• Print

Saul SpitzBy MYRON LOVE In recent years, Saul Spitz has become the public face of north Winnipeg’s venerable House of Ashkenazi Synagogue. But Spitz wouldn’t be here if not for a split second decision he made in the spring of 1944.


It was the day that the 16-year-old arrived with his Hungarian Jewish Family at Auschwitz. His mother and 13-year-old sister were quickly dispatched to the gas chambers. The young Spitz, his father, Moshe Yosef, and older brother, Yidel, were paraded by the infamous Dr. Mengele. Saul was sent to the line on the left, his father and brother to the line on the right.
“I didn’t want to be separated from my father and brother,” Spitz recalls. “We were in a large field. I managed to slip away and ran around the field and joined the other line. Everyone in the line on the left was sent to the crematoriums.”

Spitz was born in the southern Hungarian town of Mad (about two hours from Budapest) in 1928. His father was a vintner. (Mad is still known for its wineries.) The town was home to about 50-60 Jewish families before the war.
Although Hungary had been under the rule of a fascist government since 1920, Spitz recalls that in the first years of the war, life for the Jews of Mad and Hungary was, for the most part, normal. “We were able to keep kosher and move about,” he says.
Everything changed when the Nazis occupied Hungary in the spring of 1944. “The Nazis were worried that the Hungarian government was going to go over to the other side,” he says. “They came to Mad just before Pesach. They let us stay in our homes until after Pesach. The day after Pesach, they herded all the Jewish families into the shul. The next morning, they loaded us all onto cattle cars and sent us to Auschwitz.”

After surviving the “selection” process, Spitz and the other newly-arrived Jews were forced to walk to nearby Birkenau where he spent the next five days. Then he was shipped out to a work camp in a forest in Silesia in southern Germany.
“There were several thousand Polish Jews in that camp,” he recalls. “On arrival, we had to undress and shower. We were given the striped pajamas to wear.
“We hardly had any food in the camp – just some watery soup. We were up at 6:00 a.m. every morning to go into the forest and clear the area for construction of ammunition warehouses.”

In December 1944, with the Russians drawing near, Spitz and most of the other prisoners were forced to walk 100 km to a town called Zito farther into Germany. (His father and brother were left behind in the makeshift camp hospital to die but were lucky in that the Russians reached them in time to save them.)
“We were walking wearing wooden shoes,” Spitz recalls. “After 30 or 40 km, I couldn’t walk any more. A group of 30 of us in the same condition were put in a truck and taken to our destination.”

On arriving in Zito, Spitz says, the German guards disappeared and the now former prisoners were left to their devices to wait for the Russians to come. That turned out to be a few months while the former prisoners were without much food and nothing to do.
Finally, in May, Spitz and some new friends walked farther into the town to find most of the Germans had fled. “The houses were empty,” he recalls. “We found a lot of food and clothing. We found one house where the people were still there. They let us sleep in the attic until the Russians came a few days later.”
Spitz adds that it was important to escape from the Russians, too. The Russians tried to take a lot of people back to Russia.
He decided to go back to Mad to see if anyone else had survived. He found that an aunt had survived in Budapest and moved back to the Spitz family home in Mad. He stayed in Mad for six months.
“There was no food (although some neighbours helped out), no work and no school to go back to,” he says. “It was a bad situation. So I and three friends (including the late Martin Fingerote who also ended up in Winnipeg) headed to a Jewish camp in Budapest.”
He notes that his brother had – miraculously – become frum during his time in the camps (There were a lot of rabbis in the camps.) – and enrolled in a yeshiva in Munich. His brother eventually became a rabbi in New York.

Saul Spitz’s initial goal was to go to Israel (where his father eventually settled and remarried). To that end, he joined a kibbutz that had been formed in Germany. “I was there until January of 1947,” he says. “I learned to milk cows.”
He was part of a group of 300-400 young Holocaust survivors who crossed the Alps to get to Milan and waited to be transported to Israel. Because of space limitations on the boats, he recalls, only 50 could go at a time.
While he was waiting his turn, he says, a girl told him that Canada was looking for healthy young people between 14 and 18. Although he knew nothing about Canada, he went to the nearest Canadian consulate and soon after had was accepted as part of the group of war orphans who came to Canada in 1948.

On arrival, he was housed by the Trute family and took some night school classes at St. Johns. After a time, he found work in the garment industry - first with Stall and Sons and later, with Jacob Crowley (now Nygaard) and S. & S. Sportswear. He retired at age 65.
Spitz joined the Ashkenazi congregation shortly after coming to Winnipeg. The synagogue, the only one left in the old “north end”, reopened shortly before Spitz arrived in Winnipeg, after the original building was destroyed in a fire a couple of years before.
While working, he attended shul on Shabbat and whenever he could during the week. Since retirement, he has attended daily. Currently, the Ashkenazi still offers daily morning minyans (except Shabbat mornings) and Yom Tov services. On Shabbat, some of the Ashkenazi regulars attend services at the Talmud Torah farther north. In the evenings, the Chavurat Tefila Synagogue hosts mincha/maariv services most days.
Spitz notes that, at the Ashkenazi he is the last of the older Ashkenazi regulars. Who takes over responsibility for the congregation after Spitz remains an open question.