Alex Buckman was not quite 4 when he was with his parents for the last time – although he didn’t actually see his mother that day. She remained concealed behind a closed door.
The family lived in Belgium, which had been invaded by the Nazis in 1940, when Alex was seven months old. By the time he was age 2, his Jewish parents felt it was no longer safe for him to remain with them, and sent him into hiding. From that point on, the boy lived with about a dozen different non-Jewish families. He could visit his parents briefly between placements.
In September, 1943, Alex was brought back to his parents for the last time. “My father held me close to him and kissed me. He was crying,” Mr. Buckman recalled decades later in Canada. There was a woman he did not know sitting at the kitchen table. Alex’s father told him he would be going with her on a long trip. “I want to see Maman,” Alex said.
She was in the bedroom. Alex tried the door but couldn’t open it. This seemed strange; there were no locks on doors inside the home.
“We must go,” the woman said. “There is no time.”
The woman was Andrée Geulen, a 20-year-old teacher and resistance member who would whisk Alex to safety.
Years later, Mr. Buckman met with Ms. Geulen, who said that his mother must have been holding the doorknob to keep him from entering. “She didn’t want to see you because she was afraid she was going to keep you,” she told him.
“If she opened the door, then I wouldn’t be here today,” Mr. Buckman told students in Vancouver in 2015. “She saved my life. But in my mind as a child, I never said goodbye to my mother.”
Two weeks after Alex was taken to safety to live in an orphanage as a non-Jewish child, his parents were denounced by a different woman, who had previously been helping to find hiding places for the boy. They were murdered at Auschwitz in late 1943.
In 2010, Mr. Buckman, then living in Metro Vancouver, accompanied a group of Canadian high-school students on the March of the Living, a memorial event held on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Inside the gas chamber, Mr. Buckman learned that it could take more than 20 minutes for the Nazis’ victims to die. Cold, naked and terrified, they became frantic and scratched the walls with their fingernails.
“When I heard this, I turned around and I caressed the walls,” Mr. Buckman said. He wondered: Was one of those scratches made by his mother? “As I caressed it, I said, au revoir, Maman.”
Last month, Mr. Buckman returned to Poland with another group of Canadian students. They marched at Auschwitz on April 18, Yom HaShoah. The next day, in a barrack, Mr. Buckman told his story. There wasn’t enough time for questions, so they agreed to talk again two days later at their Warsaw hotel.
That morning, Apr. 21, Mr. Buckman met with the students after breakfast. One asked: Given the horrors of the Holocaust, did he still believe in God?
“His answer was that he really had difficulties with his faith in God; he struggled with how a God would permit such atrocities during the war,” says his son, Patrick Buckman, who was there. “His religion was kindness. And he felt that through kindness, you will feel God.”
During that session, Alex Buckman, 83, began having trouble breathing and fainted. He never recovered.
“He passed away doing his life’s mission, which was educating children,” says Eli Rubenstein, national director of March of the Living Canada for many years.
On Sabbath commemorations in Warsaw the next day, speakers included Canada’s ambassador to Poland and fellow Canadian Holocaust survivor Nate Leipciger. “The fact that he died here, maybe that’s so that his spirit doesn’t have to go very far in order to meet the spirit of … his parents,” said Mr. Leipciger, who urged the students not to feel any guilt about Mr. Buckman’s death. “Every cowboy says that’s the way he wants to die. He wants to go with his boots on the job. That’s what Alex did.”
Alex Buckman was born in Brussels on Oct. 30, 1939, to Isaac and Dworja Backmann (nee Wajnbergier). Alex’s last name differed from his parents’ because of a clerical error on his birth certificate.
He would soon receive a new name at the orphanage in Namur, Belgium, where Ms. Geulen left him after a four-day journey, during which Alex did not say a word.
When he woke after his first night there, Alex, an only child, was introduced to a girl he was told was his sister. In fact, she was his cousin, Anny, daughter to Isaac’s sister Rebecca (Becky) and her husband, Herman Teitelbaum. The families hoped the children would be kept together if they were identified as siblings. Nine months apart in age, the cousins took on a new last name: Buret.
The Nazis occasionally searched the orphanage. During those raids, the Jewish boys – whose circumcisions would have given them away – were hidden in a cellar under floorboards and given cloth to bite down onto instead of crying. “I could see rats with shiny eyes running around. It was cold and damp, so we huddled together for warmth,” Mr. Buckman wrote in his 2017 memoir, Afraid of the Dark.
