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A Holocaust Survivor's Message to Homeless Teens: A Better Life is Possible

08/24/2012 12:24 EDT | Updated 10/25/2012 05:12 EDT
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I am sitting in the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre at the Lipa Green building in Toronto, with Ve'ahavta Street Academy (VSA) students. VSA is a school for the homeless and near homeless. It is operated by Ve'ahavta, the Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief Committee.

I'm watching the students as Mike, our host, explains the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust. And I'm considering as I do, the questions VSA students, survivors of the street, might be asking as they listen to a presentation on the disenfranchisement of my people. What are addicts and former addicts thinking when Mike sums up his presentation saying, "This isn't a very happy story"?

I've just had a short talk with a student, a fellow who spent 17 years in American prisons including Folsum State Prison and San Quentin. He calls Gherda Frieberg, a survivor and our speaker today, "noble."

I'm sitting next to a stoic woman whose introduction into the sex trade began at 11 years old on the streets of Toronto. I ask her if any of this -- the video, the gruesome facts of the SS, shocks her. She said her father had told her a lot about the Holocaust. I asked her if what she just saw -- Germans beating children relentlessly -- reminded her of her own situation. She said, "I'll have to think about that."

"The world seemed to care as little about the Jews as did the Nazis," said the voiceover as we watched a film about the death of six million Jews.

I thought, this statement must resonate with our VSA students. But with all my curiosity about the effects of Nazi tyranny on the Jewish people, and the bravery of the Warsaw ghetto soldiers and the impact of film footage of the atrocities on the VSA students, I find myself getting smaller and smaller in my theatre chair. I'm a shrinking Jew.

I have tears in my eyes as children descend the cattle cars and women are stripped naked, their gold teeth extracted, their infants pulled from their arms. I am humiliated and so saddened by the savage experiments of Dr. Mengele and feel scared of the world and its efficient ability to mobilize against my people, should it want to.

I am heart broken once again hearing about the despicable "none is too many" refugee policy of the Canadian government, and how our government is revisiting selfish refugee policies today.

The girl next to me, the one who first turned a trick at 11 years old, is clapping as Gherda begins her lecture. Gherda is sombre. She is quiet. We have to stretch to hear her. Now the former sex worker is holding herself as one does when they feel they need to disassociate from our existence, what one intuitively does when watching one human being abuse another, be it inside the fence of a concentration camp or within a shabby apartment on Parliament Street in downtown Toronto.

Gerda is talking about her mother. She explains to our group that her mother was running around the house looking for a sweater to give to her husband as the Gestapo pulled him away. A sweater -- that garment of warmth, anathema to storm trooper boots and leather coats.

Gherda continues, "My sister was picked up. They came for me and took me to a concentration camps where we would work on spinning mills. My mother stood there, her husband gone and her children gone." She tells the VSA students sitting in the Holocaust Museum, "It is then we became homeless." What must everyone around me be thinking? They are homeless.

Gherda said that the Nazis took away my family, my friends, but on Yom Kipper we fasted. On Passover we used the bones from dead birds for the Pesach plate. "We watched the free birds flying above us. We were imprisoned only because we were Jews," Gherda lamented.

I'm looking around at our VSA students. One is rubbing her eyes. Another is twirling her hair barely visible in her seat. She too has slumped down.

"My victory," Gherda said, "is my children and grandchildren. But the killing doesn't stop in the world, Somalia, Sudan and now Syria. I feel the pain everyday. I lost 172 family members. And I still think it can happen here. Don't think otherwise."

Gherda was liberated on May 9. She is holding her head in her hands as she tells us this, as though it's the first time telling her story, while she says, "we wondered whether we should bring children into this world. But we did. We built a life. It took a lot of courage and strength. But in a country like Canada it was possible."

One of our students, who suffers some form mental illness, sits quietly and still. She is normally loquacious, chatty and fidgety.

Gherda concludes, "In a country like Canada, no matter how bad your life is, it's possible to make it better." Our VSA students listen. Some shake their head in agreement. Some stand up immediately and walk out. They seem overwhelmed.

Most of the VSA students approach Gherda and hug her. They all have tears in their eyes. Gherda hugs them back. They have all survived one more day.