Author and creative writing instructor Lillian Boraks-Nemetz was just six years old when her life was changed forever.
It was 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland and took away the rights, property and dignity of Warsaw Jews, she told Grade 11 and 12 students during Wednesday's 12th annual School District 43 Holocaust Symposium at Coquitlam Alliance Church.
For several months, after being forcibly removed from their home, Boraks-Nemetz, her younger sister and parents lived in a single room in the Warsaw ghetto, with little food and the constant threat of illness.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
Her family was headed for the gas chambers at Treblinka, except for a fortunate set of circumstances that enabled them to escape.
But in trying to find people who would risk their lives to take in Jewish children, Boraks-Nemetz was separated from her family and had to shield her identity at all times.
She remembers the day she left her father: It was early in the morning and she had to walk through a checkpoint staffed by armed guards, some of whom had been bribed to let her through.
In her pocket was a piece of paper giving her a different name, age and religion, but there was no guarantee she would escape with her life. Mourning the loss of her family and afraid for what lay ahead, Boraks-Nemetz took her first steps towards her new life as a Polish Christian.
“It was a short walk, but it was the longest walk of my life," she told Tri-City students.
During the war, Boraks-Nemetz never gave up hope that she would see her parents again and, eventually, they did return to collect her, but her younger sister, Vasha, who had gone to live with another family, was killed by Nazis.
After Poland was liberated by the Soviet Army, Boraks-Nemetz returned to her Warsaw home but life there was difficult, and eventually the family moved to Canada.
Here, she found the freedom to be herself, Boraks-Nemetz said, but, she told the students, “It was a very long road of a return to self.”
Now as a sought-out speaker and author — the Vancouver resident wrote The Mouth of Truth about her experiences and the award-winning 1994 children's novel The Old Brown Suitcase — Boraks-Nemetz is asking people to take action against prejudice.
Don’t fall for what everyone else thinks, she said, and speak out when someone says or does something to portray another individual as “sub-human.”
“What is “sub-human?” Boraks-Nemetz asked as several hundred Grade 11 and 12 students listened quietly to her story. “Be independent thinkers, learn to think for yourself."
The Holocaust Symposium is an annual event organized by Dr. Charles Best teacher Ken Ipe, who said, “The symposium provides an opportunity to challenge hate and provide an exit route from it.
"With education and a strong moral compass, we can continue to change society for the better."