Thursday, October 09, 2008
Photo: Holocaust survivor Leslie Vertes at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa recently hosted a lecture by Holocaust survivors whose personal stories left many in the crowd speechless and horrified.
Despite the fact that these atrocities took place decades ago, survivors and their families want their stories told so future generations will be aware of what happened and be prepared to fight against hatred and intolerance.
"It is painful to talk about the past I want to forget," said one of the presenters, Leslie Vertes, to the crowd in Ottawa.
Mr. Vertes was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1924.
In the late 1930s, anti-Semitism had consumed Budapest, and, as a young man, Mr. Vertes was a victim of it. Universities and trade schools restricted the number of Jewish students they admitted.
Mr. Vertes' father was forced to take a non-Jewish business partner in order to keep his shoe factory operating.
When he was 20, Mr. Vertes and other Jews were rounded up and forced to clean up the city after each Allied bombing.
As further humiliation, he was made to wear a yellow armband to show the population he was Jewish.
Not long after, Mr. Vertes was told he was being deported to Germany.
"You Jews will have a very short life," a German soldier said to him.
Mr. Vertes and nine others bribed a guard to "turn the other way for 10 minutes," and they ran away.
He was the only one not captured or killed.
Mr. Vertes took off his yellow armband and essentially became a refugee in his own hometown.
He went to see a Catholic friend who offered to help him by securing false documents under his own name – Leslie Toth.
With the new documents, Mr. Vertes was able to get a room in an apartment. The apartment contained clothing – left behind by the former occupants. Mr. Vertes sold or traded this clothing for food or cash in order to stay alive.
"I exchanged a fur coat for a loaf of bread," said Mr. Vertes.
One day, while trying to pawn clothing for food, he was stopped in the street and forced to produce identification.
The soldiers did not believe he was a Catholic and lead him off to a nearby street where a firing squad had been arranged.
"They started firing and a girl fell on top of me," said Mr. Vertes. "At that exact moment, the air raid siren went off and the soldiers ran away."
He pushed away the dead body and ran into the nearest building. Later, he managed to make it back to his own room.
Mr. Vertes went on to tell more stories of how he survived the horror of wartime Budapest.
During house-to-house fighting, as the Russians tried to take the city, they lost thousands of men. As a result of this, Stalin subsequently ordered 5,000 people be taken prisoner. Mr. Vertes was among them.
On April Fools Day, 1945, he was taken to the Russian gulag, where he would spend more than two years in a forced-labour camp.
His health deteriorated to the point where he developed scurvy and had to be taken to the infirmary.
He weighed 32 kilograms (70 pounds).
A young doctor kept him alive by feeding him chicken soup through an eyedropper.
In June 1947, Mr. Vertes was finally able to get back to Budapest. Five years later, he got married and in 1957 he and his family moved to Canada.
For the last 10 years, he has volunteered with the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre and Museum.
At the end of his presentation, Mr. Vertes answered questions from the audience. Many wanted to know what they could do.
"When the war ended, everyone thought the Holocaust was over," said Mr. Vertes. "It is not. The hatred is still there and is growing. Silence is not an option."