After liberation, Alex and Anny, unclaimed by any parents, were transferred to the Red Cross in Brussels. They were less than a week from being sent to a kibbutz in Palestine with other orphaned Jewish children when their uncle, Jacques Backmann, saw their names on a list posted on a telephone pole. A reunion followed.
When Mr. Teitelbaum came for Anny, she called him papa. Since Anny was his sister, Alex figured Mr. Teitelbaum was his papa, too. And that Becky Teitelbaum was his mother.
Looking back, he understood that this was wishful thinking. “I wanted to have a father and I wanted to have a mother so badly.”
He was age 7 when he learned the truth. He asked his aunt: Can I still call you Maman? She hugged him tightly and said yes.
The Teitelbaums had two more children, Christian (who went by Abe), born in Belgium, and Shirley, born in Montreal, where the family settled in 1951 when Alex was 12. There, he studied accounting at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia). In 1962, he married Colette Roy. Patrick was born in 1963.
In 1967, the Buckmans moved to the West Coast. Mr. Buckman worked for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, involved in building homes for Indigenous people across British Columbia. He would fight for better housing, his son recalls. Patrick was approached by an Indigenous man a few years ago, who told him that his father had added more windows to his home. Mr. Buckman insisted that the plans be changed, the man said, because “everyone deserves to have a million-dollar view.”
Mr. Buckman took up marathon running and played ping-pong.
He was 23 when he was reunited with Ms. Geulen – then Ms. Geulen-Herscovici – in Belgium. She was later declared a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, in 1989, having saved hundreds of children. When she died in 2022 and The Globe and Mail ran an obituary, Mr. Buckman ran into the office of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre director in tears, holding a copy of the newspaper. “This was Mademoiselle, who saved my life,” Nina Krieger recalls.
Mr. Buckman was 49 when he joined a group of child survivors who met regularly in Vancouver. Reluctant at first to attend, he quickly realized he had found his people. “They are truly my extended family. They are me, and I am them,” he wrote. He became group president.
Enraged by a local Holocaust denier, Mr. Buckman also became involved in the VHEC’s education program. Students across B.C. took to his kind, gentle manner – and his story.
“Hearing and meeting Alex was a life-changing experience for young people,” Ms. Krieger says.
After a talk in Kelowna, B.C., a student approached Mr. Buckman crying, saying he was ashamed. Mr. Buckman hugged him and asked why. Because, the boy said, he was playing a Nazi in the school play. “I urge him to play it as well as he can, to make the play real,” Mr. Buckman wrote in the VHEC publication Zachor in 2005. At the play the next day, “the student who cried and was ashamed of his role, looks at me and I give him the thumbs up.”
One story Mr. Buckman told students featured Ms. Teitelbaum. Imprisoned for 16 months in Ravensbruck, a concentration camp in Germany for women, Aunt Becky was assigned to an office job, where she stole some paper, pencil and scissors – an extremely dangerous act.
There was something she wanted to write down.
Starving, the prisoners at Ravensbruck often talked about the food from home; what they missed. Ms. Teitelbaum recorded these recipes on her stolen paper, making a little book. The women would read the recipes aloud to each other.
“It was a way for them to escape the actual location for a few minutes, to dream of better times, to put some beauty into their lives, Mr. Buckman told The Globe in 2000, calling it “an act of resistance.”
One of those recipes was Ms. Teitelbaum’s specialty, gateau l’orange. Mr. Buckman would distribute the orange cake recipe to the students he spoke to, urging them to make it with their families and share his story with them.
The VHEC has received hundreds of letters over the years from people wanting to share their experiences of baking this cake. “I told them the story you told us and I told them I loved them,” one child wrote on lined paper, about their experience baking it with their parents and grandparents. “They cried and so did I. I will never forget you Mr. Buckman.”
In Poland last month, Mr. Buckman again shared the recipe with his students. After his shocking death, some forwarded it to their parents back in Canada, who baked the cake and sent photos to their children overseas. One student’s sister was having a birthday back home. “My mum made the cake,” she told Patrick. Her mother sent photos, along with a note: “Looks like we have a new family tradition.”
Speaking to students was difficult. But Mr. Buckman felt he had to do it. And it became his life’s work.
“After I am gone, who will be a witness?” Mr. Buckman told Zachor in 2003. “It is my story that will survive.”
Alex Buckman leaves his wife, Colette; his son, Patrick, and his daughter-in-law, Elsi; grandchildren Alexander, Jameson and Rachael; and his cousin/sister Anny Kidorf.