© 2015, Gadi Bossin
P.O. Box 20
Kiryat Bialik, Israel
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author.
I am publishing this book on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It is dedicated to my teacher, Rabbi Katzberg. I knew him ten years after the end of the war. I was eight years old.
He died a few years later, the last of his family with no close relative to remember or mourn him. But I have never forgotten him.
It has occurred to me that as long as I continue to remember him, his memory survives and thus in some small way he too survives.
Perhaps now you too will remember him.
We were all pumping our arms the way kids do when they’re trying to get their teachers to call on them.
A chorus of “Rabbi, Rabbi, Rabbi!” filled the small classroom. And then one of us called out, “Daddy!”
Rabbi Katzberg didn’t react. None of my classmates reacted. For a moment I wondered if I’d imagined it.
No, I heard, “Daddy!” I did. And it was my voice. I called him “Daddy.”
Rabbi Katzberg nodded at someone to respond.
I haven’t the slightest recollection of what he asked us. It doesn’t matter. I didn’t listen to my classmate’s response. I was absorbed in what had just happened.
I’d called my teacher “Daddy.” I didn’t know where that came from. I was eight years old. I had a father. Rabbi Katzberg was my teacher. He was a generation older than my father. He was from Europe, a refugee. He spoke English with a Polish-Yiddish accent.
I understood that my calling him “Daddy” might have hurt him. Or perhaps it could have given him some small consolation. Who knew how he’d respond to being called “Daddy”?
The Nazis had killed his wife and children during the war. He’d told us that the first day of classes.
That was who he was: a man whose family had been murdered by the Nazis.
At least I hadn’t called him Tatteleh.
I don’t think I ever knew his given name.
He was Rabbi Katzberg to all of us.
I’m sixty-eight now and I’ve never forgotten him.
Toronto Jewish children born between 1945 and 1950 were not strangers to the people our parents called Displaced Persons and DP’s.
(No one had even the slightest concern for political correctness in those days.)
The DP’s began arriving in our neighborhoods about the same time my father and sister and I made the move from Montreal to Toronto after my mother died. 1949.
They rented upstairs rooms in small houses on Montrose Avenue and Beatrice and Grace Streets and anywhere Jews lived in those days in downtown Toronto.
And then a few years later, they followed us, second- and third-generation Canadian Jews, into the suburbs where they purchased modest bungalows.
These upwardly mobile survivors of the European Holocaust were younger than Rabbi Katzberg. They were all raising families—some of them second families—all starting over.
I played with their children, many of whom were born in Europe after the war. Apart from being second-generation survivors, all of them became Canadians in every way within a few short years.
I never saw Rabbi Katzberg with a friend.
He was always alone.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he rode streetcars and buses north for an hour to Keele Street above Wilson and just below Sheppard where Beth Am synagogue was located and for two hours he taught us the history of our people and enough Hebrew to navigate our way through the siddur, the Shabbat prayer book.
Sometimes he told us stories from the war.
Then he rode the buses and streetcars back to wherever it was he lived.
I imagined it was in a rented room in an old house, somewhere downtown near where we used to live before we moved north.
When classes were over our parents picked us up and drove us home.
A few times during that year when Rabbi Katzberg was my teacher my father pulled over at the bus stop where he was waiting and offered him a ride.
“I’ll drive you downtown. The next bus won’t be along for more than half an hour.” Rabbi Katzberg thanked him and I climbed into the rear seat. He took my place in the front passenger seat.
My father drove miles out of our way, far past where we lived at Dufferin and Wilson, all the way down Dufferin Street to Dupont Street where Rabbi Katzberg thanked him again, got out of the car and said, “Goodbye.”
All the way downtown they talked. They spoke in Yiddish.
I understood a few words of Yiddish, the kind my Montreal aunts used when they bragged about me and my latest cute sayings and accomplishments. I stayed with them every summer for a few weeks.
But my father and Rabbi Katzberg weren’t speaking about me.
They were speaking about things I didn’t know interested my father and Daddy spoke with a tender and respectful tone that surprised me.
My father was a tough guy. He’d had a hard life and almost never let his guard down, but with Rabbi Katzberg he softened.
Rabbi Katzberg wasn’t even close to being grossly obese, but he was short and round, shaped like a Matryoshka doll.
He wore an old suit. It was dark gray with light gray stripes. His shirts were white or sky-blue. He also wore a necktie and suspenders which he pulled on with his thumbs when he spoke to us from the front of the class.
