WARNING: This story contains disturbing details.
Eighty years ago, as World War II tore apart Europe, members of a Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, Poland, fought their German oppressors in what has been called the greatest uprising of the Holocaust.
On Sunday, half a world away, the Jewish community in Newfoundland paid tribute to the people who lost their lives in that struggle and beyond.
“It’s a way of remembering the victims of the Holocaust and saying they have not been forgotten. But most of all, it’s a way of saying never again,” said Steven Wolinetz, a political science professor at Memorial University.
“This is a world of rising anti-Semitism and rising intergroup tensions,” he said. “It’s a way of saying that we don’t give permission, that we don’t want to live in a world of hate, a world of conflict between groups, but a world where different groups can get along.”
Wolinetz helped organize a memorial service at St. John’s where Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter recalled some of the atrocities he witnessed during Nazi rule.
Gutter described being taken to a concentration camp as a young child, forced to strip naked and stand in the shower.
“They try to deceive you and instead of water, gas comes out. Then you will die. So [I] started saying my prayer and waiting,” he said. “But in my case, water came out.”
For a while he worked at the shooting range – a dangerous job where exploding ammunition could kill at any moment. But it saved the fate of many others, forced to work with dangerous chemicals and without protective equipment, who often died within months of arriving at the camp, their skin turning yellow from the poison that had seeped inside.
One day, Gutter recalled, prisoners were taken to roll call and told the camp was being closed. Suddenly two women were executed in front of the crowd.
“We started running,” he said. “Where are you hiding? You are surrounded by electrified wires… [but] The barracks were built on stilts, so I tried to burrow under them like an animal.”
But a friend found him and took him to safety before soldiers could find and shoot him. The man stripped off his dirty clothes, combed his hair and rubbed his late wife’s lipstick on his cheeks before directing him back to the appeal lines.
“He saved my life,” Gutter said, describing how the most ragged prisoners were yanked from the lines and taken to the woods to be shot.
Gutter was later freed and worked as a Holocaust educator, spreading his testimony across Canada.
For Wolinetz, stories like Gutter’s must be retold, even decades later – and thousands of miles away from the epicenter of the Holocaust.
“Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it,” said Wolinetz.
“What happened… people might have thought it was unthinkable. And yet the unthinkable happened. People lined up signs of intolerance, indifference, forgetting that there is a better way.
“So it’s important, even if it’s only 100 people … to remember to repeat those lessons.”
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