Healing Wounded Memories

Amek, we promise you this: as long as there is a March, we will always tell your courageous story. Your story will never die.

AMEK ADLER (center) stands with young participants during March of the Living (photo credit: JESSICA TAYLOR)
AMEK ADLER (center) stands with young participants during March of the Living
(photo credit: JESSICA TAYLOR)
In February 2006, more than 200 Toronto students gathered at a winter retreat in central Ontario for a weekend Shabbaton in preparation for their two-week journey to Poland and Israel on the March of the Living.
During Shabbat services, when the students recited the Shema, the words stirred the most painful of memories inside Amek Adler, one of the survivors accompanying the travelers.
“I was about 14 years old and was a slave laborer in a concentration camp set up by the Nazis near Radom,” Adler told the hushed gathering.
“One day, the Nazis learned that a young man had escaped the camp. They rounded up the escaped man’s remaining family – a mother and father, and two girls and one boy, ages seven to 14 – forcing them onto their knees in front of the rest of the camp inmates, who had been assembled to witness their punishment. The Nazi – he had a black patch over one of his eyes – then shouted to the prisoners, ‘This is what we do to the family of someone who decides to escape.’ Then he shot each family member in the head once, then back over them again to ensure they were all dead. As the parents and the children slumped over, each proclaimed the words of the Shema on their lips before they died.”
“Since then, each time I hear the Shema,” Adler told us, “that is the picture that comes to mind. That poor family, the parents and the children on their knees reciting the Shema as they were being executed – I can’t get it out of my head.”
We all listened in stunned silence, wondering what it must be like to carry that kind of burden, that constant memory, for an entire lifetime. But something even more remarkable was about to happen during that weekend.
On Saturday evening, the lights were dimmed, a braided candle was lit and all of the Marchers formed a circle in mid- dle of the dining room to sing Havdala in unison. One of the rabbis invited Adler into the center of the circle and said to him and all present, “Amek, you shared with us a very personal and difficult memory, but with your permission, we are now going to try and heal that memory. We are all going to sing Shema Yisrael many times over, so the picture you will have in your mind from now on, whenever you hear the Shema, will be of Jewish children marching towards a brighter future.”
Then the entire group of teenagers and chaperones broke out into a spirited rendition of Shema Yisrael, singing it perhaps 20 or 30 times, before launching into a medley of other Jewish songs. Adler’s nephew, fellow survivors and their grandchildren joined him and the Marchers kept singing around them, as if their singing alone could carry the world into a better future.
A few weeks later, Adler addressed the group, briefly: “You know, it is working. I was in synagogue last week and I heard the Shema being recited, and for a moment, I saw the image of the family in Radom, but after only a few seconds, it was replaced by all of your smiling faces...”
A memory that once seemed inconsolable, had received redemption.
AMEK ADLER participated in the March of the Living a number of times, but mobility issues made it difficult for him travel to Poland in recent years.
In the spring of 2017, the Azrieli Foundation published his Holocaust memoir, Six Lost Years . With his freshly minted book in his hand, Adler went on a speaking tour of Saskatchewan, sharing his story with Canadian students in far-flung places, many who were likely hearing a Holocaust survivor for the very first time.
On April 24, Holocaust Remembrance Day, just a week after his 89th birthday, Adler told his story to a group of young people in Humboldt, Saskatchewan. On his way to Regina, Saskatchewan, for another speaking engagement, he was rushed into emergency surgery and died on the operating table.
Bill Glied, a Holocaust survivor, March of the Living participant and close friend of Adler, who also recently passed away, remembered Adler saying. “When I die, I want to be doing a mitzva.”
That’s exactly what Adler was doing on the last day of his life.
Cathy Mills, a Saskatchewan teacher who was present at Adler’s final speech, shared her condolences with the Azrieli Foundation.
“Could you please let Amek’s family know that he spoke so well and made such an impact on the students and teachers gathered there,” she wrote. “His final day on this earth was productive and inspirational. That is a legacy of which to be proud.”
In his last speech, Adler said, “The story cannot die. We are dying. We won’t be around, so hopefully the new generation can tell the next generation.”
Amek, we promise you this: as long as there is a March, we will always tell your courageous story.
Your story will never die.