Joe Gottdenker

Warm Milk. Warm Memories

Childhood memories are indelible: the love and care that Joe Gottdenker’s Catholic rescuers, Petronolo and Wladyslaw Ziolo, showered on Joe are perhaps best captured in the stream of warm milk that Petronolo would playfully send Joe’s way.

Joe Gottdenker was still in the womb at the height of the Nazi extermination effort in July of 1942. Instead of the joy that comes with anticipating a new birth, Joe’s mother, Bina, worried about how she would raise her son alone, since Joe’s father had already been shipped off to a work camp.

Very shortly after Joe’s birth, Petronolo and Wladyslaw Ziolo opened their hearts and home to the new mother.

However, Bina, who had been a student at the University of Krakow, feared being recognized.

Instead of risking the lives of the people who took her in, Bina left their farm to join the underground Polish resistance. The Ziolos raised Joe as their own for three years, risking their lives every day. “It is a debt that can never be repaid,” says Joe.

One of Joe’s earliest memories is watching Petronolo Ziolo milk the cows. “I’d sit there and she [Petronolo] would sometimes send a stream of milk into my face. I still kind of remember the warm, sweet milk right out of the cow. And after I licked as much as I could, the cat came over and licked the rest.”

When the war was over, Joe reunited with his parents in Germany. The family immigrated to the United States in 1948 and to Toronto in 1958, where Joe has lived since.

Joe donates generously to Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, and is a contributor to the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, Baycrest, UJA, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, The Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada, and Jerusalem Foundation. Joe serves as Vice-Chair of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem; serves on the board of several organizations, including UJA Federation’s Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre; and is a member of the Advisory Council of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Joe is the proud parent of three and takes great joy in his five grandchildren.