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Stories of survival like those of Saya Victor Feinman – who escaped a concentration camp and was sheltered in Poland for more than a year – are being brought to new generations by a Canadian project to make Holocaust testimonies more accessible, Tu Thanh Ha reports
At age 93, nearly seven decades after passing his medical examinations and becoming one of Canada's most prominent specialists in treating liver diseases, Saya Victor Feinman still works three days a week at his Toronto practice.
While it is known that Dr. Feinman is a Holocaust survivor from Poland, few outside his family knew the details of his escape from a Nazi camp or the months he spent in hiding with 10 others in an isolated farmhouse, an Anne Frank-like story with a happy ending.
"For many years, I didn't want to talk about it," Dr. Feinman said in an interview last weekend. He was busy with his work. He wanted to move on rather than dwell on a difficult part of his life.
However, two decades ago, Dr. Feinman had given three hours of video testimony about his wartime experience to the University of Southern California's Shoah Foundation.
The six-part video was uploaded on YouTube but remained unlisted and garnered little attention.
A Toronto organization is now launching an effort to preserve such videos and make them more accessible.
The Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre has gathered more than 400 videos that it has recorded since the 1980s, along with testimonies compiled by other groups in Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary.
Digitized and indexed, those 1,253 Canadian testimonies will join the 53,000 survivors' videos collected by the USC Shoah Foundation, 4,000 of them recorded in Canada.
The project will launch Thursday. Tens of thousands of videos, including Dr. Feinman's and other testimonies that were never online until now, will be accessible at computer kiosks in the Neuberger centre, in north-end Toronto.
"This should be remembered forever," Dr. Feinman said in the interview. "If it does any good, we owe it to the people who perished, who can't speak for themselves."
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Each of the videos bear witness to the horrors that swept through Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
In his testimony, Dr. Feinman described growing up in eastern Poland, in what is now the Ukrainian city of Rivne.
The German invasion forced his parents into hiding while the future Dr. Feinman and his brother, who were teenagers, were conscripted into a railroad crew supervised by Ukrainian police auxiliaries working for the Germans.
Once, he picked up a piece of coal that fell off a train. A Ukrainian policeman took him to the train station. Dr. Feinman overheard the Ukrainian calling his German supervisor and asking: "What should I do with him? Should I shoot him?"
The Ukrainian was told to give Dr. Feinman 20 lashes with a metal-buckled belt. Fortunately, a group of German mechanics walked in and interrupted the flogging.
In August, 1942, the brothers, who were now 19 and 15, were deported to the Janowska concentration camp in Lvov. "We were stunned.… We knew that it's going to be something bad," Dr. Feinman recalled in his video.
UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM, COURTESY OF HERMAN LEWINTER
At the camp, those who couldn't work any more were executed in a ravine, the gunshots ringing in the camp nearby. One boy who escaped was recaptured, then flogged and hanged before the entire camp population.
Dr. Feinman's parents managed to pay off some of the camp's functionaries to help the brothers run away by getting them transferred to a cleaning squad that worked outside the camp.
The family then fled to Zimna Woda, a village near Lvov, hiding for more than a year with seven others inside a farmhouse.
When people came to the house, they would retreat to an underground hideout accessed by a narrow tunnel. A pipe circulated air and the entrance was concealed by manure and rabbit pens.
The farmhouse's caretaker, Julian Ulanowski, was a Polish Christian, a widower with two young children and a Jewish girlfriend who was passing as a gentile.
"Despite his poverty and the constant danger, with police searches of his house and rumours about his children's caretaker being Jewish, Julian Ulanowski took care of the Jews from the spring of 1943 until their liberation in the second half of July, 1944," according to Yad Vashem, Israel's centre on the Holocaust.
The fugitives never went outdoors. They had to worry about disposing of the waste generated by 11 people. They learned to live together, putting up with the snoring and the cramped conditions.
To pass time, Dr. Feinman read German-English textbooks, teaching himself English and then passing his knowledge to the Ulanowski children.
Then, one morning in 1944, they heard a voice above, addressing Mr. Ulanowski in Russian. The Red Army had arrived.
Dr. Feinman said that day felt like being born again, "like a new gift of life."
He remembered that, one day in Janowska, the camp commandant, Gustav Willhaus, had mocked the prisoners during roll call, saying that they would all die.
But Dr. Feinman survived and, as he concluded in his video, the payback he had on the Nazis was that he went on to have children and enjoy a long, productive life.
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