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From Dachau to WITS - Elly Gotz

He is in the Wits S.A Institute of International Affairs auditorium where he is introduced to his young audience, by Sudeshan Reddy, National Information Officer of UN.  He takes in the sea of faces before him; 125 school children of every colour and discipline; united as one, in a non racial South Africa.  

elly-gotzElly is on a tour of the country, as guest of the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation, The United Nations Information Centre, and SA Institute of International addressing school children, academics, NGO’s, museums, and members of the Diplomatic Corps.

Today’s talk, which Elly is well qualified to deliver, is, ‘Returning to Dachau after 65 years.’ As a Holocaust survivor, he was recently invited by the German Government to visit the mass grave site of dead inmates of Dachau. 

He begins, ““I am not here to tell you a tough story about survival, but rather to explain how vital it is to learn tolerance of others. Most humans are prejudiced against cultures different from their own.  But we must overcome in this type of ignorance. I will demonstrate how easily humans can create genocide, especially in difficult times; People can be hypnotised by a good speaking leader. I urge you all to be aware, and always vote against a Government that allows and encourages discrimination and hatred.  

“We have to understand hatred of others is not a way to advance oneself.  We can achieve remarkable feats; we can fulfil our dreams, or we can achieve murder. Everybody said it could never happen again after Hitler’s Holocaust of the Jews. It does; time and again. It happened in Rwanda, Sudan, Yugoslavia and Cambodia.”

Involuntarily, events play back before Elly. He is a 20 year-old German refugee on a student visa at Wits, studying electrical engineering.  

He is building a float for the impending RAG carnival.  He smiles to himself. Back then, the university was abuzz about ‘Rag’. At first he didn’t know what they were on about.  To the sombre foreign student, grappling with a foreign language and country, it took some explaining before he understood that Rag was the annual Wits carnival, a highlight of every student’s University career, and not a fuss about a piece of cloth as he literally translated it. His technical expertise was needed to help construct a huge float called ‘Dreams in the Clouds’.

He remembers building castle shapes, using lots of cotton wool for clouds and wearing a Spanish shirt.      
Life is a bitter sweet whirlwind. Behind the halcyon heady days at Wits, lay nightmares of torture he had endured.  
He was born in Lithuania in 1928, son to Julius and Sonja Gotz, an accountant father, and a mother who was a surgical nurse. The family enjoyed a cultural life. At that time, the city of Kaunas where they lived, hosted opera, theatre, and art, and a vast number of the population spoke Yiddish, Russian, German, and Lithuanian.

Elly was 13, and even then he remembers harbouring dreams to fly an aeroplane and become an engineer. He had his uniform ready, was prepared to begin high school when Germany invaded Poland.  As tanks rolled through the city, all Jews were told to wear a yellow star on their person, and forced to walk only in the gutter, never to alight a pavement.

They were rounded up, forced into ghettos; a family of four lived in one small room.  

“We had to hand over all valuables, including rings, cameras, art, books, of which the Germans kept strict records.  But my father managed to sneak a pile of books into a space in the ceiling,” Elly tells his audience.

On October 29th, 1941, twenty-eight thousand people were rounded into an open field. Ten thousand were randomly selected and told to line up outside the camp’s fenced enclosure. They were marched to a hill, to Fort 9, shot, and their bodies buried in pits.

Elly’s best friend and his friend’s entire family were shot in the back of their heads with a revolver.
For Elly, life settled in the ghetto. Children aged 12-15 attended trade schools, and from the age of 15, everybody was put to slave labour for 12 hours each day.

With Elly’s love of electronics he chose metalwork and blacksmith classes, trades which later saved his life.  He became an instructor a year later.   

Between classes, when the weather was warm, Elly would remove the slats in the roof where the books were hoarded.  “I read all the German and Russian classics, and became fluent in both languages. To this day I know Pushkin off by heart.  I loved Dostoevsky…Tolstoy.” This became his formal high school education.

By 1944, there were only 8 000 survivors and they were told the ghetto was being liquidated.

To the Gotz family this meant certain death, so they hid in a basement room, covering the entrance with a cupboard. They made a pact: If discovered by the Germans they would commit suicide. Sonja neatly laid out syringes she had stolen and a formula which when injected immediately stopped the heart.  These she stole from the hospital where she worked,
After three days, without food or water, soldiers came down the stairs, kicked in the coal shed door and the door of the room opposite.  “There is nobody here,” they said, and passed on by.

