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Toronto Holocaust survivor has a warning to the next generation: ‘It can happen again’

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WATCH: Holocaust survivors and their families are commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz - the infamous Nazi death camp where 1.1 million Jewish people were sent. Heather Yourex-West reports on how Canadian survivors are reflecting.

A Toronto man who is among the world’s last remaining Holocaust survivors is visiting the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau German Nazi concentration camp on Monday.

Joseph Gottdenker, 77, said that he hopes his visit — which will be alongside more than 100 other Holocaust survivors to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation — will help educate others about the magnitude of the Holocaust and other genocides around the world.

Click to play video 'Holocaust survivor recalls his own experience on 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz' Holocaust survivor recalls his own experience on 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz
Holocaust survivor recalls his own experience on 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz

READ MORE: 75 years after Auschwitz, survivor says her ‘reason for living’ is to tell the story

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“Education is very important in this respect, because if people don’t know what happened and know the magnitude of it, it can happen again,” Gottdenker told Global News from Krakow, Poland.

“And I’m not just talking about a Holocaust with Jewish people but there’s Holocausts, genocides happening all the time. And the more you educate people, then as they say, ‘never again.'”

Auschwitz survivor Joseph Gottdenker poses for a photograph at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.
Auschwitz survivor Joseph Gottdenker poses for a photograph at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Gottdenker was among a handful of those in his entire family line in Poland to have survived the Holocaust.

Fearing persecution, his mother who was pregnant with him at the time, was sheltered by a family in a farm near their hometown of Mielec, Poland.

By the time Gottdenker was born, his own father was captured and sent to a camp and just after being taken in by their friends, his mother would flee and join the underground Polish resistance for fear of being recognized.

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Auschwitz: Red Army soldier recalls moment his tank broke through fence

Gottdenker would then grow up disguised as a Catholic — raised for the next three and a half years on a Polish farm and living in plain sight in the same village where most of his relatives were rounded up and then sent to a camp or executed in the nearby forest.

“They risked their lives, the lives of their family, because in Poland at that time, the only place I guess, in Europe, hiding a Jewish person was a capital offence and you were immediately executed,” said Gottdenker. “Both myself and the entire family.”

READ MORE: ‘Completely incomprehensible’: Jewish soldier recalls liberating Auschwitz

Gottdenker and his parents would survive the war and reunite later in Germany, but by then the loss of life in both his own family — as well as the Jewish population across Europe — would be almost unbearable.

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“I lost both sets of grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins — that was the immediate family and then some peripheral family,” he said.

READ MORE: Miraculous story of survival told at Holocaust Remembrance Day event

“The only people that survived was myself, my mother, father, two uncles and an aunt — and that’s from a huge extended family.”

He would later emigrate with his family to the U.S. in 1948, and then to Canada 10 years later.

It wasn’t until he returned to his mother’s house in Poland that he would meet two women who give him the only thing they were able to save from the Germans — sterling silver candlestick holders.

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Holocaust survivor Irving Roth recounts concentration camps

“The candlesticks are the only thing that I have that takes me back to my family in Poland, in Mielec,” said Gottendenker, trying to fight back tears.

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“They’re going to be passed on … down, down the line.”

As for Auschwitz, Gottendenker has been there several times. He said his feelings never change about the notorious death camp.

“It’s a place of horrific event. I can’t describe it, what my feelings are and I’ve been there with groups,” he said.

READ MORE: Nearly half of Canadians can’t name a single concentration camp: survey

Of the six million Jews that were killed in the Holocaust, an estimated 960,000 were at Auschwitz.

Poland alone saw 90 per cent of its Jewish population killed by the Nazis — approximately 1.5 million.

“So if you know that something like this could result in six million Jews alone and millions and millions of other people perishing, then knowing that you would think twice, maybe being either anti-Semitic or Islamophobia or any of those other prejudices,” said Gottdenker.