Éva Fahidi, in front, and Emese Cuhorka in a still from The Euphoria of Being, directed and written by Réka Szabó.
Éva Fahidi was 18 years old when she and her family were taken to Auschwitz. The men and women were separated. The women’s selection committee cut the line after Fahidi: “I went one way, and my whole family the other way. It was over. We are talking about a fraction of a moment, when one didn’t even have the faintest idea of what was really happening.” Forty-nine members of her family were murdered, including her mother, father and sister.
Fahidi tells this part of her story as dancer Emese Cuhorka, covered from head to toe in a black leotard, moves around her, expressing with her body some of what Fahidi is expressing verbally. This is but one of many moving scenes in The Euphoria of Being, written and directed by Réka Szabó. The Jewish Independent has chosen to sponsor the documentary’s screening at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, which runs Sept. 26-Oct. 11.
Szabó had heard Fahidi give a talk in Berlin, and she had read Fahidi’s memoir, The Soul of Things. She wrote to Fahidi about wanting to make a performance about her, with her it in. The almost-90-year-old Hungarian Holocaust survivor responded positively: “Every person should possess some form of healthy exhibitionism,” she says in the film. “I have more than is needed, so I don’t have any excuses.”
Cuhorka reminds Szabó of Fahidi. From this resemblance came the concept of a duet. At one of the first rehearsals, Fahidi shows Cuhorka what she’s able to do physically. “And, from the outside, it is like seeing an entire life at once,” says Szabó, as she watches them move together.
The documentary covers the three-month period prior to the October première of what would become Sea Lavender. The work is the collaborative creation of the three women and, while what we are shown of the final result is powerful, it is the process and the bonds formed by the women that have the most impact, and give the film its inspirational quality.
Fahidi is remarkable. She is smart, spirited, well-spoken and endearing. When she talks about her Holocaust experiences, it is as if she is reliving them; her eyes look unfocused, her body appears heavier, her anger remains. She says her family should have left Hungary in 1935. “But my poor father, he couldn’t see beyond his nose,” she says. So proud was he of what he had built, he couldn’t leave it behind and only go with the clothes on his back. “This is the eternal tragedy,” she says, “that you don’t see things for what they are when you see them. Absolute idiocy.”
The film then cuts to a photo of the family – her parents, sister and her – as Fahidi describes the way in which she imagines them being gassed. She talks about a documentary she saw on Zyklon B, how it was first tried on geese. Such factual expositions lay raw the depth of her grief.
Yet, when Szabó asks Fahidi to list some of the things that helped her survive, Fahidi remarks that you have to appreciate and value the fact that you’re alive. “The fact that you exist, in itself, is euphoric,” she says. Hence, the name of the documentary and of the choice of “the flying chair duet” as the final scene of the performance. In discussing the nature of tragedy, Fahidi concludes that it’s no use thinking about it because you always end up in the same sad place. “Meanwhile,” she says, “you live happily.”
Seeing Cuhorka and Fahidi work and perform together is delightful – the two really do bear similarities, and their mutual respect is evident. The closing text of the film notes, “At the age of 93, Éva is still performing regularly. So far, we have staged 77 performances of Sea Lavender in numerous cities, such as Berlin, Budapest and Vienna.” While it is too much to hope that the show will come to North America, it is satisfying to know of the project’s life-changing effect on Fahidi, who, apparently, “can’t imagine being alive and not performing the piece anymore.”
The Euphoria of Being screens Sept. 27, 12:30 p.m., at International Village 8, and Oct. 3, 7 p.m., and Oct. 4, 10 a.m., at Vancity Theatre. For tickets, visit viff.org.
Honourary degree recipient Robert Waisman, centre, is congratulated by University of Victoria chancellor Shelagh Rogers as UVic president Jamie Cassels, right, applauds. (photo from UVic Photo Services)
The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre extends a mazal tov to board director and longtime volunteer Robert (Robbie) Waisman, who received the degree of honourary doctor of laws from the University of Victoria on June 13.
Waisman was one of the “Boys of Buchenwald” before he was liberated from the concentration camp, eventually emigrating to a new life in Canada, where he built a successful career and now dedicates himself to Holocaust education. He is a community leader, a philanthropist, a founder and past president of the VHEC, and an extremely effective educator who promotes social justice and human rights for all by sharing his experience as a child survivor.
Audiences impacted by Waisman’s VHEC outreach activities include thousands of British Columbian students each year, as well as students and community groups throughout Canada and the United States. He has served as a mentor to survivors of the Rwandan genocide who were wanting to share their eyewitness accounts. Also notable, Waisman was inducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an Honourary Witness in 2011, and has spoken alongside First Nations leaders and survivors of residential schools about reconciliation and healing.
