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Friday, August 29, 2014

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Thornhill park renamed for Holocaust survivor

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Felix Opatowski

TORONTO — Felix Opatowski says he feels like “a million dollars” after learning that a Thornhill park has been renamed in his honour.

A Holocaust survivor who lived in the Lodz Ghetto and was imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau, he said that “now that I have so much land, maybe I’ll put up a condo.”

He might joke about the fact that the city of Markham is renaming Tamarack Park East, located off Tamarack Drive in the Willowbrook Road area, “but truly, I am overcome. When I found out, I had tears in my eyes.

“Maybe now, people will think about the Holocaust, and in 500 years, they’ll remember my name.”

Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti publicly announced the renaming of the park at Shaar Shalom Synagogue’s Shabbat service on Oct. 26. At the same time, Scarpitti talked about his recent visit to the site of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.

Opatowski, who attended the service with his wife, Regina, said that he was “so impressed with the mayor’s speech, that when I closed my eyes, I was sure I was listening to a Jew.”

The mayor said that the seeds for renaming the park began with Howard Shore, a Thornhill-Markham city councillor, who worked on the plan to rename a Thornhill-area park to honour and recognize a Holocaust survivor, not only for his individual experience, “but as a testament to all [those who survived] and those who did not.”

Opatowski was recognized by Markham city council at its International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration last January.

At age 15, Opatowski smuggled goods out of the Lodz Ghetto in exchange for food for his starving family, and later, he was a runner for the Polish Underground inside Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Since moving to Canada, he has spoken to thousands of students across the country about the Holocaust, and he’s the author of his personal story, Gateway to Hell.

Shore, who is “excited and proud” about the name change, said that naming a park after a survivor is a wonderful way to pay tribute to someone who lived through the most horrific genocide in modern history.

“Although painful memories haunt them, many of the survivors are brave enough to speak about their experiences time and time again, so that others can learn about the importance of tolerance and the acceptance of diversity,” Shore said.

He said he’s also planning to have a monument erected in the park to pay tribute to survivors and those who perished in the Holocaust.

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