For decades, Hank Rosenbaum could not speak about his war-era experiences. But when he finally opened up, he became a leading voice in Holocaust education and advocacy.
Rosenbaum, who served as the co-president of Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants (CJHSD), died in Toronto on Aug. 2, a few weeks shy of his 82nd birthday.
“The loss of Hank Rosenbaum will be felt throughout the Canadian survivor community,” said CJHSD co-president Pinchas Gutter in a statement. “We owe it to the memory of those who were murdered, those who survived, and those – like Hank – who paved the way for us to deliver our message,” Gutter said.
Sidney Zoltak, the immediate past co-president of the group who served alongside Rosenbaum for eight years, said his colleague showed “unwavering dedication to the survivor community in Toronto and across the country. Hank became much more than a colleague to me. He became my friend, and he will be missed.”
The Jewish community “has lost a passionate advocate for survivors,” said David Cape, chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
Henry Rosenbaum was born on Aug. 19, 1936, in Warsaw. In 1940, his family was herded into the Warsaw Ghetto, where his brother perished and where the clan remained until 1942.
They then escaped through sewers, eventually arriving in the town of Lukow, 120 kilometres away, where Hank Rosenbaum and his family were hidden by a farmer and childhood friend of his father’s, in a secret hold beneath a barn’s cow pen.
Eights months later, they got word that they had been betrayed to the Nazis and were forced to move on. They escaped into the forest, where they remained until they were liberated by the Soviet army in 1944.
Rosenbaum lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany and immigrated to Canada in 1952, at the age of 16.
He worked in a clothing factory as a bundler, but quickly learned the skills of a cutter and went on to build his own textile-importing business.
He did not speak to his family about what he’d endured, reasoning that Canada had given him a fresh start. But his children heard stories about him waking up with blood on his pillow because he’d bitten his lip while having a nightmare.
In 1993, the family saw the movie Schindler’s List, at his urging. “He turned white and started sweating,” recalled his son, Brian Rosenbaum. “We asked, ‘Dad, what’s wrong?’ He opened up to us and that was the turning point.”
In the early 1990s, he and other survivors established Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Canada, which became the CJHSD in 1999. Rosenbaum also served as chair of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem from 1995 to 2009, and was instrumental in building the Wall of Remembrance in Earl Bales Park in Toronto.
He also helped initiate the annual Yom ha-Shoah ceremonies at Queen’s Park that recognize survivors who have contributed to Ontario, and spoke to thousands of students throughout his life.
In 2015, Rosenbaum was part of a community delegation that travelled to Ottawa to meet with European diplomats, to urge their governments to secure restitution for former citizens who lost property during the Holocaust.
“That the past cannot be changed does not absolve us of our responsibility to survivors today, who deserve nothing less than a small measure of justice for their losses,” he wrote in these pages at the time.
Survivors like him owe a special debt to history, Rosenbaum said a few years ago. “If we don’t teach this and we don’t transfer it to the newer generations, that is going to be a tremendous loss to the Jewish people.”
He is survived by his wife, Helen, children Cheryl, Brian and Steven, and seven grandchildren.