Dedicated teacher, outstanding volunteer, loving daughter, sister and wife, Jewish National Fund of Canada Bernard M. Bloomfield Medal for meritorious service recipient Ilene-Jo Bellas can be called a “Woman for All Seasons.”
A retired high school teacher, Bellas taught English and theatre arts for 32 years in the Delta School District. She directed more than 100 popular plays and musicals at Delta Secondary School in Ladner. Many of her students have graduated to become successful actors, writers, directors and educators, and they keep in touch with their first teacher/director. She was president of the Association of B.C. Drama Educators, and was instrumental in procuring funding for and in the designing of Genesis Theatre, a fully professional theatre in Ladner.
Bellas was born and raised in Vancouver. She attended Sir Winston Churchill High School and Schara Tzedeck Synagogue Religious School. She developed her strong community commitment through youth activities in Young Judaea, Camp Hatikvah, Camp Biluim and working as a camp counselor. In university, she was involved in the Student Zionist Organization and held leadership roles in Hillel. She became a charter member and eventually president of Atid chapter of Hadassah-WIZO Vancouver; she also served as the Vancouver council vice-president.
Since her retirement in 2003, Bellas has used her many talents and skills to serve her community: three years as secretary of the Jewish Seniors Alliance, four years on the board of the Louis Brier Home and Hospital and president of the ladies’ executive of the Richmond Country Club. She also directed musical shows at Vancouver Talmud Torah, produced souvenir books, chaired and worked on dinner committees for Congregation Schara Tzedeck, Vancouver Talmud Torah, Israel Bonds and the JNF. In 2013, Bellas and her husband Joel, z’l, were awarded the Betzalel Award at Schara Tzedeck Synagogue. Most recently, she chaired a very successful fundraising gala for RAPS (Regional Animal Protection Society).
Bellas served as president of JNF Pacific Region from 2012 to 2015. She remains active to this day, continuing as a board member, chairing and co-chairing Negev Dinner committees and producing the souvenir books. Bellas is on the national board of JNF and states that she is very proud to be part of such a proactive organization for the benefit of the state of Israel.
Bellas attributes much of the success of her stellar volunteer career to the loving support and encouragement she received from her beloved husband Joel, z’l.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem is known for innovation. With nine Nobel Prize and Fields Medal winners among its alumni and being ranked 12th in the world for biotechnology patent filings, there is an abundance of creativity and ingenuity emanating from the university. It should come as no surprise then that the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University (CFHU) co-convened a fundraising event honouring cardiologist Dr. Saul Isserow on June 28. Hosted by CFHU and VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation in the Landmark Aviation Hangar at YVR, the casual-chic event – which sold out just weeks after it was announced – hosted a capacity crowd of 500-plus people.
The huge walls of the hangar were draped and a lighting and sound system had been installed along with a cabana that was a full-service bar. There were five food stations, including one serving South African specialties. One wall of the hangar was open to the runway and a private jet was on display to top off the evening’s decor.
Among other things, Isserow is director of the Vancouver General Hospital Centre for Cardiovascular Health, director of cardiology services at University of British Columbia Hospital and medical director of Sports Cardiology B.C.
“It’s not in my nature to be fêted in this way,” said Isserow in his address, stressing that the evening was intended to be a fun night to celebrate the achievements of the cardiac team with whom he works, as well as his heartfelt support and love for the state of Israel.
There were more than three million reasons for celebration by the end of the night – to be exact, $3,046,350 was raised to support two initiatives. The money will be divided between CFHU’s Inspired by Einstein student scholarship program and, locally, Isserow’s Sports Cardiology B.C. program at UBC Hospital. Barbara Grantham, chief executive officer of the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation expressed her gratitude to Isserow for agreeing to be honoured at this event. She said Isserow is a humble man who works tirelessly for his patients and credits his team for his successes.
A short video tribute to Isserow and his journey from South Africa to Canada revealed that he and his wife, Lindsay, began their lives in Canada in Nipawin, Sask. His journey from rural Saskatchewan to the upper echelon of Vancouver’s cardiology community is a testament to his talent and perseverance.
In addition to Grantham and Isserow, CFHU national board chair Monette Malewski gave brief remarks, which were followed by a performance by the Emily Chambers band while dinner was served. The crowd was treated to a short African drumming performance prior to a brief address by Ambassador Ido Aharoni, who spoke about the strong connection between the principles of Hebrew University founding member Albert Einstein and Hebrew U’s function as a launch pad for creative innovation in all areas. After Isserow addressed the group, the evening was rounded off with a DJ and dancing.
For the past few years, Richmond Jewish Day School’s Student Council committee has been collecting donations to support different charities throughout the Lower Mainland. As part of their ongoing fundraising, the school was able to donate $1,150 to the Variety Club Sunshine Coach program and the school’s name was recently inscribed on the side of a 15-passenger Sunshine Coach, which will be used by Richmond Society for Community Living. The vehicle will transport youth with diverse abilities to various programs throughout the city.
