November 8, 2011
BY: NICOLA MACLEOD
Even as a toddler, Israel Unger knew the Nazis wanted him dead.
Unger was four years old when he asked his father to recite the Shima Yisrael, a Jewish prayer said just before death, during a raid of their Tarnow ghetto. That night, Unger, certain he would die, had his father help him recite the prayer 36 times. The Unger family was one of the only Polish families to emerge intact from the Holocaust.
Why is it important for Canadians to remember the Holocaust? The topic was raised by University of New Brunswick Dean Emeritus, Israel Unger, who spoke at St. Thomas University this past Thursday.
Unger was born in 1938 in Tarnow, Poland. He was one-and-a-half years old when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and spent the majority of his childhood living in a ghetto or hiding from the Nazis. Professor Unger faced many horrors in his youth, including witnessing his grandfather kicked down the stairs and shot to death by Nazis. Though he was only a toddler, Unger does have memories of these years. “I can’t tell you everything, but there are certain things that stand out”, Unger said.
One was the overwhelming fear. After being forced into ghettos, Jews were periodically loaded onto trains, and shipped off to death camps by the thousands. “We knew what the Nazis had intended for the Jews. It was a question of where, when and how,” Unger said.
Unger’s father was permitted to leave the ghetto to work in the flour mill he co-owned before the invasion. This was the family’s chance to survive. While outside the ghetto, Unger’s father contracted two Gentiles to build a hideaway inside the mill’s attic. The family escaped from the ghetto and lived inside the tiny space for two years with five other Jews. When the war was over, Unger, now seven years old, and his brother escaped Poland with a group of orphans. The two later reunited with their parents in France and immigrated to Canada.
Canadian life was difficult for Unger and his family. Both parents worked in hard labor. His father went from being a factory owner to sweeping the floors of one. Even in Canada, Unger faced anti-Semitism, and didn’t like to talk about what had happened to him in Poland. Ashamed, he always told people he was from Montreal.
Unger went on to study at two Canadian universities, Sir George Williams (Concordia) and University of New Brunswick, where he later became a professor and Dean of Science. When speaking about being integrated into Canadian society, Unger observed, “If you have something to offer, you are accepted regardless of your background.”
Unger’s question remained formally unanswered, but it is through his story that the reason to remember is revealed. For every story of Unger’s, there are millions of untold tales.