TORONTO — For years, Joe Mandel turned down the opportunity to join the March of the Living on its annual trip to Nazi death camps.
Mandel was a Holocaust survivor who was liberated by American troops on May 4, 1945, in the Gunskirchen Concentration Camp. And in 2012, he changed his mind about the trip. It was a propitious decision.
That was the same year that the March, which brings hundreds of Jewish teenagers and survivors to Poland to visit the destroyed Jewish communities as well as the Nazi death camps, invited U.S. liberators on the trip.
And there, in eastern Europe, a remarkable coincidence was recorded for posterity. Mandel met Mason (Mickey) Dorsey, a veteran of the 71st Infantry Division, the man who actually blew open the gates of Gunskirchen in Austria.
When Mandel learned that his liberator was present, he sought him out and identified himself, and the two men shared an emotional embrace.
“Who could have scripted a thing like that?” asked Eli Rubenstein, national director of March of the Living Canada. “The students saw the survivor thank him, hug him. No student will forget that. It’s a memory they’ll have for the rest of their lives.”
March of the Living, a department of Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, recorded the reunion as well as the testimony of hundreds of survivors who joined the March over the years. Thanks to grants from the Canadian government, the Claims Conference and Dennis and Laura Bennie, totaling $194,000, the digitized version of the meeting will soon be accessible to the wider public.
The grant will permit the March of the Living to take their footage of survivors’ testimonies, digitize and organize them into archives that will be made available on the web to anyone with an interest in the Holocaust.
Resembling Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, which records testimony of survivors and witnesses, the March’s project goes one step further, Rubenstein said. The March videos were recorded on site, in eastern European villages and death camps. They pack an additional emotional punch by virtue of their location, the reaction of the students and chance circumstances such as Mandel’s reunion with his liberator. That’s something you don’t get in a recording made in someone’s living room, he said.
Rubenstein points to the testimony of another survivor, Sidney Zoltak. Zoltak grew up in the Polish village of Siemiatycze. At the age of 11, he escaped to live in the forest. In his story, recorded at Treblinka where nearly one million Jews were murdered, he tells how of all his classmates, he is the only who survived.
“This is where my village was wiped out,” he tells March students. The rest of you can have class reunions, but the only place for my class reunion is here, he said.
“The power of that testimony and as a teaching tool is exceptionally moving,” Rubenstein said.
Given the location and the presence of the students, many survivors provide more details than they might have otherwise, he added.
With the grants in place, March of the Living will hire personnel to assist in retrieving videos taken over the past 25 years, which are scattered in the organization’s offices in Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg. The testimonies will then be transferred to a common digital format and edited. In the end, the expectation is that survivors’ testimony will be organized by theme – hidden children, prewar life, resistance, liberation – and be made available online, perhaps in co-operation with Canadian Holocaust centres.
The goal is to “create a web portal so students in the future can access the testimony and give the general public access to the material,” Rubenstein said.