Last month, several Canadians – or former Canadians – attended the 50th anniversary of Hadassim Children and Youth Village in Israel. Reunion organizer Rabbi Shawn Zell and the other attendees were among the first young Diaspora Jews to spend a year in Israel on a sponsored program – in their case, one organized by Canadian Hadassah-WIZO.
Langara College recently held the closing ceremony for Writing Lives: The Holocaust Memoir Project, a two-semester collaboration between Langara College, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) and the Azrieli Foundation.
At the April 26 event, Dr. Rachel Mines, a member of Langara’s English department and coordinator of the project, described Writing Lives.
“In the first semester of this project,” she said, “students learned about the European Jewish culture and the Holocaust in the classroom, through studying historical and literary texts. They also researched and wrote a paper on prewar European Jewish communities.
“In the second term, students were teamed up with their survivor partners. They interviewed the survivors, transcribed the interviews and turned the transcriptions into written memoirs. The memoirs will be archived and possibly published, and they will also serve as legacies for the survivors and their families.”
Mines also relayed a message from Melanie Mark, B.C. minister of advanced education, skills and training.
“The Writing Lives project gives a voice to Holocaust survivors and teaches us about the type of courage and resilience it takes to overcome injustice,” said Mark in her statement. “These emotional and moving stories help connect people from different cultures and inspire us to do better for each other. I am proud to be part of a government that is committed to building a vision of reconciliation through the adoption and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. As an indigenous minister whose grandparents went to residential school, as the first person who ever graduated from high school in my family and went to college and university, I know the power of education. I know how transformative it is and how impactful it can be on our communities. Thank you for being truth tellers and helping to keep these stories alive in the minds of people.”
Gene Homel, former chair of the liberal studies department at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, encouraged students to consider entering the fields of history, politics or literature.
“History is very important in providing context to some disturbing developments, not so much in Canada but other parts of the world, which are not as fortunate as Canada,” he said. “History is a scientific-based discipline, and that kind of approach is all the more important in the context of fake news and alternative facts. It is very important that the stories be told, and for us to take an inclusive but evidence-based and scientific approach to history.”
“When I invited the survivors in this program,” said Dr. Ilona Shulman Spaar, education director at the VHEC, “I mentioned two things: first, I expressed that the VHEC is confident that the experience of meeting with a Holocaust survivor will prove meaningful for the students and, secondly, I mentioned that I hope the survivors, too, will benefit from this opportunity. Listening to the positive feedback that I received from both the students and the survivors, and looking at the overall outcome of this project, I am glad to see that my hopes for this program became true.”
Serge Haber, a Holocaust survivor and a Writing Lives participant, talked about the significance of his memoir. “It is very crucial to me, because, for the last 35 years, I have been thinking of writing my experience in this life,” he said. “I never had a chance, the time or the person to listen to me. I hated the machines that record, so [a] personal touch was very important to me. And here it was, presented by Langara. I worked with two students, and I think we created a relationship, a personal understanding of what I went through.”
Haber added, “In fact, I have never been in a concentration camp, but it is important to know that the Holocaust happened not only in camps but also in many cities around Europe, where thousands upon thousands of Jewish people, young and old alike, perished for nothing, only because they were Jewish. I profoundly remember three words that [I was told] while I was watching what was happening on the streets below, where thousands of people had been killed – my father mentioned to me, ‘Look, listen and remember.’ And I remember.”
Heather Parks, reflecting on the passion and dedication that she and her fellow students contributed to the project, shared an emotional speech.
“For their trust in us, we poured our hearts into building their legacy,” she said. “We spent our days and long nights taking words told to us in confidence. We poured our hearts – and sometimes tears – into making a story fit for the most incredible people we have had the honour of meeting. Every part of this was hard work, and every part of this was worth it. We learned so much from them.
“Besides the lessons on history, we learned what true strength means,” she said. “We learned that love can remain even after trauma, loss or heartbreak; that new love grows as lives move forward, and that time can heal many wounds, even though they may leave scars. We were lucky to have been included in this love, this trust and this experience. I am not the only one in this project – in the experience of all of us, this project was illuminating and enlightening. It was surreal and awe-inspiring in every sense of the word. The experience taught us compassion, how to listen and what it means to love in the face of hate.”
The Writing Lives closing ceremony, however, may be an end that ushered in a new beginning. According to Dr. Rick Ouellet, director of Langara College’s indigenous education and services, his department is currently taking initiatives to continue the program. Writing Lives was a collaboration in the two years it ran. Similarly, the future project would be in collaboration with organizations that are working closely with residential school survivors, such as the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society and the British Columbia Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, to establish necessary protocols and ensure the stories of survivors are respected and the students are well prepared. Though not yet finalized, Ouellet aims to initiate the new Writing Lives program in fall 2019 at Langara.
Marc Perez, a Writing Lives student participant, lives and works on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. His creative nonfiction and fiction appear in Ricepaper Magazine and PRISM international 56.3. His personal essay “On Meeting a Holocaust Survivor” is published in Zachor (May 2018).
Holocaust survivor David Ehrlich speaks on Jan. 25. (photo by Pat Johnson)
David Ehrlich grew up in a small city in Hungary, sleeping in the kitchen of the family’s three-room house – “not three bedrooms, God forbid, three rooms” – and it was through the kitchen curtains early one morning that he saw three bayonets before he heard a knock at the door.
“I opened the door, they came into the kitchen and they said to me in German – there were two Hungarian gendarmes and one German soldier or officer or whoever he was – ‘I want you to bring in the family into the kitchen.’”
Young David gathered his parents, sister, three brothers and grandmother and they assembled in the kitchen, where they were told to be on the street in 30 minutes to prepare for deportation to a work camp.
Ehrlich shared his story Jan. 25 at a commemoration marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day (which was Jan. 27). The afternoon event, which took place at the University of British Columbia, was presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, Hillel BC, the department of Central, Eastern and Northern European studies at UBC (CENES) and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, with support from the Akselrod family in memory of Ben Akselrod.
After two weeks in a makeshift ghetto on a local farm, the 7,000 Jews were forced onto trains, said Ehrlich. Seventy people were pushed into each car.
“These were not cattle cars,” he clarified. “I wish they had been cattle cars because [cattle cars] are ventilated.” There was one little hole at the top of the car, covered with barbed wire, and a child would occasionally be lifted up to look out to see if the signs outside were in Hungarian, German or Polish.
“But, soon enough, the train stopped,” he said. “They opened up the door … and there were some signs and some smells and some visions that I’ll never forget as long as I live. The place had electric lights … barbed wire all over in all directions.
“Little people – I thought they were little, but they were prisoners – came up to the train and said leave everything there, stand in line, five abreast. And we did that and walked over to this man with a stick in his hand and he was doing the selection. Who is going to live, who is going to die.… They played God. About 10 minutes or so later, we were separated from our family.”
While he was receiving his uniform, Ehrlich got his first lesson in what this place – Auschwitz – was all about.
“Did you say goodbye to your family?” the man asked Ehrlich.
“I said, why should I? I’m going to see them probably this afternoon. He said, while you were taking a shower, your family was gassed and, while we talk here, their bodies are probably being burned in the crematorium.”
Ehrlich’s brothers were almost immediately sent on to Melk, a sub-camp of Mauthausen, in Austria.
Because Hungarian Jews were among the last to be deported to the camps, the Soviet army was already advancing from the east by the time Ehrlich arrived at Auschwitz and the prisoners were sent on a death march westward. He, too, ended up in Melk and found someone from his hometown who knew the fate of his brothers. They had been sent to the hospital a few days earlier. Ehrlich knew that the hospital was a farce and that being sent there meant certain death.
“That was probably my lowest point in the whole deal because I always felt that I’d meet up with my brothers someplace,” he said. “I did, only a week too late.”
As the Russians kept on moving westward, the Nazis marched Ehrlich and the others further, this time to Ebensee, Austria.
“One day – it was a nice sunny day – we went outside and the loudspeaker came on and the president of the camp said, I’ve got good news for you. I have received orders from the Reich that we are to take you into the mine and blow it up with you in it. But I’m not going to do that – that’s the good news. For the first time since I’m in the services of the Third Reich, I’m going to disobey this order.”
He told the prisoners that they were free. The next day, they heard tanks on the cobblestone streets.
“And a guy that was probably 20 years old – like a kid, he looked like me – got out of the manhole and said to us in Yiddish, ‘Ich bin ein Amerikaner Jude,’ ‘I am an American Jew.’”
After liquids, then vitamins, eventually solids, Ehrlich regained some of his health. After two months, he still weighed less than 100 pounds, but he was ready to go home.
“But going home for Holocaust survivors, whether it was to France or to Germany or to Poland, it was the same thing,” said Ehrlich. “Canadian soldiers, American soldiers came back from the war, they came back to their community, to their parents and to their country. We went back and there was nobody there. My sister [who had been liberated in Lithuania] was there but we lost everybody else.”
Ehrlich wasn’t going to stay behind the Iron Curtain. He and a friend wanted to see Paris, planning eventually to head for pre-state Israel.
“But, while we were waiting in Paris, there were rumours that Canada was looking for orphans to go to Canada,” he said. “I went to work as soon as I came to Canada. I was going on 19. I went to work and I’ve been paying taxes ever since.”
The story has a good ending, Ehrlich told his audience.
“I married a wonderful girl – she’s right here, the little grey-haired girl – 65 years ago and we’re still together and we brought up three wonderful sons.”
Rabbi Philip Bregman told the survivors: “We are tremendously aware of how precious you people are who lit these candles and came in today as personal witness.”
The commemoration also featured Prof. Uma Kumar, of CENES, who said the Holocaust is a contemporary issue because antisemitism is a contemporary issue. “For this reason,” she said, “it is everyone’s duty to reflect on what happened.”
Lillian Boraks-Nemetz’s newest book, Mouth of Truth (Ekstasis Editions, 2017) is not an easy, escape-from-reality read, but it’s an interesting and important read. What does it mean to be a survivor? How does one person’s trauma affect those around them? Is healing possible? These are but a few of the many questions that Mouth of Truth elicits.
The novel is based on the experiences of Boraks-Nemetz, who is a Holocaust survivor. Born in Warsaw, Poland, she escaped the Warsaw Ghetto, and survived the war by hiding under a false identity.
“My life’s story is, of course, similar to the book’s,” Boraks-Nemetz told the Independent. “I suffered in childhood, in adolescence, girlhood and womanhood. It is only now, in my senior years, that I have found some degree of peace.”
The protagonist of Mouth of Truth is Batya, who still struggles with Beata (Bea), her wartime identity, even though she has been in Canada for decades. Her Canadian-born husband, Joseph, and their children, Sam and Miriam, have no idea of the trauma with which she is attempting to deal. She drinks to suppress her more feisty Bea personality and their memories – not only of the ghetto, but of abuse by the man entrusted with her care, and others. Though this method of coping isn’t working, Batya manages to keep her nose above water until she accompanies her friend Antonia on a visit to see Antonia’s brother in prison. The visit unleashes recollections of her tragic childhood and Batya can no longer hide from herself or her past. She must confront her dueling identities – and rumours about her father.
Batya finds out that her father might have been one of the Jewish police in the ghetto; not only that, but one who did some awful things, including helping the Nazis round up Jews for deportation. On his deathbed, her father apologizes. But for what? Batya’s mother will not talk about what happened in the ghetto and Batya must find out for herself of what her father was guilty, if anything.
The investigation, as well as Batya’s healing, requires that she leave her family and home in Vancouver. She travels first to Toronto, then to Italy and Poland. In Italy, she meets Grisha, with whom she has an affair, and experiences passion and desire. She initially confuses her feelings with love, but comes to realize the difference as she and Grisha travel together in Poland.
Between her research in Toronto and in Europe, Batya learns much about her father. She is also helped by her mother. When Batya first arrives in Toronto, her mother – who has never wanted to talk about the war – sends Batya a package of her father’s writings. Batya receives a second package when she returns from Europe.
With the first package, her mother writes, “I had always thought that because you were a mere child when all that happened to us, it would not touch you. Could I have been wrong?” Her mother also clearly states, “I have chosen to forget the past and start a new life. I don’t want to go back there either.”
In the note accompanying the second package, her mother concedes, “By shielding you, I may have done more harm than good. No matter what you might think of your father, he was a good man.” She also writes, “It never occurred to me before that I owe you the truth. Maybe I have kept secrets from you for too long.”
Batya, too, has secrets. Though she tried several times, she was not able to tell her children what happened to her during the war. As for her father’s actions, she had no idea herself, until Antonia told her the rumours. In addition to being the bearer of the news, however, Antonia opens the door for Batya to start facing her past, connecting Batya with the son of the woman who supposedly witnessed the actions of Batya’s father.
It is through her relationship with the son, Julian, who lives in Toronto, that Batya comes to tell her story – and start living. He encourages her to give a survivor testimony – “Survivors are no longer silent,” he tells her – and she does. Despite her fears, and with Julian’s support, she invites her children to watch her videotaped testimony. Afterward, they have a much-needed, overdue discussion. “One or even two conversations cannot erase the years of accumulated unhappiness and poor communication,” acknowledges Batya. “But today was a start.”
To read the first chapter of Mouth of Truth, visit lillianboraks-nemetz.com. To buy the book ($26.95), visit ekstasiseditions.com. Boraks-Nemetz will read from the novel and participate in a Q&A on Sept. 14, 2 p.m., at Waldman Library. She will also be participating in this year’s Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival, which takes place Nov. 25-30.
Judy Darcy with her father, Youli. (photo from Judy Darcy)
For years, Judy Darcy’s father carried in his wallet a photo of a little girl. It was one of very few mementoes of the man’s past – a murky history that Darcy and her siblings have only partially reconstructed.
Darcy, the member of the Legislative Assembly for New Westminster, went public with her father’s story on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, tweeting: “… my heart is with my dad who lost family members & kept his Jewishness secret from us to keep us safe.”
The Darcy family had a lot of secrets. Her father had no living relatives and he never spoke of what had happened to them.
“My father’s history was very murky,” she recently told the Independent. “Everything about his family and his relatives was murky and he explained it by saying that he fought in the war and there was a lot of bombing and that he suffered amnesia. I knew he had siblings; I didn’t know any details. I didn’t know how they died. I knew he’d lost track of them. And that he’d lost his memory. It was just grey and murky.”
When Darcy was an infant, the family moved from Europe to Sarnia, Ont., where her father worked in the petrochemical industry. With his wife, he raised a family and progressed in his career. Late in life, after he had retired and been widowed, he moved to Toronto, where his grown children had settled.
“And not long after he moved to Toronto,” Darcy said, “he went to Holy Blossom synagogue and met with Rabbi Gunter Plaut, because he wanted to atone for having abandoned his community.”
Darcy knows nothing of what the conversations between her father and the late, legendary rabbi involved, or whether there was one meeting or a series, but she believes her father took great strength and relief from whatever it was Plaut told him.
Her father began attending the Bernard Betel Centre for Creative Living, a Jewish seniors facility, and formed a companionship with a Jewish woman. But stories of the past came slowly, and not expansively.
“He didn’t sit us down,” Darcy recalled, “it just became part of what he talked about.”
Through snippets of their father’s recollections, shards of history they already knew and the discovery of a recording he made shortly before he died for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, the siblings pieced together as complete a story of their family’s past as they are likely to assemble.
Jules (Youli) Simonovich Borunsky was born in 1904 in Lithuania to a Russian-Jewish family. He grew up mostly in Moscow but, in the early 1920s, the family moved to France.
“He always said it was because of the revolution,” Darcy said, “which was partly true, I’m sure, because they owned a factory.” She wonders whether antisemitism also propelled them.
Youli served in the French army, was taken prisoner during the Battle of Dunkirk, in the spring of 1940, and was imprisoned in northern Germany.
“He managed to stay alive in the prisoner-of-war camp because they didn’t find out that he was Jewish,” Darcy said. While a prisoner-of-war, Youli regularly received letters from his wife, Jeanne-Helene, a Catholic Parisienne he had wed before the war.
“She sent him letters every day loaded with Catholicisms,” said Darcy. “And sometimes with little Catholic medals, in order to try to pretend that he was Catholic, not Jewish. Again, I only find all of this out much, much later.”
Through some sort of arrangement facilitated by the International Red Cross (one of many aspects of the story still cloaked in mystery), he was released and made his way back, mostly on foot, to Paris. There, he was reunited with Jeanne-Helene, as well as with his widowed father, Simeon.
Paris was under Nazi occupation and Youli convinced his father that he would be safer going to live with Youli’s sister Rosa, his brother-in-law and their toddler daughter, in Kovno, Lithuania.
Simeon took Youli’s advice. The timing, though, was catastrophic. According to what her father told her, four days after Simeon arrived in Kovno, the Nazis invaded. Pro-Nazi Lithuanians launched pogroms that, later combined with Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), murdered almost all of Kovno’s substantial Jewish population. Youli assumed the victims included his father, sister, brother-in-law and the little girl whose photo he would carry in his wallet for years.
Youli had other siblings, Darcy discovered – a sister and brother-in-law who he believed had fled, or were relocated, to Siberia, and another sister about whose fate he had no inkling at all.
“He carried tremendous guilt,” Darcy said of her father. “The guilt of having survived when others died and the guilt of having sent his father to his death.”
Adding to his grief, Jeanne-Helene died of an illness sometime around the end of the war, leaving Youli to care for their son Pierre, Darcy’s half-brother.
After the war, Youli went to extraordinary lengths to hide his Jewish identity from everyone except his wife.
“None of my mother’s relatives knew that he was Jewish,” said Darcy. “Only my mother knew after the war.”
Youli found work as deputy director of a United Nations Refugee Agency displaced persons camp in Germany. There, he met Else Margrethe Rich, a veteran of the Danish resistance who was also working at the camp, and who would become his wife.
They had their children christened in the Russian Orthodox Church in Copenhagen. Their first daughter, Anne Helene, was followed by Judy before the family migrated to Ontario in 1951. Darcy was christened Ida Maria Judith Borunsky – “he threw in a Maria,” Darcy noted wryly – and her younger brother, who was born in Canada, was named George Christian Simeon Borunsky. The obviously Christian names were an active part of the father’s determination to erase his past.
