Pinchas Gutter, whose words have been quoted by U.S. President Barack Obama, will communicate a message of “tolerance and diversity” as keynote speaker at Ottawa’s Yom HaShoah commemoration on April 15. Louise Rachlis reports.
“Generally, the world doesn’t realize that it can happen any time, any day, with any people,” said Gutter, in an interview with the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin. “It just needs the right ingredients. It’s like the cauldron of the witches of Macbeth. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, and out comes hatred. All these things are happening all the time because there is no respect for other people. That is basically my message.”
Born in 1932 to a Chassidic family in Lodz, Poland, Pinchas Gutter is a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and six Nazi concentration camps. He lost his parents in Majdanek when he was 10. After the war, he lived in South Africa for many years before immigrating to Canada in 1985.
“I always try to bring home that hate is the worst thing that you propagate,” said Gutter, now of Toronto, who speaks eight languages.
“You must regard every person as a human being … I am a religious person, I come from a very long line of Chassidim, and I feel it’s very important. Hatred stems from people thinking their God is better than another’s God or their religion is better than other people’s religion, or their colour is different or their creed it different. A human being is a human being and should be respected as such.”
Gutter said he will start his talk in Ottawa by telling his story from before the war, during the war, and after the war.
While he has been involved in Holocaust education for quite a while, he said that “for many years, I didn’t speak of it. My wife is South African and didn’t know much about the war, and I didn’t want to burden my kids. Ten years after the war, I never gave a thought to the Holocaust. I was going on 14 when the war finished and was taken to an orphanage in England. My brain decided that I didn’t have to suffer. I was working, belonging to clubs, going out to the cinema and educating myself. In 1955, it suddenly kicked in with nightmares, and I started suffering. Holocaust survivors’ children suffer like their parents.”
He became involved with the Holocaust Museum in Capetown.
In 1992, historian Paula Draper asked Gutter to give testimony about his experiences in the Holocaust.
“That was the first time I gave a full four-hour testimony on video of what happened. That’s when I gave my kids each a tape.”
He was persuaded to return to Poland for the first time to make a video called The Void, and took his whole family with him.
Asked to participate as a survivor in the March of the Living, Gutter said he would only go if Christians came along too. In 2005, he accompanied an American group of Catholic educators.
“They were all non-Jews, and it was a very important trip for me and for them. The following year, the College of Saint Elizabeth, a private Roman Catholic college for women in New Jersey, asked me to take their students, mostly non-Jewish.”
He has now been on memorial marches at least 15 times, with 95 per cent non-Jewish participants, including to Germany and Poland with the March of Remembrance and Hope run by the Canadian Centre for Diversity.
In May, he’ll participate again in the March of Remembrance and Hope.
Looking to leave South Africa, Gutter came to Toronto to visit one of his wife’s relatives. “Every breath I took was like a breath of freedom. I knew this was where I wanted to live. It was the first country after Poland that is a part of me. I regard this as my home.”
Wanting to be independent, Gutter left the orphanage and started working in England at age 14: on a farm, as a motor mechanic and in a textile factory. He also volunteered in the Israeli Army and later worked until retirement in the financial sector.
“It’s a question of circumstances. I came from a proud 400-year-old family of winemakers. I was always independent,” he said.
Known for his melodious voice, Gutter has been the honorary cantor of the Kiever Synagogue in Toronto’s Kensington Market area for the past 27 years.
“Hopefully, by telling my story over and over again, I will achieve the purpose of making the world a better place to live in,” he said.
Last year, at a Los Angeles dinner honouring Stephen Spielberg, Gutter’s words were quoted by U.S. President Barack Obama.
“For me, the importance of his speech was that the president of the United States created an awareness of how important testimony is for the world,” Gutter said.
Julien Klener will also speak at the Yom HaShoah event on whether today’s Europe, 70 years after the Holocaust, is a safe place for Jews.
Born in Ostend, Belgium in 1939, Klener spent the war as a “hidden child” in Brussels. Today, he is president of the Belgian Israelite Consistory, the official Jewish organization representing the Jewish community to the Belgian government.
The Yom HaShoah commemoration will take place Wednesday, April 15, 7 pm, at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre.
For more information, contact Benita Siemiatycki at 613-798-4696, ext. 227 or email@example.com.