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My Father Was My Son's Age When The Nazis Came

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The author's father shortly after the war

When I was a young child I remember watching my dad as his headaches would start. His eyes would begin to glaze over. His awareness to his surroundings would dim. We'd speak to him but sluggishly he'd fall into a haze and stop reacting. The headaches would gradually turn into migraines that shifted fluidly and predictably into a state of semi-consciousness.

In those moments, my dad would regress to a terrified six-year-old boy, speaking in whispered tones in his native Yiddish, begging his sister to be quiet as they hid from the Nazis in a Belgian church. Tears and frightened sobs would often follow. Hours later, when the migraines waned, he wouldn't remember any of it.

The story of my father's flashbacks begins in Brussels, with the fate of his mother. It was likely in the late autumn or early winter of 1943, based on the evidence on the deportation list that I recently discovered on a routine Google search. Like many experiences during the Holocaust, most of the dates and details are undocumented and veiled in the tormented memories of those who wish they could forget. This was one of the few records to survive.

Alta Erlich, nee Tokarz. Deported, 15/01/1944 with Transport XXIII from Mechelen, Caserne Dossin Transport Camp, Belgium to Auschwitz Birkenau, Extermination Camp, Poland.

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The author and his father, circa 1978.

Scarce facts on the index are almost all that remain of her. Married. Stateless. Prisoner Number 308 in transport. She was only 38 years old. The train arrived at Auschwitz two days later, where the grandmother I would never know -- the mother that my father does not remember -- was led to the gas chambers to draw her final breaths, incinerated and returned to the dust.

But, back to that day in Brussels. My father and his older sister, under the attentive gaze of their grandmother, were playing outside the building where they lived (refugees from Italy...and France before that, and Poland before that -- always fleeing the inevitable). When the Nazis arrived, tipped off by someone that Jews were living in hiding in the building, their grandmother didn't hesitate. It was as though she had prepared for this unthinkable moment.

Knowing they had been given up, but not by who, she told the soldiers in which apartment unit the Jews could be found. When they entered the building, she took the kids by their hands and vanished. She knew her very own daughter, my father's mother, was sitting in that apartment. And she knew she had just sentenced her to death in order to save her grandchildren.

She knew she had just sentenced her to death in order to save her grandchildren.

My father and his sister would spend the next couple of years living in a church somewhere in the outskirts of Brussels, playing the part of Catholic orphans. Their grandmother would survive the war. Nobody knows how. Like too many survivors in the decades that followed, she never spoke of the horrors and nobody dared ask. I often wonder if she ever had a moment's regret at her decision. I can't possibly fathom her burden or the strength and conviction she displayed in that split second. I can't begin to imagine her agony.

The memories of that church, whose name and exact location remain a mystery, are etched in the walls of my father's mind, strewn everywhere like shards of broken glass too entrenched into the fabric to extract. The smell of the incense which made him nauseous. The prayers that he needed to know by rote, just like any small Catholic child would, to fool the random Nazi inspectors that would come looking for Jews in hiding.

That church was my father's salvation, but it is also the permanent scene of his flashbacks. Whatever he pushed deep into his subconscious as a child, it always finds a way to come out to torment him when he's at his most exposed and vulnerable.

While he doesn't remember much, he never let his children forget.

I don't know how it is possible to experience these sorts of atrocities and come through them to live an ordinary life. Yet, nightmares aside, my father has. He created a life in which he could provide for his children all that he was robbed of in his youth. The loving and safe embrace of a parent. A family. An education. A path for success. While he doesn't remember much, he never let his children forget.

This week in synagogues, churches, community centres, libraries and countless other venues across the GTA, people will share personal stories and learn about the terrors that were committed against not just Jews, but homosexuals, the Roma and Sinti, the disabled and other targeted groups, as part of Holocaust Education Week. The Holocaust was more than 70 years ago, but it is still important to remember its ongoing influence, not just on the lives of the survivors and of the generations that have followed, but for the lessons it can teach us all. Lessons about the dangers of cruelty, hatred, indifference and intolerance. Lessons about the power of compassion, hope, bravery and perseverance.

I am reminded of its impact every time my father reaches for a bottle of Tylenol. When I see entire branches missing from my family tree, void of the names and faces of cousins, aunts and uncles who once lived, but whose names and faces are not remembered. When I see only two living survivors at my daughter's Holocaust remembrance ceremony and realize that sooner than we know there will be no more living witnesses.

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Grandfather and grandson, 2016.

I remember its impact when I watch my son and my father play together, and realize my son is the same age now as my father was that fateful day in Belgium 70 years ago when he last saw his mother. I remember, and hope others remember as well, so that our sons and daughters will never have to share their grandfather's nightmares.

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