One could hear a pin drop when Holocaust survivor Fred Lessing visited OUWB to recall and share what it was like to be a child who successfully avoided Nazi capture.


‘Really inspiring’

Student organizations from OUWB co-sponsor lecture from Holocaust survivor

An image of a Holocaust survivor talking to students

Fred Lessing talks about how he managed to successfully evade Nazi capture during World War II. (Photo by Andrew Dietderich)


icon of a calendarJuly 6, 2022

icon of a pencilBy Andrew Dietderich

Share this story

One could hear a pin drop when Holocaust survivor Fred Lessing visited OUWB to recall and share what it was like to be a child who successfully avoided Nazi capture.

Lessing talked about everything from being separated as a 6-year-old from his “very loving family” to being liberated by the Canadian Army — a moment that, even as he recalled it in 2022, brought tears to his eyes.

More than 50 people attended the event hosted at O’Dowd Hall by two OUWB student organizations, Jewish Medical Student Association and Biomedical Ethics. 

Lessing, a retired psychotherapist, previously had spoken to OUWB students via a class on trauma taught by Changiz Mohiyeddini, Ph.D., professor, Department of Foundational Medical Studies.

Students from the organizations felt more people would benefit from hearing Lessing’s stories, he said.

“One of the darkest episodes in medical science is what happened during the Holocaust,” said Mohiyeddini. “I hope (hearing Lessing speak) was very impactful for our students and keeps them thinking critically about their actions and responsibilities as future physicians.”

Rising M3 Nick Ludka, past-president of Biomedical Ethics, said that the organization co-sponsored the event because “From a bioethics standpoint, there’s a lot to be learned from the Holocaust.”

“You can’t find a better example of the autonomy just being completely stripped from mass populations and things being imposed against their will,” he said.

‘Pretend we’re taking a walk’

Lessing told those in attendance that it’s not enough to read books or watch documentaries about the Holocaust --- they need to hear about it from people like him, which is why he tells his story publicly.

“It’s just one little story out of millions of such stories,” he said.

Lessing was born in Delft, a city in the province of South Holland, Netherlands. He, along with his father, mother, and two older brothers, were Jewish.

When the Germans invaded Holland, Lessing was 4 years old. In another two years, Germans would begin rounding up Jews across Europe, many destined for concentration camps.

One day in October, 1942, Lessing said his family received advanced notice of about one hour that Nazi soldiers were coming for them.

“Here’s what my mother said at this critical moment,” Lessing recalled. “’You are Jewish boys, but if anyone finds out they will kill you. We are now going to walk out of the house. Don’t take anything with you because we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. Pretend we’re talking a walk.’ And that’s what we did.”

Lessing, however, said he “immediately disobeyed” because he grabbed his teddy bear.

“This is the point where it was the end of my childhood,” he said.

The family walked to the house of an elderly couple that temporarily offered refuge for the Lessings. They developed a plan to separate.

“My mother said we had to hide, but that we couldn’t hide together because there would be a much better risk of being caught.”

That night, Lessing was put on a train that took him to Amsterdam. He stayed with his grandfather, who had remarried a non-Jewish woman after their grandmother had died.

“Because you had to have a Jewish mother in order to be a Jew…that became my first hiding place,” he said.

It wasn’t too long until Lessing’s mother came and picked him up. For almost three years, Lessing’s mother continuously arranged for her kids to bounce from family-to-family. If the family was Catholic, he would pretend to be Catholic. If they were Protestant, he would be Protestant. He never got too close with any of his host families, either.

“The only thing that mattered…was to survive,” he said.

It led to him feeling lonely.  

“Except that I had my little bear, and he became very important to me because it was the only thing I had,” he said. “Years later it occurred to me that he was my family…he was my connection with my brothers and my mother and my father.”

(Lessing’s bear is currently on loan to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, where it is part of an exhibit. It has earned the nickname “The Mona Lisa of Yad Vashem.” Read more about it here.)

An image of a Holocaust survivor talking to a med student

Fred Lessing talks with OUWB medical student Eli Tukel after his presentation. (Photo by Andrew Dietderich)

‘End of the worst time’

Lessing fell ill with pneumonia and needed treatment from a hospital. After a visit from his mother, Lessing said she was arrested by Dutch police on the way back to her hiding place.

“The Dutch policemen were exactly the same as the Nazis…just as nasty and brutal,” he said.

His mother was sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.

His mother’s half-sister picked him up from the hospital and they got on a train that went far out into the country. Eventually, they exited the train and walked for about an hour until they arrived at a little cottage.

“I opened the door and there was my father and my two brothers,” he said. “It was really the end of the worst time for me. I wasn’t alone anymore.”

Lessing said the four family members spent the last year of the war in the cottage, struggling to find food, stay warm, and hiding from German soldiers who would sweep through the area looking for Jews.

The family took occasional solace in the increasing number of American and British planes that were flying overhead.

“That meant the liberation was on the way,” he said.

As the war front moved closer to where their cottage was located, the family moved to an underground shelter they had built. For three days, they stayed in the shelter. When it was quiet enough, they emerged and saw tanks on the horizon.

“But they weren’t Nazi tanks,” Lessing said as he choked back tears. “They were Canadian…we were liberated by the Canadian Army. I still cry when they sing the Canadian National Anthem.”

The joyous celebration in the village was topped by one even more exciting fact: Lessing’s mother had survived the concentration camp and made it to a rehabilitation camp established by the United Nations in Africa. Eventually, the entire family reunited.

“It was miraculous that our whole family survived,” he said.

Lessing would eventually move to the U.S., and build a life that’s included raising his own family, and having a career as a psychotherapist.

“It was all beautiful…it’s been nothing but gorgeous,” he said.

‘Really inspiring’

Students like Elan Pszenica, rising M2, said hearing about such experiences directly from a Holocaust survivor was powerful.

“I have a lot of personal connections to this through my own family and my own family experiences,” said Pszenica. “It was a very strong emotional experience for me and my partner…just being able to hear these stories and imagine what happened to my family.”

Eli Tukel, rising M2, treasurer of Jewish Medical Student Association, said he didn’t want to miss the opportunity to hear Lessing speak.

“To have someone like him come and share stories of survival and how trauma impacted him…it just felt important to be here,” he said.

Leah Rotenbakh, rising M2, president of Jewish Medical Student Association, said learning about the Holocaust is entirely different when it comes from someone who has such a strong connection.

“It was just so meaningful to hear his perspective and how he’s lived since then,” she said. “Even with all of that trauma in his life, he’s been able to do so much for other people…it’s just really inspiring.”

Share this story