Not Yet Hanukkah: A Story of Miracles

By BERNIE FARBER

November is Holocaust Education Month, a time we tell stories of survival. My father, the sole Jewish survivor of his small Polish village, used to say that it took 1,000 miracles to survive the Shoah because 999 were simply not enough.

The following is not only the story of 1,000 miracles, but at its conclusion we will understand what the circle of life is really all about.

In 1939, when Samuel Pisar was 10 years old, both the Nazi and Soviet armies invaded his native Poland. Interestingly, Samuel came from Bialystok, 50 kilometers from my father’s village of Bothki. When Adolf Hitler broke the Nazi/Soviet pact in 1941, Samuel was captured along with thousands of other Jews. He was young and strong and survived incarcerations at Majdanek, Auschwitz and other camps whose only purpose was to murder Jews.

His final camp, Dachau, became the concluding volume in this first chapter of his life. It was the spring of 1945. Young Samuel was out on a Nazi slave labour detail as Allied forces approached. Nazi SS guards gathered the work detail and marched them away from the advancing Americans. They marched for three days with little water or food. Many succumbed. Still young, Samuel stayed alive.

It was on the third day when a number of Allied fighter planes spotted both the Nazis and their slave labour detail. Thinking it was a column of Nazi soldiers, the planes’ pilots descended sharply and strafed the area. Taking advantage of the ensuing confusion, a number of prisoners made a break for the forest. The bombing and Nazi bullets mowed most of them down but young Samuel used up one of his thousand miracles and made it to the safety of the embracing forest.

Starving, emaciated, Samuel hid in an abandoned hayloft. A few mornings later, he was awakened by the sound of a rumbling motor. Cautiously looking out from his hiding place, sure that he would see the dreaded swastika, he saw instead an American insignia.

Washed over with relief, he stumbled from the hayloft in tears of joy. The hatch of the tank popped open and emerging was Corporal Bill Ellington, the son of a former slave and member of the storied 761st Tank Battalion, known for being comprised primarily of African-Americans. They were the original “Black Panthers.”

The son of a former slave and the young survivor of the Nazi death camps held each other while Samuel cried the only words he knew in English, “God Bless America.”

He was just 16, the sole Jewish survivor of his family in Poland when he emerged into what would become the second volume of his life.

Miracles followed Samuel. He was raised by the remnants of his French and Australian family, graduated from the University of Melbourne, and later earned doctorates of law from Harvard and the Sorbonne.

His rise was rapid. He worked for the United Nations and UNESCO and was appointed a special advisor to President John F. Kennedy. He counseled the State Department and worked as legal adviser to both the House of Representatives and Senate. He was one of the youngest, most respected government advisers – so much so that in 1961, through a special act of Congress, Pisar was awarded U.S. citizenship.

His legacy continued. He counselled governments and world- renowned personalities from pianist Arthur Rubenstein to tech whiz Steve Jobs. His passion became human rights and he took up the causes of the novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

He became a trustee of the Brookings Institute, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and has addressed international conferences and world leaders at Davos, the International Monetary Fund and the European Parliament.

Samuel was twice married upon his death in July 2015 and left two daughters, one from his first marriage, Leah and Norma, from his second wife, Judith.

Here’s the promised kicker: Samuel also left a step-son from his marriage to Judith: Antony Blinken who, on Nov. 23, was nominated to become U.S. Secretary of State in the administration of President-in-Waiting Joe Biden.

Samuel Pisar was a man of many miracles, maybe even 1,000. May his memory continue to be a blessing.


Bernie Farber
Bernie Farber

Bernie Farber is publisher and co-founder of the Canadian Jewish Record, Chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a writer and human rights advocate. 

Cattle Car Replica Helps Students Stand Against Hate

Nov. 11, 2020

By SUSAN MINUK

When it comes to hate crimes, no group in Canada is more heavily targeted than Jews. In an innovative and strategic push for change, 25-year old Jordana Lebowitz has founded ShadowLight, a not-for-profit Holocaust education centre set within…a cattle car.

“We want to help people connect to the survivor stories while being immersed in this historical space,” explains Lebowitz of the unique setting for her effort.

“The Cattle Car: Stepping in and Out of Darkness” was launched Oct. 18 at the Toronto Railway Museum. It is an interactive, multimedia installation within an exact replica of a Second World War-era cattle car that was used to transport Jews and other targeted groups to concentration and extermination camps.

At the Oct. 18 launch of the cattle car exhibit: Jordana Lebowitz, founder of ShadowLight, and Michael Levitt president and CEO, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center. (Photo by ShadowLight)

As the installation’s name suggests, the windowless wooden freight cars were originally intended to transport cattle. At least 150 unfortunates were crammed into each car, without food, water, washroom facilities, or the ability to sit down. Many perished en route to death mills. Historians have suggested that without the mass transportation carried out on Europe’s railways in these box cars, the scale of the Final Solution would have been much different.

As Holocaust survivors diminish in number, ShadowLight’s installation inspires future generations to take action against injustices around them, say Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC), which has partnered with ShadowLight to advance Holocaust education in Canada.

“Holocaust education is the key tool in the fight against and prevention of antisemitism and hate that we are sadly seeing rear its ugly head all too often around the world,” said Michael Levitt, FSWC president and CEO. “Our goal is to work together with Jordana and ShadowLight to create course material for students and make this an even fuller experience on campuses.”

The cattle car museum on wheels will visit school campuses throughout Canada.

Lebowitz’s passion project was born when she was a 16-year old CHAT student taking part in the March of the Living.

She was in the one-time Nazi death camp of Majdanek when she saw a megillah scroll in a glass box, “and that made me sad, yet I realized the story doesn’t end here in a massive pile of ashes,” Lebowitz recalled.

That wisdom planted the seed. She searched for months for a cattle car. Finally, in 2015 as a second-year student at University of Guelph, and with help from Hillel, she brought the cattle car to campus. It has since been displayed every year at the University of Guelph for Holocaust Education Week.

“Jordana drove the whole concept with her student leaders. It was the first incarnation of her program ShadowLight,” said Marc Newburgh, CEO of Hillel Ontario. “FSWC has the ability to take this out in the community and amplify it.”

As a co-op student, Lebowitz worked at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the Jewish Holocaust Center in Melbourne, Australia, and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

Lebowitz revisited the cattle car initiative with a renewed determination to bring the powerful educational tool to other school campuses. ShadowLight was incorporated in 2018, with a team of 20 young volunteers and 20 advisors.

“We brought Holocaust survivors Hedy Bohm and Nate Leipciger into a green screen studio and filmed their stories,” said Lebowitz.

Actors then brought their stories to life. “The walls fill up with people to visualize how many would have been squished in this space,” Leibowitz explained. “There are 100 hand-painted footprints on the ground to show how closely family groupings were.”

Lebowitz, who’s pursuing her masters in education remotely from the University of Southern California, marvels about her creation. “I never thought that ShadowLight would come to life,” she said.

The cattle car exhibit runs about 30 minutes and is recommended for students Grade 8 and above. The second public showing will take place on Nov. 15 and 16 at Wychwood Barns Park in Toronto’s St. Clair Ave. W. and Christie Street area. Strict COVID safety measures are in effect.

To book tickets, click here.