David Shentow, one of Canada’s best-known Holocaust survivors and educators, died June 12 at the age of 92 following a lengthy illness.
By all accounts, Shentow, who was born in Warsaw in 1925, suffered more than most people could bear by the time he was liberated from the Dachau concentration camp on his 20th birthday.
Faced with starvation, hard labour, disease, harsh winters and a death march, Shentow was the only person in his immediate family to come out of the war alive. He lost both his parents and two sisters.
Shentow, who raised two daughters, Renee and Lorie, in Ottawa with his wife of 67 years, Rose, was buried in Toronto on June 14. He had moved to a Toronto nursing home as his health failed so his Toronto-area family could better care for him.
During the funeral service, Eli Rubenstein, national director of March of the Living Canada – through which he developed a relationship with Shentow, who joined the trip in the 2000s as an educator – recalled some of the horrific stories Shentow told.
Rubenstein shared Shentow’s account of arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau in late 1942.
“Alongside of the station platform, I could see men dressed in what appeared to me to be striped pyjamas and striped caps. I noticed that they were wearing wooden clogs on their bare feet,” Rubenstein read.
“Suddenly, we were surrounded by SS guards holding on to vicious guard dogs, German shepherds, trained to rip out a prisoner’s throat instantaneously upon command. Megaphones, used at full power, ordered us to vacate the train immediately. We had less than 10 seconds to obey that first command.… Any passenger who offered the least sign of resistance was shot on the spot.
“David also saw a Nazi grab a crying baby and slam its tiny body against the side of the boxcar, instantly killing it. ‘I knew I was in hell,’ David would say later.”
When Shentow was liberated in 1945, and after discovering his entire family had been murdered, he decided to start a new life, and moved in 1949 to Toronto, where his uncle lived.
His uncle set him up with Rose Feldberg, who was 18 at the time, and visiting from Ottawa.
Rubenstein said Rose told him it was love at first sight, and they were married within six weeks, settling in Ottawa.
“Among the qualities Rose [fell in love with] were his humanity, his sensitivity, his wonderful sense of humour, his respect for women,” Rubenstein said.
Shentow’s daughter Renee spoke about the relationship she had with her father, the impact he had on her and the wisdom he imparted.
“My dad was an honourable, ethical, compassionate man. Others may speak about my father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor … of the awards and accolades he has received for his community involvement. Instead, I’m going to share some memories of my father so that you might know him like I did,” she said to an intimate gathering of about 25, fighting back tears.
“When I was young, he was what we now call a stay-at-home-dad,” she said, explaining that he encouraged his wife to go back to school to become a teacher. “Definitely unconventional in the 1950s and early ’60s.”
She said her father had a great sense of humour that could make her smile even in the worst of times.
“I remember when I was feeling kind of low, depressed, miserable when I turned 40, and I said to my dad, ‘Dad, I can’t believe I’m 40.’ And he said, ‘How do you think I feel? I have a daughter who is 40!’”
Shentow balanced his sense of humour with his ability to impart practical wisdom that continues to guide Renee today.
She recalled when she complained about sleepless nights with her baby, he told her, “‘One night of the baby not sleeping through the night is one night closer to when the baby will.’ I have employed that saying over and over when facing situations that never seem to end. I sometimes wonder if he survived the camps because he thought, ‘One more day of hell is one day closer to liberation.’”
Renee said her father didn’t talk about his experiences in the Holocaust when she was young, “But then the Holocaust deniers started talking and my parents felt it was important for my father to educate people and tell them the true story,” she said.
Rubenstein said when Shentow learned about people like Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel in the 1980s, he said, “I would crawl on my hands and knees all the way to Auschwitz-Birkenau, or anywhere else, to tell my story to anyone who was willing to listen.”
Renee said she will miss her father’s wisdom, optimism and his strength.
“From now on, when faced with a decision to make, I will think, ‘What would my dad do?’ and that will be my guide.”
Shentow is survived by his wife, two children, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.