‘We worked and starved’

2012-02-07 00:00

WHEN Elly Gotz was 13, his plans to enter high school were interrupted by the outbreak of World War 2. Instead Gotz, a Lithuanian Jew, spent what was supposed to be the first three years of his high school education in a ghetto, before being sent to the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany.

Gotz was in Durban last week to talk at a Holocaust Remembrance Day function (see box) organised by the Durban Holocaust Centre.

In his talk, titled “Return to Dachau”, he shared his feelings about returning to the concentration camp on the invitation of the German Holocaust Commemoration Centre in 2010, more than six decades after being imprisoned there.

“There were lots of people there, from all over Europe. We walked around, and the memories were almost overwhelming. I went into one of the bunkers and remembered that when I was there, there were four rows of double bunks — everything had to be doubled, because, although the camp was planned for 25 000 people, by the end of 1945 there were 65 000 people there.”

But it was Gotz’s memories of the time he spent in Dachau, as well as in a ghetto in Lithuania, which seemed to move members of the audience in the packed auditorium most.

“I was 13 years old, and ready for high school. I even had my uniform. But I never got to wear it because in June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviets who had occupied Lithuania a year before, and our lives changed within a day,” he recalled.

“Until then, I had a normal life. I liked science and I loved reading about history. I liked model aero­planes, and I was dreaming that one day I’d learn to fly a plane. My father was a banker and my mother was a nurse.”

The family was soon moved into a ghetto, which became home to 28 000 people, he said. “We were pushed into very small space, with very crowded conditions, and I shared a room with my mother and father and one other person.”

Gotz said while they were required to hand over all their valuables like jewellery to the Nazis, it was the command to hand over all their books which frustrated him and his father the most.

“We didn’t have much gold and silver, but we had many books. I had my own library, which my dad had insisted we take to the ghetto. When the command to hand over our books came, my dad was very upset. He took out some less important books, put them in a wheelbarrow and we went to deliver them.”

“At the centre, an amazing sight greeted us. There were books from the floor right up to the balcony, a mountain of books. My father collected a whole wheelbarrow of the best books, and we went back home. We did this seven times.”

They hid the books in a shed outside the house in which the young Gotz made secret shelves. “That was my only education. I had a rich library. I taught myself Russian. I read German literature. I spent a lot of time up there.”

In October that year, the inhabitants of the ghetto were instructed to gather in an open field. Ten thousand men, women and children were led towards a military compound, while the others were told to return to their rooms. “On 29 October 1941, these 10 000 people were murdered by machine gun, their bodies thrown into ditches. We found out about this much later,” said Gotz, citing a document called the Jaeger Report, which referred to the genocide as the “removal from ghetto of surplus Jews”.

Gotz also shared the story of his one-and a-half-year-old cousin, who was smuggled to a Lithuanian Catholic family in a duffle bag.

“I really loved her a lot, I used to look after her. She was given a strong injection and put in a duffle bag, which my uncle left behind a tree. A man came, took the bag and ran away, and shortly thereafter, we got a message that the goods had arrived.”

“I missed that child. I was very depressed. I walked around upset for months. One day, when the adults were out working, trucks came with windows painted white, and soldiers spread out hunting for children in basements, nipping them out from their mothers’ arms, it was horrible. Three thousand children were taken that day and murdered. After that, I felt relieved that our little girl was safe.”

By 1944, only 8 000 people remained in the ghetto, and Gotz and his family were sure they were going to be marched away and killed. They decided to hide in their basement, where they planned to commit suicide if they were found. “My mother started preparing for our mass suicide. She lay out syringes containing a drug, which was known to induce heart attacks, on a tray, and I wondered if she would be strong enough to kill me.”

But when, after three days and three nights, they remained undiscovered, they crept out of their hiding place to find people marching to a train outside, and joined them.

Gotz’s mother and aunt were taken to a concentration camp for women, while he and his father were taken to Dachau.

At the camp, he and his father worked in a building as mechanics. “We worked and starved,” he said. “We worked from 7 am to 7 pm and they gave us very little food. In the morning they gave us coffee to drink, and after work a slice of bread and soup, and every second day, margarine.”

By the time the last days of the war approached, Gotz and his father had spent 10 months in Dachau, and he was convinced his father was dying. “His eyes were glazed, his legs were swollen, he wouldn’t come out of the barracks for food. When we heard the Americans were there and the war was over, I went to give him his soup and bread, and told him the good news. He said: “Oh that’s good, have you got the bread?”

Gotz said the liberation of Dachau was for those “who could still stand”. Tragically, a number of inhabitants died after being unable to digest tinned beef given to them by the Americans, as a result of months of starvation.

It took the family six months in hospital to recover from the physical impact of their experiences. “I weighed 70 pounds [32 kilograms] when I came out. It took a long time to recover, before I started to dream again. I wanted to be an engineer. I started to sell cigarettes and coffee on the black market from food parcels given to us, and used the money to buy private lessons from professors.”

Physics, maths, mechanics and chemistry were among the subjects he studied, before moving with his family to Norway, and later Rhodesia, where he managed to convince a school to enrol him in Grade 12.

After passing his examinations, Gotz was granted entry into the University of Witwatersrand, where he qualified as an electrical engineer.

He met his wife, Esme, during his stay there, and they remained in South Africa for a few years, before emigrating to Canada with their three children in 1964. “I couldn’t take the political situation in South Africa. We didn’t want our children to grow up racists.”

Gotz devotes a large portion of his time to travelling around the world discussing the Holocaust.

Talking about his experiences is not easy he said. But he does so extensively, in an effort to foster understanding and tolerance between people of different cultures and races. “Personal prejudice within us must be eliminated. Until you know a person personally, you can’t say: ‘They’re all like that’. ”

IN 2005, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly designated January 27 as Holocaust Remembrance Day, as part of its effort to educate people about the event and prevent future acts of genocide.

January 27 was chosen because on the same day in 1945, an advancing Soviet army liberated the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland.

This year, the International Day of Commemoration to honour the victims of the Holocaust, as it is called, focused on the theme Children and the Holocaust.

Some estimates of the number of children killed during the Holocaust range as high as 1,5 million. This includes more than 1,2 million Jewish children, and thousands of Gypsy children, as well as institutionalised handicapped children.

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