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Thursday, September 3, 2015

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Survivor talks of hope in Shoah’s darkest hours

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Violinist Uri Mayer played a tribute to the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. [Jordan Adler photo]

TORONTO — Seventy years ago, during the darkest days of the Holocaust, those caught up in the war began moving from thoughts of permanent horror to potential hope that the war’s end would be near.

For Hungarian Jew Leslie Meisels, 1944 was a year of both horror and hope. This year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day marked the 70th anniversary of the announcement that Jews from his hometown of Nadudvar would be forced from their homes into a ghetto.

“What kept me going? That simple four-letter word: hope,” Meisels told a crowd of more than 1,000 at the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Community Campus on Sunday. “Every survivor is alive because some miracles happened to them when they should have perished.”

Meisels, now 87, was one of several survivors who attended this year’s Yom Hashoah v’Hagvurah commemoration with their families in memory of the six million Jews, including 1.5 million children, who perished in the Holocaust.

The thought that future generations won’t hear first-person accounts from witnesses of the Shoah, such as Meisels, wasn’t lost on anyone at the ceremony.

“This is a time when the Holocaust is passing from living memory into history,” said DJ Schneeweiss, consul general of Israel in Toronto. “By keeping history alive, we also keep ourselves alive in history.”

Fortunately for Meisels, all five of his siblings survived the war. His family was part of a group of nearly 2,000 Jews in an exchange between Rudolf Kastner and Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann allowed nearly 2,000 Jews to live in exchange for gold, diamonds and money.

But Meisels still ended up at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where his family was allowed to stay together and treated with more compassion than other prisoners. Yet their lives were still very fragile.

“I entered [Bergen-Belsen] at a robust 175 pounds,” Meisels said. “After four months, I became a 75-pound, emaciated skeleton. To die there was easy. To stay alive was a hard fight.”

He told a rapt crowd that before the Nazis occupied Hungary in March 1944, the country’s government fed its citizens propaganda, making them believe the stories of cruelty from nearby countries were only rumours.

The somber ceremony also featured a stirring violin performance by Uri Mayer, who played over footage of images from Yad Vashem’s Auschwitz Album projected on screens around the hall.

The album has photos that SS officers took when 430,000 Hungarian Jews arrived at Auschwitz in 1944, many of whom were murdered within two months. Some 570,000 Hungarian Jews perished in the Holocaust.

“Even today in this age of liberty and opportunity, many of us worry that the evil winds of that earlier time may be returning,” Schneeweiss warned. He cited the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary and Ukraine as examples that Jewish populations in Eastern Europe are not secure.

In attendance were several MPs and MPPs, as well as Toronto mayoral candidates John Tory and David Soknacki.

Meisels and his wife, Eva, a child survivor of the Budapest ghetto who was saved by Raoul Wallenberg, are involved with educating thousands of students every year. Meisels’ story of survival is featured in Suddenly the Shadow Fell, part of the Azrieli Series of Holocaust Survivor Memoirs.

The 87-year-old survivor, who lives in Toronto, also documented his experiences as part of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation.

“All future generations must remember these facts,” Meisels said. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. We must and we will remember.”

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