As the years pass, Alex Buckman is finding it harder and harder to speak about the Holocaust.
The Belgium-born South Surrey man was just 5½ years old when Nazi concentration camps were liberated in 1945.
Now 79, and despite more than two decades of sharing his heart-wrenching memories from those childhood years with generations of students, Buckman said it still pains him to give the recollections voice.
It’s never been easy to talk about, he told Peace Arch News Tuesday, following his French-language presentation to a few dozen teens at Earl Marriott Secondary.
“When you get older, it’s a lot harder to talk about family members who passed away,” he said. “I normally don’t talk about it.”
Buckman, whose parents both died in Auschwitz – his father at age 31, his mother, 32 – was one of two presenters invited to the high school this week for a Holocaust symposium targeting students in Grades 10-12.
In its second year, the symposium was organized by the school’s social studies department, and presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, as part of the school and district’s commitment “to anti-racism education and developing positive personal and cultural identity amongst people in our building and in our community,” according to an advance notice sent to staff.
Helping students gain a deeper and more thoughtful understanding of that part of the world’s history was a commitment EMS department head Mark Figueira made three years ago, after visiting Israel as one of three Vancouver-area teachers to receive a scholarship to the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
“For me, it is important to remember and tell the stories of the victims,” Figueira told PAN at the time.
This year, Vancouver resident and fellow child Holocaust survivor Dr. Robert Krell also addressed the EMS students, telling them, among other things, that just seven per cent of children who lived in occupied Europe survived the Holocaust – and 1.5 million were killed.
In response to one student who asked what he thought of fellow Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor forgiving Nazi doctor Josef Mengele for conducting medical experiments on her and her twin sister at Auschwitz, Krell said he had “no information” as to what may have driven Kor’s decision.
Regardless, he couldn’t fathom taking such a step himself.
“I personally cannot see it,” he said. “I cannot see any possibility for forgiveness of it.”
Buckman, who lives in the Morgan Creek area, told PAN that he continues to tell his story, despite how difficult it is, because he believes students should learn about the Holocaust and its atrocities from someone who actually lived it.
“I want the students to know what happened,” Buckman said. “They will never hear personal stories like I shared with them today.”
Those stories included one about his mother being murdered with other women in one of the chemical ‘showers’ used by the Nazis to exterminate Jews during the Second World War.
He also told of a recipe book his Aunt Becky secretly created during her 16 months in a concentration camp – a book with recipes including her own for Gateau a l’orange (Orange Cake) – that she had kept tucked away for more than four decades. Buckman learned she had lost the book for a time when the truck she was being transported in following the liberation was bombed.
She had jumped into a roadside ditch to escape, and dropped it when she fainted after realizing she had lost a piece of her arm in the attack, he said.
After the book was returned to her four years later, “she had that little bag (with the book inside) for 45 years,” Buckman said.
Despite hearing many memories from his aunt over the years, she never spoke of the recipe book, he said.
“When I found it by mistake, I asked ‘why didn’t you show it to us?’ She didn’t know why.”
Buckman believes the book was kept out of sight as part of efforts to help his aunt move on with her life; to help her forget what she had endured.
“But she couldn’t,” he said. “Any survivor… you just cannot forget what happened.”
Krell echoed the sentiment in his English-language presentation to students.
“I didn’t have time to think very much about the Holocaust, but it always came back,” he said, as he spoke of his life in Canada. “Something so massive leaves an imprint on your soul.”
Buckman said in many ways, he and other survivors are no different from the students they speak to, and he tries to convey that message as well.
“I’m just an individual like they are, and things happened. I wished I had a mother and I wished I had a father and I wished I had a normal family,” he said.
“But I didn’t.”
Distance running, he noted, helped him cope as an adult.
“Because of what happened to me, and because I had a lot of it inside that was hurting, I found that by putting on my running shoes, I was able to run away (from the pain).
“The running saved me…”
Buckman also has somewhat of a strategy for continuing to be able to share his story.
On Tuesday, that was to include taking a walk with his wife after he got home from EMS. The couple would likely stop for coffee somewhere, he said, and share quiet conversation.
A caveat on the discussion subject matter is always 0f the essence.
“I try to talk about anything else but that,” he said.