Book Review: Flights of Spirit by Elly Gotz

In lieu of a traditional book review I have decided to share what it has been like to know Elly Gotz and how his book captures much of this experience. Because his book conveys the same magnetic personality and presence that Elly does in person, describing our friendship is the best way I can think to express how important I think it is that people read his, and other Holocaust survivors’, stories. While not everyone can have the pleasure to know Elly, with his memoir, everyone can now be as inspired by the man’s life as I have been fortunate to be. You can order his book here.

Flights of Spirit by Elly Gotz (Image: Second Story Press)

In March of 2013, I was a new PhD student in the Department of Geography at Western University. In those days I would go into campus late, around 10:30 AM, and work until about 7 PM. This schedule was something I had adapted to during various bouts of depression in my university career.

One night, as I was putting on my jacket and getting ready to catch the bus, a friend came into my office and asked if I wanted to join him to go see a talk by a Holocaust survivor. I thought about it for a second before realizing I couldn’t possibly pass up this opportunity.

After a short introduction by the evening’s host professor, a gentle smiling man, wearing a somewhat baggy suit, walked to the front of the lecture hall with calm and modesty. I had expected a frail, slow moving and somber octogenarian. Instead, as Mr. Elly Gotz began to speak, I became audience to an enthusiastic, seemingly ageless, speaker with keen presentation skills and a magnetic personality.

Elly Gotz is a Lithuanian Jew. He was 13 years old when Nazis entered his home town of Kaunas. I wont re-tell Elly’s story, that is his to do, and he does better than anyone else ever could (as with this piece, I only ever write about Elly with his blessing).

In person, Elly tells his story with utmost respect for the event and the millions of lives taken by hatred. However, Elly doesn’t leave his audiences only with feelings of sorrow. His talk that night, and each I’ve seen since, gives the audience hope. Hope that a pain and suffering can be remembered but not dwelled upon. Hope that lessons can be learned, and that humans, ultimately, are good people…if we chose to be. His book has captured the essence of his talks.

After the presentation, I remember thinking “that was the best talk I’d ever seen”. Elly brought home the terrors of the Holocaust but made real the joy for life that must drive humanity. He also drove home one simple message that resonated with me: ‘hate is a terrible thing’.

Three-and-a-half years later I was the middle of mission operations at Western University, where a team of grad students were operating a robotic rover out of a control room in basement of the physics building. While the rover was actually in Utah, we were pretending it was on Mars. It was what’s called an analogue mission, in which all the situations of a real planetary rover mission are recreated for the purpose of training.

If it sounds kind of silly, well, it kinda is (especially when we pretend we don't see the ants that sometimes populate our returned images), but it’s also an absolutely critical component of training in planetary science. To this day, analogue missions are undertaken by every major space exploration agency on the planet and many of the students that were part of that mission now work at space agencies around the world.

The mission ran mostly in the the evenings. Each night about 20 of us were in the control room at Western until around 10:00 PM discussing data form the rover “on Mars”.

But one night I had to duck out early. I was going to see another talk by Elly Gotz.

The talk was another dose of inspiration. At the end I wondered whether I should go say “thank you”. The first talk I saw back in 2013 had been so moving and important in my own well-being. At that time in my life I was grappling with my depression a lot, and to be reminded of the joy of life, as Elly does like no one else, I was truly thankful.

I typically hated lining up after a talk to say high to a speaker. Often it was people wanting to just meet a famous person or a big name academic that might be interested in their work, so my initial reaction was to leave immediately as I do with all talks. Then I realized this was stupid and egotistical of me. I had to say thank you. This wasn’t some lame ‘rock star academic’, it was someone who deserved the utmost respect and for whom I should have no problem waiting in line for to shake their hand.

Elly was shaking hands and taking pictures with a lot of the audience, mostly undergraduate students. Lots of them were telling him about their own Jewish families. Elly, in turn, was asking if they knew which towns their grandparents were from, what year they came to Canada, etc… He was truly and genuinely interested. He also always asked what they were studying…if they said engineering he had even more questions (he became an engineer after the Holocaust).

It was my turn. I introduced myself and said thank you for your talk. To my surprise, Elly’s response was “Danny Bednar?”...

“um…yes?”

“You do space stuff”

I was confused.

“You tweeted so nicely about my talk and I saw on your profile you teach about space exploration? That stuff fascinates me!”

Indeed, I had tweeted about Elly’s talk and praised him (he had even responded, but I didn’t see that before going to his talk).

We began discussing what I taught about, I told Elly that we were actually in the exact room where I taught my Geography 2090: Space Exploration course. I also mentioned that we were operating an analogue rover mission that very night and that I had to get back to mission control shortly.

He was intrigued…and I got brave

“Do you want to come see mission control?”

“Yes!” Elly replied with enthusiasm before I could tell he realized he had other arrangements. “Oh wait, let me just see if its okay”.

Luckily his arrangements were only for a ride home from one of the professors that was hosting his talk. He gave her the news that he was staying on campus with this strange young man, like a teenager telling his parents he was gonna stay out late, he was clearly excited.

Our first interaction, Elly showing his intergenerational skills.

Elly and I walked across campus to mission control. Along the way we discussed my own family history after he asked about my last name. Elly is an incredibly well read person and had figured it was Slavic. I told him my grandparents were from a small town named Bobot in Slovakia. We talked about the treatment of many slavs during the Holocaust, Elly recited numbers encyclopedically.

Western’s campus was icey as usual, the regular freezing and thawing of the mild southern Ontario winters often makes for dangerous walking. The 89 year old Elly didn’t care. He didn’t even let me carry his roller suitcase. He was dodging ice and stepping over snow piles like someone 40 years his junior.

This would be the first of what is now a running gag in which Elly rarely allows me to take his bag.

We arrived at mission control and I introduced Elly to the team. OF all that was going on, I figured he’d be more interested in the planning room. Though a much less impressive room from a technology perspective, this was where our engineers were going through the data on the rover’s energy consumption, power levels, instrument reach, and potential directions for driving forward.

Elly sat down and his fellow engineers showed him what they were doing with the rover. He was especially intrigued by the use of LIDAR to recreate the surroundings of the rover in three dimensions.

I finished up Elly’s tour and called him a cab. I said goodbye and thanked him for visiting mission control. He gave me his card and encouraged me to email him. I did so the next day, to deliver another ‘thank you’ and a message about how inspiring his story is. I really thought that was the end of getting to know Mr. Elly Gotz. I was wrong.

Elly in the CanMars planning room with one of his fellow engineers (2016) (Image: Danny Bednar)

A few days later Elly emailed me, he wanted to talk more about the mission and my thoughts on science. I told him that in February I would be heading to Toronto (where he lives) to conduct some interviews for my doctoral research. When I went to Toronto we met for coffee and bonded over discussions of space, science, and history.

In March 2017, Elly was back on campus to give another talk. He emailed me ahead of time to ask if I would pick him up from the train station. He wanted to hear about the results from the mission. His curiosity seemingly knowing no bounds.

I met Elly at the train station and we went for coffee before heading to campus. Again we talked about science, politics, history, and space. And as he gave me advice on life, and dating, I began to see Elly as a friend.

Elly has a truly pan-generational mind. That is to say, he relates easily to people of all ages. Not only with myself. I’ve seen him joke around with undergraduates 70 years younger that him with the comfort of true comradery. Elly is a ‘people person’ to the nth degree. He is almost magically gifted to able to break down generational barriers when getting to know people. And this is why his story, and now his book, are so valuable.

In the years since, Elly and I have always stayed in touch, mostly by email, but certainly in person if we are in the same city. I only hope I have had some sort of positive impact on him. I know however that it cannot be anything close to how much he has helped me grow as a person.

When I told the story of how I met Elly to a cousin of mine, she told me to write about it. Looking from the outside, it is, I suppose, interesting. But the uniqueness of this situation is all due to Elly’s own open-mindedness. It seems to me that he genuinely wants to build meaningful connections with as many people as he can, to ask them questions, to learn from them and to share his own thoughts, even if only in a single brief encounter.

If you ever see one of his talks you will see why Elly is so genuinely intrigued by everyone he meets. Aside from the fact that he is simply inquisitive by nature, he cares about people, and more importantly, cares that people in this world take time to make real connections in order to understand one another. I think that in his mind it is by truly getting to know each other that we stay away from that dreadful thing called ‘hate’.

Elly’s author headshot from his recent memoir (Image: Second Story Press, 2018)

In 2018 Elly published his memoir: Flights of Spirit. The book is an incredibly powerful and inspiring recounting of his story. Having re-visited it this month I think it would be a wonderful book to give to teenagers and young adults (12 and up or so). It is not overly graphic, and kids growing up these days should not be sheltered from the realities of the Holocaust.

My favorite part is that the book includes letters from Elly’s parents to their relatives at the time. His mother’s recounting of how much her son Elinka had changed since she last saw him was particularly striking. Knowing the reason she had not seen him for over a year, and the conditions they both lived in during that time, add an experience of sadness and wonder to reading the letters.

The second half of the book reveals character nothing short of amazing. Not just of Elly, but of his whole family and all Holocaust survivors. The suffering did not end entirely when the concentration camps were liberated. There was first the search for loved ones (most of the time ending in sorrow), then ultimately, the search for a new home.

Where much of the joy of the book is however is in its proving that past sorrows can be respected while still moving forward with an aim at joy. I Elly’s case, getting an education, operating businesses, becoming a pilot, jumping out of an aeroplan, and most precious of all, falling in love.

Of course, Elly’s story has its dark moments but ultimately you reach the end feeling invigorated with an appreciation for life. You want to go start a new hobby, see a new place, study history, meet new people, fall in love, learn a new skill…you want to live.

This is because appreciating life, to me, is the moral of Elly’s story. A story he shares day-in-and-day-out with audiences of all ages (you can watch one of Elly’s many wonderful talks here on Western University’s Youtube page).

Originating from a quote attributed to 17th Century Welsh Poet George Herbert, the cliche says that “living well is the best revenge”. I can’t think of any quote better personified than this one when applied to the life of Elly Gotz. It’s one thing to appreciate life, its another to do something positive with it.

But in Elly’s book there is one simple rule to follow if you are going to truly make something of your time here on Earth. As he has said a million times, “only when you stop hating, can you begin to live”.

Elly and I, circa 2018 (Image: Danny Bednar)

Danny Bednar, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at Western University where he teaches about space exploration. He is also a full time Analyst with the Canadian Space Agency and author with Mango Books. All views are his own.

Space Geographer, PhD & Amateur Musicologist. Asst. Professor #Space2090 I Columns: The Geography of Space Exploration & The Canon of Heavy Metal I Views Mine I

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