Holocaust Survivor Pinchas Gutter On God, Good and Evil and the Importance of Sharing His Experience with Younger Generations
Pinchas Gutter, seen here in Toronto in 2017, says that "It’s a terribly important duty of Holocaust survivors" to share their stories. Photo: Riddle Films / Courtesy of The Azrieli Foundation
Among the many questions raised by International Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed on Jan. 27, is this one: How can someone who survived the brutality and horror of the Buchenwald concentration camp — whose twin sister and entire family except for a few cousins were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, who as a 12-year old was forced to load heavy iron onto rail cars from dawn until dusk in order to earn sparse rations — endure all of that and still proclaim himself to be an optimist?
This is the question I put to Pinchas Gutter — an elegant, learned and articulate 90-year old Torontonian and Holocaust survivor who endured that hell — during a recent Zoom interview.
“I am an optimist,” he says. “Things are improving. Refugees are getting saved.”
He explains, “In the 1930s, almost every country, including Canada, closed its doors to Jews trying to flee Europe. And now, look: We accepted 30,000 Syrians and Jewish organizations have sponsored refugees from Syria. Jews who ran away from Russia were accepted in Germany as refugees. The Germans accepted close to a million Syrians and a million Ukrainians. And Poland, long an enemy of Ukraine, has accepted Ukrainian refugees.”
Gutter has spoken twice at the United Nations and he was the first person interviewed for Dimensions in Testimony, produced by Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation. Using AI technology, Holocaust survivors are filmed discussing their experiences and then the footage is turned into interactive holograms, which the public can engage with in a real-time conversation.
And now, Gutter tells his remarkable story in a new audiobook, Memories in Focus, one in a series published by Penguin Random House Canada as part of the The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program with the Azrieli Foundation. Four of the titles in this collection are the first audiobooks narrated by Holocaust survivors themselves, including Judy Cohen, who resides in Toronto and spoke with Zoomer about her experience last year; the fifth title is narrated by actor Jake Epstein in place of the author, who passed away in 2020.
All the audiobooks are available for free until Feb. 6 when they will be available for purchase.
Meanwhile, my conversation with Gutter — who, at age 10, was separated from his parents and twin sister when they were deported from the Warsaw ghetto to the Majdanek concentration camp — touches on everything from human nature to the nature of God, on evil and free will and more.
“Very often, people ask me where was God and how come he or she allowed this to happen? The answer is very simple: when the world was created — I’m not sure how, but it was created by God, I believe — human beings were given free will.
“When human beings do these evil things, today and in the time of the Shoah,” he says (using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust which translates as “catastrophe”), “God looks at the world and weeps.”
Gutter speaks with a Yiddish accent that recalls the shtetls of Eastern Europe, all extinguished by the Holocaust.
He and his family managed to survive in hiding until the eve of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in April 1943, when they were deported.
After four months at Majdanek, Gutter was sent to a labour camp where, he recalls, “We were all on the edge of death, due to the hard work, disease and starvation. If we didn’t die on our own, people who looked really weak, who couldn’t work anymore, were taken to the forest, to the open pit, and murdered there, and their bodies burned.”
As the war was coming to an end, he was moved to the Buchenwald concentration camp. From there, in April 1945, he was sent on a death march to Theresienstadt, where he eventually worked for the Soviet and Czech administrators, delivering food to the German POWs and SS soldiers being held for trial as war criminals.
After wandering from England to France, Israel, Brazil and South Africa following the war, Gutter found a home in Canada with his South African wife, whom he’d met in Israel. On this journey, he returned to the Orthodox practice of Judaism, finding in it the meaning and peace he sought to turn his survival into a fulfilling life.
“I came back to it because it was always inside of me.”
Much of the fulfillment he feels comes from talking about his experience to the generations after his, to help them understand what happened to Jews under Nazi rule, and why and how it happened, even as he still tries to understand it himself.
Confronting that past, he hopes, will be a barricade against such savagery happening again.
“It’s a terribly important duty of Holocaust survivors to do this,” he explains, adding that the new audiobooks will help educate students and youths.
The importance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, established by the United Nations in 2005, “is not to forget the iniquity that can happen amongst ordinary human beings,” he says.
“I don’t only talk about the ‘Shoah,’” he explains. “I use whatever is happening now, whatever happened long ago.”
He uses the iniquities of the past and present to show that “it’s easy to take nationalistic and homophobic feelings to create a climate where people are easily swayed to listen to these demons, these autocrats, and it can be very difficult to control that.
“One ‘meshuggana’, one psychopath managed to hypnotize the whole of Germany. One psychopath, like Mr. Putin in fact at the moment, can galvanize an entire country into doing bad things.”
Gutter admits that he is concerned about the rising antisemitism in Canada and in other nations, noting he is “not surprised because people are losing their homes, food is expensive, people are suffering. When that happens, they find a scapegoat, whoever is the minority.”
He adds, “I am very worried, because one thing can lead to another.
“But we are doing something about it. The Jewish community is not putting our heads in the sand. Before, in Europe, everybody told you, ‘Be quiet, it will pass.’ No. You have to mobilize a response, a resistance to antisemitism.”
He concludes, “If you are a person of faith, you believe that everybody has spirituality and the spark of goodness in them.”