Nate Leipciger has been to Auschwitz more than 30 times, 16 of them on March of the Living (MoL), where he provides teenagers a first hand account of the horrors perpetrated in the Nazi death camp.
Usually, the trips are sombre, given the nature of the place and the circumstance of the visit, but the one he took last week was different, even “triumphant,” he said.
Not only was he accompanied by his wife, daughter and granddaughter, but he was a special guest of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as well as his personal guide.
“It was a triumphant return to Auschwitz,” said Leipciger, 88. “They gave me a one-way ticket, but I returned with my wife, daughter and granddaughter and the prime minister.”
It was a far cry from his first experience of Auschwitz as a 15-year-old in 1943. At the time of his family’s arrival on a train, he did not know it would also be the last time he’d see his mother and sister. “It was the last time we were together as a family. I never said goodbye.”
The story of his arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau was one of several heart-rending accounts Leipciger described to the prime minister during their visit to the death camp.
Leipciger, who serves as a member of the board of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and as past president of Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, was invited by the Prime Ministers Office to accompany Trudeau to sites of Jewish life and death during his visit to Poland.
Trudeau was in Poland, along with Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion and International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, to attend NATO meetings before traveling to Ukraine.
Leipciger and his family accompanied Trudeau as he visited the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and as he laid a memorial wreath in honour of the Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Leipciger also walked with Trudeau on a three-hour tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with Piotr Cywinski, director of the Auschwitz Museum.
“Along the way, I was explaining what was happening…I showed him my barrack,” Leipciger said.
He described the day in August 1943 when his family arrived at Auschwitz and how his father risked his life to convince a Nazi officer to allow his son to come with him so he could work as an electrician.
During most of the visit, the prime minister was quiet, “but he showed his emotions. He had to wipe his eyes on at least two occasions, he was so moved,” Leipciger recounted.
One of the occasions was when, standing in front of the ruins of Gas Chamber Number Three, where Leipciger believes his mother and sister were murdered on Yom Kippur 1943, he recited prayers for the dead.
Another particularly emotional moment occurred when they came to the room containing mounds of human hair. “I said, when you look at the mass of hair, I feel that my mother and sister’s locks could be among them. It’s a very difficult situation for me,” Leipciger said.
Trudeau, who was accompanied by his eight-year-old son, Xavier, later signed the Auschwitz Museum remembrance book, saying: “Tolerance is never sufficient: humanity must learn to love our differences.
“Today we bear witness to humanity’s capacity for deliberate cruelty and evil. May we ever remember this painful truth about ourselves, and may it strengthen our commitment to never again allow such darkness to prevail.
“We shall never forget.”
Trudeau was applauded for adding the Auschwitz visit to his itinerary. “Prime Minister Trudeau showed great sensitivity and respect in visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau today, a site that is witness to an unspeakably dark period in human history. An official, high-level visit of this nature is significant in keeping the Shoah in Canada’s collective consciousness,” said David Cape, chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
“As Canadians, we must do more than remember – we must continue to care for the Holocaust survivors among us, speak out against anti-Semitism and hatred in all of its forms, and call for effective action to prevent genocide in our own time,” added Cape.
Eli Rubenstein, national director of March of the Living Canada, said “Prime Minister Trudeau is the third sitting prime minister to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, after Stephen Harper and Jean Chretien.
“Canada is indeed fortunate to have such sensitive political leadership that recognizes the importance of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, of commemorating the Holocaust, and sharing its lessons with the Canadian public,” he said.
Jenn Green, Leipciger’s granddaughter, who was also on the trip, said for her grandfather to return to Auschwitz in the company of the prime minister, 73 years after his arrival there, “is beyond words.”
Green, who had been to Auschwitz before on an MoL visit, said participants are taught that they have the responsibility to relate to others what happened there. Trudeau too “has now become a witness and his responsibility is to carry on the message that never again should that happen to anybody, any time.”