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Julius Diamond, Holocaust survivor

Feb. 1, 1929 – March 19, 2017

Julius “Joe” Diamond shared his Holocaust survival story with more than 15,000 local middle- and high-school students over the years --  telling them about his forced deportation from eastern Czechoslovakia, his arrival in the Auschwitz death camp, his mother and younger brother going to the gas chamber and his subsequent liberation from another camp by the U.S. Army.

Mr. Diamond relished the chance to answer whether he harbored any feelings of revenge toward the Nazi regime.

“He always talked about revenge,” recalled Drew Beiter, education director of the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo. “He said, ‘I didn’t want to be like them, so I got my revenge by talking with students and trying to change the future.’”

An Auschwitz survivor who chaired the Holocaust Center’s Speakers Bureau, Mr. Diamond died Sunday in Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital. The resident of Amberleigh Retirement Community was 88.

After World War II, Mr. Diamond searched Europe for a place to rebuild his life, arriving in Buffalo in November 1948, armed “with $5 and the will to live,” he told The Buffalo News in 2004.

Arriving as a poor immigrant, he supported himself, married, raised a family, built a successful business, DiamondCraft Homes, and taught others about the Holocaust.

“He accomplished all he set out to do,” said his daughter, Wendy Weisbrot. “He didn’t feel his survival would be validated unless he could spread the word to his family and community.”

In talks to students, Mr. Diamond combined a human touch, an interest in others, a sense of humor and a keen passion for spreading the word about the Holocaust. From 1995 to 2015, he made an average of at least 15 school visits a year, often speaking to a whole grade, Holocaust Resource Center officials said.

“He pretty much had a classroom over the years that would have filled KeyBank Center, and his story was retold by those students on an exponential level,” said Beiter, an eighth-grade social studies teacher in Springville. “What I think resonated with the students was that he was roughly their age when he was sent to Auschwitz, roughly 14 or 15. That alone made his testimony very compelling.”

As Mr. Diamond’s longtime friend and fellow Holocaust speaker Sophia Veffer said, “We all should be thankful that Joe dedicated his life to tell the world what happened during the Holocaust.”

Mr. Diamond told students how his family was taken from their home to Auschwitz in 1944. At age 15, he was sent to a work camp, carrying bricks for the construction of a new crematorium. Meanwhile, his mother and 7-year-old brother were told they were being taken to a separate residential complex, that the family would be reunited on weekends.

Instead, they were led to the gas chambers.

“Within 3 1/2 hours, they were dead,” Diamond told The News in 1997. “Every day, we watched our people go up in flames.”

Living in unsanitary conditions and eating horrible food, Mr. Diamond became sick and was assigned to be gassed, according to the Holocaust Resource Center’s website. But as the website states, “A Russian inmate picked him, apparently at random, and helped him hide until the group had been exterminated. When the Russian army approached the camp, the inmates were taken away by foot and by train...” He later was liberated from another camp.

One of Mr. Diamond’s favorite stories involved a trip he took back to his Czechoslovakian hometown with his son Michael in the early 1990s.

The father found no thriving town, no sign of Jewish life. When he asked a resident whether any Jews still lived there, he was directed to walk up a hill and knock on the door, where he found a Jewish man who had converted to Christianity decades earlier.

According to his two children, Mr. Diamond, so proud of his own Jewish heritage, told the man, “You may not have been to a shul or synagogue for 40 or 50 years, but you are still a Jew.”

Mr. Diamond, a death-camp survivor and then a Korean War veteran, never got far in school. But in 2015, Springville school officials granted him an honorary degree.

“It was just a small way to repay him for coming out to our school 15 years in a row,” Beiter said.

Mr. Diamond’s death has hit the Holocaust Resource Center family hard, coming less than two weeks after the March 7 death of Vera Coppard-Leibovic, another key Speakers Bureau member. In three years, the number of Holocaust survivor speakers has dwindled from 15 to 7.

“This underscores the critical intersection of time and memory that we’re facing,” said Mara Koven-Gelman, the center’s executive director. “This is the last generation of students to hear first-hand testimony of Holocaust survivors.”

Mr. Diamond was preceded in death by his wife of 57 years, Annette, who died in 2013, and several family members killed in the Holocaust.

Surviving are one daughter, Wendy Weisbrot; one son, Michael; and four grandchildren.

A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday in Amherst Memorial Chapel, Dodge Road in Amherst.

--- Gene Warner

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