Robbie Waisman, one of “The Boys of Buchenwald,” will give the keynote address at Ottawa’s Yom HaShoah Community Commemoration, Tuesday, May 3, 7 pm, at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre.
‘Imagine being a 14-year-old boy, hungry, starved, deprived of every human emotion, dehumanized, and in spite of it all, dreaming of being reunited with family.’
That’s the experience described by Holocaust survivor Robbie Waisman.
“Hope is a very powerful motivation. We had to find a way to cope,” said Waisman, who will share his experiences as one of the 426 teenagers liberated from the Nazis’ Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11, 1945.
“One should never give up on life,” said Waisman, 84, who was in Ottawa two years ago to receive the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award.
“I realize that I represent seven per cent of Jewish children that survived – out of one-and-a-half million who weren’t as lucky,” he said. “When you read in the paper about a car accident and a mother and father die with a young child with them, we can internalize that, and feel the pain. But, how can I convey one-and-a-half million boys and girls? I get shivers when I think about it.”
Ironically, it was Holocaust denier James Keegstra who propelled Waisman to tell his story.
“I did not speak for more than 30 years,” he said. “I was involved in everything in the community, and B’nai Brith, and the hotel association, because I owned a hotel. But then there was a teacher in Alberta by the name of Keegstra who was teaching his students that the Holocaust never happened. That woke me up.”
James Keegstra was a high school teacher in Eckville, Alberta, who was stripped of his teaching certificate and convicted of hate speech in 1984.
Waisman explained the Keegstra-inspired wake-up was a response to “two voices” that came to him when he was 12 years old and working as a forced labourer in a Nazi munitions factory from 7 am to 7 pm.
“I had small fingers and was mechanically very good. If a bullet got stuck in a machine, I would dislodge the bullet … My reward was that they allowed me to live.”
At night, Waisman explained, a voice addressed him, saying “If you survive, tell the world what you have witnessed.”
“The voice did this three times, and I didn’t answer,” he said. “Another voice said, ‘At least get along, or none of us are going to survive.’ I’m just about falling asleep, and the voice said, ‘Hey, kid, you haven’t said yes yet.’
“Keegstra woke me up to establish a Holocaust centre in Vancouver, and we reach 26,000 young people every year. We must break down the wall against prejudice. We have a responsibility to those who perished to bear witness and also to seek compassion and understanding.”
Waisman was born in 1931 in Skarszysko, Poland, the youngest of six children.
After he was liberated, his immediate concern was to be reunited with his family.
“At that time, I was not yet aware of the enormity of the Holocaust, or of the extent of our losses. The human mind doesn’t accept some of these things … When we were liberated and wanted to go home, we realized our home didn’t exist. We were full of rage. They shipped us out to France, and the caregivers wanted us to move ahead and do things teenagers do,” he said.
Waisman was one of the boys of Buchenwald, liberated along with author Elie Wiesel, the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who served as Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel from 1993 to 2003.
Many years later, during the filming of the 2002 documentary, “The Boys of Buchenwald,” Waisman read a report from the care-giving organization that said of the boys, “they’ve seen too much. They won’t live beyond 40, and won’t amount to anything.” He thought of that when he called Wiesel to wish him a happy 80th birthday.
“We could go on about what we’ve achieved. Not bad for a bunch of lunatics,” he laughed. “What we’ve done with our lives! The resilience of the human spirit is unbelievable. I’m very proud of all my boys.”
Waisman was 17 when he landed in Halifax in December 1948. He wasn’t told he was going to Calgary until he was already on the train.
“On the trip west, I couldn’t get over the immensity of the huge spaces and the sparse settlements along the way. You could see forever. As I crossed Canada by train, it occurred to me that so many people could have been saved in this vast country: so much land, and, yet, no room for refugees during the war.”
He stayed in Calgary for nine years, until 1959, when he married Gloria Lyons and moved to Saskatoon. In 1978, after 18 years, he moved to Vancouver so that his son, Howard, and daughter, Arlaina, could be part of a larger Jewish community.
Waisman has participated numerous times in the March of the Living and has a message for young Canadians.
“This is the greatest country in the world,” he said. “I would ask young people to keep an open mind when they see and meet newcomers to this country … Experience the adventure of getting to know other kinds of people. Each one of us possesses unique, wonderful qualities, regardless of colour or religion.”
For more information about the Yom HaShoah Community Commemoration, contact Ariel Vered at 613-875-1865 or email@example.com.