Alex Buckman, a child survivor of the Holocaust, shared the story of his harrowing childhood years during a moving online event Jan. 27. The program, marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, was the second annual such event organized by the Bayit in Richmond.
Buckman is the president of the Vancouver Child Survivors Group and has shared his experiences with thousands of students as a Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) survivor speaker.
“I was born on Oct. 31, 1939, in Brussels, Belgium,” he told more than 100 people who attended virtually. “My family was Jewish. I was 7 months old when Nazi Germany invaded Belgium on May 10, 1940. Everything changed for Jewish people in Belgium.”
He recalled how, at the age of 4, he was escorted by a strange woman, as they traveled through the night, sleeping in forests and foraging for food. After days of walking, they arrived at an orphanage. He would only discover years later that his parents were sent to Auschwitz.
At the orphanage, he met up with his cousin Annie but was told that they were to refer to each other as siblings.
When Nazis would come for inspections, Jewish boys were hastily sent into a cellar. “They told us again to be very quiet, then they shut the two wooden doors, replaced the carpet and furniture,” he said. “In the cellar, we were very cold and scared and we peed our pants. We saw large things running around us. They told us later that they were rats. The first time this happened I was 4 years old…. It seemed like we were in that cellar for a very long time. Soon, we heard every footstep over our heads. We heard men screaming loudly in a language that we did not understand. We were scared. We did not know what was going on. They told us that we should not cry but we were scared children so we cried.
“Suddenly, we heard the pushing of the furniture and they opened two wooden doors and we saw the light,” he continued. “They asked us to come out but we did not want to go out. We told them that we had peed our pants [so] they promised that they would give us a warm bath. This happened too many times from the age of 4 to 6-and-a-half.”
Annie’s mother, Alex’s Aunt Becky, was sent to the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück. When each new train of prisoners would arrive, Becky would run through the crowds of arriving women calling the name of her sister, Devora.
“A young girl came close to Becky and said, I knew Devora but she is dead,” Buckman recounted. “Becky asked her: how did you know Devora? The young girl replied, I am from Belgium and I used to babysit her son, Alex. Becky thanked her and cried. Becky looked at the sky and prayed. She said, if I survive this, one day, and find Alex, I will raise him as my son.”
When liberation finally did come, it took time for the surviving family to find one another. Alex and Annie waited in the orphanage as one child after another was claimed by family. Alex tried to reassure his cousin, whom he believed to be his sister.
“I would tell her that our parents would come soon,” he said, “but, like Annie, I did not know what happened to our parents and why they were not coming for us. The orphanage kept all the children for another six months, hoping that our parents would come and pick us up. But no one came for us.”
The remaining children were transferred to a Red Cross facility in Brussels. Eventually, they were reunited with Annie’s parents, who Alex assumed were also his own. It was another cousin who, in an act of revenge for a childhood spat, blurted out the truth to Alex that his parents were dead.
Buckman went on to share his experience in April 2010 as a survivor-participant in the March of the Living, a program that brings Jewish youth to Poland and then on to Israel to explore firsthand the history of the Holocaust and its survivors who helped build Israel.
“It is almost impossible to describe the feeling I felt entering that camp, Auschwitz,” Buckman said. “On both sides of the camp there were shoes. As I passed the shoes, I caressed the little pair of shoes. The students were crying, but we had to continue.… We saw a mountain of glasses all tangled together.
“We finally walked in a shower room and I closed my eyes,” he said. “I was thinking of my mother and her sister.… We were told that the women panicked when they did not see the water come down from the showers. They ran toward the walls and scratched them with their fingernails. When I heard this, I turned and caressed the wall, feeling the scratches made by Jewish women prisoners. I wondered, were those scratches made by my mother? I would never know.
“In that room, I finally said, au revoir, Maman.”
At the commemoration, Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, accompanied by four city councilors, spoke and read a proclamation.
All four Richmond MLAs were present, with Kelley Greene, MLA for Richmond-Steveston, reading a proclamation from the premier. Finance Minister Selina Robinson also addressed the event, as did Steveston-Richmond East Member of Parliament Kenny Chiu, who spoke of his own visit to Auschwitz.
The Bayit’s Rabbi Levi Varnai noted that this year’s event, which represents the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, also fell on erev Tu b’Shevat, the new year of the trees.
“The marriage of these two days is chilling,” said the rabbi. “Man is compared to the trees of the field, our tradition tells us. The six million souls murdered in the Holocaust were like individual human trees, each had the potential to grow, to flourish, and to bear fruit of the generations. They were obliterated, but one thing remained that can never be destroyed: their roots.
“The roots of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust goes back 3,300 years to Mount Sinai. What gives Holocaust survivors the sustenance to keep going? What motivates future generations of Jews to double down on life? It’s not just the memory of those who passed away, it’s also the memories of hundreds of generations who came before them, the generations who struggled and prevailed against all odds…. As we remember today the six million souls who left us, we can also remember the millions of souls who came before them and the millions who will come after.
“Today, we mourn. Tomorrow, we plant and renew,” said Varnai.
The Bayit’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day program was co-presented with partners including the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the VHEC, the Kehila Society of Richmond and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. The program was emceed by Bayit president Keith Liedtke.
Earlier in the day, a national virtual commemoration took place, organized by the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in partnership with the VHEC and other groups across Canada. Survivors, including Vancouver’s Serge Haber, lit memorial candles. Heather Dune Macadam, author of the book 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz, spoke with Michael Berenbaum, a writer and professor and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust.