• Freedom to run

    There is a story my grandfather, Steve Rotschild, told me many times when I was young. It has shaped the way I see humanity.
    In 1941, a seven-year-old white-blonde little boy named Zorach Galerkin takes a walk across the city of Vilnus, Poland. He is going to see his mother who works in a warehouse. The workers shine items taken from Jewish homes and prepare them to send off. Westward. Somewhere.
    The boy is pretending to be the cousin of a Russian Catholic family who live outside of the city. All they have to eat is cabbage and potatoes and sometimes a slice of black bread. He is well fed but has not had anything sweet since before the war, and he was much younger then.
    On the way to his mother's warehouse, he passes the ominous building: the Nazi base. Draped down one wall is a banner with a swastika on it. It scares him to pass this building so he crosses the street. He is afraid he might be spotted as a Jew and executed. He should be living in the ghetto, not wandering outside the fence.
    As he stands, staring, a troop of soldiers stops in front of the building. The last soldier in the row glances at him, motions him over. The boy is terrified. The soldier sets down his pack and his rifle. Surely, he was recognized and he will be shot. He considers running but thinks better of it – you cannot run from the Nazis. They are everywhere.
    He slowly approaches the soldier. The man reaches into his pack and says something softly, in German. Then he pulls out a large cookie. The cookie is beautiful, covered in coloured sugar and with a hole in the centre. He hands it to the child, pats his head and turns to go into the building.
    My grandfather's recollection of this encounter was recorded permanently, twice. The first time was in 1996, during a taped interview. That was for a library of accounts of holocaust survivors, produced by Steven Spielberg for the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. The second time was when he wrote his memoir, Walking, Running, Hiding, inspired during long walks he took to keep healthy after he was diagnosed with heart disease.
    Rotschild discusses the title of his book. "In my memoir I talk about the importance for me as a child to feel some freedom to run, to walk which became very restricted under the conditions of Jewish people in the ghettos and camps. So when I was liberated I just wanted to run and enjoy the outdoors."
    Today, for Rotschild, walking is an exhausting ordeal. It requires support and supervision. Writing is impossible. When he was 76 years old, he had a stroke.
    Every morning Rotschild goes through a strenuous exercise routine, stimulating the muscles and joints on the left side of his body, willing himself to move, to walk. That is the most important thing. "My number one priority, I always told (the therapists) when they asked me, was to be able to walk again."
    Rotschild's wife, Lillian, has been helping him recover. "She is with me constantly," he explains. "She was with me from the first day I had the stroke, went through with me - through all the appointments, with the therapists, learnt everything to know about my condition, was helpful to me. Even in the hospital, every day she came... she was great help. She still is."
    With the end of the war came freedom. It did not come easily. Six days after the Russians liberated Poland Rotschild's six-year-old brother, Emmanuel was playing in the street with some neighbours when a military truck came around a bend and struck the boy, killing him. Emmanuel lived six days of freedom.
    "When I heard that (my brother was killed) I got so upset, scared really, I couldn't stand sitting in the chair doing homework. I closed everything, I ran, I hid behind the bed. And just cried. It just occurred to me. That danger; you have to hide. That was one of the instincts of people in the ghettos, in the camps: danger, you have to hide. It was the only thing to do.
    "When I came home to my mother's place, she was in the bed, holding the dead body of my brother and crying. Throughout my life this memory brings me a great deal of sadness."
    Since the war, Rotschild has indeed been free. He moved to Canada in 1951. That is where he met Lillian. Together they started a business and had two healthy children.
    His appreciation of the outdoors took form in a cottage he purchased in 1987. That cottage became his sanctuary, where he went to fish and hunt and feel as free as a man can feel.
    In 2009 Rotschild sold the cottage to his friend and neighbour, Larry Johnson. He could no longer negotiate the hilly descent to the lake, he could no longer get in his rowboat, he could no longer tie a fly and cast it out into the peaceful water. He was no longer able to appreciate the freedom he sought.
    "I feel, not less free, I feel useless. I cannot do things I would like to do," Rotschild clarifies. "I feel sad that I'm not the same man that I was - I cannot enjoy the freedom that I have."