David Shentow passed away in Toronto, June 12, in the company of his loving wife Rose and their daughters, Lorie and Renée.
I had the honour of getting to know David starting in 2004, after inviting him to Charles H. Hulse Public School to speak to my Grade 6 students about racism and discrimination. He came back every year and we became friends. I visited him in Toronto just two days before he died and he was humble, as he always was, asking about my wife, my students, and my health; typical David, it was never about him.
David lived two very distinct lives. He arrived in Canada on March 27, 1949, and settled in Toronto because he had an uncle living in the city. His uncle helped him find his first job, sewing linings for women’s clothing. That year, David met his future wife, Rose Feldberg of Ottawa. A few months later, Rose invited David to Ottawa for Chanukah and he never left.
Newly married, David began working in his father-in-law’s clothing store. He encouraged Rose to go to university to become a high school teacher. After the birth of their two daughters, David became a buyer for the A.J. Frieman Company, which was eventually bought by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Much of David’s success was attributed to his friendly disposition and his ability to speak five languages. But there was one topic he never spoke about until many years later: his life before 1949.
David was born April 29, 1925 in Warsaw, Poland. When he was six weeks old, his parents moved from Poland to Antwerp, Belgium. At the beginning of the Second World War, his father tried to find a way out of Europe, but they were trapped. Gradually life in Antwerp changed – daily decrees were issued to dehumanize Jews. David and his sisters were forbidden from attending schools, cinemas, theatres, and even from sitting on park benches.
One day when he was 17, a letter arrived from the Gestapo. David and his father were ordered to report to the railway station in Antwerp. They boarded the train on August 10, 1942. It was the last time he saw his mother and sisters alive. The train eventually arrived at Dannes-Camiers, and the prisoners were forced inside a work camp. Eventually, the work camp was closed and the forced labourers were to be sent back to Belgium. Each man was given a loaf of bread and loaded onto a train. But when the train finally stopped, they knew they weren’t in Belgium. The sign at the train station read “Auschwitz.”
SS guards ordered the men off the train. Stragglers were shot without warning. The prisoners were ordered to form lines of five men abreast. They were told to proceed past a tall, blond SS officer. With the flick of a finger he directed some men to the left and others to the right. This officer was Dr. Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death, and being sent to the left meant certain death. Mengele waved the two men on David’s right and the two men on his left toward the left side of the platform. David was spared.
In reality his nightmare was just beginning. While most men only survived the harsh, inhumane climate of Auschwitz for mere weeks, David was still a prisoner in the summer of 1944, when things got even worse. The Nazis feared the arrival of the Russians and began moving all prisoners on foot to Kutno, Poland. This was the first of the notorious Death Marches. Those who fell behind were attacked by dogs or shot by guards. David once again survived, only to be loaded into a cattle car and transported to the Dachau concentration camp.
During the last week of April 1945, David was lying on his bunk unable to get up; his legs were no more than sticks. He knew that prisoners unable to work were immediately sent to the gas chamber. He had cheated death often but now knew his time was up. An SS officer entered the barracks screaming, “Get up, you filthy Jew! Get up!” David’s punishment was a savage beating that would destroy his hearing. Hours later, after being left for dead, he dragged himself out of his barracks. Something was wrong. The camp gates were wide open and there were no guards. It was April 29, 1945, the day that Dachau was liberated by Allied Forces. It was also David’s 20th birthday. Once again, he had miraculously cheated death.
Decades later, in his retirement years, David became Ottawa’s most prominent Holocaust educator.
David said that he often wondered how he survived when so many other innocent people perished. I always told him that maybe someone had different plans for him. Maybe his true destiny in life was to be a messenger. His message was heard by thousands. It was a message that opened eyes, touched hearts and even inspired action. It was also a message that he honestly hated giving. Every time he spoke of the tragic events of his youth he suffered nightmares. Yet, whenever asked to speak publicly he was always accommodating.
David always proclaimed, “I am not a hero, I am simply a witness to history.”
With all due respect, there are many who would disagree with him. One would be my former Grade 6 student, Sophia Mirzayee.
Sophia recently graduated from Carleton University with a degree in Human Rights. Last September at the Canadian War Museum, Sophia delivered a speech to an audience that included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. She spoke with great passion and eloquence about the importance of Holocaust education and its connection to teaching tolerance. She also said meeting David Shentow in Grade 6 and hearing his message changed her life.
The Nazis failed to take David’s life. They tried to delete his identity by erasing his name and assigning him a number – 72585. That also failed. For those who knew David, his number was nothing more than a scar from the past. It was part of him but it never defined him.
Holocaust deniers tried to discredit his words. They also failed. David’s message will live on. It will live on through countless teachers such as myself, and through students like Sophia.
David Shentow will be remembered as a loving husband and father, a respected member of his community, a teacher, and a testament to the strength of the human spirit.
Patrick Mascoe is a teacher at Charles H. Hulse Public School. He is the founder of an annual Day of Cultural Understanding which Grade 6 students from Hulse (whose student population is predominately Muslim) together with Grade 6 students from the Ottawa Jewish Community School.