Pinchas Gutter
Pinchas is a Holocaust survivor and community educator. He was the first participant of Steven Speinberg's hologram "virtual conversation" programme with the University of Southern California. Pinchas has been in several documentaries and was even quoted by President Barack Obama.
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How A Holocaust Survivor Rediscovered Hope

An excerpt from Memories In Focus

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When I got to South Africa, I started working for my father-in-law. We had an uneasy, tenuous relationship — he hadn’t wanted us to get married in the first place and was upset that we had. Dorothy’s parents hadn’t even come to our wedding. I had met her mother in Israel when they came to visit Dorothy before we were married but her father hadn’t wanted to meet me. He didn’t want a Holocaust survivor as a son-in-law. After all, who was I? How was I going to make a living? How would it all work out?


I soon realized that my father-in-law didn’t trust anybody and had no friends. Even though I was working diligently for him, his animosity and mistrust of me continued, and he didn’t treat me well. He gave me such a low salary that I was constantly struggling to support my family. He had a penthouse in Cape Town on the top floor of the building he owned where his offices were and a big house on the water where they lived in the summer, but Dorothy and I and our children lived very poorly in a little apartment.

In 1961, about two years after I arrived in Cape Town, Dorothy’s mother died and her father, who was quite handsome and dapper, became a real “ladies’ man”. It seemed as though women were always interested in him, and in 1967 he remarried. For their honeymoon, he and his new wife, Cecilia, went on an extended long boat voyage. I was left to look after some of the work process, but instead of putting me in charge, he brought in an accountant and made him managing director of the business. I was hurt by that. He knew I was unhappy about his decision and suggested that I get another job. Since he had only strangers working for him, I felt it my duty to stay on so my father-in-law had someone from the family around. His son, Elijah, had moved to England and didn’t want to be a part of the business, and Dorothy and her sister, Rosalind, weren’t going to get involved.

As soon as my father-in-law left, the accountant he put in charge began giving me a hard time because he actually wanted to take over the business and he saw me as a threat and obstacle to his plan. I managed as best I could since I knew that, as difficult as he was, my father-in-law was the only father I had and I needed that. When he was away on his honeymoon, that need built up in me and I was a wreck until he came home. However, when he came back from his honeymoon, he gave me an even harder time, which had devastating effects on me.

When Dorothy and I lived in England, my psychosomatic symptoms and panic attacks had abated. I had nightmares sometimes, but no more physical ailments. The same was true of the time I lived in Brazil. But when I moved to South Africa and started having problems with my wife’s family, I began struggling emotionally again, and in 1967, I was having horrible nightmares and flashbacks. Instead of going to a doctor or a psychiatrist, though, I started drinking a little wine every evening when I came home. Soon I was going upstairs to my father-in-law’s penthouse at lunchtime, where his cook made me lunch, and having a little sherry or another type of alcohol with the meal. I had never been a big drinker — I hated alcohol — but I was drinking as a way of calming myself down. It relaxed me and put me into a sort of void, but at least I could sleep. However, it soon became a problem.

Eventually, the accountant arranged to sell the business to a large company — he could see he wasn’t going to be able to get rid of me so easily. I think my father-in-law realized then that I was the only person he could rely on, and after the company was sold in 1969, he wanted me to stay on as the manager for the new owners. I stayed with the new owners for three months and then I left. In 1970, my father-in-law and I created a new finance company, which ultimately was very successful.

How A Holocaust Survivor Rediscovered Hope, Pinchas Gutter
Pinchas was the inaugural subject of Steven Spielberg’s Dimensions in Testimony initiative aimed at providing future generations with holographic “virtual conversation” with Holocaust survivors.

But I was continuing to struggle with my emotional issues. I was again sleeping terribly and I now had the extra burden of trying to build up a new business while, at the same time, wanting to be there for my young family. The truth is that I wasn’t always available to them — I was either working or struggling with my demons. I would come home, have a drink and go to bed. It was as much as I could cope with to be at work for eight hours. I had nothing left when I came home. At that time, I was just lost, and I didn’t know how to get better. Today, people realize that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an actual illness. Imagine the kind of PTSD the Holocaust can have on a child. I know I can’t relate to things emotionally the way other people do. I don’t have the capacity, for example, to truly, deeply enjoy beauty. If I am on a hike, I cannot revel in my surroundings; I think only of the achievement of getting to the other side. If I am at the opera or the symphony, I always feel as though something is holding me back from appreciating the experience. It is as though I always need to be on guard — I am always wondering what is going to happen next. I feel this same way whether I am reading a book or seeing a film; it is like I am sitting on pins.

The children knew I was having difficulties — they could see it. They were growing up in a house where one parent was unwell. I was ill all the time. This was not easy for them and I am sure it affected them. Even though it was hard on them, they were always supportive of me, even when they were young. I wasn’t a bad father — I was always very loving to my children — but my wife was the glue that kept us together. Dorothy, who is a wonderful person with a great intellect, really brought up the children. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had walked out on me then but she never gave up, and to her credit and my good fortune, she supported and helped me when I desperately needed support. I truly believe she is the main reason why I am here today.

How A Holocaust Survivor Rediscovered Hope, Pinchas Gutter
Credit: The Azrieli Foundation

Dorothy began urging me to see a psychiatrist and I took her advice. Once I found one, though, my issues became even tougher as I tried to work through my memories. I struggled to cope. I was depressed and anxious but I forced myself to get up every day and go to work because, at the same time as I was learning how to live with what had happened to me in the war, I had to make a living. The doctor gave me anti-depressants, which didn’t make me feel right so I didn’t take them, and then he switched me to anti-anxiety medications, which did help a little. Every day, I was reliving the horror of the Holocaust and then forcing myself back to the realities of my current life and the responsibilities of a man with a family. It was brutal for me, and my wife took on the brunt of the work at home. She was the one who looked after and educated the children and took care of the home. I worked and struggled to participate in our family life while trying to overcome the chasm that still existed between me and my father-in-law.

The crisis came in 1975. I was unable to continue living like I was, and I ended up spending a week in a nursing home. A clinical psychologist there became like a mother to me and she somehow helped me to discover where the problem lay. The psychiatrist I had been seeing in Cape Town was fine and had helped me, but this psychologist made the critical difference. I saw her for only ten days but she really made me see what was happening to me. She believed that my current problems arose from my struggles with my father-in-law, which had brought up all the other problems I had related to the Holocaust. I had no parents and I hadn’t had any since I was a young child. But my father-in-law was not what I needed a parent to be. She helped me realize that many people had parents who did not treat them well. My father-in-law was not such a nice person but he was, for all intents and purposes, my father. She talked me through it all and convinced me to see that what I had was a bad father, but I had to live with that. So what if I had a bad father? It was still better than no father at all.

What she said made sense to me and penetrated through my emotions. It made me look at my situation from a different point of view. When I came back to Cape Town, I continued to see my psychiatrist for quite a while but I was not feeling the same as I had been before I went to the nursing home. I had started analyzing my relationship with my father-in-law. I could see that he and I had a lot in common and came from similar backgrounds. He came from a shtetl in Lithuania and I was from Poland. We both spoke Yiddish. He had his own demons from a difficult childhood and I had mine. It wasn’t his fault that he came from a difficult background. It shaped him. And it wasn’t my fault that I came from a difficult past that had shaped me. I could now see that he relied on me more than on anyone else, even more than his own children, and that he identified with me more than with anyone else. When he got ill, he didn’t want to see anyone except me. Once I came to terms with him, everything else began getting better. I stopped using alcohol and I stopped taking pills.

When I stopped seeing my psychiatrist professionally, we became friends and he confided in me that when I began my therapy, he was sure I would be in analysis forever. “You see that slit at the bottom of the door?” he asked me once. “Only a mouse could maybe get through that narrow slit. But you managed to do it. Now you are on the other side and you’ll be fine.” That was the turning point. It didn’t mean that I stopped having flashbacks and nightmares after that, but it was clearly different from before. They didn’t interfere with my life to the same extent. There were several times when I had a few re­lapses — days, each time, of horrendous difficulties — but, slowly, slowly, it got better. Issues in the mind take a long time to heal.

When I started to heal, I also started to come back to my beliefs. My religious beliefs had vacillated off and on in the years after the war. I hadn’t been happy in the yeshiva in England, and in Israel I completely turned away from religion. My wife is not a religious person, and in South Africa I wasn’t living in a community that fostered religious belief. My father-in-law and all the family there were not religious. They were traditional Jews but not observant and went to shul only for the High Holidays. Friday nights were special, but not in terms of religious observance. Once I was feeling better emotionally, I also became more traditional, though not Orthodox.

It was 1977, when I was forty-five years old, that I got involved with community work and in the Jewish community. I became a sort of community leader and I sat on various Jewish boards, worked with seniors and became a cantor. My community work gave me an injection of confidence. We lived in South Africa from 1959 to 1985, but I never wanted or intended to stay there forever. Dorothy’s brother had immigrated to Canada in 1967, and in 1977, I came to visit him in Toronto when I was in New York on business. I had never thought about living in Canada, but when I walked around the city, I felt such a freedom with every breath I took. It was the most humane place I’d ever been. This is a magnificent place to live, I thought, and decided we should move here. When I came home, I told Dorothy that we were going to move to Canada, to Toronto. But it took some time to get here. With my work, the children and family obligations, we finally were able to come in 1985.

How A Holocaust Survivor Rediscovered Hope, Pinchas Gutter
A VR educational video in which Pinchas shared early life experiences during his time at the Majdanek concentration camp.

Today, I regard Canada as my home. My true home will always be pre-war Poland but that is all inside of me. England was never my home even though I was happy there and it is where I met the Diamonds, who were like my own family, and I loved them. But Canada is my home. Canada gave me the opportunity to become truly involved in the Jewish community I lived in. It is one thing to get involved in a cause or a community but quite another to stay involved. I wanted to help people, and once I got involved in one area it sort of took off from there. I studied chaplaincy for two years so I could do services for those who were dying at long-term care facilities like Baycrest Hospital, and for many years I was a chaplain at the Don Jail in Toronto.

There weren’t many Jewish prisoners and the most I ever had at one time was eighteen, but I conducted services there for the Jewish inmates twice a month and arranged kosher food for those who needed it. I have been involved in community work ever since 1977, giving of myself and to charity, from that day until today. I truly believe that it is this community work that has kept me going. It’s cathartic and therapeutic, and it has given me more than I have ever given to others.

I think I’m a warm-hearted and caring person. Maybe I am like my father and grandfather. I hope so. Basically, I believe that it wasn’t so much the war itself, but rather some of the good that happened to me during the war that has made me who I am. Maybe who I have become has to do with looking after Katz’s wife when she was dying in Skarżysko, or the policeman who risked his own life and lied that there was no one in the bunker when I was sick with typhus. Or the woman who gave me an apple and helped me recover. Or my bar mitzvah. I saw great evil during the war but I saw some humanity, too, and I could absorb this because I had seen these values in my own home and in the ghetto years in the way my father struggled to protect his family.

The seeds of all that I am today were actually planted before the war and during the war, in the times I was with my father and was shown the positive side of humanity. The day we were liberated and I saw the Germans being chased out, I felt sorry for them and had empathy for their plight. I knew what they were experiencing. I was only a child when I lost everything I loved. My journey has included great sadness and loss, but it is founded in the goodness I saw in my childhood and in some moments of the greatest darkness of my life. I think my desire to stay involved with humanity and help where I can comes from the Aramaic saying girsa d’yankusa, what one learns in youth. A lot of who I am comes from what I learned in my youth.

Re-publication rights for this story were graciously shared with us by The Azrieli Foundation. The book can be purchased from the organization as well as Amazon.

Pinchas Gutter
Pinchas is a Holocaust survivor and community educator. He was the first participant of Steven Speinberg's hologram "virtual conversation" programme with the University of Southern California. Pinchas has been in several documentaries and was even quoted by President Barack Obama.