Here is what Dr. Mel Goldberg knew about his life by age 10: He knew he was smart, because he got great marks, and because his younger, adopted brother didn’t; he also knew that getting good marks was better than the alternative; he knew he used to speak Polish, but had forgotten how; that he had tons of friends; and his adopted parents, Wolf and Tillie Goldberg, kept a scrapbook of his life in Poland — a life he didn’t remember — on a bookshelf in their home in an affluent part of Toronto.

The boy would look at it, every now and again. Inside was a report from a social worker from Poland and a photograph of himself at age three, taken in a Polish orphanage. There was a menu from the ocean liner that delivered him to New York, where his relative, Wolf Goldberg, introduced himself as his “father” before the pair travelled by train to Toronto.

Dr. Mel Goldberg at age 3.
The names of his actual parents, Ancel Gwiazda and Elka Goldberg, also appeared, as did the name of his village, Biala Rawska. The report described how he was saved from the Nazis by a Polish “farm couple,” and how his entire family — mother and father, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins — were murdered in Treblinka, a Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland.

Dr. Goldberg, born Mendel Gwiazda in 1942, was an orphan.

“I looked at the scrapbook a couple of times over the years and I would say, ‘This is interesting,’ ” he says. “But there wasn’t a hope in hell that I could trace anything more about my past. Who was I going to ask?”

It is Holocaust education week, and the lesson of Dr. Goldberg — a respected 72-year-old physician who still puts in a solid work day at Toronto East General Hospital where we met this week — is, perhaps, that the past has a curious way of finding people, even those who don’t go looking for it.

The young Mel Goldberg didn’t look back. He went to university, got an engineering degree and a medical degree, and then a job at the hospital. He married, had kids and built a life. When he was asked about being a Holocaust survivor, his response was, “So what?”

He had no story to tell, or so he thought. No family photographs to point to. Nothing. Nobody. His parents gave him up to save him, an act of heartbreaking courage. They died. He lived.

And looking back, he could only ever see things in the abstract. There was an outline, but the picture was blank.

“I wasn’t one to dwell on the past,” he says. “But it was difficult.”

‘There wasn’t a hope in hell that I could trace anything more about my past. Who was I going to ask?’
It is more complicated now, this picture. Happier. Braver. Complete. A few years ago, he received a phone call from a woman, Her name was Lilka Elbaum and her parents came from the same village as his. They were among the 37 Jews who survived in Biala Rawska, out of a population of 1,500.

“The survivors often spoke of a child who had been taken out of the Jewish ghetto right before it was liquidated,” Ms. Elbaum says from Boston.

“Mel, and this wasn’t part of his life, but he became a symbol for others — a bridge between two worlds. He was the infant who survived.”

Ms. Elbaum found him in Toronto, after much digging, and invited him to a reunion in Biala Rawska in 2012. No Jews live there today; the synagogue is a firehall. But locals are interested in the past. The Canadian doctor who had spent a lifetime looking forward started to look back, with the help of Ms. Elbaum and others.

He now knows the names of his murdered siblings, Bajla, Wolf and Majlech, and the story of Waclaw Libera. Waclaw was a cobbler and friendly with Ancel Gwiazda, a Jewish leather dealer. Ancel gave the cobbler his infant son to save. But after Waclaw brought the boy to his parents, they turned him away. So he built a one-room house and lived there with his wife, Stanislawa, their daughter, Irena, and a Jewish baby, hidden in a drawer.

In June, Dr. Goldberg and his family travelled to Warsaw for a ceremony honouring the Liberas for rescuing him. Irena, now a retired teacher, represented her dead parents at the event. The doctor kissed her, they hugged, they got along so well.

“Here I am, meeting a lady who I spent the first three years of my life with, and the feeling of warmth was unparalleled,” Dr. Goldberg says. “And I find out all this information I had about myself was wrong. My birthdate on my passport is July 15. But I find out I was born on the 24th of June.

“Everything has finally come together.”

It is late. Our interview has run long. The present day is beckoning. Dr. Goldberg, a survivor of a fight he doesn’t remember being in, pushes back his chair, smiles and turns to leave.

“I need to get back to work,” he says. “I have to go.”

National Post