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Max Borenstein's story

Judy Abrams

Felix Opatowski

Azrieli Foundation Launches Three Holocaust Memoirs At Event in partnership with Bnai Brith

The goal of the Azrieli Series of Holocaust Memoirs is to put a personal face on what was lost –one story at a time.

By: Shaked Karabelnicoff [with files from Rhonda Prepes and Rhonda Spivak]


I attended a wonderful evening of remembrance and renewal where three Holocaust survivors, Max Bornstein, Felix Opatowski and Judy Abrams, celebrated the Winnipeg launch of their memoirs through the Azrieli Foundation’s Series of Holocaust Survivor Memoir Book Launch and Film Screening. The books launched were Tenuous Threads by Judy Abrams, If Home Is Not Here by former Winnipeg resident Max Bornstein and Gatehouse to Hell by Felix Opatowski. They were launched at an event attended by a multi-ethnic crowd of 125 guests sponsored by B'nai Brith Midwest Region and Faith Temple at the Fairmont Hotel with a dessert reception following.

Dr. Naomi Azrieli, CEO and Chair of the Azrieli Foundation spoke at the event explaining that the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program was established by the Azrieli Foundation in 2005 to collect, preserve and share the memoirs and diaries written by survivors of the twentieth-century Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe who later made their way to Canada. By preserving the stories written by survivors and making them widely available to a broad audience, the program seeks to sustain the memory of all those who perishedat the hands of hatred, abetted by indifference and apathy.

"These are Jewish stories of survival and Canadian stories of rebirth" said Dr. Azrieli .

"Thirty five thousand Holocaust survivors came to Canada after the war. Today there are only 4000 alive. We felt that these personal stories could bring history to life, that they could put a face on what was lost, and allow readers – especially those unfamiliar with this history - to grasp the enormity of what happened — one story at a time.

What we have heard from readers and students educators from across the country, people of diverse backgrounds, has confirmed our initial hopes. They have told us that first-person witness accounts are vital to our understanding of history, and that the stories of people who survived adversity and went on to rebuild their lives as immigrants to Canada speak to people from very different backgrounds. They have told us is that they have been inspired by the courage of the authors.," Azrieli said.

"We have created short films to accompany the stories being launched this evening. This is to reach a larger audience and to increase the accessibility of the stories. The personal accounts of those who survived the Holocaust against all odds demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit and show how even small acts can sometimes make a large difference," she added.

I had an opportunity to speak to Naomi Azrieli who told me that the idea for the series was born out of the fact that her father David Azrieli, an architect, designer and real estate developer, who is now age 90, is a holocaust survivor .[David Azrieli, who has developed shopping malls is very well known in Israel-The Azrieli towers are a very famous landmark in Tel-Aviv].

"It took my father ten years to write his story which was published through Yad Va Shem," Naomi Azrieli explained. "After publishing his story he wondered how many other holocaust survivors would be interested in publishing their stories. 100? 200? 1000?. We sent out a call for submission to see how many unpublished memoirs of survival existed in Canada. That’s how it started. At present, we have over 170 manuscripts and more come in all the time as remaining survivors find the courage to write or as family members discover lost memoirs from relatives that had passed away. "

The Azrieli Foundation decided that its mission to try to publish as many of these memoirs as possible.

In an interview with the Editor of the Winnipeg Jewish Review the preceding evening at McNally Robinson where a standing room only crowd came to hear the authors of the Holocasut memoirs, Azrieli explained that one of the reasons that Yad Vashem chose to publish her father's story was that "he 's so well known in Israel such that they thought his story would sell well."

However, she noted that Yad Vashem does not generally publish survivors memoirs."'In general, Yad Vashem looks to publish memoirs only if they deal with a part of the Holocaust that is generally not well known. A survivor who writes about the Warsaw ghetto therefore, is not likely to be published by Yad Vashem as this aspect of the Holocaust is well-known."

Azreli aslo indicated that "commercial publishers are not interested in survivors memoirs as they are very labour intensive and you can't make money publishing them."

She continued, " When we publish them we do extensive fact checking such that if necessary archival documents are examined to verify that historical accuracy of the survivors' memories. When a survivor tells his or her story, of course, they are telling the truth as best as they can recall. But we make sure that we check everything possible before going to print, which means that these projects are very labour intensive. The Azrieli Foundation also has an editing team, headed up by managing editor Andrea Knight and editor Arielle Berger, that work extensively on the each memoir.

" There is absolutely no profit in this. It is philanthropy," Azrieli explained, saying that were it not for the Azrielli Foundation's involvement " most of these stories would not be published."

In the evening at McNally Robinson, Max Bornstein said if he had the choice between getting a million dollars or publishing his book, a visibly emotional Bornstein said he would want his book published, and expressed his gratitude to the Azrieli Foundation for making this a reality.

