MONTREAL — Montrealer George Novak is likely the only living Holocaust survivor who, for almost a year, regularly polished the boots of the notorious Nazi Martin Bormann.
At 90, Novak, a retired businessman who lives in Laval, can still recall in detail what it was like to interact with and attend to the footwear of Bormann, a rabid anti-Semite and loyal member of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle. Bormann disappeared and was not heard from again after Hitler’s bunker was consumed by flames in the spring of 1945.
Novak even had access to the locker where Bormann kept his boots.
A native Czech who was forced to toil as a slave labourer for four years – two of them because it was discovered he had a Jewish grandfather (Novak was born Catholic) – Novak remembers Bormann clearly.
“It was like yesterday,” Novak said, taking the occasional drag on a cigarette. “I was laying flagstones, and he approached me and said, ‘I am Martin Bormann.’
“I didn’t know who the hell he was, but I could tell he was someone important, and he liked the way I shined his boots. Every day, they had to have a mirror shine.”
And, Novak noted, Bormann did show a less evil side by making sure that his shoeshine boy would be fed and that neither he nor his Aunt Druda – his father’s sister in Terezin concentration camp – would ever end up in death camps.
“He was true to his word,” Novak said, “despite being a bastard.”
Novak met Bormann in Wulkow, a subcamp in east Germany where, from April 1944 on, he and a few dozen other Terezin prisoners were brought to construct, hidden away in the forest, a new “Reich Security Main Office” for the Gestapo that could not be seen by Allied bombers.
Novak, like the others, spent days hauling impossibly heavy logs and preparing roads and surfaces, but Bormann showed a certain level of kindness toward him by bringing him to a fancy dining room the Nazi higher-ups used and where Novak could forage for food in the garbage cans outside.
Novak believes that Bormann was killed at the end of the war.
Through the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, Novak has spoken over the years at synagogues and schools about his wartime odyssey, which began in 1941 when he was only 18 and arrested for not looking for work and “sabotaging the war effort.”
Novak ended up on a slave labour farm, but with only wooden clogs to wear, ended up with severe frostbite.
Still, his two years there allowed him to devour all the produce he could steal. “I was the biggest gonif there was,” Novak boasted.
Still, the fact that he had a Jewish grandfather did not come to light until the Nazis found out in 1943. He was then sent to Terezin’s political prison – called the kleine Festung, literally “little prison” – after the farm closed down.
Novak held up his hand up to display a permanent scar he got when he tried to protect himself from someone who attacked him and another prisoner with an axe after they were accused of stealing eggs.
“You can still see it,” he said.
Despite his having only one Jewish grandparent and managing to survive better than others, Novak was aware that death constantly lurked, and he suffered from exposure, overwork and the constant threat of deportation.
In 1942, Novak’s parents, his sister, and many villagers were sent to death camps from their Czech town of Golcuv Jenikov, as retaliation for the assassination of Reynard Heydrich, a Nazi official in administrative charge in the occupied Netherlands.
Despite the fact that he remained a slave labourer and suffered in many ways, including once going eight full days without food, Novak was still alive at the end of April 1945 when the International Red Cross entered Terezin.
After arriving in Montreal in 1949, he became a successful businessman, and since the mid 1990s, he has recorded testimony about his life through a Concordia University program run by the Steven Spielberg Foundation, and elsewhere.
When he speaks to younger people about his life, “they don’t have the slightest idea about who Martin Bormann was,” Novak said.
He also established a number of friendships within the then-Progressive Conservative party.
“I became a very proud Canadian,” Novak said. “This country took me in and let me become something.”