There were the common struggles that immigrant families experience, as well as particular idiosyncrasies. The family home was filled with art and music and books. The family always had enough to eat, but costly red meat wasn’t on the table. Darcy recalled her father’s philosophy: “For the price of a few roast beefs, Judith, you can buy a good painting. For the price of a few steaks, Judith, you can buy a good book.”
When Darcy was 7, Youli took the family to the Lambton county courthouse and changed their surname to Darcy. He wanted something French-sounding, he told them.
What made her father finally open up – to an extent, at least – Darcy can’t be certain. But, in retrospect, there were a couple of hints that only made sense later. A family friend in New York City, who had known Youli in childhood, made a comment to Darcy and her sister during a visit that implied their father was Jewish, then quickly changed the subject when confronted with blank stares.
In Grade 11, when Darcy had an option of studying German or geography, she chose German because, like her parents, she has a facility with languages. Her father hit the ceiling, for reasons she didn’t fathom.
Despite christening his children and giving two of them ostentatiously Christian names, he husbanded a rage at organized religion.
“He would sometimes shake his fist at the sky and say in his heavy Russian accent, ‘If there were a God in heaven, he would not allow the things that happen on this earth,’” Darcy said.
When she moved to Toronto to attend York University, Darcy started hanging out with students who were Jewish.
“When I would go home and I would use some Jewish expressions, my father would completely freak out,” she said, although she knows this only because her mother conveyed the news.
Her father always said that he brought the family to Canada to be safe because there might be another war.
“But, in hindsight,” Darcy speculated, “he did it because he was Jewish and, even though my mother wasn’t Jewish, he wanted to protect us and that’s why he never told us.”
After Youli died in 1997, at age 93, his children found the Shoah Foundation video. The quality of the recording was poor and he was very shaky by then, his memories fading. It contained a few details they hadn’t yet known.
In addition to the video, Darcy and her siblings took notes and recorded parts of their father’s story, but he never shared it from beginning to end. Many pieces remain lost.
“It’s little glimmers of that entire history,” she said.
The photo that Youli carried in his wallet those many years is now framed and sits on Darcy’s shelf at home.
“I don’t know her name,” she says of the cousin she never met, “but her cheeks are like mine and she’s about 4 years old.”
Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. In a decade from now, there will be virtually no one alive with a living memory of this time in history.
Sam Rozencwajg not only lived through this time, but through the worst of it – being captured and imprisoned in various Nazi concentration camps of central Europe, including Auschwitz.
Rozencwajg, who lives in a long-term care community in Toronto, immigrated to Canada in 1952 and is very clear about what “The True North strong and free!” means to him.
“Canada is the best country in the world, where a Jew can live free and be respected,” he said, wearing a baseball hat with a red maple leaf on it.
The youngest of six siblings, Sam was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1926. He was 14 years old when German soldiers invaded his city in 1940, and his memory of the day he was taken from his home is vivid.
“When the Germans came, they put all the Jewish people in a ghetto. They didn’t tell us anything. We didn’t know where we were going. They just counted and counted us. I remember how my heart was pounding from being scared. Every Jew was scared.
“They called out to everyone to open their doors because they didn’t want to smash them in.”
One day, everyone in the ghetto was told to gather in a central location.
“They made us a lot of soup, with potatoes in it. Back then, potatoes were like diamonds because they were very hard to get. We were allowed to eat as much as we wanted because the Germans needed us to be quiet and satisfied so they wouldn’t have to fight us.
“When we were fed, they put us on trucks, which went straight to the train station. On each door of the train was a German soldier. We didn’t know where we were going.”
Sam was on the train by himself. The rest of his family was either in different carriages or different trains; and his parents were the first to be taken away.
“They took my mother and father in a truck, and I never saw them again. After the war, I looked for them, but I knew they didn’t survive.”
Sam’s twin sisters were separated. “Which probably saved their lives,” he said, “as they would likely have had medical experiments done on them.”
Both sisters survived the camps, and Sam was able to briefly see one of his three brothers again. But the reunion was bittersweet.
“I saw my oldest brother in Auschwitz, and he had a rash all over his face. I asked him what had happened, and he didn’t know what to tell me. I know he went to the gas chamber after that.”
Sam was transferred to different camps during the war. He doesn’t remember the names, but remembers them by their numbers – especially Dachau, which was divided into a series of smaller work camps with the explicit purpose of forced labor, brutality and systematic medical experiments. More than 30,000 people died there, and thousands were sick or dying when the camp was liberated in 1945.
“They didn’t know what to do with us. We were marched every day to do labor, two hours each way. The German soldiers were dressed in warm, thick coats and hats. The Jews were dressed in thin cotton pants and shirts with wooden clogs not meant for marching in.
“They made us do work just to punish us: digging holes, throwing in bodies. My father and mother could have been among the bodies. It was miserable to do those things.
