TORONTO — On a recent Sunday evening in an elegantly decorated ballroom at Toronto’s Beth Emeth synagogue, 45 elderly Holocaust survivors watched as 300 young adults stood solemn-faced, reading aloud from small cards.
“We are the generations born after the darkness,” they recited in unison as part of the annual Dinner of Miracles. “Through the memories of these survivors’ words and silence, we are linked to that annihilated Jewish existence whose echoes permeate our existence. We pledge to remember. We shall tell the world of the depths to which humanity can sink, and the heights which were attained, even in hell itself. We affirm our commitment to the furtherance of Jewish life.”
It was a poignant moment that evoked the no-longer distant day when there will be no more survivors and the responsibility to preserve the memory of the Holocaust will pass to those now in their 20s and 30s.
It’s these young people the Dinner of Miracles engages alongside those old enough to be their grandparents or great-grandparents. At the event, organized by Toronto’s UJA Federation, attendees hear harrowing, first-hand testimony from men and women who somehow defied Hitler’s genocidal onslaught against Jews in Europe.
This year’s event, which marked the dinner’s 15th anniversary, took place just before Hanukkah and next month’s 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The central part of the evening involved survivors and attendees sitting at dinner tables at which the former spoke about their Holocaust experiences, sometimes with photos or a tablet.
Despite the subject matter, the evening exuded a human, life-affirming quality. Its almost celebratory atmosphere — everyone danced the hora at one point — was sharply juxtaposed with the nightmares survivors endured as children or adolescents.
“For me, this is a joyful event,” Rose Lipsyc, 90, told The Times of Israel halfway through the dinner, her third in recent years. “I don’t feel guilty I survived the Nazis. I don’t know why some survivors say they feel guilty they survived. Why should I feel guilty? I didn’t commit a crime. Why shouldn’t I be happy I was alive when the Holocaust ended and still alive today?”
Born in Lublin, Poland, Lipsyc escaped a forced deportation in 1942 and survived the rest of the Holocaust under a false identity, working for three years as a Polish laborer in Germany. Her parents and two brothers were murdered by the Nazis.
“It’s wonderful to have the opportunity at these dinners to speak to young people and to teach them what happened during the Holocaust, which maybe some will remember,” says Lipsyc, whose energy and spirit belie her age. “It’s also nice that people here make a big deal about us and look up to us. They know that with so few of us survivors left, tomorrow there might be none left.”
Lipsyc took a circuitous route from Europe to Canada after being liberated by the British army in 1945. Three years later, she settled in Israel before moving to Canada in 1952.
They know that with so few of us survivors left, tomorrow there might be none left
In total, Canada received about 40,000 Holocaust survivors following World War II – in addition to 3,000 Nazi war criminals, few of whom Ottawa ever deported or brought to justice. Today, Canada is home to less than 5,000 survivors, all of them in the twilight of their lives.
Those at the event, mostly in their 80s and 90s, varied in their health and physical agility but share a common fate of survival against all odds. Many feel a responsibility to share their wartime experiences with others while they still can, usually with much dignity and little rancor despite the trauma, suffering and profound sense of loss they endured. The passage of time doesn’t diminish the pathos of their stories.
The dinner was the 10th for Joe Mandel, who was born in 1924 in then-Czechoslovakia and spent the first part of the war in a forced labor battalion of the Hungarian army. After the Germans invaded and occupied Hungary, he was sent to several camps, including Dachau and Mauthausen, from which he survived a death march to Gunskirchen in Austria where he was liberated on May 4, 1945, by American soldiers.
“I come here every year because I want to tell anyone who will listen how people can hate others and that it’s such a bad thing to hate people simply because they’re Jewish or something like that,” says Mandel, 96, who still speaks at public schools about the Holocaust. “I feel it’s important for me to tell people about my experience, of what happened before and during the war. It gives me a feeling of hope that after people listen, they’ll try to do better things than what’s happening now in the world.”
It gives me a feeling of hope that after people listen, they’ll try to do better things than what’s happening now in the world
Many attendees were returnees and had participated on the March of Living, the two-week educational program in Poland and Israel that takes young people, accompanied by survivors, to visit vestiges of prewar Jewish history and sites where Nazis murdered Jews en masse.
Sasha Stackle, who works in corporate finance, has attended almost every dinner since 2009.
