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'None of my friends survived. Someone has to speak for them'

When a 14-year-old Sidney Zoltak and his family returned to their hometown in the northeast of Poland after the war, they found fewer than 70 people of a Jewish community of 7,000 had survived.

“The rest were assassinated in the death camp of Treblinka (in one week) in 1942,” Zoltak said.

When Zoltak and his family returned home in 1945 after being in hiding for three years, they encountered more anti-Semitism.

“So my parents and I left our town with a pledge never to return,” Zoltak said. “After being in various displaced persons camps, my mother and I arrived (in Canada) in 1948.”

Zoltak is now part of the community of Holocaust survivors in Montreal, one of the largest in the world. He participated in a ceremony on Monday at city hall to commemorate Jewish Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom Hashoah). About 300 people attended, including students from Bialik High School, Herzliah High School, Marymount Academy and Lower Canada College.

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The sombre ceremony, with music from the Bialik Yiddish Choir, included the eerie lullaby Close Your Eyes (Mach Tsu di Eygelach). Isaiah Shpigl, a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto and the Auschwitz concentration camp, wrote the lyrics.

Six red-tinted candles with gold Jewish stars were lit during the ceremony to honour the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis and their collaborators from 1939 to 1945.

A Star of David badge at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.

By the end of the ceremony, a tear was streaking down Zoltak’s face.

“It’s never easy, but when I am asked to speak to any group, whether children or adults, I go,” he said. “I don’t have the word ‘no’ in my vocabulary when it comes to this. None of my classmates or my friends survived. Somebody has to speak for them.”

Zoltak said he is alive today thanks to members of a family who risked their lives to save his family when they were hiding in the forest. He made a point of ensuring the family was honoured as Righteous Among the Nations at the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel.

During the ceremony, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said Holocaust survivors have made great contributions to this city.

“My profound and sincere sympathies and solidarity go out to victims and the survivors, and to all the families who lost love ones and still bear the scars of this tragic chapter in human history,” Coderre said. 

He said the city plans to unveil a memorial to Holocaust survivors later this year.

Executive committee member Jim Beis spoke at the ceremony, too, and observed Monday also marked 102 years since the Armenian genocide, when 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Turks.

jmagder@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/JasonMagder

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http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/holocaust-memorial-day-none-of-my-friends-survived-someone-has-to-speak-for-them