Thursday November 09, 2017

'I feel like the luckiest man alive': Holocaust survivor writes his story for the first time

Casey Shapira helped her grandfather Isaac Gotfried complete his book Lucky to Survive.

Casey Shapira helped her grandfather Isaac Gotfried complete his book Lucky to Survive. (S. Thacker/CBC)

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Isaac Gotfried spent his teen years in labour and concentration camps during the Second World War. Now, at 92, he has written a memoir about his life experience.

Gotfried started putting pen to paper two years ago. His account was initially meant as a keepsake for family and friends. They, in turn, helped him to shape it into a self-published book. The day Lucky to Survive came out, all of the copies were sold and more had to be printed.

He marked the release of the book with a launch at Shaftesbury Park Retirement Residence where he lives. 

Isaac Gotfried

People lined up at the launch of Lucky to Survive by Holocaust survivor Isaac Gotfried (S. Thacker/CBC)

Gotfried arrived in Winnipeg 70 years ago, and has been speaking to young people about his experience during the Holocaust for the past 25. He estimates he has shared his story with more than 20,000 people.

He usually starts by explaining that he was only 15 when he was taken from his home and brought to a labour camp.  

"Teens are shocked to hear a story of a teenager that I was," he said.

"When I was picking up the corpses or when I was starving, they could empathize with me a little more because they are at the same age."

One of the young people who has been directly impacted by Gotfried's story is his granddaughter Casey Shapira. She helped him put the book together.

"We worked really hard to ensure that we still had what I liked to call 'zaida-isms' in the book so that it sounded like it was always coming from my zaida, my grandfather," Shapira explained. "And that when you read the book you can really hear his voice."

'Lucky to Survive' by Isaac Gotfried

Lucky to Survive by Isaac Gotfriend. (S. Thacker/CBC)

Gotfried's friend Ron Blicq also helped get the book published. The two are the same age.

"To be able to see and imagine exactly at the same age what he was experiencing and what I was experiencing [in England] — such differences in our lives," he said.

"I'll never forget the moment when he writes how he escaped from the death march — one of the few who escaped and survived."

It's one of the stories that stands out in the book.

"We were assembled to be shot, for trying to escape," explained Gotfried.

"So we stood, about 50 or 60 of us. We were shaking. Some were crying. Others were praying. People were saying the Shema [a Hebrew prayer]."

"A Polack yelled out 'Chodźmy! Uciekajmy!'," which means 'Come! Let's run!' in Polish and we did. The guards did not understand what he said."

"I don't know how many of us managed to mix in with the 2,000 men who were standing and watching us but somehow I wasn't caught. I watched in horror as all the others were shot."

Gotfried weighed less than 80 pounds when he was liberated from the war. 

He managed to make his way to Winnipeg in October 1947 with his brother Bernard — the only survivor from his immediate family of seven. They each had 10 dollars in their pockets.

Seventy years after arriving in Winnipeg, with only a Grade 7 education, Gotfried with his wife Hilda has managed to raise a family of four daughters -- first as a cabinet maker and wood carver, then as a candy salesman and wholesaler and finally as an insurance salesman.

All proceeds from the sale of Lucky to Survive go to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. They can be purchased from McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg.