Skip to main content

Louis Tannenbaum travelled Asia for business, an experience he called ‘wonderful.’

Following the hellish scenes Louis Tannenbaum had witnessed at the Auschwitz death camp, he summed up succinctly how he felt upon receiving approval to come to Canada: "I was free as a bird."

He could just as easily have dwelled on the negative, but the devoted family man and canny entrepreneur, who built up one of Canada's leading consumer electronics businesses, was typically upbeat.

Mr. Tannenbaum, who died in Toronto on June 15 at the age of 90, had some dark moments and talked about the Holocaust only if asked. Otherwise, "he had incredible zest for life," his daughter, Denyse, said. "He was always excited about the newest thing and would come to life when people talked to him. He always wanted to be involved and learn more. He looked forward."

Together with his partners, Mr. Tannenbaum, who never finished high school, became a successful wholesaler and importer of televisions, radios, microwave ovens and other products sold in Canada under the brand names Candle, Citizen, Concerto, Aiko and Electrohome. With a Toronto warehouse and headquarters and offices in Vancouver and Montreal, he employed about 100 people and travelled throughout Europe and Asia, an experience he later called "wonderful and memorable."

Mr. Tannenbaum led the business for 51 years until retiring at 81.

He was born into a large Jewish family on July 15, 1924, in Zborov, in what is now eastern Slovakia. A few years later, the clan moved to the town of Jasov, close to the border with Hungary. His studies at the local yeshiva, a religious school for boys, were cut short when his father was drafted. As the oldest son, Louis Tannenbaum, at just 14, had to take over the family business of buying and preparing animal pelts, rising at 4 a.m. to get to the market every day.

It was a time of shifting borders, and when the region in which the family lived became part of Hungary in the late 1930s, "the anti-Semitism spread like cancer," Mr. Tannenbaum, a private man, wrote in a 10-page handwritten memoir to his daughter in 2007.

Jews in Hungarian-speaking regions were mostly spared the Nazi onslaught until mid-1944. In just 56 days from May to July that year, 437,402 Jews were shunted to Auschwitz aboard 147 trains that transited through the Slovak town of Kosice.

That's where Mr. Tannenbaum and his family found themselves, at the brick factory, with one suitcase each. His mother implored him to escape. "I can only imagine the agony of a mother who lived literally for her children to suggest to send her oldest son away," Mr. Tannenbaum would recall. "She gave me my best clothing, some money and sent me off."

The next day, he sneaked away with an older friend. Caught and arrested in a wooded area between Slovakia and Hungary, the pair were ordered to undress and were robbed and beaten. Dumped in a potato cellar, they were told they would be hanged the following morning. Instead, they were beaten again, returned to the brick factory in Kosice and loaded onto cattle cars to Auschwitz.

On arrival after a ride that lasted two or three days, Mr. Tannenbaum's mother, two sisters and a brother were sent immediately to the gas chambers. He became a slave labourer at one of Auschwitz's subcamps along with another sister, three brothers and his father.

His forearm hastily tattooed with the number A-5801, he carried cement blocks and bricks and toiled in a coal mine. He estimated that between five and eight fellow inmates died every day.

With German forces retreating in late 1944, Mr. Tannenbaum hid and was freed by Soviet troops in December. Of about 3,700 prisoners liberated at the same time, Mr. Tannenbaum said only about 50 survived the trek to safety northwest to the town of Katowice, Poland. The rest collapsed from starvation and disease and were shot. He spent three weeks recuperating in hospital.

Reunited in his hometown with his father and surviving siblings, Mr. Tannenbaum saw no future. "It was a bittersweet reunion," he wrote. "All heartbroken, sick, hardly alive, no home, no health, no money, no mother, desperate, nothing to live for."

It took a few years, but he made his way to Austria, where he was approved for a visa to immigrate to Canada as a lumberjack. He was free.

He arrived in Toronto in 1951 and found a job in a mattress factory at 70 cents an hour, cleaning old, dusty mattresses. He later answered an ad for a shipper at a ladies' wear wholesaler that paid $24 a week. Despite having limited English, he was promoted to buyer, but resigned after 18 months to tend to his side importing venture.

He had scrimped and saved, living on a diet of mostly scrambled eggs and rye bread, and in 1955, joined forces with a close friend, Arthur Judah, another recent immigrant, to launch Jutan Importers, importing and distributing watches, novelties and consumer electronics from Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Mr. Tannenbaum never looked back.

In 1962, Mr. Judah left the company but Mr. Tannenbaum teamed up with another partner, Ernest Singer, and grew the business. It was an era of rising demand for modestly priced home electronics, a time when a "Made in Japan" label was still novel and when buying a clock radio or television at Canadian Tire – which carried his wares – was commonplace.

A lot of his success was attributed to timing in the fickle home electronics market, Mr. Tannenbaum's son-in-law, Jamie Horwitz, said. "He got into CB [citizens band] radio before that became a big craze and got out of it before the market collapsed."

Mr. Tannenbaum leaves his wife, Erika; children Stephen, Denyse and Renée; three grandchildren; two brothers, Isaac and Eugene; and a sister, Rose Konigsberg.

To submit an I Remember:

Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.