By The Maven | My father was born in December 1919 in an industrial town in southern Poland called Radom. His father was a tailor and my father, his two sisters and brother were raised in the apartment at the back of the tailor shop.
At the time of the German invasion of Poland my father had married and was studying to be a denturist. Some time after WWII broke out, my father, his new wife and their families were sent to the Radom Ghetto. Over the next two years in the ghetto, each of my father’s parents, his two older sisters and his wife were taken from the ghetto and sent to their deaths; he never saw them again. For my father, the next three years saw him sent all across eastern and central Europe from concentration camp to labour camp and back.
On May 5, 1945 my father was in the Gleben concentration camp in Germany. The Nazi guards had left four or five days earlier with the news that the Red Army was advancing. Fearing retribution from the Russians who had so recently suffered under German brutality, the guards had headed west, preferring to surrender to the British or Americans. Two Russian officers rode into the camp on motorbikes. They told the inmates they were liberated, and that they must flee immediately as the Germans were organizing a counter-offensive.
Many did not have the strength to leave and were left behind. My father and several friends left the camp on foot. During his years of imprisonment and starvation, my father had nursed a craving for sour cream. He came upon a farm house and found a large vat of sour creme being fermented. He gorged on it. He then fell violently ill; his body couldn’t handle so much food.
When he recovered, my father began to wander eastward back to his native Poland to look for surviving relatives. But Poles did not want Jews back, and pogroms against returning Jews were violent and spreading. Ironically, my father escaped west to Germany for safety, ending up in Stuttgart.
My mother was born in June 1920 and grew up with four older brothers in Warka, a village 30 kilometers south of Warsaw. Her father owned a leather tanning factory. Following the German invasion in 1939, after their home and the factory were seized, my mother and her family headed to Radom to be interred in the ghetto there, as her father thought would be safer than the Warsaw Ghetto. There my mother married. Over the next 18 months, each of her husband, her four brothers, and her parents were transported to their deaths. My mother was eventually sent to Auschwitz in Poland.
In 1945, to evade advancing Russian forces, my mother and other prisoners well enough to walk were force-marched by their Nazi captors to Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany.
On April 15, 1945, British and Canadian troops reached Bergen-Belsen and liberated it. One of the first acts of the liberators was to try to get the rampant disease among the survivors under control. The British were overwhelmed by the poor condition of the survivors and didn’t have adequate resources to transfer and treat them elsewhere, and so they established a hospital and displaced persons camp right at Bergen-Belsen, and brought in supplies.
My mother was ill with typhus, a disease spread by lice. To kill the lice that covered her, the British doused my mother in DDT .
When my mother recovered sufficiently, she left the camp with her close friend and bunk mate from Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz and began, as did most survivors, to search for surviving family members, friends–anyone. She heard there was a growing survivor community in Stuttgart and so made her way there.
In the American sector in Stuttgart in Displaced Persons accommodation, my father was making a little money buying scarves and re-selling them to Allied servicemen to send home to their wives and girlfriends. One day he looked out the window and saw two woman walking by, one of whom he knew from Radom. He called out, offering both women free scarves, which they accepted. The other woman was my mother.
My parents married in 1946 while waiting in Stuttgart for one of the countries to which they had applied to immigrate to accept them.
The Canadian Garment Workers Union was then a largely Jewish organization that was active in trying to rescue Jewish refugees in Europe after the war. They convinced the Canadian government that Canada needed more tailors. Union representatives traveled to Stuttgart seeking tailors among the refugees. My father, hearing of this, changed his occupation on his application for immigration to tailor; after all, his father had been one and who would doubt a Jewish tailor?
Though Israel had been their destination of choice, Britain was still denying Jewish immigration there. My parents were tired from their constant struggle for survival over the past eight years, and they agreed that they would not raise children in Europe. They were happy when they learned, after three years of waiting, that Canada had accepted them.
In spring 1948 my mother and father disembarked at Halifax on their way to Toronto to begin a new life, having between them lost their first spouses, two sisters and four brothers, both sets of parents, and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. They spoke no English and had no education beyond high school. They were 28 years old and had been incarcerated in one form or another for eight years.
The author’s parents, pictured with his older sister above, are now 91 years old and are living independently in their home in Toronto.
Read more of The Maven’s blog at www.tomaven.wordpress.com.
For other articles by this author on the West Annex News, visit The Maven archive.