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‘We’re all one human race’

Nate Leipciger on surviving the concentration camps


 

A scrawny and starved teenager in a line of naked Jewish men, Nate Leipciger wasn’t what the German officer wanted. It was late 1942, and the Nazis needed workers; standing in the concentration camp, Nate didn’t look like one. The officer selected his father, Jack, to go to a labour camp in Germany. Nate, meanwhile, would stay behind and face an uncertain fate. Unwilling to part with his son, Jack rushed to speak to the officer.

“What do you want?” the officer spat.

“My son is here,” Jack explained. “He’s an electrician. He’d be helpful.”

The officer was irate; he had his own problems and certainly wasn’t going to be troubled with the worries of a Jew. But Jack kept pleading.

“Look, there’s a war,” the officer told him. “My son is on the east front, my wife is in Germany and I’m here.” Then, suddenly, he stopped, perhaps thinking of his own child, and asked, “Where is he?”

Jack fetched Nate from the line and presented him. The officer asked him about his work; Nate answered in German. Pleased, he took Nate’s name and number and sent him to Germany with his father.

It was hardly the first time Nate had cheated death. Born in a Polish mining town in 1928, he watched hints of the Holocaust creep in: torched synagogues, Stars of David painted on boycotted Jewish storefronts, attacks on his father in the street. Jewish refugees from Germany poured into his town, a few kilometres from the border.

Nate was in Lodz when the war broke out: “We were mesmerized, looking at this armament coming in, marching in the streets.” The Germans dragged Jews into the streets and made them dance for propaganda films. They gathered the working-aged men, including Jack, and sent them away before ridding the town of the rest of the Jewish population, forcing Nate, his mother and sister to go back to their hometown.

Nate’s father came and went between different labour camps until 1942, when the family was forced into hiding. It didn’t last: they were found and shipped to a camp where Nate was placed in line for the gas chamber. Jack persuaded a guard to let his son stay with him, but Nate’s mother and sister had disappeared. He never saw them again.

Fire breaks out during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a Polish insurrection against the German forces who had occupied Poland at the start of World War II. By 1944 Warsaw was the centre of Polish resistance, but the army was forced to surrender on October 2nd 1944 under pressure from German air raids. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Fire breaks out during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1944. (Keystone/Getty Images)

During his months in several different concentration camps, Nate carried stones from one pile to another, only to haul them back. He worked in a kitchen and a factory. He hid behind the barracks during prisoner counts, knowing he’d be sent to die because of his small stature. He took dead bodies out of their beds so that they could be burned. Once, he spent an entire night naked in a shower, wondering if he was going to be gassed. The death marches, selections, brushes with death—there seemed to be no end.

On May 8, 1945, Nate was suddenly free. “There was no celebration,” he says. “We were free to go anywhere we wanted, but there was no place to go.” Worse, Nate broke into a severe fever. After days at the hospital, the nun looking after him brought a priest in to administer last rites. Just then, Jack walked in and told them to stop. “I don’t need you to save my son’s soul,” he told them. “He’s okay.” Nate barely survived.

In 1948, Nate’s family came to Toronto where, despite widespread discrimination, he studied engineering and founded his own firm. Nate began telling his story in 1974, two years after Jack’s death, and published his memoir, The Weight of Freedom, in 2015. “You have to open a dialogue,” he says, explaining his four decades of speaking out. “You have to start talking to one another. We’re all one human race. There’s only one world. We’re captive to this globe, and we can kill each other or we can live peacefully the life that was given to us.” — Luc Rinaldi

(Portrait by Andrew Tolson)

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