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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me

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Gina Roitman [Jane Hawtin photo]

Montreal writer Gina Roitman was born in Passau, Germany, when her parents, Sula and Benzion Miedwiecki, were living in a displaced persons’ camp eight kilometres outside the town.

The two survivors met and wed in the camp, immigrating to Montreal when Roitman was 18 months old. While other survivors’ children heard only silence from their parents, Roitman’s mother seemed unable to stop talking about her past.

One oft-told tale emphasized that Sula gave birth to her daughter in Passau’s birthing hospital, rather than in the camp. “Too many babies were dying.” So she made Benzion spend one of their precious gold rubles – they were saving for their new life in Canada – to cover the expense. Such stories seemed designed to elicit gratitude, but her Canadian daughter, cheerful by nature, thought her mother paranoid.

Roitman is the author of Tell Me a Story, Tell Me the Truth, published by Second Story Press. Her continuing story – and much more – unfolds in the moving documentary My Mother, The Nazi Midwife and Me, premièring on the CBC Documentary channel May 14 at 8 p.m.

Both of Roitman’s parents had suffered grievous losses in the war. Sula’s three-year-old son had starved to death, she told her daughter, because she was “too honest” to steal a potato for him. Rejecting her mother’s worldview (“a perilous place”), Roitman felt burdened by Sula’s stories. “I grew up with ghosts. They were my constant companions,” she says from her Quebec home in the Lower Laurentian Mountains.

In 1976, Sula died “and the stories stopped.” Yet, later in life, when Roitman began to realize her dream of becoming a writer, it was her mother’s voice she heard most clearly. “I survived Hitler for this!” exclaimed Sula the day she came home to see her daughter practising gymnastics on their second-floor apartment balcony railing, a scene recounted in Roitman’s story, An Imperfect Child. “What do I have to fear? Hitler’s dead!” thought the little girl, a natural “daredevil.”

Roitman had returned to Passau, a town she found “enchanting.” But seeking her birth certificate at the town hall proved a waste of time. The office was closed. Then, in 1993, things took a startling turn when Roitman saw The Nasty Girl, a film based on the experiences of Passau native Anna Rosmus. An international sensation, the film details the ugly reaction of townspeople when a young woman probes into Passau’s Nazi past.

 By happy chance, a friend was able to connect Roitman with Rosmus, who immediately confirmed Sula’s dark insinuations about goings-on in the camp clinic. Eventually, Roitman and producer friend Jane Hawtin joined an American War Veteran’s Group, and travelled, video crew in tow, to Passau for the 60th anniversary of the war’s end, an event heralded as “the liberation of Germany.”

This visit forms the basis for Roitman’s discovery of the shocking truth about her past. On film we see her speaking with students, with the town librarian (the library was once the birthing hospital), with Rosmus and a host of others. Most importantly, Roitman finds a witness. Survivor Solamon Brunner tells her that the Americans, growing suspicious about the disproportionate number of infant deaths at the DP camp, held an inquiry, performed autopsies and quietly found and punished the culprit – a Nazi midwife.

The story a daughter had not wanted to believe was true. Sula had not been paranoid, but had probably saved her child’s life by insisting on leaving the camp to give birth in Passau. Today, Roitman is joined in her continuing search for archival facts by a retired German judge. Near the memorial to the dead from Passau’s three wartime concentration camps, there also exists a memorial to the Jewish babies killed after the war.

Rosmus arranged with the town for a Shabbat dinner to be celebrated in the town hall. Visitors, war veterans and townsfolk attended, while an American Air Force rabbi officiated. In the surprise highlight of the evening, Passau’s mayor presented Roitman with her birth certificate.

“Before I could talk, my mother and I were at odds,” says Roitman today. But before Sula died, her daughter told her: “Everything I am I owe to you. Either I did it to prove to you I could do it, or to make you happy.”

Today, Roitman helps child survivors write their stories. “I’ve found a path I never thought I would walk… As a child, people could not persuade me that the world was a dangerous place – to me, it was a feast,” Roitman says.

“My mother tried to warn me, and she was right. We must not forget the past. We must ask for the stories before it’s too late, for these stories tell us who we are.”

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