Two weeks ago, UTM’s student housing and residence life department, in collaboration with the March of Remembrance and Hope program, hosted a lecture with Eliazer “Elly” Gotz, an engineer, businessman, and Holocaust survivor. The lecture was divided into two parts, where each part had its own separate Q&A session.
Gotz is a regular speaker at universities and schools, where he teaches tolerance through his experiences in the Holocaust. He was a part of the team that built the Holocaust Centre of Toronto, and has served on the executive committee for the last 30 years.
MRH is an educational leadership program which, according to their website, teaches students of different religious and ethnic backgrounds about the “dangers of intolerance through the study of the Holocaust,” and “promotes better relations amongst people of diverse cultures.” The program takes place in mid-May, and includes a one-day orientation in Toronto, a two-day trip to Germany, followed by a six-day visit to Poland. In fact, Amanda Luongo, UTM residence’s community development coordinator, met Gotz through the MRH program.
In the beginning of the lecture, Gotz scanned the full room of people who eagerly waited for him to speak.
“I say fellow students because I am also in a course. The course of ‘living’,” he said, which prompted laughter from the audience.
Gotz was born and raised in Kaunas, which was then the capital of Lithuania. At this point, Lithuania was a part of the Soviet Union Republic.
Gotz’s mother was a surgical nurse, while his father was studying to be an engineer until the war broke out in the summer of 1941. Gotz was 13.
“On the 22nd of June, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union […]. And immediately, our lives changed,” Gotz states.
There were tanks on the streets the next day, and the attack on the Jews started directly after. “They cut off a Jew’s head with a saw and displayed it in a store with a note that said, ‘We will do this to every Jew’.”
Twenty-thousand Jews, including Gotz and his family, were moved into the Kaunas ghetto, where everyone from the ages of 15 to 65 were put to slave labour. The ghetto segregated Jews from the rest of the population. They were required to wear the yellow star of David on their shirts at all times.
During the three years that Gotz and his family lived there, they were given authorization, but no resources, to build a school for metalwork and locksmithing. Gotz, who was always interested in new inventions and becoming an engineer, joined the school. He was a capable student, and within a year, became an instructor teaching a class in metalwork in both the afternoons and evenings. Because there was a lack of food in the ghetto, he also had a “little side business,” where he fixed people’s locks and keys, and did general work. He began to clean and fix up old sewing machines to trade at the ghetto’s fence with farmers in exchange for butter, wheat, and bread.
After three years, there were only 8,000 Jews left in the ghetto. This drastic reduction in population occurred on October 29, 1941, when all the Jews were rounded up within the ghetto.
Helmut Rauca, a member of the Schutzstaffel (a paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party), questioned 20,000 Jews, and then selected 10,000 people, who were forced to sit outside the ghetto fence for the entire night. In the morning, they were marched up the hill to the Ninth Fort and murdered by machine guns.
“The Germans were very organized. The Holocaust is the best-documented murder in history,” said Gotz.
The need for this seemingly spontaneous massacre was explained in official documents as the fact that “surplus Jews” were present.
Gotz stopped pacing the room at this point.
“Don’t believe the Holocaust deniers. It’s laughable when people say we made this all up. We have the documents.”
The man responsible, war criminal Rauca, settled in Canada for 30 years before being charged at the age of 73 by the Canadian authorities with the murder of 10,500 people in Kaunas.
At the time, Gotz did not know that “the man charged with the murder of 11,584 Jews was living two streets away from me, in Yorkville.”
Three years later, the German army announced that they would be “liquidating” the ghetto, which to them meant that the Jews were going to be marched up the hill to the Ninth Fort and murdered by machine guns.
Gotz’s family, fearing for their lives, went into hiding. “If they found us, we were going to commit suicide,” he told us.
Gotz raised his little cousin, Dalia, who was born just before the war, when he was 15 years old. Dalia was smuggled out of the ghetto, as planned by his aunt and uncle, to a family friend. Gotz fed her, put her to sleep, and told her stories. “It was marvelous to see her grow up. A kind Lithuanian Catholic woman adopted her, and in that moment, my depression of losing her disappeared, because at least she was safe.”
Dalia survived WWII. Gotz was reunited with her later on, and the two are still close to this day.
“On the fourth morning, we heard two soldiers walking down the stairs. My mother was holding the syringe, and I had my bare arm out.”
They were not found, and remained in the cellar for a few more days before joining the rest of the ghetto population on a train towards Dachau, Germany.
Dachau was extremely well-known for being the first established concentration camp. Gotz and his father were sent to the camp for work. They lived in those barracks for 10 months, and worked 12-hour shifts with little food.
“In those 10 months, I did not have a single change of clothing or a shower. They expected us to live three months and then die,” Gotz stated.
They built a huge factory designed by a German architect. Twelve men lost their lives falling and drowning into the concrete below. Eventually, those who lived were sent to the central camp, Dachau.
During that time, Gotz’s father became extremely weak and sick.
“His eyes wouldn’t focus and he couldn’t walk. I was so sad—I thought I would lose my father, and I didn’t know where my mother was.”
In those few days, the Americans liberated the concentration camps, and his father asked for some bread.
“That was the moment of my liberation. ‘Do you have the bread?’”
After being reunited with his mother, two years after liberation, they moved to Norway.
Gotz studied hard to get into university, but soon after, his uncle called Gotz and his family to come to Zimbabwe. They moved to Zimbabwe, and Gotz went to university in Johannesburg, South Africa to become an engineer.
He could not get a job soon after, and decided to start his own business. He started a workshop where he fixed radios and then bought a bigger store to sell the radios, where the store did well. Thereafter, he started a recording studio, where he recorded music and sold records. He also established an advertising agency. He led a busy and “wonderful” life, and then decided to look for a wife. “It took me years to find a wife. But I had a good time along the way,” Gotz laughed. He has now been married for 58 years.
In 1964, Gotz moved to Canada and established a successful plastics manufacturing company.
It took Gotz 25 years to begin talking about his experiences.
Regarding the architects and engineers who designed the Auschwitz concentration camps, Gotz stated, “Doctors must say the Hippocratic Oath: to do no harm. Engineers and architects should too. What would I have done if I was asked to design a concentration camp? I hope I wouldn’t have done it.”
He mentions that the world saw the Nazi era take place because “personal prejudice exists within society. There was a leader who said, ‘trust me’ and a government who supported it.”
Gotz has not forgiven them, but he has let go of his hatred.
“Don’t think about hatred—you don’t have time for that. Think about yourself. When I stopped hating, I started to live. Forgiveness is different. I would’ve considered it if they had asked for forgiveness.”