Holocaust survivor Nate Leipciger shares his story
It’s one thing to read about history, it’s another to hear from someone who’s lived through it.
The history that Nate Leipciger, 91, lived through was particularly horrific.
As part of Ryerson’s Holocaust Education Week 2019, Leipciger, past co-president of Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, will share his experiences of surviving the Holocaust at a special memorial ceremony November 12.
During the Second World War, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. In 1943, when he was 15, Leipciger and his family were deported from their home in Poland to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, after nearly three years of increasing persecution and living in ghettos.
Quick thinking by his father, who told the Nazis that Nate was 17 and an electrician, moved the boy from a queue destined for the gas chamber into another for camp labourers.
“He saved me a number of times just before I was supposed to be marched off and gassed,” Leipciger recalled. “His intervention then, and on other occasions, was crucial to my survival.”
On that day, the two were separated from Leipciger’s mother and sister, who were murdered by gassing, along with many members of his extended family.
“The continuous flow of transports and the knowledge that unsuspecting people were being marched to their deaths in the gas chambers was unbearable,” wrote Leipciger in his autobiography, The Weight of Freedom, external link. “On some days, the smoke from the crematoria obscured the sun, creating a continuous dull grey transition from day to night.”
Leipciger and his father were liberated at the end of the war and came to Canada in 1948, sponsored by his uncle, who lived in Toronto. Leipciger became a successful engineer, got married, raised three daughters, and now has 13 grandchildren including spouses. He feels that sharing his experiences at the Ryerson Memorial event is important work, especially in these turbulent times.
“It is 2019 and 75 years since the Shoah [Holocaust] and it is surprising to me that the topic today is as relevant as it was decades ago,” he said. “It seems that the world is reversing, turning back to the time of xenophobia, hatred, and anti-Semitism. Speaking about my experience is an obligation to young people to help make them aware of the situation of the world in which we live and somehow try to induce them to action, which would prevent the repetition of the event.”
He says taking action is a vital component in making a positive difference in the world.
“The most important thing is not to be a bystander,” he said. “We must react to the injustice that we see around us, to speak out and to become active in the community. The worst thing that we can do is say ‘it's not my business, I'm not involved, it doesn't affect me therefore I'm not going to get involved’ and that's the worst thing that can happen because the bystander does not help the victim, only the bully.”
Leipciger feels education is an important way to combat injustice, but only when combined with compassion.
“My attitude today is that education is not enough; education has to be coupled with sensitivity, understanding, and above all compassion for other human beings,” he said. “In 2019 it's very appropriate to remind the world that we have to have education that includes human rights, acceptance of the other, and above all compassion.”
Prime Minister’s visit
In July 2016, Leipciger was invited to accompany Prime Minister Justin Trudeau through Auschwitz-Birkenau during his visit to Poland, following the NATO summit in Warsaw.
“It was an experience on multi-levels, emotional, philosophical and sociological. When I was there at the age of 15, I was a ‘worthless’ individual that my captors could dispose of at any moment within their will and here I am returning with the Prime Minister of one of the most important economical countries and I'm with him as an equal, standing in front of the gas chamber that took the breath and gave death to over a million people.”
He continued: “That coupled with the fact that I was there with my wonderful wife, my beautiful daughter and my granddaughter, three generations that were not supposed to happen according to Hitler's wishes. So we were there and we were victorious on many levels and yet we were saddened by the fact that the world has not changed. And the Prime Minister has to remind the world that brutality can happen anywhere, anytime.”
The role of history
This reminder is much needed, unfortunately, as a survey released on Holocaust Remembrance Day 2018, external link found that many adults lack basic knowledge of what happened during the Holocaust – especially those 18 to 34.
“Every year there are less first hand testimonies of the Holocaust,” said Elyse Wieskopf, director of Hillel Ryerson, which is overseeing Holocaust Education Week on campus.
“We feel it is vital to continue educating the younger generation about the atrocities of this time in history with these testimonies,” she said. “With the rise of anti-Semitism and hate crimes toward minorities, we feel this week is particularly relevant.”
RTA student Jake Benaim, co-chair of the event, agrees: “So many of the social and political challenges we face today mirror the past. This year, we’ve adopted the theme of ‘Resilience and Memory.’ We are aiming to demonstrate how learning about and paying tribute to past traumas can help us practise resilience in the face of modern day issues.”
For his part, Leipciger has worked tirelessly with a number of organizations – including the Azraeli Foundation, Facing History and Ourselves, Friends of Yad Va’Shem, the March of the Living, Holocaust Education Week, among others, to promote understanding and acceptance among people of all ages but particularly youth.
“The most important element of our community are the university students – they are embarking on a career that will lead them into the leadership of our society,” said Leipciger. “If I can influence only one iota of the future by talking about my experiences and the fights that we had to endure in order to survive, I will have contributed and satisfied my desire to make this world a better place than I found it.”
Holocaust Education Week events
November 11 & 14, 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Spots of Light: Women of the Holocaust
With exhibition materials provided by Yad Vashem, this photography exhibit portrays the life, art & stories of women impacted by the Holocaust. RSVP not required.
November 12, 6 p.m.
Holocaust Survivor Testimony & Memorial Ceremony,
LIB 72, 350 Victoria Street.
Holocaust survivor Nate Leipciger will share his experiences with the Ryerson community. A Q&A, and candle-lighting ceremony will follow. Attendees will each receive a free copy of Leipciger’s autobiography, The Weight of Freedom (while supplies last). RSVP required, external link.
November 13, 6 p.m.
Film Screening: Cabaret
Queerness and Resilience in 1930s Germany
Margaret Laurence Room, SCC 201
In collaboration with RyePride, Hillel is screening Cabaret, a 1972 musical portraying the queer community in Berlin and the increasing prominence of the Nazi party in the 1930s. Kosher food options will be available. RSVP required, external link.
Please RSVP for all events: hillelontario.org/ryerson/hew-2019/, external link.