Sally Wasserman, Canadian Holocaust survivor
By Eli Rubinstein, Educational Director, International March of the Living
Sally Wasserman was born in Poland in 1935. When she was eight years old, she was smuggled out of the Ghetto and hidden by two Polish Righteous Among the Nations, Eva and Mikolaj Turkin. Sally lost her entire immediate family in the Shoah, she never saw her father, mother, and little brother again. After the war, Sally was adopted by her aunt, her mother’s sister, in Canada.
Decades later, in 1998 she read the last letter her mother wrote to her sister in Canada, from the Ghetto on July 22, 1943, before being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Sally has shared her feelings about her mother and the contents of this last letter with thousands of students in many settings, including Auschwitz-Birkenau – the very place where her mother and little brother perished.
Sally tells students that before she discovered the letter and visited Poland, she resented her mother. “Why did my mother leave me behind? Why did she only take my little brother with her? Of course, I understood my mother had saved me, but when I read the letter and visited the camps and stood in the gas chambers, that was the first time I felt the sacrifice of my mother and her courage and what her decision to give me up must have meant to her…. I no longer have resentment…now I have compassion and empathy for her. She was heroic, so courageous…. She had a strong belief that somehow, somewhere, regardless of the world she lived in there was some goodness. That’s what I like to think.”
Sally spoke with March of the Living educational director Eli Rubinstein, ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on the growing trend of Holocaust trivialization.
Q: The pandemic accelerated antisemitism: Isolation and quarantines have been compared to concentration camps, the US President’s medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla are being compared to Mengele, and concepts like the green pass are being compared to the yellow star. What does it feel like to see people inappropriately wearing the infamous striped uniforms or wearing the yellow star online and in the streets?
Sally: That it’s inappropriate. And I have heard other comments as well, on the news and people… ah, never really to my face, that has not happened. And I am not too upset over it; I know it’s not the truth, but I tend to look at who’s saying it. And I’m almost inclined to say: Look, they are not worth a comment from me. They’re not worth me getting upset over it because there always will be people like that in this world. There have been in the past, and there always will be in the future. I think that the impact of getting upset, momentarily when I hear it, it’s a little bit of a dig, you know, but it’s not lasting. I don’t get terribly upset.
I think that any other type of idiot who comes out with a comment like that, it’s really not worth it for me to have heartache over it because it will happen regardless of how I feel, regardless of how other survivors feel. These things will happen.
Q: What is your message to people who use this horrible rhetoric?
I would tell them that they don’t know what they’re talking about. That if they are really interested in the truth, they should do some research and speak to me again later after they find out some truth because what they’re speaking is not the truth.
Q: Holocaust denial is growing rapidly. How concerned are you for Holocaust memory in the future?
It’s a concern. I’m not surprised, really. The denial has been with us from the get-go. For so many years. I do believe that I once read something where a Holocaust denier was standing in the middle of Auschwitz – in Auschwitz, actually in Auschwitz – in the middle of the field, and explaining this as being not real. I can’t tell you where I read this. I know it’s years and years and years ago. When someone can make a statement like that, is it worth repeating?
My worry is not the people who spew this garbage it’s the people who might be influenced by a statement from a Holocaust denier. But I know, as a survivor, what is true. Over the years as I grow older and older, it stirs in my heart, and will always be there. That’s what’s important to me.
And what is very important to me is not to perpetuate this denial. Let’s talk about the people, and there are millions around the world, who know what happened. And who believe what they have seen, perhaps not physically visiting Poland, for example, or any camps, but what they’ve read. And they think for themselves. And they believe it did happen. I like to talk about those people, and perhaps their descendants will carry on that feeling, that thought, that idea.
Q: Do you think that there is a chance that in 50 or 100 years the Holocaust will be erased from our history?
I am worried that in 50 or 100 years, history will be re-written untruthfully. It should always be written correctly because it is history. What concerns me really is that it be written truthfully: Yes, this happened, and this is part of history.
Sally asked to end this interview on an optimistic note: “In spite of everything, people survived – some, not all, of course, we know that– and carried on very productive and meaningful lives. There were good people and there were bad people. I think the good triumphed. I think I’m an example of that, that there were good people. And I think that’s important”.
“And in spite of all the horror that the Holocaust represents, the survivors, their families, their descendants now, are living productive lives. Not everybody, but generally speaking. I don’t know enough to make any profound statement about, for example, Israel, but I think that the one good thing that happened out of it is Israel. You know, a land for the Jews, a country. Maybe it would have happened anyway, but I think it would have probably taken 50 years longer”.