For the past four years, I have been attending programs in honour of Holocaust Education Week at the Toronto Public Library. Last Tuesday, November 5th, I went to Sanderson Library to hear Joe Leinburd speak about his experiences in wartime Romania.
In 1939, Mr. Leinburd was only 17 years old when he heard the news that Germany had invaded Poland. The news interrupted a volleyball game he was playing with his friends, and at that moment he realized that his “plans and dreams were shattered.”
To help us visualize the horror of heavy forces of history pressing down on innocent people, invading their lives without consent, our speaker held up a piece of black construction paper. It resembled a shroud with menacing scallops that showed the arbitrary curves of political borders. When he placed the black cape over a map of modern Europe to indicate areas occupied by the Nazis during World War II, the effect was shocking. Very few countries evaded the reach of that twisted blanket of death and hatred.
Two years after the start of the Second World War, the “Romanian Facist Regime, collaborating with Nazi Germany, deported the entire Jewish population of Northern Bucovina and Bessarabia to Transnistria, an area in southwestern Ukraine” (Neuberger HEW 2013 information booklet, page 40). Mr. Leinburd told us that the authorities only gave them 24 hours to leave. Then the nightmare journey to Transnistria began, in which Leinburd and his family rode in a cattle car for two and half days “without food, water, or medicine.” They were in “total darkness with no space to move and little air to breathe.”
In response to a question about whether he had a numbered tattoo on his arm, Mr. Leinburd said that the “Jews in Romania died of starvation and sickness instead of being gassed.” Later, one of the middle school kids in the audience asked, “If you had had a tattoo, would you want to remove it?” Leinburd’s short, emphatic answer was “No.”
Suffering drew no distinctions between concentration camps or starvation and sickness in the open air. Joe and “his entire family survived a death march from Moghilev to Murafa and was liberated in 1944″ (Neuberger HEW 2013, page 40). The forced march lasted two days, and “nobody dared help the elderly, sick, or children who fell behind. The helpers would be shot.” However, during three years of forced labour and unspeakable privation (including eating grass), Joe recalled that everybody helped each other to survive.
As Joe Leinburd’s talk was coming to a close, a young girl wearing a headscarf asked, “What is your wish for this generation?”
“My wish is for them to remember what happened and to distinguish between right and wrong.”
I’m thankful for the courage and fortitude of our 92-year-old speaker who shared traumatic memories with us so that we can remember the past into the future, pushing against shrouds of hatred the moment we recognize them in ourselves, our communities, and in our governments.