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Lesson from my father, a Holocaust survivor

He told me, “You have to always forgive, otherwise bitterness will destroy you.” 

Sam Katz (Photo courtesy)

LONDON, ONTARIO – This week, the world is marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

We certainly are remembering this traumatic time in our family. Fortunately, as horrific as it was, we do have something to celebrate – my father survived one of the death camps.

My father, Sam, was the youngest of five children.

He was born in 1917, to Herschel and Rachel Katz, in a small village in Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia) called Benyatina, near the Hungarian border. 

The Great War was raging, taking the lives of millions of people. Nations were being uprooted. Great turmoil reigned on the earth. 

Sam’s parents who were observant Jews, named their youngest child, Shalom, which means “peace,” because they longed for peace. 

The Armistice ended the war in November 1918. The “war to end all wars” was finally over. The nations were weary from the horrific bloodshed, suffering and death of untold millions of people. They looked forward to building a better life. 

However, their worst nightmare was still ahead of them. 

Life back then was good for my father. His father was a strict but kind man and a very prosperous businessman. He owned large tracts of land and harvested and sold lumber as well as owning a grist mill and tavern. The family lived very comfortably, and all their needs were met. His mother, who died of heart problems just before the Second World War, was a loving mother who was a good cook and homemaker. My dad told me she had a beautiful singing voice and she loved to sing traditional Jewish songs.

Herschel raised his family in an Orthodox Jewish home. They kept kosher, observed all the Jewish holidays, and studied the Torah and Jewish writings. They were one of seven Jewish families who lived in a predominantly non-Jewish village. They got along well with their Gentile neighbors, many of whom worked for my grandfather. Even during the Great Depression, my grandfather prospered and provided well for his family.

My father recalled a time in the mid-1930s when some Zionists from Palestine came to their tiny village to speak to my grandfather. They told him, “Get out of Europe. It’s going to be bad for the Jews, Hitler is planning on wiping us out.” My grandfather dismissed them as fanatics and extremists. 

My grandfather told my father, “Hitler is a politician; he is full of hot air. I don’t take him seriously. We have lived here for hundreds of years, why would I go to Palestine with hostile neighbors and a dry, barren desert?”

Unfortunately, the warnings proved all too true. World War II erupted in late 1939. By Passover of 1940, peace in the village of Benyatina was shattered forever. Their Gentile neighbors and friends – with whom they had good relationships – betrayed them to the SS officers. 

My father and his two brothers were sent to labor camps where they served as slave labor for the German army. My father survived the labor camps in Hungary and Austria and was eventually sent to an extermination camp in Mauthausen, Austria. 

When I was a teenager, I asked my father how often his life was in danger in those days? He said, “Every day.” 

He had a scar on his hand where a bullet grazed his flesh. He told me of the miraculous ways he survived the war. He was in a work camp where they had to bivouac outside at night with no protection from the elements. One night was particularly miserable, cold and wet from a heavy rainstorm. They were also starving. The next morning, to his astonishment, the fields were covered with snails! Eating those snails sustained about 20,000 men and gave my dad the strength to continue. 

I asked my father how he had the courage to survive in captivity for five years. My father told me the one thing he held onto was his belief that he would survive the war and be reunited with his family. Those in the camps who gave up hope of surviving, usually died soon after. He always held onto hope and never gave up. 

On May 5, 1945, the Americans arrived and liberated the Mauthausen Concentration Camp. My father was a human skeleton, weighing a mere 60 or 70 pounds. 

The Canadian Red Cross sent in food and medicine. As he looked at the Canadian Maple Leaf on the wooden crates, my father felt in his heart that one day Canada would become his adopted home. He was hospitalized for several months after his release from the camp due to his deteriorated health.

When he returned to his village, he found only one sister had survived the war; the rest of his family had been exterminated. His two brothers, his father, and one sister and her children were gassed in Auschwitz. 

His former neighbors, who had confiscated his properties, now had to return everything to him. They were disappointed that he survived the war. 

The Czechoslovakian Government issued him a pistol to protect himself from his neighbors. It was not a happy reunion. He was hated for being a Jew because the Nazi propaganda had polluted the minds of his fellow villagers. He could no longer remain in Eastern Europe. 

Now 32 years old, with no formal education beyond a grade 6 level – but fluent in three languages, though none of them English – my dad immigrated to Canada. He rebuilt his life from the ashes of the Holocaust. 

He met and married my mother and had three children of which I am the middle child. I had an older brother and have a younger sister.

His experience of the war caused him to be a kinder, better human being. He was charitable, kind and fair. 

He used to tell me, “I don’t blame the Germans for the Holocaust, I blame the Nazis.” 

He told me, “You have to always forgive, otherwise bitterness will destroy you.” 

Despite the cruelty with which he was treated, his life lesson was, “I won’t do to others as has been done to me.” 

One of the verses in the Bible that has become important to me as I’ve grown over the years is Zechariah 3:2. 

“And the Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?”

My father was truly a brand plucked from the fire. 

What Satan tried to do to destroy the Jewish people, God used redemptively. 

This week, as we commemorate the terrible attempted genocide of the Jewish people, we acknowledge the faithfulness of the God of Israel to preserve the Jewish people and for the modern day miracle of the nation of Israel.

Harvey Katz is the son of holocaust survivor Sam Katz. He found Jesus as his Messiah at 16 years of age. He lives with his wife in London, Ontario Canada. He has three grown children and four grandchildren.

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