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'I want to empower you'

Robbie Waisman had plenty of stories to tell about death and atrocities. But what he wanted to talk about most was love.

Robbie Waisman had plenty of stories to tell about death and atrocities.

But what he wanted to talk about most was love.

For an hour Wednesday at Coquitlam Alliance Church, the retired Vancouver businessman and Holocaust survivor shared his story with School District 43 high school students, telling them to appreciate their families and guard against hatred.

"You have a family that is very precious," Waisman told the students gathered for the fourth annual Symposium on the Holocaust, organized by social justice teacher Ken Ipe. Urging the students to eliminate bullying that is so "destructive," Waisman said talking about his personal ordeal is still painful but necessary so future generations know and understand went on in Europe over 70 years ago.

"It's not my intention to sadden you," he said. "On the contrary, I want to empower you."

Students who bused in from high schools across the district hung on his every word and watched a documentary by CBC's The Journal about his reunion with his American liberator. Waisman was freed from the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11, 1945, the day he now considers his birthday. He was 14.

"Death was a constant companion... I have no words to describe," Waisman said.

Instead, he talked about his loving family and how they treated him like "the baby," letting him get away with bad behaviour occasionally because he was the youngest of six children. He recalled listening to his father read books on the Sabbath at home in Skarszysko, Poland and spending time with friends.

But all that ended in September 1939 when the Germans invaded and his "life and security stopped abruptly."

When the Nazis began rounding up Jews for transportation to concentration camps, 12-year-old Waisman was smuggled into a work camp with his brother, Abraham. He would stencil initials on anti-aircraft shells for 12 hours a day and see his father briefly on Sundays.

He had no idea what happened to his mother. "How did she know I would be safer with my brother?" he asks, remembering her promise that they would be reunited and saying, "I had no reason to doubt her."

He learned later she was sent to Treblinka and gassed.

The loss and separation didn't end there. His brother was shot after he got sick with typhoid fever. "I can't come to terms with what was his crime - an accident of birth? He was Jewish and if you couldn't work and be useful, you were condemned to die."

His father became weaker after losing his older son and Waisman recalls being angry for it. "I wanted his strength but it wasn't there."

When his father didn't show up for work a few days later, Waisman was devastated and couldn't get any answers about his father's disappearance. "I speculate now what happened to my father." Did he throw himself against an electric fence, fall sick or simply die of a broken heart, he asked the students. "I don't know. I have more questions then answers."

In 1944, as the Russians were advancing, 13-year-old Waisman was transported by cattle car to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he spent the remainder of the war. He was among 426 Buchenwald Boys who were taken to an orphanage and told they couldn't be rehabilitated and would never have normal feelings. But Waisman said he now counts Nobel Peace prize writers, prominent rabbis, doctors, lawyers and businessmen among his acquaintances from that period, and said, "The resilience of the human spirit is fantastic."

And he remembers the day American soldiers walked into the camp and set them free. Waisman saw an African-American man - the first black man he had ever seen- and thought the soldier was an angel. Forty years later, Waisman and Leon Bass were reunited. Waisman told the students that it's important to remember the Holocaust and that by doing so, he is honouring the 1.5 million Jewish children who died. And he warned them against complacency, and told them to love one another and their families.

"Don't take it for granted. And give your little brother and sister and your parents a hug for me."

The symposium was co-sponsored by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. To read the full story of Waisman's life visit