By Allie Shier
In 2003, the federal government of Canada established Holocaust Memorial Day, or Yom HaShoah. Yom HaShoah, as determined in each year by the Jewish lunar calendar to fall on the 27th of Nisan, is on April 16th this year. The month of Nisan is typically regarded as a celebratory month. It follows after Purim and includes Passover, two holidays that are commemorated with song, dance and festivities as families and friends celebrate the perseverance of the Jewish people. In contrast, Yom HaShoah is honoured with sombreness and solemnity. This official memorialization of the Holocaust promotes an understanding of the importance of diversity and social cohesion in Canada, and an awareness of the dangers of racism and discrimination.
For Saul Shulman, Yom HaShoah holds a deep, personal significance. As a Holocaust survivor, Saul knows first-hand the importance of maintaining hope and strength in the face of persecution. Saul is an adoring husband, the father of two daughters and the grandfather of five grandchildren. Saul was only six years old when the Second World War ended, yet he recalls his experiences during this tumultuous time with a vivid memory.
Born in the small town of Klimontov, Poland in 1938, Saul was only an infant when Europe transformed into a war zone. He was born into a loving family: his father was a banker, his mother was a homemaker, and he had two older brothers. Saul remembers very little of this briefly relatively peaceful life before his family was transferred to Tzozmer ghetto when he was three years old. In the ghetto, Saul was forced to learn how to survive in the dire conditions to which the Jewish people were subjected.
While Saul’s story is one of survival, it is also one of loss. Like many other families, the Shulmans were separated during the Holocaust, with no knowledge of each other’s whereabouts or well-being. Saul clearly remembers his tragic separation from his two older brothers: “I remember being taken with my mother to the first camp after the ghetto, on a truck with many others. I remember looking off of the truck and seeing rows of people lined up. The first row included my two brothers and one of my uncles. My middle brother was trying to run toward my mother and me out of line as our truck drove away, but he was chased back into line by an officer."
After this traumatic experience, Saul and his mother were deported to a concentration camp. Sometime thereafter they were deported to Auschwitz, the major site where Nazis executed their “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” The conditions in Auschwitz were wretched and unbearable; it is truly a miracle that Saul survived. He remembers the sleepless nights he endured in cramped barracks. On his first night, a bed bug crawled into his ear and he was sent to the hospital barrack. It was here that the number B7875 was tattooed onto his arm, permanently inscribing his identity as a prisoner.
At a young age, Saul had a profound understanding of the fragility of life. Every morning in Auschwitz, Saul was taken out of his barrack for counting and inspection. He recalls one morning in particular: “One very cold morning, I was standing outside freezing in the dark, knowing that after the inspections we would be taken for a walk. If they took us the wrong way and I saw smoke coming out of crematoriums, I knew I would probably die. That morning, I was taken back to the barracks. I survived another day.” Every day commenced with the uncertainty of whether or not it would be Saul’s last. Yet, the young prisoner maintained hope in the face of utter horror: “One day, I was looking at the sky, saying maybe one day the gates will open and people will be thrilled to see me free, as I will be.”
It was this hopeful attitude, along with instinct, good fortune, and deliberate actions Saul took that allowed him to survive the genocide. Saul also remembers very few random acts of kindness, encouraging him to maintain a glimmer of optimism in dire circumstances. Saul recalls arriving at Auschwitz in a tightly packed cattle car filled with other prisoners, weak with hunger and exhaustion from the arduous journey. As he peered out of the car’s little barred window and saw the dismal concentration camp for the first time, he locked eyes with a German soldier eating bread and butter. When Saul stepped out of the car, the soldier handed the young, frail boy a piece of bread. This small charitable act starkly contrasted with the systematic dehumanization of the prisoners in Auschwitz. Random acts of kindness instilled in Saul the ability to appreciate the inherent human rights of all.
Eventually, Saul and his mother moved to Canada to start a new chapter of their lives. They arrived here in 1948, when Saul was nine years old. Saul envisioned Canada as a beautiful, peaceful country with an abundance of opportunities. Saul was optimistic that, in Canada, he would have a happy life. This nation holds a special place in Saul’s heart, as it was here that Saul and his mother saw with his oldest brother, Perry, for the first time three years after his liberation. While Saul suffered the devastating loss of his father, brother, grandparents, aunts and uncles, he was thrilled to discover that Perry survived the Holocaust after being liberated from Buchenwald, a German concentration camp. The three surviving members of their family lived together in Windsor, Ontario, while Saul studied at the University of Windsor. Saul feels very lucky to have been educated in in Canada, to have built a successful practice of law in Toronto, to have lived in this country with his mother and brother after the war, and to have created a happy and comfortable life here for his family. Saul feels proud to live in a nation that espouses the values of diversity, anti-racism, and human rights.
While Saul’s experiences during the Holocaust were harrowing, they have ultimately shaped him into the person that he is today. Saul emphasizes the imperativeness of fighting discrimination in our communities and in Canada by speaking up when we witness injustice and prejudice. Throughout his life, Saul has never given up hope for the future. He explains, “We need to live with hope against our fears and trepidations, because if you lose hope, you will lose everything.”
Watch "The Auschwitz Album - Visual Evidence of the Process Leading to the Mass Murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau" produced by Yad Vashem
Our Family Holocaust Chronicle by Rubin Friedman – CRRF Board Member