On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Elly Gotz draws a parallel between the “lockups” of his past and the lockdowns currently in effect in the City of Toronto and elsewhere in Canada to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
“We are locked up like birds in the cage. What can we do?” reflected Gotz, a survivor of the Holocaust. “But, you know, it’s not as bad as some of the lockups I’ve experienced in my past.”
“My wife and I, we are happy together, luckily. So it’s not too tough,” he said, adding, “The groceries arrive at the door and we are OK. So compared to other lockups in my past, they are wonderful.”
Without skipping a beat, Gotz turns back the clock to describe in vivid detail his time in the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania.
He was 16.
“I was locked up in the ghetto … for three long years,” he recalled. “And at the end of three years, the Germans were losing the war, the Russian army was very close to our door, and we were afraid how this transfer will take place. Only 8,000 of us were alive out of 30,000 Jews of the Kovno ghetto.”
Gotz and his family hid in an underground storage space, but eventually surrendered.
“It was a terrible journey in the railway car — 200 people, packed in the railway car, no food, no water, no facilities. It was a terrible trip … and then we arrived in Dachau.”
Dachau was a Nazi concentration camp in Germany.
“We used to get one bowl of soup — vegetable soup, parsnip soup — and a slice of bread, one slice of bread a day. In the morning, we got black water called coffee,” he said.
Gotz is used to telling his story. He speaks to groups of students every year. This year, despite the pandemic, Gotz is sharing his message.
“I am now with Zoom. … I’m speaking to thousands of students and I tell them my history. And I beg them not to hate, to give up hate because … hate damages people,” he said.
Gotz wants people to know that while the restrictions in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 may be isolating, “we will get through that.”
“Unfortunately, we are losing a lot of people and we have to be careful,” he said, adding, “If we don’t listen, we will fail.”
The pandemic can be traumatizing for holocaust survivors, reminding them of a time when they were restricted over where they could go and what they could do.
Yet Dara Solomon, executive director of the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, said it is especially difficult because they are “so dedicated to Holocaust education.”
“At the core of our work at the Neuberger, it’s always been about teaching through survivor testimony and so they are so personally committed to it,” Solomon said. “It hasn’t gotten easier for them. When they do tell their stories it is hard, but it’s something that they believe that they really need to do. And in their final years, they of course feel that urgency even more.”
Solomon pointed out anti-Semitism is on the rise in Canada, so hearing from people like Elly Gotz is critical.
She said there is an increase in online hate of all kinds, and also specifically anti-Semitism with COVID-19 being blamed on Jews.
“And just given the civil unrest south of the border and this whole rise of distrust of … historical evidence of all kinds, we really, really need to ensure that the voices of the survivors and this real evidence of the horrors and tragedies of the Holocaust are continued to be shared now and in the future,” she said.
For Gotz, being an eye witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust means being the person tasked with ensuring it does not happen again.
“Now anti-Semitism is raising its head again, … but it’s not only us — hatred of Muslims, hatred of people who come from other countries. Canada is not completely free from disliking and prejudice against people who come to our country. I speak to thousands of students because I want to convince them to give up that kind of hatred, never fall subject to it.”