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Pinchas Gutter being presented with Philip Weiss Award by Francie Winograd, daughter of the late Philip Weiss

By BERNIE BELLAN
For 13 years every year around this time the Arthur V. Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice at St. Paul’s College presents something called The Winnipeg International Storytelling Festival.

According to information provided by the festival, “The Winnipeg International Storytelling Festival features storytellers from Winnipeg and Manitoba, from across the country and around the world.” at schools and other public events. Over 75,000 students have attended Storytelling events over the years.
The festival “is presented because storytelling is at the heart of peacemaking.” As part of the festival, each year for the past six years an awards dinner has been held to honour a specific “storyteller”. At the dinner the honouree is presented with the Dr. Philip Weiss Award for Storytelling for Peace and Human Rights. This year’s award was presented to Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter at a dinner held at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on Monday, April 23rd.

Following is some biographical information about Pinchas Gutter:
“Born into a well established family, who can trace their roots back 400 years in Poland, Pinchas Gutter was born in Lodz and was 7 years old when the war broke out. He, along with his twin sister and entire family fled to what they thought was safety in Warsaw after his father had been brutally beaten by Nazis in Lodz. Pinchas and his family were incarcerated in the Warsaw Ghetto for three and a half years until April 1943, the time of the Ghetto uprising. Although the effort was a valiant one, after three weeks the family was deported to the death camp, Majdanek.
“The day the family arrived after a horrendous journey, Pinchas’ father, mother and twin sister were murdered by the Nazis. Pinchas was sent to a work camp where people were beaten, shot or worked to death. He passed through several other concentration camps, including Buchenwald, and worked at loading and unloading enormous weights of iron and other slave work. Towards the end of the war he was forced on a death march from Germany to Therenstadt in Czechoslovakia which he barely survived. He was liberated by the Russians on 8th May 1945 and under the auspices of UNRRA was taken to Britain with other children for rehabilitation. After spending many years in South Africa he emigrated to Canada where he resides.
“Pinchas Gutter has been a dedicated volunteer Holocaust educator. He has been the subject of four films, and his story, ‘Memories in Focus’, was published this year by the Azrieli Foundation. Mr. Gutter is one of the first people to be featured in New Dimensions in Testimony, for which his extensive oral history was recorded, where students will be able to interact in a natural way with his hologram and hold ‘virtual conversations’ with him.”

In introducing Gutter to the audience on April 23rd, Belle Jarniewski quoted from the Baal Shem Tov, saying that “remembrance is the secret of redemption while forgetting leads to exile.”
Yet, when Gutter rose to deliver his remarks, he revealed to the audience that, as much as he does retain vivid memories going back all the way to his childhood, some memories have been totally blocked from his mind. At one poignant moment Gutter said that he can no longer remember what his twin sister looked like, save for “one golden braid” in her hair.

Gutter began his remarks saying “By telling my story over and over again I will achieve my purpose in making the world a better place to live in…At the forefront I am trying to make sure that future generations will remember the Shoah.
“Usually when I find myself in front of an audience I’m expected to talk about the Holocaust, but tonight I’d like to take a more meditative approach” before speaking about the Holocaust, Gutter said. He explained that he intended to begin his remarks by telling the audience something about his idyllic childhood in Lodz, Poland.
“Dr. Stephen Smith (Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation) once told me he’s never come across a Holocaust survivor who said they had an unhappy childhood,” Gutter noted.
“I had a very happy childhood,” Gutter suggested. He noted that his family came from a long line of Hasidim.

Some of his fondest memories, he recounted, were times he spent with his grandmother. “She would tell me Polish horror tales,” he recalled – with a smile.
“One day I was with her when we passed by a shop that had a Polish soldier’s hat in the window. She bought it for me, but later, when my father came home and saw me wearing that hat, it was the first time I ever saw him get angry. He took it and threw it in the fire.”
“On Fridays,” Gutter continued, “my father used to bring people home for a Shabbes meal. My grandfather rebuked my father, saying ‘Mendel, one day someone will take the shirt off your back!’ “ It was Gutter’s father though, who gave him “the inspiration for community service.”

The year before World War II broke out (when Gutter was seven), he said he became “very ill. I went to live in the country with a peasant family.” He noted that he loved that experience, saying “there was no one to reprimand me. I had no sense my freedom was about to be cut off so completely.”
Soon after the war began, the Gutter family moved to Warsaw where they thought they would be safer than in Lodz. They lived in a house on Mila Street – and soon found themselves part of a population of 1/2 million Jews crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto.
“Until the Ghetto uprising (in 1943), our immediate family remained intact,” Gutter noted. As well, somewhat surprisingly, Gutter also said, “I was never hungry in the ghetto.”
Lest anyone think that ghetto life was tolerable though, Gutter revealed that “at the age of 30 my mother’s hair turned white”.
All his time in the ghetto, Gutter said, “I observed and recorded; I witnessed in the corners of my mind.”

Following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which Gutter’s family survived by hiding in a bunker, he, his twin sister, father and mother were taken to the Majdanek death camp.

“The last thing my father told me was ‘Tell them you’re 18.’ I was tall” (although young Pinchas was only 11). “He saved me from following him into the gas chamber” (where his parents and sister perished).
Gutter said that nothing makes him angrier now than “Holocaust denial”, but he is also angry when he hears people say that “Jews went like sheep to the slaughter”.

Gutter recalled that he actually had a bar mitzvah in one of the camps where he was held. “At midnight some of the men formed a minyan.”
Afterward the rabbi (who gave him the bar mitzvah blessing) said to him: “You will continue to be a good Jew and you will outlive Hitler.”
Speaking generally of the death camp experience, Gutter observed that “there were two choices in the camp: between good and evil; but sometimes the choice was between evil and evil.”
He continued: “In the most wretched of circumstances people could find the impulse to cling to their humanity.”

Following the war though, Gutter noted, “Survivors didn’t want to speak of their experiences; they just wanted to rebuild their lives.
“After the Eichmann trial (held in 1961-62), everything changed,” according to Gutter. “People began to focus on the horrors they had experienced. Even though many survivors rose to the top (in terms of career achievement), many did not do well. Thousands of survivors – here in Canada included, as well as Israel (and other countries) live their lives below the poverty line.”
In time, Gutter revealed to the audience, “all that was suppressed in me by my Holocaust experience burst out of me. Without the support of my family – and others, I doubt I could have pulled through”.

Yet, seeing all the hatred in the world, “taken to its extreme”, along with pervasive anti-Semitism, Gutter wondered: “What can possibly make a difference?”
His answer: “education”. “We are born with a good impulse,” Gutter suggested.
“The Holocaust is not just a Jewish story, it is also a story for all humankind…I always finish my talks to students by telling them that to tolerate is not enough; you have to accept every human being as if that person is yourself.”