TORONTO — Standing before 400 friends, loved ones and well-wishers on Sunday, Nate Leipciger quipped: “Finally I have a bar mitzvah party.”
Although the line merited chuckles, Leipciger then recounted a horrific time. His real bar mitzvah took place in 1941, in the thick of the Holocaust, at a time his own father was already in a concentration camp.
The Polish-born Leipciger, 86, survived several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He came to Canada in 1948 and went on to become a stalwart of Holocaust education, speaking to thousands of students about the dangers of racism and the need to confront it with speech and action. That’s why Leipciger was paid tribute on Sunday at the Toronto Reference Library by Facing History and Ourselves, which conferred on him its first “Upstander Award.”
Founded in 1976, Facing History and Ourselves is an international educational and professional development organization that establishes resources, seminars and materials to counter racism, prejudice, stereotyping and bullying.
The tribute heard that more than 95,000 educators worldwide use the organization’s materials, reaching more than three million students. Some of its work was introduced in Ontario in 1981, with workshops offered in several school boards.
A Canadian arm of the group was established in 2008, with Leipciger a founding member. The Toronto office provides professional development and resources to more than 1,800 educators in Ontario and across the country, reaching some 100,000 students in 200 schools.
Leipciger is a well-known figure in Toronto’s Holocaust education community. He was the co-founder and first chair of the Holocaust Education and Memorial Centre of Toronto and chaired the Holocaust Remembrance and Education Committee for six years. He has been on several March of the Living trips to Poland.
And for more than 40 years, he has spoken to local elementary, high school and university students not only about his war-era experiences, but about the lessons they provide, chiefly, the need to speak out against racism. Those lessons were well-learned by Ryan Venedam and Stephan Goslinksi, students at Woburn Collegiate Institute in Scarborough. Speaking at the tribute, the two lauded Leipciger as “the most brilliant example of an ‘upstander’ – someone who stands up for others.”
Inspired by his talks, the two students began producing podcasts on the struggles refugees in Canada face. “We could not have come this far or learned this much without him, and for that, we would like to extend a massive thank you,” they said.
More recently, Leipciger has advocated for the Pusumas, a Roma family targeted by far-right thugs in their native Hungary. Jozsef Pusuma, his wife Timea Darozci and their daughter Lulu, 6, have lived for nearly three years in limbo in a Toronto church after being denied admission to Canada.
Surrounded by his wife, Bernice, three daughters and nine grandchildren, and sporting his trademark black leather cap, Leipciger recalled that he arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Aug. 2, 1943, at the age of 15. “I looked like 12,” he said. “Why was I snatched from the teeth of death?”
It was thanks to his father, who on several occasions, convinced Nazi guards to spare his son’s life. “He put his life at risk many times.”
Inmates were told life expectancy at the notorious killing centre was four months. “My mind went blank in disbelief and fear. They were actually killing us. My mind could not process that information.”
His voice cracking, he said, “We committed no crime. We had no trial. And yet, we were, so to speak, on death row. And we asked, ‘Where was the world? Where is God?’ There was no answer.”
On Yom Kippur 1943, he learned his mother and sisters were gassed on arrival. He and his father were the family’s sole survivors.
In an interview with The CJN, Leipciger was humble about the tribute. “It’s not me who’s being honoured, but all the survivors who speak and those who are traumatized and cannot speak,” he said. “So I’m speaking for all of them. I’m their voice and the voice of the people who didn’t make it.”
He called Holocaust education outside the Jewish educational system “very wanting. We have to fix it.” In partnership with the Toronto District School Board, Facing History and Ourselves developed an elective Grade 11 course titled “Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity.” The only such course to win approval from the education ministry, it now has more than 500 students in 22 schools.