TORONTO — For Felix Opatowski – a survivor of Auschwitz whose memoirs were published recently by the Azrieli Foundation – the best part of living in Canada is its democracy.
Opatowski, who was born in Lodz 88 years ago, stressed that point in a Skype video conference late last month, when he spoke to a Grade 11 class at a Catholic school in Lloydminster, Alta., more than 3,000 kilometres away.
“Do you really appreciate it 100 per cent?” he asked the teens, referring to Canada.
“I do,” the father of four, now a grandfather and great-grandfather, told them.
“I appreciate Canada. I love it!” he exclaimed, raising his hands jubilantly in the air. “You have this freedom here, which I never knew was possible. I was Jewish in Poland. I was a second-class citizen all the time.”
He peppered his talk with statistics that conveyed the extent of the Holocaust, and at the same time told his story from a more personal perspective.
The class of more than 40 students at Holy Rosary High School had spent two months studying Opatowski’s memoir, Gatehouse to Hell. The book includes details of his time as a teenage concentration camp prisoner and reflections on his survival, as well as his struggle with his loss of religious faith and rebuilding his life.
The students’ history teacher, Jessie Mann, had contacted the Azrieli Foundation’s outreach and communications manager, Elin Beaumont, in February, to inquire about books that she could use for a Holocaust unit.
Beaumont suggested they go a step further, bringing the survivor to the students to interact. The teens were “excited to meet face to face,” Beaumont said. “They were all really pumped and very excited about this day.”
It was the first time the Azrieli Foundation had set up such a conference.
Before the event took place, Mann was quoted in a news release as saying, “The students involved in this are our future leaders. The more we can help them understand complicated events in history, the better prepared these learners will be when they are making decisions that affect other people in the world.”
Student Dominic Sims, in the same release, said, “Our generation is one of the last who will have the opportunity to talk directly to someone who survived the Holocaust… That is crazy extraordinary.”
When the 90-minute session finished, an emotional Opatowski told The CJN that at times when he was talking to the students, he felt like he was in the classroom with them.
The students and their teacher also felt a connection. Mann told Opatowski as the conference was coming to a close, “When they saw your face on the screen, they all lit up, and there was a buzz in here.” There were not many dry eyes in the room, she added, noting that even some of the boys had tears in their eyes.
Opatowski wondered aloud how much to share with the students.
“Should I tell you more than you’re supposed to know?” he asked rhetorically. “You look like such fine young people… I’m sure you’re thinking already of what you’re going to be – teachers, scientists. You’re going to do good for the population of the world.”
He advised the students to never give up, live life to the fullest, be good to others, stay in school and live a good life.
Cara Ellingboe, a student in the class, thanked Opatowski on behalf of her classmates. “Every moment was just awesome,” she said. “Loving life, appreciating democracy – the messages you left us, we’re going to remember them forever.”
The Azrieli Foundation publishes the memoirs of survivors whose journeys brought them to Canada. Opatowski’s book is one of five new memoirs launched this year by the foundation’s Holocaust survivor memoirs program, established in 2005.
The books, which are published in English and French, are distributed free of charge to libraries, educational institutions and Holocaust education programs.