When Holocaust survivor Nathan Leipciger arrived on the University of Guelph campus Thursday, he noticed a replica cattle car used to transport Jews to concentration camps.
“If there’s one object that defines the Holocaust, it is that railroad car,” the 91-year-old Leipciger told a gathering of 600 students later that day of the cattle car that was part of Holocaust Education Week on campus.
And that is where Leipciger began his story after students sang Ani Ma'amin, a Jewish faith song frequently chanted at Holocaust remembrance events, at an event organized by the campus Jewish student Guelph Hillel.
Leipciger said before he went into that car, the Jews in Poland enjoyed all the advantages of the 20th century in a flourishing Europe. And although he lived in a house the size of half a room with his parents and sister, he felt free.
And suddenly in 1943, at the age of 15, his town was invaded by Nazi soldiers who went from house to house ordering civilians to leave their homes.
“You’re forced into that car, 80 to 100 people in a car. You see how small it is and you wonder how could 80 or 100 people be forced into that car?” said Leipciger who huddled with his family 75 years ago not knowing it was their last time together.
“Did you know people could have been murdered in mass? We did not.”
Leipciger said the people from the cattle cars were taken to a field where soldiers divided them into two groups of men and women that separated families.
“That moment we left that railroad cart. We stopped being a family. We stopped being human. The significance of that cart is just that because it changes you from a civilian to a prisoner,” said Leipciger.
Because he had the skills of an electrician, he was placed in a camp with his father. The two were asked to line up with others where they were told to remove their clothes and their possessions, made to shave their head, have their bodies disinfected and have a number placed on them.
And to this day, Leipciger remembers his number. It was 13628 and his father’s was 13629.
“That was it. I stopped being a human being. I became a number. No name. No clothes. No possessions. Just a number,” said Leipciger who still did not know where he was.
Leipciger said they were then told that they were in Auschwitz and that if they didn’t behave, they will join their brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers who were being ‘processed.' In other words, gassed to death.
“How can your mind accept what he just said? People are being gassed to death? Was there a trial? Did they commit a crime? Why should they die? And such a horrible death?” asked Leipciger.
“My crime was that I was born Jewish.”
Leipciger said soon after, they were marched out to the barracks into the living quarters where approximately 800 to 100 people lived per barn where people were starved in frozen conditions left to die.
Leipciger said he would hide every week for three months when the guards would walk around in the quarantine camp making selections which determined whether one would be shipped to Germany, work in a camp, or be ‘processed.’
He recalls the worst part of that camp was seeing people go past their camp towards the gas chambers.
“Week after week, day after day, thousands of people were brought. We would sit outside of the barracks and we saw these people going to their deaths being marched,” said Leipciger.
He said at one point, his father volunteered to work so he can enter the other camp to check on his wife not knowing she died. And it wasn’t until after the war that Leipciger learned about his mother’s and sister’s death because he said the basic element of hope to see your loved ones gives you the strength to live.
Leipciger's father then brought his son civilian clothes and the two made the next selection of 650 men to go to Germany where an extra 50 were chosen because they were expected to die in the journey.
“After the war, I checked the records. Only 600 according to the records,” said Leipciger.
“As far as their books are concerned, I don’t exist. And that’s what saved my life. That I did not exist in their books.”
When Leipciger moved back to Germany — although he was living among his enemies — he just wanted to live and let live like the other survivors.
“And that has to be our motto,” said Leipciger.
“We live in a beautiful country. We are a country of immigrants. It is upon us to open our gates and to let the persecuted people into Canada just as we were let into Canada,” said Leipciger.
He said there is a stark difference between tolerating and accepting.
“Not saying I will tolerate you till you become like me, but accept them the way they are regardless of skin, hair colour or eye colour, regardless of the language they speak and the religion they profess. We have to have mutual acceptance,” highlighting that Canada has not been good to Indigenous peoples in the past.
“We wouldn’t accept them. We would label them as savages. We would say their religion is barbaric, their customs do not fit society, their living style and language do not coincide with what it means to be a Canadian. So we discriminated against them. We separated children from their parents.”
Leipciger said as Canadians, we are responsible for the conditions in which the Indigenous people find themselves.
"As a society, as a country, we have it upon our responsibility to help them regain the language, regain the religion, to regain their schools so they can teach their children the wonderful heritage for 10,000 years before the white men arrived on these shores," said Leipciger.
“That my dear friends is our responsibility.”
Student Sahil Mahajan who came to the event to hear Leipciger’s story said as many times as he heard Holocaust stories, hearing a survivor helps relive the situation.
“I found it important because it’s so easy to say we won’t be the ones who make those mistakes but I find that the people who made them were normal humans who just followed something that’s not right,” said Mahajan.
“If we learn and really understand what happened, there’s a higher chance we don’t repeat history.”
Members of Guelph Hillel also handed out copies of Leipciger's autobiography titled "The Weight of Freedom.'
"It's really important to remember the Holocaust. We are the last generation to hear survivor stories," said Guelph Hillel member Sam Macy.