In the short films that accompany the books, the authors reflect on their histories from childhood to their experiences during the war to their present lives in Canada. There are animated clips in the films and footage of the actual authors speaking. There were no dry eyes in the room while the films-powerful and inspirational were being shown. I was most likely the youngest in the room, and seeing so many elderly people cry, really moving I even turned to thesound and lighting crew and saw horror in their eyes.

In the film If home is Not Here we see that Max Bornstein lived in Winnipeg for ten years of his childhood before being swept back into the maelstrom of Europe under Nazi threat and occupation. This film also depicts the time he spent in a Spanish concentration camp.

In the film Gatehouse to Hell we see Felix Opatowski, born in Lodz, Poland,barely survived the horrors of Auschwitz and his participation in the camp underground.

In the film Tenuous Threads, Judy Abrams, born in Budapest, Hungary, spends time as a hidden child, separated from her parents and forced to "pass" as Christian. She was then reunited with her parents and immigrated to Montreal.

The films have been done in such a way as to enable them to be used as educational tools in schools to compliment the memoirs. All five of the Azrieli Series Short Films, have recently been formally accepted as curriculum resources for all high schools in Nova Scotia. It is interesting to note that the review committee was specifically interested in the books that had complementary films, as they felt these could be most effectively used in the classroom.

During the evening at the Fairmont, Reverend Rudy Fidel, Spiritual leader at Faith Temple spoke about passionately about his joy in participating in the March of the Living in 2005 where he met and began a friendship with Felix Opatowski and Rabbi Alan Green, Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, read a passage to the crowd.

Grand Chief David Harper, who flies an Israeli flag on his reserve, spoke about that fact that the Jewish people continue to stay strong as a people, notwithstanding what they endured the Holocaust, and how he looks forward to going back to Israel. He also spoke about the plight of the First Nations people in residential schools in Canada

"One day our stories will be told... one day my mother will tell her story"Chief Harper said.

He told the audience that a multitude of his prayers have been answered by praying to the Jewish god at the Wailing Wall in Old Jerusalem.

Alan Yusim of B'nai Brith opened the event by reading remarks prepared by David Matas, honourary senior counsel of B'nai Brith Canada [which will be posted on this site in full our next issue].


Brief Summaries of the Three Books Launched

Each story in the Holocaust Survivor memoirs Program is as different as thepeople who wrote them, but all demonstrate the courage, strength, wit and luck that it took to prevail and survive in such terrible adversity. Morethan half a century later, the diversity of stories allows readers to put a face on what was lost, and to grasp the enormity of what happened to six million Jews-one story at a time.

The three books launched at the event were:

If Home is Not Here by Max Bornstein

Max Bornstein's epic account of surviving as a Polish child born into desperate poverty; a boy who lived in Canada for ten years but returned to Europe in 1933, the year that Adolf Hitler came to power; and a statelessrefugee in 1930s Paris who managed to escape as France fell to the Nazis only to be interned in a Spanish camp, is breathtaking in scope. Released to a British envoy and relocated to war-time England, forbidden to join the British forces and alone in a strange country without family, the stress of his traumas lead to an emotional breakdown and admission to a psychiatric facility. Max Bornstein's unusual candour in recounting his struggles with mental health add powerful dimension to his Holocaust memoir. Rich in details of pre-war life in Poland, France and Canada and life for Jewish refugees in war-time Britain, If Home Is Not Here gives rare insights into the experiences of an undocumented Jewish boy who is caught up in political forces beyond his control.


Tenuous Threads by Judy Abrams (published with One of the Lucky Ones by Eva Felsenburg Marx)

Judy Abrams and Eva Marx were born just six month apart -- Judy in Hungary and Eva in Czechoslovakia-- two years before World War II began. Their childhoods were irrevocably marked by the Holocaust and their memoirs are evocative accounts of this fragmented and fearful period in their young lives. Separated at times from their parents, the two authors poignantly describe the insecurities they lived with as hidden children and, as adults, explore the role that memory, innocence and, in hindsight, knowledge, has played in their lives. Two survivors who, until recently, had never met, but had led rather parallel lives. Both survived the Holocaust, came to Canada within months of each other, settled in the same Montreal neighbourhood, attended the same high school and teaching college, and both pursued the same careers.

Gatehouse to Hell by Felix Opatowski

Felix Opatowski is only fifteen years old when he takes on the perilous job of smuggling goods out of the Lodz ghetto in exchange for food for his starving family. It is a skill that will serve him well as he tries to stay alive in Nazi-occupied Poland. With dogged determination, Felix endures months of harrowing conditions in the ghetto and slave labour camps until he is deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in the spring of 1943. Recognized for his nerve and daring spirit, he is soon recruited as a runner for the Polish Underground inside the camp and is implicated in the infamous plot to blow up the camp crematoria - something for which he pays dearly. Gatehouse to Hell is a candid and heart-rending account of a teenage boy who comes of age in desperate conditions, putting himself at risk to help others, forming bonds of friendship and holding onto hope for the future.





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