Robbie Waisman enjoyed a brief childhood before growing old overnight.
As a 13-year-old he was sent to the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp where he was starved, brutalized and psychologically traumatized by Nazi soldiers to the point where he no longer felt human.
He was among the 426 child survivors who were liberated by American soldiers on April 11, 1945 – a date he refers to as his birthday.
“That day, I was reborn again,” he told a large audience who had gathered to hear him speak at F.H. Collins Secondary School Wednesday night.
The 83-year-old shared tales of imprisonment, survival and resiliency during a talk that lasted almost an hour.
Born in Skarczysko, Poland in 1931, Waisman was the youngest of six children in a close-knit Jewish family.
His father was a tailor and well-respected man in the community.
“I was spoiled and received more than my share,” Waisman said.
Shortly after the 1939 invasion of Poland by Germany, his town fell under German occupation.
The ghetto for the town’s Jewish population was established in the early months of 1941.
Waisman was forced to work at a newly established ammunitions factory with his father and two of his brothers, Chaim and Abram.
Waisman had to stamp 3,200 shells per day with the initials FES, of which he still doesn’t understand the meaning.
They were housed in subhuman conditions. At the end of their shift, they slept in barracks infested with lice.
There were no mattresses, just straw. Disease was rampant.
One day Waisman witnessed the death of his brother, Abram, who had contracted typhoid fever and could no longer work.
The Nazis loaded him and other sick workers onto a truck and drove out to a nearby forest.
“I remember hearing the crackling of the machine guns,” Waisman said.
“The truck returned empty. I knew he had died.
“What was his crime? He was born Jewish.”
Waisman said his father was never the same after that day. His black hair turned white and he lost the will to live.
They were separated and Waisman never saw his father again. He doesn’t know how he died.
“Did he run up to the electric fence? Was he shot? Or did he just die of a broken heart?” Waisman asked.
In 1944, Waisman was sent to Buchenwald near Weimar, Germany, which had already become one of the largest concentration camps on German soil.
During Waisman’s powerful talk, he had no trouble recalling the brutality inflicted on him and other prisoners.
“Death was a constant companion,” he said.
“My eyes have seen unspeakable horrors. The Nazis and their collaborators murdered my parents and my four brothers.
“How did I go through hell and survive? The resiliency of the human spirit came to the rescue.”
It was a combination of good fortune and willpower that got Waisman through the hardest year of his life.
Prisoners from all over Europe and the Soviet Union were sent to Buchenwald between 1937 and 1944.
It’s estimated that between 33,000 and 56,000 people died there during that time from starvation, sickness and human experimentation.
Polish, French and German political prisoners in Block 8 would hide Waisman and other children during the day while they went to work.
Relying on the memories of his childhood, he found the strength and courage to stay alive.
On April 4, 1945 American soldiers overran the camp. It was the first camp liberated by U.S. troops.
The camp was partially evacuated in the following week. On April 11, more American soldiers arrived and were given a hero’s welcome.
Waisman was among the euphoric prisoners.
“The soldiers were larger than life,” he said.
“They lined us up and asked for our names. I quickly replied with my prisoner number, 117098.
“My name had been erased.”
Waisman met a 19-year-old soldier named Leon Bass – the first black person he’d ever seen before, he said.
About 40 years later, in 1983, Waisman recognized Bass’s picture in a magazine and tracked him down.
Their reunion in Philadelphia was recorded in a short documentary, which Waisman showed last night. They’ve been good friends ever since.
For a long time after his liberation, Waisman struggled with conflicting feelings and relearning ordinary life skills.
He began questioning the existence of God. He knew that he wanted to make sure no one forgot about the Holocaust.
In 1949, he moved to Canada and slowly built a life for himself.
He owned and operated three clothing stores in Saskatoon and Vancouver over the years.
He began speaking publicly about his experiences after he heard that a teacher in Alberta, James Keegstra, was teaching his social studies students that the Holocaust was a fraud.
Today, he tells young people about the importance of memories.
His wants his story to serve as a message of hope for people going through similar suffering around the world, he said.
“Forgetting the Holocaust is every survivor’s greatest fear,” he said.
“It’s important to pass the message along. Never again.”
Contact Myles Dolphin at