How a German high school helped Toronto Holocaust survivor Gershon Willinger learn precious new details about his family

Comenius Gymnasium's history club on a Zoom call with Gershon Willinger

A Holocaust survivor from Toronto who was separated from his parents as an infant recently learned new information about his family—from students in a history club at a German high school.

Gershon Willinger was born in Amsterdam in 1942 to German Jewish parents who had fled their home country. A few months later, Willinger’s parents gave him to a family in the Dutch resistance for safety. In February 1943, authorities discovered that Willinger was Jewish, and from there he was sent to a series of concentration camps.

Willinger ended up surviving the Holocaust, but of course he had no memory of how he had managed to live—let alone his life before the camps. Everything he knows about his early years, his family, and their life prior to the war is the result of a lifetime of painstaking research. 

The knowledge that Willinger has accumulated can never replace the full picture that was erased, but he doesn’t take it for granted there was at least enough documentation to piece together some facts about his family. At 81, he was content with how much he had managed to uncover.

And then came a message from Germany.

A history club at Comenius Gymnasium, a high school in Dusseldorf, Germany, was working on a project to research the 41 Jewish students who had attended the school between 1900 and 1945. Seven of those students had perished in the Holocaust—including Willinger’s father Guido and his two uncles Kurt and Izmar.

The history club’s research eventually turned up Willinger’s name, along with his affiliation with Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC). So the school reached out to FSWC to say they had discovered more information about Willinger’s family and wished to share it with him.

In March, Daniella Lurion, part of the education team at FSWC, traveled to Dusseldorf to facilitate a Zoom meeting between Willinger and Comenius Gymnasium’s history club. Students took turns presenting to Willinger what they had learned about his family members.

“This was an icing on the cake for me, what happened in Germany. I never expected it. This was absolutely unbelievable. It was just a moment in the life of my family, a normal happening, such as a high school, such as a report card,” Willinger said. “But that again, to me, is a very big present that I received at this age, at 81 years old.”

The school found student cards and report cards of the three boys in the cellar of the old building, which had been bombed during the Second World War. Willinger learned that his father was the youngest of the three brothers, which he didn’t know before. He also found out that his father and two uncles all received top marks for behaviour, and that, while his father was not overly gifted in academics, he seemed to have a penchant for athletics and singing.

“It was absolutely amazing. I said that I thank them very much because it is very eerie and strange to suddenly be intimately involved with their intellectual prowess in school, whether they had good grades or bad grades. To see their names, as well, on each report card was in itself already unbelievable. So for me, it was very, very special to be able to see that, because again, as a part of a whole, it’s another little part of a puzzle that was clarified for me,” Willinger said.

“I put a lot of store in history and in documentation… so for me, it was really a validation for, ‘Hey, these people were my family,’ and it validates your existence as a human being.”

Perhaps the most exciting discovery was about Willinger’s grandmother Rosa. The students had been surprised to discover that Willinger’s grandmother Rosa had owned her own ladieswear shop, which was highly unusual for a woman in early 1900s Germany. The original building still stands, and they showed photos of it to Willinger. 

Another important fact that their research turned up was the ultimate fate of Willinger’s uncle Izmar. Willinger knew where most of his family members had been killed, but not Izmar. Willinger knew that Izmar had had a disability of some sort, but that was it.

 It turned out that Izmar had been in a psychiatric hospital when the war started, and was forcibly “euthanized,” as the Nazis called it, in May 1941, because of his disability.

The school even promised to lay down a stolperstein, or stumbling stone, with the names of Willinger’s family, and invited him to come join for the installation.

Willinger also shared his story with the German students, including pictures from various stages of his life–and even some of his parents before he had been born. While addressing them after, he spoke to the importance of keeping alive the memory of families like his, implored them to keep up their good work, and finally thanked them for the precious knowledge they had gifted him.

“I hope that your students, who are so many generations later, they have an obligation, but don’t feel guilty. They should never feel guilty about anything because, as I always tell students, it’s your duty to change things, to inform people, and if there is Holocaust denial, to set the record straight,” Willinger said to the history club’s teacher on the Zoom call.

“I’m absolutely thrilled. I keep my emotions to myself because otherwise I start crying, but I’m absolutely thrilled that I have the opportunity because this is not just, ‘oh, this is history about your parents.’

“These were people who never committed crimes, these were good people, these were real Germans, these were people who happened to be Jews in Germany who wanted to live a life like everybody else. So what you’ve done for me here, what your students have done, is absolutely unbelievable to me, and it means an awful lot to me.”