After five days, the family crept out slowly to witness the Jews being marched towards a train.  The Germans were not murdering but rather relocating the Jews to Dachau. The Gotz family joined the queue, where females were separated, dispersed, relocated elsewhere, where indescribable horrors awaited them.

The carriages were so crowded that people lay atop one another, given no food or water. One after another during the four day journey they died.

In Dachau, the survivors subsisted; sixty thousand jam-crammed into a camp equipped to accommodate twenty-four thousand people, fifty to a room.

Inmates were given striped pyjamas, and put to manual labour building a giant underground factory for bomber planes.  They were given a slice of bread and small bowl of soup daily. Hunger occupied their every moment, day and night.
His technical training earned Elly an inside job working at the pumps, with his father as his assistant.  Most of the outdoor labourers died of cold, hunger and exhaustion.

Every day the barracks were littered with more dead bodies; men dying of disease and starvation.  Lice ate at the bodies, typhus raged, there were no bathing facilities, indeed no water with which to wash.  The outside taps were frozen.
Elly’s father lay on his deathbed - where the last inhabitant, had just died. He was too weak to get up and queue for his slice of bread.

Miraculously, at that precise moment a cry of liberation arose.  “The Americans Are Here.”
When Elly told his father the celebratory news, the only response he could muster, was a weak whisper. “Have you got the bread for me?”

Seventeen years, six feet tall and weighing seventy pounds, Elly was hospitalised together with his comatose father for six months and nursed to recovery.

Eventually, they traced Sonja, miraculously alive, having survived surgery, for an abdominal wound from a bomb attack.
Free, healthy and living in a displaced persons camp in Germany, Elly was taught radio repairs and became a radio technician.
Determined to become an electrical engineer, he saved parcels of food given to survivors by the United Nations and sold them to pay for University fees.   

He applied to Munich University, wrote a complicated entry exam and passed.  

The family desperately wanted to leave Germany but to go where? The British would not allow Jews into Palestine.  Canada’s and America’s doors were closed.  However, the Norwegians took in 900 Jews, including the Gotz family.

It took Elly three months to learn Norwegian, working as a radio technician by day and by night he was schooled to write his matric.  

Julius  had a wealthy relative in South Africa, who urged them to immigrate so that he could help fund Elly’s schooling.  At the time Jan Smuts, then Prime Minister said, “They will crucify me in Parliament if I let in even one Jew to South Africa.”
Elly tells his spellbound audience, “So my family ended in Zimbabwe, (then named Rhodesia), I was nineteen years-old, had to learn English and write my matric, which I managed within a year.  Maths and physics were easy, but English was more challenging.”  

“I applied for and was granted a student’s visa for South Africa to study engineering at Wits University in 1949. I finally got my wish to study electrical engineering.”

“Everything was a wonder.  I thought Wits Campus was huge, but when I toured the grounds today, I realise by comparison how small it must have been back then.

“But, even though Apartheid was not yet enforced by law South Africa was virulently racist at that time. My own freedom was tinged with sadness and guilt. I knew how cruel and misguided prejudice is. The injustice affected me very badly.  I protested as much as I could, but I was on a visa; I had to ensure I was not expelled; that I graduated as an Electrical Engineer.”
In 1952, I graduated, returned to Zimbabwe, worked in the battery radio industry, which was very profitable I expanded into advertising, and after marrying Esme, my South African wife, I went into electronic plastic welding.  We had three children, and decided, together with Esme’s entire family, to immigrate to Canada in 1964 due to the unacceptable political situation.
My engineering degree was perfect for my future successful business career in North America, where we, with other family members began  a plastics manufacturing company, which over the years became very successful with a second factory in Chicago.”
Elly managed to fulfil his desire to fly an aeroplane, become a pilot of his own small plane, and later earned glider pilot wings. “Gliding is the poetry of flight,” he says.

 “I started to speak on the Holocaust to schools and universities with the objective of teaching political awareness.
“Wits is a magnificent institution; almost an entire academic city, with well kept parks, and beautiful art exhibitions in each sector. I visited Wits Engineering faculty and was overwhelmed by all the buildings.  To think that I graduated without ever using a computer now seems amazing.  I remember on the last lesson before graduation, Professor G.R. Bozzoli, my mentor and hero, apologised that we learned nothing about transistors which had been invented a short time before the new age of computers.”

Imbued with a sense of pride Elly thinks. “Today South Africa is a non racial democratic country, how I always imagined it should be.  I have come full circle, and life couldn’t be more perfect.”     


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