As a teenage boy, Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter watched SS soldiers beat his father unconscious and hid from German police with his family on the roof of his Warsaw ghetto apartment. His family was eventually taken to Majdenek, where they would all be murdered, except for Gutter, who survived five more concentration camps.
Gutter will be the guest speaker at this year’s community Holocaust Remembrance Day, known as Yom HaShoah, at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27 at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd. The JCC is holding the event in partnership with the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
“Now, it is especially important to give voice to Holocaust survivors’ testimonies, to remind the world what shouldn’t happen, happened and is possibly happening once again,” said Gutter, 89.
Gutter was born in 1932 in Lodz, where his father and grandfather owned one of Poland’s largest wineries. Shortly after the war began, Pinchas, his parents and twin sister fled Lodz after SS soldiers beat his father into unconsciousness. They went to Warsaw where they lived in a partially bombed-out apartment building. Gutter and his family would hide from the German soldiers in a small space his father built on the roof of the apartment.
The family was later discovered in an underground bunker and taken to Majdanek, where they were killed. Pinchas would go on to survive the horrors of six concentration camps in total before his liberation in 1945 in Theresienstadt.
“I think it’s the duty of every Holocaust survivor to tell about his experiences and, at the same time, to juxtapose it to what has been happening since then,” he said in an interview with the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, noting specifically the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Putin who, as far as I’m concerned, is doing the same type of work that Hitler did in a different kind of way,” he said. “Things are replaying themselves. We are like the canary in the coal mine. We are the ones who have had these experiences. We have to tell the world.”
HERC Executive Director Samantha Abramson said as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, opportunities to hear from engaging speakers like Gutter grow in importance.
“They are the witnesses, the human threads, that connect us with the Holocaust and all that we must learn from,” she said. “We need to hear these stories now more than ever, as discrimination, persecution and genocide continue globally — we need to remember the human cost for such atrocities.”
Gutter has lived in Canada since 1985 and has two grown daughters, both of whom are social workers. He said it is never easy to talk about his experiences.
“You get emotionally involved,” he said. “It’s right inside you, and you live with it, you come to terms with it, and you try your best.”
For the first time, the event’s audience will have the option to either watch virtually on Zoom or attend in person. Details on the virtual option will be made available at MilwaukeeJewish.org/Yamim. The commemoration will also include a candle lighting with local survivors and their families, prayers and musical performances led by clergy and community members.
During the event, the Habush Family Foundation will share details about its annual art contest for teenagers in 7th to 12th grade. Highlights will include an expanded list of artforms students may submit, including essay, poetry, short story, film, video art, sculpture, podcast, blog, or social media. Entries are due by May 1. Six winners will receive a trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie for themselves and their families.
“The writing and art contest is an opportunity for students across our state to reflect on the lessons they’ve learned when studying the Holocaust, and to take on the mantle of storyteller, to take these lessons to heart and use them to change the world for the better,” Abramson said.
The prompt for the contest is a quote by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, who once said, “What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander” and that the Holocaust occurred in part because everyday people chose not to act, becoming bystanders rather than upstanders, organizers said.