parents, many of whom did not survive the Holocaust. In the postwar period, former hidden children had to adjust to new realities including separation from their wartime foster families and reclamation of their Jewish identities. The stories of children who survived in hiding are featured in the collection below.
With the end of World War II, the remaining Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe were liberated. Although liberation marked the end of the Holocaust, the resulting trauma continued to shape the lives of many survivors. Some have physical and emotional scars from their experiences, and they still grieve over their lost loved ones. This special collection shows the range of ways that survivors carry their experiences with them decades after the end of the war.