Fran Sonshine, National Chair

Martin Kulbak

The Lone Champion

Martin (Moshe) Kulbak was one of the few who survived the horrific circumstances that took the lives of most of the Jews of Michaliszki, Lithuania, during the Holocaust. Yet, he more than survived. He rebuilt a life that many can only admire.

When Martin was born in April 1930, in Michaliszki, Lithuania, to Yaacov and Elka Kulbak, the proud parents welcomed their first son following the births of three daughters, Riklah, Dinah, and Rachel. Yaacov was the town butcher, who had a stand in the farmers’ market. Martin would help as best he could, bartering meat for eggs, butter, vegetables, and whatever else they needed. While the family eked out a living, it also grew, and two more sons, Daniel and Beryl, were born.

In June 1941, the Germans invaded the town. Some of the town’s non-Jewish inhabitants celebrated the occupation of the Germans, burnt the local synagogue, and assisted the Germans in identifying who was a Jew. Jewish homes were occupied and looting and robbery were rampant.

Several months later, a ghetto in the town was established. The conditions were terrible, with five people often sharing a room. It was during this time that the Germans took Yaacov away from his wife and six children, and it became incumbent on Martin, 11, to try to find food for the family. Martin snuck out of the ghetto and begged the locals to give him food. Eventually, Martin’s youngest brother, Beryl, died of starvation at the age of two.

The ghetto in Michaliszki was liquidated in 1943. All attempts to keep the family together failed. Yaacov Kulbak was killed in the Dachau concentration camp in 1944, and Elka Kulbak, her three daughters, and Daniel were gassed in Auschwitz. Martin, who had passed himself off as older than he was, escaped the transport to Auschwitz. Instead, he was subjected to the most brutal conditions in several concentration camps, including Stutthof, Neuengamme, and Bergen-Belsen. His jobs included placing dead bodies in the ovens to be burnt and then removing the remains. Martin recalls being whipped until he was unconscious after he pried a piece of bread out of the hand of a man who had just died next to him.

Martin was liberated by British forces in April 1945 while in Sandbostel, a sub-camp of Bergen-Belsen. He was the only member of his family to survive: in addition to his parents and siblings, his grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins were also murdered.

Martin immigrated to Toronto, Canada, in 1952. Without any familial or communal support and without command of the English language, Martin persevered against all odds. He worked many jobs, including as an upholsterer, jeweller, factory worker, and delivery person. He taught himself to read, write, and speak English. He married Norma Bard in 1960 and together they raised four children: Linda, Cheryl, Jeffrey, and Michael. After apprenticing as a butcher, Martin opened his own butcher shops in Toronto and Brampton and, in the last few years, became a meat broker.

Martin’s difficult childhood, filled with suffering and loss, is still a source of pain. But Martin’s determination to live life to its fullest is apparent in the joy he derives from his ten grandchildren and six great-grandchildren and his love for fishing and watching horse races, the Blue Jays, and the Raptors.