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Isaac Gotfried edited 1By BERNIE BELLAN

Ninety-two-year-old Isaac Gotfried has been telling his story of how he survived the Holocaust to various Winnipeg schoolchildren for over 24 years. (He told me that he estimates he has told his story to students over 100 times and figures that, during that time, he has been heard by over 20,000 students.)

On Thursday, March 15 though, Isaac told his story once again, this time to a group of 32 Grade 6 students whose background was quite different than any other students to whom he had spoken: They were all Muslim students – from Winnipeg’s only full-time Islamic school, Al-Hijra Islamic School, which is in St. Boniface.

The students has been learning about the Holocaust at their school and one of their teachers had approached the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada with the idea to come on a visit to the Holocaust Education Centre in the Asper Campus. Ilana Abrams, executive director of the JHCWC, arranged for the class to visit and Belle Jarniewski, who is now the director of the Holocaust Education Centre, welcomed the students and their teachers upon their arrival at the Asper Campus. Belle gave the students an explanation of the exhibits in the Holocaust Education Centre, following which she introduced Isaac Gotfried.

Although Isaac may be advanced in years, he retains a sharpness of mind and ability to speak at length that belies his age. He began his talk by asking the students whether any of them had seen the film “Schindler’s List”. (The question didn’t seem to elicit any sort of a response from any of the students.) Isaac noted that, if they had seen the movie, they would have seen people being led into gas chambers at Auschwitz. His mother and his three younger sisters, he explained were all sent to Auschwitz to be gassed.

While Isaac’s command of English is excellent, he does speak with a slight German accent. I asked him how it is that, even though he was born in Poland, he speaks with a German accent, rather than a Polish accent. Isaac said that he learned German while he was in different camps during the war. Even though he was Jewish, he was housed with prisoners of different backgrounds, many of whom were German, he explained. The German-speaking prisoners could have been murderers, thieves, Communists, homosexuals, trade unionists, or political prisoners whose ideologies were opposed to Nazism, he explained.

Still, while he was speaking – and the students were very quiet, it was difficult to tell whether the youngsters were fully able to grasp what he was telling them. In my own brief conversations with some of them, I found out that many were of Somali background. It wasn’t clear how good their English was as, for the most part, they didn’t say much. (Some of the boys were more outgoing, but the girls were predominantly reserved.) Later, when Isaac asked the kids whether they had any questions, the first question asked was: “Did you ever meet Hitler?” I’m not sure whether much of what Isaac had to say to these particular students could have been fully absorbed.

Nonetheless, as Isaac began to tell his unremittingly brutal story of the hardships he endured as a prisoner in a series of Nazi run slave labour and concentration camps (including Buchenwald, where Isaac came face to face with the “Bitch of Buchenwald” – Ilse Koch, a woman who was so sadistic that she would choose men to sleep with during the night, then have them shot the next morning, said Isaac), I was recording his entire talk on my iPhone.

Never losing his composure – or his train of thought, Isaac traced his story of being a slave prisoner for over three years, without sparing the students any of the gruesome details. He described watching people being shot or beaten to death in front of him, of living on nothing more than a crust of bread in the morning and a bowl of thin cabbage soup in the evening.

“We were given only an average of 184 calories a day to live on,” Isaac noted. “Do you know how much that is?” he asked the students. “A candy bar has 184 calories,” he said.

Toward the end of his captivity, Isaac said, one night, when he was sleeping in his bunk – and there were eight men assigned to bunks designed to hold only two, he had a pain on his side and he wanted to turn over to the other side. He tried to move the man next to him so that he could turn over, but the man didn’t move. He was dead. So Isaac said he turned back to the man on his other side; he, too, was dead.

“I was sleeping between two corpses,” Isaac said to the students.

That talk is now available for viewing on our website at While it is over 50 minutes in length, it makes for gripping viewing.

As well, this past November Isaac published his memoir, titled “Lucky to Survive”. It is available at McNally Robinson Booksellers in their Grant Park location. Isaac has dedicated all proceeds from the sale of his book to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

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