“It’s incredible to have an intimate conversation with a survivor,” says Stackle, 32. “I feel fortunate to be able to hear their stories and honor their legacy. As a generation lucky enough to hear these first-hand accounts, it’s our responsibility to pass them forward and ensure all future generations know what happened so something as horrifying as the Holocaust doesn’t happen again.”
Reverence and respect were evident in the way attendees related to the survivors in their midst, almost if they were larger-than-life figures who had emerged from the pages of a history book.
As a generation lucky enough to hear these first-hand accounts, it’s our responsibility to pass them forward
“Each year, it’s a different survivor at your table,” says Stackle. “I don’t think there’s ever this idea of too much because it’s a privilege to hear their stories and testimonies. It’s the only way we can truly understand how horrifying these atrocities were and that we can properly pass them forward. I’m grateful to meet these incredible human beings. We call them heroes for a reason. It’s unimaginable how they survived. Often it really was a miracle.”
Two tables stood out for being hosted by a pair of survivors instead of one. In both cases, they were married couples who started dating only after each had survived the Holocaust and moved to Canada.
Nancy and Howard Kleinberg captivated their table with their extraordinary story, which has received extensive international media coverage over the years. They first met as teenagers in 1945 at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He was near death and she nursed him back to life before they both went their separate ways after the camp was liberated. Two years later, each ended up in Toronto unbeknownst to the other. Eventually, they would reunite, marry and start a family.
“The survivors are amazing people who inspire me,” says Jonathan Vandersluis, 34, a management consultant attending his sixth dinner. “I’m always super impressed to hear their perspectives and how despite going through one of the darkest times in Jewish history, they later rebuilt their lives and created families in a new country. It’s special to listen to and learn from and helps put some of the struggles we go through on a day-to-day basis more in perspective.”
Despite going through one of the darkest times in Jewish history, they later rebuilt their lives and created families in a new country
For Sherri Ettedgui and Shawna Samuel, attending the event was anything but another night out. Having co-founded the Dinner of Miracles in 2004, the two friends take pride in how it’s taken root since its inception. To their knowledge, it’s the only such event in the world.
“What makes this especially unique is that it’s specifically just survivors and young adults,” says Ettedgui, 39, who worked for March of the Living Canada for 13 years until 2018. “We always ensured attendees weren’t children of survivors or of that generation but rather the next generation. That relationship between survivors and the third generation is very special.”
Ettedgui and Samuel conceived of the idea after noticing there weren’t many opportunities for young adults to speak to survivors in an informal setting.
“We called it Dinner of Miracles because we planned it around Hanukkah time and so with the miracle of Hanukkah and the miracle of survivors surviving the Shoah, we combined the two to make it more meaningful,” says Samuel, 39, who has worked in Jewish community organizations for 16 years and is now at the UJA. “Our thinking was let’s do a nice evening for the survivors, let’s honor them, let’s have at each table a survivor and a moderator and fill the rest of the seats with young adults. Since then, we’ve stayed true to this concept.”
At this year’s dinner, one of the videos quoted the late Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, Eli Wiesel, who urged people to carry the lessons of the Holocaust forward. He stressed “the ideal of saving what the past has to offer for the future” and once famously said, “Whoever listens to a witness, becomes a witness.”
At 87, Pinhas Gutter was one of the more active witnesses at the 2019 dinner. Born in Lodz, Poland, he was 10 years old when he and his family were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Majdanek concentration camp. The first day there, Nazis killed his parents and twin sister. Later, after surviving typhus and starvation and working as a slave laborer in a German arms factory, he was sent to Buchenwald followed by captivity in other camps and a death march to Theresienstadt where he was liberated by the Russian army on May 8, 1945.
We must remember what can happen, what might happen and what shouldn’t happen
“Being here this evening means everything to me,” says Gutter, who later lived in Britain, France, Israel, Brazil and South Africa before immigrating to Canada in 1985. “Seeing a room full of Jews, especially young adults, who are interested in hearing about the Holocaust and perpetuating its memory and make the world a better place with no hate is important to me. The last thing we want is hate because hate begets hate begets hate begets hate. We must remember what can happen, what might happen and what shouldn’t happen.”
Gutter has already set his sights on the day when he and other survivors won’t be around to bear witness. He appears as a hologram in a virtual conversation in “Dimensions in Testimony,” an exhibit created by the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation which will allow future generations to speak with and learn from survivors.