“If one of the prisoners fainted, we had to carry them. They would count us out and back again to make sure no one escaped. If you managed to get away, the guards would contact the police and they would find you. It was obvious from our clothes that we came from a camp.”
During the winter, as he walked through snow and ice, the back of his clogs broke off and he came close to losing a foot to frostbite when his heel froze.
“There was a German civilian at the side of the road. I asked him, ‘Can I rest here? Look at my feet, I cannot walk.’ I spoke a little German, and showed him my foot, which was blue. He couldn’t believe it. A guard told me to move on, but the man insisted I be allowed to rest. He was a nice man. I’m not saying all the Germans were bad. Not all of them were Nazis.”
Sam said, “The buildings in the camp were built so that the Allies couldn’t see them from above. The one I was in was like a bunker with a green roof. There were maybe 20 or 25 people in one room, and I slept on wood and straw, with lice biting my body throughout the night.
“You could never speak to the guards…. Because I could understand German, I heard the words they sang about us as they marched. They hated Jewish people. They called us ‘Dirty Jew,’ but didn’t give us the facilities to wash. I remember one day I passed by a shower building and someone told me, ‘Do not be lured in there. They will tell you that you can have a shower, but instead of water they put gas.’”
Sam said that, while millions of Jews and other prisoners died in Nazi gas chambers, most of the prisoners in the camps he was held at died of either starvation or forced labor.
“We were so hungry and thought of food constantly,” he said. “I remember a little boy crying to the Germans, asking them to kill him. He couldn’t suffer anymore, and wanted them to take his life. But I was determined to stay alive and, to this day, I honestly don’t know how I did. You lived minute to minute.”
Sam was so delirious and emaciated by the time his camp was liberated that he retells it like something out of a dream.
“I woke up one day in a real bed with a white bed sheet and pillowcase. I couldn’t believe it.
Three blurred figures stood over me examining my body. Bright lights came from their bodies. I thought I had died and was in heaven.”
It was 1945, and these blurred figures were American soldiers with light reflecting off the buttons on their uniforms.
“I didn’t know that they were American at the time,” said Sam. “I had no knowledge of anything. They asked me, ‘Who did this to you?’ I was just skin and bone. Not a piece of flesh was on my body. I cannot imagine how I survived, and praise God day and night that I could live and build my own family.”
Sam was taken to a liberation camp, but was so sick that he couldn’t walk or digest food.
“I was given real food, but the next day, I had chronic diarrhea. My stomach couldn’t take good food. It happened to all of us like this.”
He soon discovered that his freedom meant there was no going back to the city and the home he once knew.
“We had no homes to go back to because Polish gentiles now occupied them. A nephew of mine went back to Poland, and I asked him to go to the house I used to live in. They had changed the locks and wouldn’t open the door to him. At the time, there was a program where you could go to a lawyer and make a claim to get your home back.”
After Sam gained more strength and weight, he was given passage to Karlstad, Sweden, with the Red Cross, where he lived with a family and was given a job pressing wedding gowns in a factory. He had mastered several languages at this point, which came in useful.
“They treated me like a son,” he said, referring to his adopted family in Sweden. “My wife worked across from me in that factory. I couldn’t stop looking at her, and thought to myself that I must take her out. We went dancing, and soon fell in love.”
Sam’s wife was from Hungary and came from a family of rabbis. They got married in Stockholm, and lived in Sweden for seven years before coming to Canada.
Like his imprisonment, liberation and evacuation to Sweden, the decision to immigrate to Canada was also something that came about suddenly when he found one of his sisters again in the street.
“We found each other, just like that; each thinking the other was dead. She was getting married and moving to Israel (then Palestine) with her new husband. At that time, Israel was calling out to the Jewish people to go and build it as a Jewish land.”
It was then that he discovered his other sister had settled in Canada, where there was a Jewish committee set up to welcome displaced Jews to work as tailors and seamstresses. He got in touch with her, and she arranged for him to come over by boat with his wife and son.
“I was glad to get out of Europe,” he said.
Sam worked in a clothing factory in downtown Toronto until he retired. He had two more sons, and has seven grandchildren.
“Lots of people came out of those camps in really poor health, and I developed a congestive heart condition that I’ve had to live with for the rest of my life,” he said. “The American authorities forced Germany to pay Jewish people restitution, and I still receive a monthly payment that goes a long way to paying for my expenses.”
Despite the hardships he endured, Sam maintains a positive outlook.
“You have to get used to this world to enjoy life,” he said. “I survived because my will was to survive. I didn’t think I would get married and have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and I praise God for this. I have learned that every minute can change your life…. It is very important to me to explain my story. I’m not ashamed of it. Let Hitler be ashamed of it.”