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By Aliza Cohen, Grade 12, September 27, 2010

Eighty five year old Leo Weiss, a Holocaust survivor and teacher, is a man who spends much of his time retelling the miraculous story of his survival to teenagers like myself.  I had the privilege of hearing him speak at the B’nai Brith Manitoba Jewish Christian Roundtable on September 14, 2010 to an audience of 150 people in the Multi-Purpose room of the Asper Campus.

The event, which was very well received, was co-chaired by Cheryl Barish and Pastor Rudy Fidel Weiss began with an explanation of his mission, hoping that children and young adults will be able to fully understand the meaning of the Holocaust, and why it must never be repeated.  He hoped that we would walk away with a better understanding of who he is and what he stands for. 

I suppose one might expect a Holocaust survivor to be quiet and delicate.  Not this time.  No, Mr. Leo Weiss spoke to us with the wisdom of age and with the strength of a young man.  He spoke of his childhood in Drohobycz, Poland with fondness and of his early adult years with sadness.  Though Mr. Weiss has been through a nightmare we cannot fathom, he has lead an amazingly productive life, filled with his family, his work, and his public speaking, travelling far to deliver the message of the lessons of the  Holocaust.

Weiss reminisced of a happy childhood living in Drohobycz.  He belonged to a middle class family, that was happy with what it had.  He told us about the private schools that he and his brother PhillipWeiss( z'l)) and sister Erna Kimmel  (z’L) went to, rarely feeling persecuted or different from the other children.  It was in September of 1939, when the Nazis invaded their city.

 “Step by step trying to steal your identity, your integrity, and your prestige as a human being;” he said.

He related to us the cruelty of the Nazis first hand, how he was forced into a ghetto with his family, and how he lived there for six months before being relocated to the concentration camps.

He was moved to a concentration camp, and “labelled as a military worker”, and was thus protected by any outside cruelty.  They wove baskets for the army, working long and hard hours, suffering from the unbearable heat or the intolerable cold.  He described this situation:  “No one could get in, and they most certainly could not get out.”

Though he was separated from his parents and sister during the Nazi “ liquidation” of the ghetto, he remained with his brother Philip, moving with him from yet another concentration camp to the Polish prison.  The Nazis were even prepared to release a large numbers of criminals to make room for the Jews in the prison.  Soon after, he and his brother were approached and told that they were being transferred somewhere else.  Frightened as to where that may be, Leo claimed that he would not leave without his wife, though he did not have one at this point.  He pointed to a young woman in the cell next to his and declared that he was not going without her.  And in the midst of death and despair, Mr Leo Weiss saved a life.

They were moved to another camp, unloading barrels of oil.  He again worked long and unfair hours without much sustenance.  It was at this point that he and his brother and another few boys decided to escape.  He was elected by the boys to go first as he looked “the most Aryan”, since he had blonde hair.  He walked up to the officer and claimed that he was needed to work at a nearby camp.  He was let through, and waited for his brother and the others to appear.  He waited for a long time and then resigned with guilt and sadness that his brother would not be joining him.  He lived away from his brother for a year before he was reunited with him.  

Leo was taken on soon after as assistant doctor of the Soviet Army, dodging many hardships along the way.  The Soviets believed that had you survived so long in the hands of the Nazis, you must have been a collaborator.  Weiss was fortunate enough to have been spared that matter.  He later went AWOL from the Soviet Army, after being forewarned by the young doctor he had worked with there.  Throughout all of his wartime activities, Weiss took along with him the young woman he had saved from the Polish prison, Elisha.  She had been searching for survivors of her family, but had until then been unsuccessful.  Shortly after their escape from the army, Elisha found a survivor, an aunt living in London, England, also searching for the last remains of her family.  Elisha gave leave from Weiss, and moved to London to live with her.  He draws tears, and laughter, out of the audience when he tells the story of his son’s adventures through Europe, retelling the encounter he had with a nice young Jewish woman from London, England.  She turned out to be none other than the daughter of the very woman he had saved on that fateful day in an exhausted Polish prison. 

After vividly relating his stories of survival, of courage and bravery, he takes a deep breath and starts a new story.  The calmness in his voice is contagious, and the audience instantly knows that the worst is over, and that a new story, one of fresh starts and a new kind of heroism and faith, is about to begin.  “We left Europe on a cold day, and we arrived in Canada to the glorious skies, and I knew I was home.”  With this statement our eyes are opened to a new life, drastically different from the other.  We knew that although the beginning of this history was heart-wrenching, the continuation would be just as warming, with the coming together of a family, of a new generation.

Mr Leo Weiss, Holocaust survivor, immigrant, teacher, brother, husband, father of  three married children and five grandchildren  is currently living in Minneapolis after more than fifty years in Winnipeg.  He goes to many schools and organizations trying hard to impart what the Holocaust meant to him.  He declares that “we live a modern life; we must speak out against hatred and prejudice.”  And we will, continuing to spread the awareness among all people.  We will never forget.  

Leo is married to Evelyn (Barish) Weiss. He and his wife just celebrated their 60th Wedding Anniversary in August. Leo and Evelyn have 3 children that all were born and  raised in Winnipeg: Heather (Mark Stesin) (Mpls.),Shirlee Weiss (Dag)(Toronto)& Dr Sol Weiss (Deborah) (Toronto). They have 5 grandchildren Marlee, Kenneth, Daniel, Maxime, and Jason. Both of Weiss’s siblings, Philip Weiss and Erna Kimmel who passed away within the past two years, were well known and involved members of our community.

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