ORT training key to surviving Holocaust


05 August 2009 ORT training key to surviving Holocaust On the eve of the Holocaust there were 37,000 Jews in the historic Lithuanian city of Kovno. By the end of the Holocaust there were some 3,000 Survivors, most of them in concentration camps in Germany. Among them was Elly Gotz who had secured a cushy job at Dachau thanks to training he had received at the ghettos ORT workshop. The malnourished 16-year-old worked gruelling 12-hour shifts looking after a huge concrete mixing machine but in southern Germany in winter, working under shelter meant the difference between life and death. My survival in Dachau relied to a large extent on my ORT training, Mr Gotz, a past president of Toronto Mens ORT, said. My cushy job was entirely due to being a trained, skilled metal worker which I would not have been without ORT. If not for that I would have been working outside and my chances of survival would have been greatly reduced. It is an experience which has left him a passionate advocate of learning a trade. Elly Gotz. The pleasure of having a skill is greatly undervalued in todays society, he said. But it has very important properties for a persons psyche. Young people shouldnt just go to university, they should learn a useful trade first. To emphasise his point he remembers after the war doing an ORT radio mechanics course at the Displaced Persons camp at Landsberg-Am-Lech in Germany his second experience of ORTs redemptive qualities. In particular he remembers a fellow students transformation in experiencing the satisfaction of building a radio from scratch. We knew little about his history but rumour had it that he had been through a particularly horrible set of experiences during the Holocaust, Mr Gotz said. He was dour, no friendly with anyone, although we tried to include him. If anyone touched his tools he reacted with fury. He never smiled. It so happened that his wireless receiver was the first in class to come on loud and clear. We all jumped up to congratulate him and for the first time we saw a broad smile come on his face. We were so pleased to see it! From that moment on he became part of our group, cooperative and friendly. That event made me realise that skill, and a persons awareness that they have skill, is a great source of happiness in life. Knowing how to do something well has healing properties. ORT has, through the 130 years of its existence, created a happier people, given untold humans a solid, permanent base of joy in life. I know it did for me. It was 65 years ago this summer that Mr Gotz was shipped out of the Kovno Ghetto with the 6,100 other Jews who had survived the privations and cold-blooded murder of the previous three years. The fact that he had survived thus far was itself due in large part to ORT. The Altestenrat (Council of Elders), the group of prominent Jews which ran the ghettos internal affairs under German direction, had been permitted to establish a training school for children aged 12 to 15 to prepare them for the work they would be required to perform from the age of 16. Dr Jacob Oleiski, who had been the Director of ORT Kovno, became the Director of the school and he used teachers from the previous ORT school as many of them were in the ghetto, Mr Gotz said. I joined the locksmith and metal work section and loved the experience. The acquiring of practical skills was complemented by the learning of theory and Jewish subjects and the result was a respite from the miserable reality of the ghetto. Mr Gotz proved to be a good student, becoming particularly skilled at locksmithing, and, at the age of 15, was appointed a full instructor. It was at that time that he remembers a Mr Kadish coming into the workshop to take a photograph of him teaching younger boys. This guy came in, opened his leather jacket and brought out a camera. I was shocked because I knew that the Germans killed people for having a camera. He told us not to look at the camera so that if the photograph was found we could claim not to have known it was being taken, he said. The photographer was living up to his name by creating a pictorial memorial for a community which he expected would soon be extinguished. He developed the hundreds of pictures he took of ghetto life in the x-ray department of the German hospital where he worked and buried the negatives only to dig them up from the ghettos scorched remains after the war. The negatives were stored at a kibbutz in the Negev, Mr Gotz said. But during the 1967 war, the kibbutz was hit by Egyptian fire and many of the negatives were lost but not my photo, which I saw for the first time while watching a slide show about the Kovno Ghetto at the Holocaust Museum in Washington in 1994! Mr Gotz worked in the Fachschule until the ghetto was liquidated and the remaining people were sent to Germany in cattle cars the women to Stutthof and the men to Dachau concentration camp. At Dachau, Mr Gotz managed to bring his father into his workshop as an assistant thereby helping him to survive. We were liberated on April 29, 1945. We found out that my mother had survived Stutthof concentration camp and we were a complete family again. I was an only child, he said. It was in December 1945 with more than 95 per cent of Lithuanias pre-war Jewish population of 235,000 dead that Mr Gotz enrolled in the ORT radio mechanics course at the DP camp. He received an ORT diploma after 12 months energetic study, during which time he took private lessons in maths and studied physics and chemistry on his own. He passed a tough entrance exam to Munichs Engineering University to study electrical engineering but he and his parents decided to leave Germany for Norway. In Oslo I went out looking for a job and soon found one as a radio mechanic, he recalled. I was quite unsure how I would do but I discovered that ORT had trained me well. Before long, the family joined relatives in southern Africa and, having learned English, he successfully negotiated the final year of high school before studying electrical engineering and electronics at the University of Johannesburg. In 1964, with his wife Esme and their three children, Mr Gotz moved to Canada where he has lived ever since. For a number of years I was President of Toronto Mens ORT, while my wife was President of Womens ORT, he said. I have told my story at many ORT membership meetings and fundraising events. I have done my best to repay ORT for the great good it has done me.