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Memoir chronicles strength of the human spirit

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Martin Baranek holds a copy of his memoir, following an evening of storytelling for youth from Canadian Young Judea. (Susan Minuk photo)

Determined: One Boy’s Holocaust Survival Story by Martin Baranek and Lisa B. Cicero is Baranek’s memoir about overcoming loss, suffering at the hands of the Nazis and how a young boy’s underlying spirit and a series of miracles helped him survive.

Baranek, who survived a death march, has participated in every March of the Living for the past 20 years, except for this year. Instead, Baranek addressed the crowd at a Zikaron B’Salon event, an evening of collective remembrance that incorporates testimony and discussion, where he reiterated his message to the attendees from Canadian Young Judaea: “We must never forget.”

“It’s rare that you meet people in your life with two birthdays,” said Sharlene Wilder, a Canadian Young Judaea board member and the evening’s moderator. “Martin was born on Aug. 15, 1930, but I think, after you hear Martin’s story, that May 4, 1945, deserves as much recognition: for it was on this day that our hero, Martin Baranek – a survivor, educator and author – was liberated.”

Baranek’s early childhood in Wierzbnik, Poland, was happy. His father worked in a construction materials business and his mother had a grocery store. Baranek had one brother and 16 cousins. He attended both heder and public school. On Sept. 1, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland and Baranek and his family fled to the countryside to his grandparents’ farm.

After the Nazis invaded their shtetl, young Baranek went on to survive the ghetto, a labour camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death march and Mauthausen. With his undying spirit – and a series of miracles – Baranek escaped the train headed for Treblinka, where the majority of his family perished, and was twice sent to the quarantine barracks in Birkenau, the last stop on the way to the gas chambers. Both times he escaped with only moments to spare.

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Baranek and Lisa Cicero first became acquainted in 2005, while participating in the March of the Living. Baranek and his wife were snowbirds in Florida, where Cicero lives, and when he and Cicero met for lunch, “I asked Marty if he ever thought of writing down his stories. He said, ‘Who would be interested in my story?’ ” Cicero recalled. “As he shared his stories with me, often he would look at me and say, ‘You know, I’ve never said that out loud,’ or, ‘I’ve never told that to anyone before.’ ”

Cicero conducted research through museums and archives, and over time, her notes started to take shape. “Many of the survivors were unable to share their stories after the war. Some because it was too painful or humiliating, and others because people did not want to hear or listen to their stories. Marty did not want to talk about the war for many years,” said Cicero. “Even after reuniting with his mother, they never spoke of the war, or (of) their experiences from the time they were separated until they were reunited.”

Determined demonstrates time and again that although Baranek was only a young boy during the Holocaust, he had the courage of a man. It was this incredible courage that kept him alive.

“Martin made the decision to escape during the liquidation of his town – he was with his grandmother and brother, and was determined to live. He had no idea where the train was headed, but he had a strong intuition and feeling inside that he was not meant to get on that train. It was a decision that risked his life completely, and it was also the most important life-saving decision, because the train went to Treblinka, where every person from his town went to their immediate deaths upon arrival,” said Cicero.

“Another incident that demonstrates Marty’s determination and will to survive was when he was already in Birkenau and selected to go to the gas chamber on Rosh Hashanah. Again, he made the split-second decision to run and hide in another barracks, taking an enormous risk, which would have resulted (in) being immediately shot on sight if caught.”

It is clear that, despite Baranek’s doubts, the world is interested in his story. Determined is now mandatory reading for approximately 5,650 students at Florida International University.

“What I learned from Marty is to be your own best life coach, that we all have the ability to talk ourselves through any situation and that sometimes we have to take the risk,” said Cicero. “This book is timely with the rise of anti-Semitism, as well as timeless with the eternal theme of survival.”

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