Capitol Hill Times
Holocaust Survivor Puts Things in Perspective
By Korte Brueckmann
Joshua Gortler reminds homeless youth that if he can do it, so can they.
Joshua Gortler stood out in this crowd of young people, 18 to 25, in their street clothes. Gortler was in Seattle business attire sporting a goatee and mustache, a twinkle in his eye and a yarmulke on his head. At 70, he is one of the youngest survivors of the World War II Holocaust that swept 6 million Jews into death camps where they perished.
The audience, perhaps a dozen members of the homeless youth advocacy group Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets (PSKS), sat in rapt attention on Wednesday, Sept. 19, as Gortler told his story.
PSKS provides support and services to Seattle area homeless youth and young adults. The efforts are focused to lead homeless youth from the street to self-sufficient and productive lives in the community.
Gortler had two major messages for the young people who gathered to hear him. The first, and most personal, is that evil was truly loose in Europe in the mid-20th century. The Holocaust truly happened, and he saw it. The second was that if he could arrive in the United States at age 16 with nothing and unable to read or write, then acquire a degree in psychology and then a masters degree in social work and administration, then so can they.
Gortler's earliest memory, he told his audience, was when the German Army occupied his village in Poland and hanged his grandfather, the village's chief rabbi, from a tree in the town square. Gortler was just 3-years old.
"Your homelessness compared to that homelessness, there is no comparison," Gortler said. "People have no idea how hard it can be."
Gortler's father worked in his family's long-established lumber business and had many business contacts. Through those contacts the family was able to go into hiding. With the protection of their friends, the family pretended to be Christian Poles. When it became possible, they fled to the protection of the Soviet Army, ultimately finding refuge in Siberia. This, Gortler explained, was still a hard life because of the lack of ordinary necessities and the extreme winter cold.
From Siberia, the family was moved to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, one of the former Soviet republics that borders Afghanistan. Conditions continued to be primitive and life harsh. After the end of World War II, the family moved back to Poland, but were not welcomed by government officials. They moved on to Berlin, where they lived in a displaced persons camp.
Gortler told the group that he was so used to having to scrounge dirty water or melt snow for water, that he was overcome when he saw a full, clean basin of flowing water. He put his whole face in it and drank deeply, only afterward discovering it was a urinal.
This story did not get a single laugh. His audience was too wrapped in the tale to find any amusement value.
Finally, his family managed to get passage with many other refugees on a boat to the United States. He arrived with his parents, 16-years old, completely illiterate without a day of formal education to his credit. He arranged to attend a Jewish school in New York, where he graduated high school in three years, went on to earn his bachelor's degree and then a masters degree in social work. He proceeded to work in the Bronx with gangs. Then, 38 years ago, he came to Seattle to work with the elderly.
"I'm probably one of the youngest ones left," Gortler said of the Holocaust survivors. "I am a child survivor. My job is to tell people what happened. I am not a concentration camp survivor. My life, what I told you, was [by comparison] an easy one."
Easy for a Holocaust survivor, but not compared to life on the streets of an American city.
James Wlos, a member of PSKS who works as a longshoreman, said he is impressed with what hardships people can endure. "My version of being homeless is just you live outside and make your way," he said. He said it helps show that if people work as a team, anything can be achieved.
"I got some knowledge that I didn't have before," said a young man who gave the name Hopper. "I got some perspective from the other side [of World War II]."
Josh is an active member of the Holocaust Center's Speakers Bureau