VANCOUVER — At 88, Elizabeth Wolak has done time in a Russian forced labour camp, acted as assistant conductor at the Krakow State Philharmonic, emigrated from her home in Poland to Australia and later to Canada and led countless students through piano lessons.
She has put her musical skills to work by creating and leading four Vancouver Jewish choirs since 1963, and today, she is shortlisted as a finalist for the 2012 Top 25 Canadian Immigrants for her work as cultural ambassador to the Jewish community.
“When I look back at my whole life, I can say I did a lot,” Wolak says. “But I miss the choir work.”
She went into forced retirement in 2008 after several members of her choir, the Shiron Singers, were unable to commute to the evening practice sessions. The Shiron Singers, the fourth choir Wolak has created and led since arriving in Vancouver, lasted 26 years.
Wolak’s interest in Jewish music did not begin until after she left Poland as a young adult. She started her piano studies at the age of six and was a teen when the war began. When she was 16, she and her parents worked in a Russian forced labour camp, a time she describes as “terrible.”
“All the young girls my age were given ‘light’ work,” she says. “That meant cutting small trees, which were used to repair the road.”
After the war, the family returned to Poland to find that their extended family, with the exception of one cousin, had been murdered in the Holocaust. Wolak enrolled in Krakow’s Jagiellonian University and graduated with a master’s degree in English and musicology. She also received a diploma in choral conducting and music pedagogy from the Krakow Conservatory of Music.
“Poland became much more antisemitic after the Nazi occupation than it had been before,” she recalls. “It was really difficult, and at the advice of my father’s friends, we changed our name from Waldman to Vishnovsky in order to sound more Polish.”
Under her new last name, Wolak was appointed assistant conductor at the Krakow symphony and was able to hide the fact that she is Jewish.
By then, she had met her future husband, Edward Wolak, and the couple knew they would marry and live abroad.
“I couldn’t stand the situation in Poland,” she says.
Her fiancé had papers to Canada, but she did not. So, he and Wolak moved to Australia in 1960, where they married, and not long after, they immigrated to Canada.
With her, she brought an antique Bluthner piano that she cherishes to this day, a gift from her father when she graduated from university.
Wolak’s interest in Jewish music was born in Australia, when she was approached by the North Shore Temple Emmanuel and invited to work as choir director. “It was a very good choir and I really enjoyed it,” she reflects. “My husband had always been certain that once I left Poland, I’d be connected to religious music, and he was right, I got into it right away.”
Not long after stepping off the boat in this country, she was approached by the Jewish Community Centre, asking her to start a Jewish Community Choir.
Passionate about Jewish music, Wolak formed a 35-person choir, and through it, made many of her closest friends in the city. In later years, she would form a choir for Vancouver’s Temple Sholom, be asked to experiment with a choir at Congregation Shaarei Tzedek (“it failed because they would not allow a woman to conduct the choir,” she says) and in 1981, form the Shiron Singers.
With the Shiron Singers, she led performances of Jewish music before mainstream audiences including thousands at Vancouver’s 1986 Expo.
“We made people appreciate Jewish music,” she says. “I was told several times over the years that although people did not understand the words of the Jewish music, which were sung mostly in Hebrew and some in Yiddish, the music itself spoke to them because it is so full of feeling. I think that was our biggest achievement.”
Life in Vancouver was not easy for Wolak. Edward died suddenly in 1979, leaving her a widow with two sons to raise alone. She made ends meet by teaching piano, grateful that she had had the foresight to complete her studies in Poland so that she had a career to fall back on in later years.
The Top 25 Canadian Immigrants is a peoples’ choice award that recognizes individuals who have come to Canada and made a positive difference living here. Canadian Immigrants is a magazine for new Canadians. Winners will be announced at the end of May 2012 and will be recognized with a commemorative plaque. RBC has pledged to donate $500 to a charity on behalf of each winner. To vote for Elizabeth Wolak, go to http://canadianimmigrant.ca