Shoah’s memory is strong in Canada
In his hellish year in Auschwitz, Thomas Newman held on to the hope that one day, he and the others would get out.
“We could see people outside the fences, the barbed wire – the Polish people walking outside. I always held on to hope that maybe one day we would get out of there. Hope was on my mind all the time. Hope kept us going – all of us,” said Newman.
In recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27, which this year marks the 72nd year of the liberation of the Auschwitz-birkenau death camp, Newman sat down with The CJN to share his story, one that he first recorded Dec. 1, 1994, for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation program.
Newman was brought to Auschwitz in 1944, one of about 200 boys out of the 10,000 people there. He was taught how to lay bricks. “Every day, we went to work to clean up for the air raids. As we marched out and back in, they would count us to make sure nobody was hiding. If one of us tried to hide or get away, they would hang that person in front of everyone and make us watch. People were rapidly dying of several diseases: lice, dirt and hunger. It was terrible. They made us work very hard and treated us very poorly,” he said.
Thomas Simon Neumann was born April 6, 1930, in a small village called Vojnatina in what was then Czechoslovakia. He lived with his grandparents, parents Rosalia and Alexander, and six siblings: three brothers, one of them a baby, and three sisters. His father was a farmer.
There were only 15 families in his village, six Jewish families, the others Catholic, with one school for everyone.
When Thomas was growing up, the family celebrated the Jewish holidays, using a neighbour’s home for praying. A Jewish teacher moved from village to village teaching cheder, he said.
“In 1938, I would have been eight years old. Hitler had occupied Poland, and Hungary occupied our part of Czechoslovakia. I remember my parents were so happy that the Hungarians came – the Hungarian government didn’t touch the Jewish people and Slovakia became independent at that time.”
The family’s relative security lasted for about six years.
“It was 1944 when the Germans took over. I was almost 14 years old. We were taken to a ghetto with the Hungarian name Ungvar, and from there, deported to Auschwitz. We got off the trains and were separated. My grandparents, mother and four younger siblings were taken one way. My two brothers were taken another, and my father and I remained together,” he recalled.
“I never saw my grandparents, mother, sisters or brothers again, which we later found out was because they were really on their way to the gas chambers,” Newman said. “My father was taken away in the summer [that year] and never came back.”
He recalled the agony and confusion of his final days as a prisoner and his medical problems after liberation.
“In January 1945, when the Russian army was closing in, we were taken from Auschwitz deeper into Germany to a place called Buchenwald. To get from Auschwitz to Buchenwald, we went in open trains and also by foot. If someone wasn’t able to walk anymore, they were shot.
“I was 15 years old when the American army liberated us. I didn’t really know what was happening. I could see soldiers coming and going. The guards escaped. It was total chaos. I was very sick due to malnutrition, so the Americans took me to an army hospital, where I received blood transfusions along with many other treatments. I survived.”
When he was well enough, he, like many others, tried to go home. “I went home to my village to learn the fate of my family and the others. No one came home,” Newman said.
Following the war, he stayed with an uncle in Budapest and then with another uncle in Prague. “In Prague, I caught up in school, completing three years of high school in one. My uncle wanted me to get my education,” Newman said.
In 1948, the Canadian Jewish Congress brought Newman to Canada with other orphans like himself. “When I arrived in Toronto, I had nothing or no one with me. Immigration officials changed my name from Neumann to Newman.”
He became a chartered accountant, building his own firm of five partners and a staff of 40. He continues to work full time.
Newman and his wife, Grace, have two daughters and five grandchildren who, he said, give him much naches.
He said he continues to be a person who lives with hope. “I am an optimist. I remember the phrase Anne Frank said: ‘I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.’ I am very optimistic about life – about the future.”