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Footwear – its manufacture and repair – played a salutary role in the crowded, frenetic life of Holocaust survivor Leslie Vertes.

Leslie Vertes, in a photo taken for the 'Witnesses to History, Keepers of Memory' exhibition at the Montreal Holocaust Museum in 2019. Mr. Vertes died in Montreal on July 27 at the age of 98.Stéphanie Cousineau/Courtesy of the Montreal Holocaust Museum

He learned the useful trade at the hands of his father, who ran a small shoemaking and repair business in Hungary. Thus prepared, he was tasked with shoe and boot repair while serving in a forced labour battalion after Nazi Germany invaded Hungary. He returned to the trade following his release from a Soviet gulag. And in Canada, he found steady work at a shoe factory, eventually rising to management.

In between was a harrowing tale of brutalization, despair, and a degree of toughness rarely seen.

Among a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors, Mr. Vertes died in Montreal on July 27 of leukemia. He was 98.

He was born four times, as he would later recount in memoirs and interviews, but came into the world on Feb. 18, 1924, in the northeastern Hungarian town of Ajak. Leslie was 14 when his family moved to the Hungarian capital. Though the lad excelled at his studies, anti-Jewish legislation meant only six Jewish students from each high school class could graduate, and he wasn’t among them. So he went to work at his father’s shoe business.

“They kicked me out from high school but I never stopped learning,” Mr. Vertes later told an oral history project in his typically soft-spoken manner.

The situation worsened considerably when Germany invaded Hungary in March, 1944. Mr. Vertes was ordered to report to a forced labour camp comprised of able Jewish men where he toiled fixing his captors’ footwear, and was made to clean up the rubble left by Allied bombings. Rations were meagre, beatings were regular, and the work was back-breaking. “It was a very difficult six months in my life,” he understated.

Mr. Vertes was among a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors.Stéphanie Cousineau/Courtesy of the Montreal Holocaust Museum

Following a rumour that deportations were imminent, he assembled a group of friends and told them: “If we stay here, we will die.” The young men pooled their money, bribed a guard, and hopped the fence, taking off in different directions.

Now in hiding in war-ravaged Budapest, Mr. Vertes resorted to eating from garbage cans or stealing food. Soon, a Christian friend provided papers identifying him as “Leslie Toth.” But two members of the Hungarian Arrow Cross fascist militia caught him and dragged him to join about 20 others to face a firing squad. Because he’d gone days without food, Mr. Vertes collapsed from hunger just as the volley was fired.

As he calmly told an oral history project at Toronto’s Crestwood School years ago, a young girl fell on top of him, soaking his coat with her blood. After the shooters ran off when an air raid siren sounded, Mr. Vertes climbed out from under the young shooting victim and broke into an apartment to abandon his coat and gather his thoughts. Shaking, he said to himself, “Leslie, you’ve been born a second time.”

Leslie Vertes, right, and a friend in Kisvarda, Hungary, in 1928.Courtesy of the Montreal Holocaust Museum

There was another spine-chilling episode a month later when two Arrow Cross men again demanded Mr. Vertes’s papers. “I gave up,” he would later recall. “No hope.” But suddenly, one of the guards, who looked familiar to Mr. Vertes, screamed at him: “Run! Run!” Mr. Vertes took off. He looked back and saw that the guard had bayoneted his partner and was himself on the run. Mr. Vertes believed his saviour was a Jew in disguise. In any event, Mr. Vertes believed he was born a third time.

He remained in hiding until the Soviet Red Army liberated Budapest in February, 1945. He had survived the Nazi onslaught – only to be among an estimated 5,000 civilians to be transported to a prisoner of war camp in southern Ukraine, slaving in a limestone quarry. It was “not just a camp,” he recalled. “It was a punishment camp.” Worse, captured members of the Nazi SS ran the place.

Subsisting on three bowls of watery soup and three slices of bread a day, Mr. Vertes soon became deathly ill with scurvy. His body was covered in blisters “by the hundreds – oozing, bleeding, painful.” He weighed barely 80 pounds. Just 21, his hair turned white. Again, he gave up hope.

Carried to the camp’s infirmary, he encountered compassion for the first time in years. A young medical school graduate, known as “Dr. Tatiana,” was the camp physician, and she fed Mr. Vertes chicken soup through an eyedropper. Recovered as much as possible, he spent 2½ years there. He was born a fourth time.

He returned to Budapest on June 13, 1947, despondent. “I asked myself, ‘Why did I survive?’” he recalled on his 97th birthday. He later learned that his mother, Ilona, and sister, Barbara, had made their way to the new state of Israel.

Formal portrait of Leslie Vertes with his family taken in pre-war Budapest; from left, his mother, sister, Leslie and his father.Courtesy of the Montreal Holocaust Museum

But he went to university, which he loved, and engaged in familiar work at a shoe factory. Also on a June 13, while on a river cruise, he met Vera Neiser, a survivor of Auschwitz, and they married in 1952. A son was born three years later.

The 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule meant more dislocation for the family. They joined others and fled toward Austria but were turned back at gunpoint only a few hundred metres from the border. A week later, they tried again and, slogging through mud for eight hours, pushing a carriage with their feverish, crying son and other children of refugees, finally made it to an old army camp in Austria, where they waited four months for Canadian entry papers.

The family arrived in Montreal on yet another June 13 – in 1957 – and Mr. Vertes found work washing cars for 70 cents an hour. Two months later, he got a job in a shoe factory and spent the next 28 years as an “unhappy” worker, first as a leather cutter then as a foreman. He drove a taxi nights and on weekends.

Leslie Vertes, left, with his sister, Borka, in Budapest, Hungary, in 1938.Courtesy of the Montreal Holocaust Museum

One gift he passed along was his work ethic, said his son George, a Toronto cardiologist. “He had tremendous energy. The word ‘tired’ never entered his vocabulary,” Dr. Vertes recalled. “He was a pretty tough guy but he never missed an opportunity to tell a joke.”

In 2004, Mr. Vertes began as a volunteer speaker at the Montreal Holocaust Museum. By his reckoning, he delivered some 150 talks to students, churches, and community groups. His message, delivered gently, was straightforward: “Build, don’t destroy. Never be silent – it’s not an option. If you see something wrong, speak up.”

“Leslie was the best of humanity, and his desire to build a better world was contagious,” said Sarah Fogg, spokesperson for the Montreal Holocaust Museum. “His spirit of kindness, equality, and respect lives on in everyone who had the distinct privilege of knowing him. He left behind a small army of people who loved him, myself included.”

In 2015, Mr. Vertes was awarded the YMCA Peace Medal and the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award. In 2018, he received the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers.

It took him 18 months to pen his story, Alone in the Storm, part of the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program. It was a “painful” exercise but, as he reasoned, “If I don’t talk, who will?”

Mr. Vertes leaves his wife, Vera; son George; and three grandchildren. His first great-grandchild, Autumn Lee, was born the day after he died.