He was never seen without his black skull cap partially covering his thinning gray hair. During the winter months, he wore a sweater or a woolen vest under his suit jacket.
His beard was trimmed tight to his face like Sigmund Freud’s. It was white.
When he bent down to check our work at our desks, he exhaled a minty smell from the lifesavers he sucked on to disguise tobacco breath.
But what he wore and the sound of his voice and the minty smell on his breath are not why I remember him, why every year on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and every year on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, his image is right here with me, right before my eyes, why he is with me like no one else is.
The truth is Rabbi Katzberg is present– is in my life–every day of my life.
For though I knew many Holocaust survivors, neighbors and the parents of very close friends, and even an uncle and a cousin who married into the family in the early Fifties, and though I’d seen the numbers branded on their arms, and though some had even told me their stories and made strong, indelible impressions on me, none had placed me beside them in the camps in that dark time a mere decade earlier the way Rabbi Katzberg did.
One afternoon he said, “Kinder, everyone stand up.”
We hesitated. We didn’t know what this was about. He repeated, “Kinder, stand up. Please, everyone. Stand up.”
“Move into the aisles between your desks.” We did as he said. “Now, listen to what I say and watch me. I want you to know what it was like.”
I didn’t know whether the other children knew what it was. I did.
Intuitively, I knew he was going to reveal more about the puzzle he’d solved and the mystery he’d never solve: He knew how he survived. He knew what he did and what he didn’t do and that he lived when his wife and children and millions of others didn’t.
He knew a combination of dumb luck and his determination to bear witness conspired to save him. What mystified him was why he survived.
“It was cold,” he said. “We’d just marched back from work detail.” And he raised his hands to the sides to shoulder height with palms outstretched and turned down.
“Roll call was over,” he said. “The camp guards pointed their rifles at us and the commandant shouted, ‘Juden! Pigs! Hold your hands and arms to the sides, like this!’ And he used the nearest prisoner to him to show us what he meant. He meant this, what I am doing now. He used the baton he always carried to lift the prisoner’s arms and then he shouted, ‘Now!’
“We lifted our arms. And then the commandant shouted this warning: ‘Whoever drops his arms will be shot.’ He didn’t say how long we had to hold our arms this way. He began strutting around and held his pistol at the ready. He shot and killed three prisoners that day. And he laughed each time he pulled the trigger.”
Rabbi Katzberg stood at the front of the classroom and held his arms perfectly still and straight out at a ninety degree angle to his torso.
“Now, children, hold your hands out like this. Let’s see who would have survived.”
We lifted our hands and arms and held them just the way he was holding his hands and arms.
For the next several minutes, he said not another word.
I was determined not to give in to the Nazi officer I imagined there in the classroom. I was determined to show my teacher I would have been a survivor.
When classmates dropped their hands, Rabbi Katzberg nodded at them to sit down and blinked at them to let them know, without saying it in words, they would have been shot dead by the camp commandant.
I remained standing, arms outstretched to the sides.
I heard the report of the pistol, felt my classmates crumble to the ground, knew I couldn’t go to their assistance, knew my only chance to stay alive was to resist the pleading of my muscles to let go, to accept the end of suffering.
Soon it was just Rabbi Katzberg and me. All the others were dead in their seats.
“How does he do it?” I asked myself. “How?”
In later years, I grew to believe he’d hypnotized himself into a deep trance.
Finally, I dropped my hands.
Rabbi Katzberg nodded and blinked at me and he continued to stand with outstretched arms for another minute or two, just to show our class of eight-year-olds what it took to survive.
The last time I saw Rabbi Katzberg was several years later, sometime in the early Sixties.
My father and I were driving south on Dufferin Street headed to Exhibition Stadium at the lakefront to watch the Toronto Argonauts play a Canadian Football League game.
Whenever we took that route, I’d recall that Rabbi Katzberg would get out of our car at Dupont Street back when we used to drive him downtown. And I always looked for him.
Until that day my efforts went unrewarded, but this time I saw him.
He was standing at the bus stop on the southwest side of the intersection.
“Hey, there’s Rabbi Katzberg!” I said.
“Did he see you?” my father asked.
“No. He was looking the other way, looking for the bus.”
It must have been a night game. I remember the sun setting behind Rabbi Katzberg.
A few months later, my father called me into the kitchen. He was reading the obituaries in The Toronto Star. He read them almost every day from the time he turned forty-five.
Very often he would say, “So young. We used to play ball together.” Or, “We worked together when we were teenagers.”
This time, all he said was, “Your Rabbi Katzberg died. A good man. A mensch.”