“All Jews must die!” was the scream of the murderer at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last week. To the ears of a Holocaust survivor like myself, such words initiate a slide show of images lived and never forgotten. For me, it is the sight of the burning hospital for infectious diseases in the Kovno Ghetto, Lithuania, in 1941, after the Nazis locked patients, nurses, and a doctor inside, and poured fuel on the wooden building.
The total hate expressed in the Pittsburgh killer’s words is not comprehensible to most people, for the words are as illogical as they are vicious. This man could not possibly kill all Jews—he knows that, so why expose himself to certain repercussions, being shot or being prosecuted, perhaps even condemned to death?
But I understand hatred. I have personal experience with this kind of hate, for I not only experienced it when I was persecuted by the Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators, but I also lived with it in my head for several months, after liberation from Dachau concentration camp in Germany in 1945 by the American army, following four years under Nazi occupation.
I spent six months in a hospital recovering, with a starved body weighing 70 pounds. Lying there in bed, hardly able to go up the stairs, my mind was filled with one wish, and one thought only: revenge. Revenge for family members killed, revenge for my classmates, revenge for starving me to the edge of death while I worked 12-hour shifts pumping concrete to build a bomb-proof factory for fighter planes.
My plan was simple: After I gained strength and got out of hospital, I would kill Germans. Any Germans. In my mind they were all guilty.
The interesting feature of this hate of mine was that it totally precluded any thoughts outside this circle of hate. No thoughts about my own future. Forgotten was my dream to one day be an engineer and a pilot, which I had nurtured since age 13. Fascinated as I was by machinery and electricity, engineering was my absolute aim. Yet I had forgotten this dream totally.
Even when I later found my mother alive and my spirit was lifted, the thoughts of hatred for Germans did not go away. I would take revenge for her suffering too, I reasoned. There were no thoughts about me, about possible consequences of killing people after the war was over. It was a singular focus of thought, with no alternate scenarios—just a search for methods to achieve my plan.
One day I looked at a German man standing near the hospital. I thought that he looked like he could have been one of the vicious guards in Dachau. He might be the first one I would kill. Every German was a candidate!
Then, one day, I had the image of all Germans spread out over the whole country, and a new thought came to me: How can I condemn a whole nation as murderers? That was, after all, what they believed about us, being influenced by a hateful dictator—in their minds the Jews were all bad people to be killed. And now I was building a similar image about them. That man standing there could have been a guard in Dachau—but he might instead have been a professor of history who hated Hitler—and I planned to kill him, an innocent man?
Suddenly a veil was lifted from my eyes. I became aware that this hate was damaging me! I felt that I must free myself from this fog of hate.
After that moment, I still used to get these thoughts of hatred and revenge, but every time they came to me I physically turned my head sideways with my hand—cancel these thoughts, I told myself. Think of your aims in life! I remembered that I wanted to be an engineer. I only had a sixth grade education and I was 17 years old, so I hit the books.
I began studying mathematics, physics, and chemistry. I took courses in electronics and radio repair. Eventually I was accepted at the engineering faculty of the University of Munich. But I did not attend, since my family left for Norway—the only country that willingly accepted some Jewish survivors at the time. Later we ended up in Southern Rhodesia, a British colony, now Zimbabwe, where I learned English and graduated as an engineer in Johannesburg. After some years, married with three children, we immigrated to Canada.
Now retired, I speak to schools and universities about the Holocaust and my experiences. I speak openly about my experience with hate. It is clear to me now that after I freed myself from hate, I began to live again.
One of the most important messages I seek to impart is that hate is poison to the hater. As the saying goes, “To hate is like taking poison and hoping the other will die.” Students respond very favorably to my message. Some tell me: “You have changed my life!”
In a Pittsburgh synagogue last week, the horrors of 80 years ago were replayed when hatred took the lives of 11 innocent people. I believe that the way to reduce hate in society is to make its damage clear to the young. So I will keep telling my story.
Elly Gotz is a Holocaust survivor. He is an engineer, a businessman, and a pilot. Now 90, married for 60 years, he jumped from an airplane last year to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. He gives talks at schools, speaking to around 15,000 students a year. He lives in Toronto, and his memoir, Flights of Spirit, will be available in November 2018.