Holocaust remembered locally

You can only run so far before you’re forced to confront your past. But Alex Buckman, 72, isn’t running away from anything. As a Holocaust survivor he came to terms with his past years ago, and now runs for sport, but also to cope with the atrocities of the Nazis during and after WWII.

“The bitterness has never left me,” says Buckman, “but when things got really troubling, I would run. I don’t run marathons anymore at my age … I would if I could, but now I run with my grandson.”

As a toddler when the Germans invaded Belgium in 1941, Buckman’s father, Issac, feared for his son’s life and went to many lengths to keep him safe. His father paid a woman who helped place Buckman with Belgian families who risked their own safety by harbouring Buckman in their homes. For two years Buckman went from family to family trying to keep one step ahead of the Nazis.

“Belgian families were not allowed to help Jewish people,” says Buckman. “If they were to be caught doing this, they would be sent to a concentration camp for helping, so I [lived with] more than a dozen families. I have pictures of them but I have no memories of them.”

Alex Buckman with grandsons Jaime and Alexander after the Sun Run in 2010.

When Buckman was around the age of four his father was no longer able to pay the Belgian woman to keep him safe, so Buckman says she denounced his entire family to the Nazis. Buckman was placed in an orphanage where he, alongside his cousin Annie – who, for safety reasons, was told she was his sister – lived until the age of seven.

“I accepted the fact that I was in an orphanage,” says Buckman. “I was not unique and I was like everyone … the bitterness came after. During the war there was no bitterness because I didn’t know what was happening. And it was only after that I found what happened and the way that they were murdered that it affected me.”

Buckman was told that the Gestapo knocked on his parents’ door and took them, and Annie’s parents, to be put into concentration camps. After months of waiting and eventually being put into concentration camps, only Annie’s parents survived.

With the war now over, his aunt and uncle in recovery, and his name having been posted amongst a list of many other child survivors, Buckman, now an orphan, started the long process of piecing his life together.

“I was immediately being told about the murders of my parents” says Buckman “… I didn’t know who I was and I was asking all kinds of questions because my parents were dead and now, who am I if not my sister’s brother? It took time for me to find out my identity. And who my mother was and father was.”

In 1951 Buckman, Annie, his aunt and uncle came to Canada where he continued to cope and put his life together. Almost 25 years ago he decided to join a group of Holocaust survivors. In Vancouver alone he says there are 80–90 survivors, but of them only 30 come to the group to share in their experiences and connect in different ways.

“When you have something that eats up at you all the time, it’s better to talk to someone about it,” says Buckman. “We may love of our wives and husbands, but we cannot talk about it. We do a little bit, but not really. When we are together and we are able to open up unlike anybody else. When we speak, we do not have to explain too much there is an immediate understanding. And we are exactly like the other.”

Outside of his survivors group, Buckman finds solace and comfort through his wife, son and in particular his three grandchildren. He says they’re a whole other world.

“Seeing your grandchildren grow up is totally different from children,” says Buckman, “because when [my son] was growing up it was time for us to be busy with work and getting our lives together. After, when we had our grandchildren and we retired we spent so much valuable time with our grandchildren. With them it is different. We are making up for time now.”

For the third time, Buckman took part in this year’s Sun Run with his oldest grandson Alexander, 16, who, as expected, outran him.

“I love the idea to be able to run side by side with my grandson,” says Buckman. “At the very end I tell him ‘you go and run faster than me and wait for me in the end.’ I let him get excited about seeing his name before with an earlier time, and it doesn’t bother me at all.”

Alex Buckman will be speaking a this year’s Holocaust commemorative evening on April 18 as part of Yom hashoah. For more information visit www.vhec.org.