There was absolute silence as Gershon Willinger recounted his story as a child survivor of the Holocaust. “I am here to help others bear witness,” Mr. Willinger said. “Holocaust denial today is rampant and education is critical.” He spoke at the October 24, 2019 assembly for Middle and Upper School students as part of Crescent School’s Holocaust Education Week.
Mr. Willinger’s German-born parents moved to Holland in the 1930s to escape persecution, but the Netherlands fell under Nazi occupation in 1940. He was born in 1942. Amid rumours that Jews would be deported, his parents placed him, just six months old at the time, into the care of a Dutch Christian family. They did the same with his sister, who was two years older. “My parents, I see them as resistance fighters,” says Mr. Willinger. “They selflessly gave up their most prized possession – their children – to keep us safe.” He lived in hiding for two years until Dutch police discovered him and he was sent to Westerbork transit camp in northeastern Netherlands.
Being so young, Mr. Willinger does not remember his parents, nor much about his war experience. In fact, he only learned he had a sister (who hadn’t been discovered in hiding) when they were reunited after the war. However, he says “I feel privileged because I know my history, and I have an identity. Many people in my situation don’t know where they came from, have no idea who their parents were.” Through years of investigation, Mr. Willinger uncovered meticulous records kept by the Germans. These records verify details such as the date his parents were murdered in Sorbibor extermination camp (July 2, 1943) and the date he and 49 other children, aged 18 months to six years, were transported from Westerbork to Bergen-Belsen (September 13, 1944) and then onward to Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia. He remained in Theresienstadt until it was liberated by the Russians in June 1945.
Mr. Willinger was deeply scarred by his wartime experience and the years of post-traumatic stress that followed. Back in Amsterdam he moved frequently after the war, for a time with his wartime foster family, then to a Jewish orphanage and a sanatorium. His sister was adopted by American relatives, but Mr. Willinger was so mentally and developmentally delayed that the family would not take him. In 1950 he was placed with a Jewish foster family where his recovery began. He credits the psychiatric care he received from age eight through 17 for helping him through his ordeal.
When he was 18, Mr. Willinger moved to Israel. “I joined the Israeli army and for the first time in my life, I felt as if I truly belonged.” The army provided him with a university education where he studied social work, and he went on to earn a Master’s degree in the U.S. He moved to Toronto in 1977 with his wife and children, and set up a practice specializing in abused and neglected children. He also taught at Brock University. Today he feels fortunate to have survived and to live surrounded by his family.
“Don’t be silent bystanders,” Mr. Willinger said in his parting words to Crescent’s students. “Look out for those less fortunate than you regardless of their race, religion or colour. Your voice counts."