At an International Holocaust Remembrance Day event put on by Aish Toronto’s Living Legacy Experience in the basement of the Village Shul on Monday night, speaker after speaker urged the audience to start referring to survivors as Holocaust heroes. The shul’s volunteer leader Zale Newman took the stage around the middle of the event, after a presentation by JRoots Poland educator Rabbi Michael Olshin about Josef Mengele’s obsession with twins and before the testimony of survivor and hero Irving Buchbinder, to share his thoughts on the use of the word hero instead of survivor.
“We do not refer to them at our shul, these people, as survivors. A survivor is, you’re on Lake Simcoe and your boat goes down, and you hang on until they come and rescue you. That’s a survivor,” he said. “These people were taken from their home. They lost their childhood, their education, their family, their sense of home, their sense of place in the world, their joy in life, and they fought on.”
Rabbi Newman said that after years of learning, he finally knows everything he can hope to understand about the Holocaust, save the answers to two questions for the heroes that will always elude him: How did you survive? And how did you rebuild?
“I will never understand [how they survived]. I don’t want to find out. And all I can say is I think it’s miraculous,” he said of the first question. And as for the second, “It makes no human sense to me. Yet you’re here and you’re all a pleasure to speak to. And you’re sweet and you built families and professions and I have no idea how you make it one moment in life. And I never want to really know that either. But there’s only one word that I could use for that, and that’s heroic. That is not survival. That’s heroism!”
After Newman spoke, Buchbinder took the stage to recount some stories from his time before the war, living under Nazi rule, surviving various camps, fighting for Israel’s independence and eventually settling and building a life in Canada. He joked a few times about how he would need months to adequately share his experiences.
During his time as a prisoner, Buchbinder had many near brushes with death. There was a time he ran away and hid in a hole under his barrack to avoid the guards sending him to his death. The leader of the camp, a hunchbacked German, wanted to know who the “rabbit” was that had managed to avoid them. After a few days, people pointed Buchbinder out, and the commandant called Buchbinder into his office.
“If you can do this, you’re entitled to live,” the commandant told Buchbinder, before giving him clothes and food.
Another near miss came when Buchbinder was taken to the concentration camp Mauthausen.
“They were taking us to the gas chamber, but apparently the partisans blew up the gas chambers,” he said. “They couldn’t burn us. So we stayed there for about a week without food, without clothes, and all of a sudden we heard screaming … and we ran out, we saw all the Germans were gone, and we looked at the hill, we saw American tanks. This was May 5, 1945.”
Buchbinder eventually made his way to what was then Palestine, where he fought for Israel’s independence. He then travelled to Toronto, where some relatives were living, and where he eventually co-founded the Association for the Soldiers of Israel – Canada, which supports the wellbeing of Israel’s active soldiers.
Buchbinder celebrated his 93rd birthday 11 days before his talk, and, as he kept reminding the audience, he believes he has a lot of time left.
But eventually the surviving heroes from the Holocaust will pass away, and the Holocaust will recede further into the past. How will we keep their memory alive in the future?
“The facts are important. It’s important that we remember them. But honestly, we’re going to forget them. What’s important is, what are the lessons for us? What can we learn from the story?” said Rabbi Olshin near the end of his presentation.
Rabbi Olshin described how, if a twin that Mengele was experimenting on died, he would kill the other twin because it no longer had any value to him.
“That’s the Nazi view of man: useful,” Rabbi Olshin said. “And we’re the opposite. For us, we love our fellow man just because. He’s created in God’s image. He doesn’t have to be useful.”