Saskatoon

'We had to put it aside to survive', says Holocaust survivor speaking in Saskatoon

Robbie Waisman says he only has good memories of his life in Poland before he and his family were sent to the Nazi death camps during the Second World War.

Robbie Waisman was 13 years old when he was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp

85-year-old Holocaust survivor Robbie Waisman says he speaks about his experiences to make sure that this world never witnesses again what he did. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Robbie Waisman says he only has good memories of his life in Poland before he and his family were sent to the Nazi death camps during the Second World War.

His mother, father and four older brothers were killed, as well as his one-year-old nephew, who ended up being one of 1.5 million children who died during the Holocaust.

When he speaks to students, it's statistics like this one that he struggles to make human. "How can I describe 1.5 million lost?" An estimated 6 million Jewish people were killed in total.

On Thursday, Waisman spoke to 2,000 students in Saskatoon, and on Sunday, he'll be speaking at the Holocaust Memorial Service at the Congregation Agudas Israel Jewish Community Centre.

Harrowing experiences

Waisman was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp when he was 13. He spoke to Saskatchewan Weekend about some of the harrowing experiences he faced, including hearing his brother being shot.

"You have to be healthy and useful to them," he said. "If you were sick and they couldn't use you in some of those camps, in the munitions factory, you were of no use."

When his brother came down with typhoid fever, they put him in a truck and drove away.

"I still see that truck going into the woods, then it disappeared out of view, and all I heard was gunshots, then the truck coming back empty."

'We had to put it aside to survive'

In 1945, he and 430 other children were rescued, and taken to France. A professor there made a particular impression on him, encouraging the survivors to catch up in their schooling and make something of their lives.

"I'll never forget his words…. He says, by the way, if your parents were alive … and stood where I'm standing now, what do you think they would want for you?"

For many years after the war, he didn't speak about his time in the death camp. He moved on with his life, married, had children, and didn't even speak to them about his past.

"We had to put it aside to survive and have a normal life and be a good father, a good husband."

Spurred to action

Then about 30 years ago, he heard of a teacher in Alberta who was teaching his students that the Holocaust was a myth. "When I heard this, it sort of woke me up," he said.

He's been speaking about his experience ever since, hoping that by sharing his story, he can help keep something like it from ever happening again.

His talks have a big impact on the youth who hear him. He said he often receives letters from the students after he speaks to them.

"I had one girl that wrote to me and said … she became a journalist because of me.... The letters I get from them encourages me to go on doing what I'm doing."

With files from Saskatchewan Weekend