Minna Aspler lived to 100, which is all the more remarkable because she escaped death when she was barely out of her teens.
Aspler, one of the last surviving resistance fighters of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, died on June 20, 11 days after reaching her centennial. She moved to Montreal after the Second World War, where she lived until her death.
Her son, Carl Aspler, is trying to ensure that her courage and ingenuity are not forgotten through a series of 14 videos of interviews he conducted with her between 1979 and 2011.
In 2016, the Polish government awarded Aspler the Pro Patria medal for her heroic acts during the 63-day Warsaw Uprising, when the Polish underground, led by the Home Army, attempted unsuccessfully to liberate the city from German occupation.
“This was specifically for her going into burning buildings to rescue people. It is one of the highest awards for bravery,” said Carl Aspler, who lives in Toronto.
Her fearlessness earned her the sobriquet “Crazy Maria,” the name she used when she was posing as a Christian. Her survival would be a veritable adventure tale had the circumstances not been so dire.
Aspler (née Friedland), who is remembered as a lifelong stalwart of Hadassah-WIZO, ORT Montreal and other Jewish organizations, was born into a comfortable family in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine. When the Russians cracked down on the “bourgeoisie,” her mother fled with her to Vilna, where her brother was born.
When Aspler was eight, they rejoined her father in Warsaw, where he had re-established his business.
With the closing of the ghetto, her resourcefulness soon became apparent. With a Polish friend, she helped bring in food and other scarce necessities, operating a clandestine barter system.
She was arrested by the Gestapo and spent three and a half months in prison. After her release, she began to sneak out of the ghetto as often as she could. As conditions worsened, her Christian friend, Henryk Krueger, urged her to escape, but she hesitated.
When the deportations began on June 22, 1942, her mother insisted she leave. Aspler’s parents and brother did not survive.
Krueger, who was named by Yad Vashem to the Righteous Among the Nations in 1987, smuggled her to the Christian side with another man.
Unlike many Holocaust survivors, my mother was able to put the past behind her.
– Carl Aspler
The two young Poles recreated her as Maria, a cousin from the country. Passing as a Christian was not easy for the dark-haired Aspler, nor was learning enough about Catholicism to be believed.
Aspler’s identity was soon discovered and Krueger found her a couple of temporary hiding places, until a family he knew took her in as a boarder. He also got her a job in a library.
With a priest’s co-operation, Aspler obtained an official identity card using the birth certificate of a dead child.
She was working at the library when the Warsaw Uprising broke out on Aug. 1, 1944. The library’s basement was turned into a first aid station, where Aspler and a Polish girlfriend of hers made themselves useful to the underground by bandaging the wounded and delivering messages to the outside.
After that, her assignments became even more hazardous: she entered burning buildings to search for anyone who was trapped inside and dodged bullets in the streets.
As she recounted in her memoir, “All the enforced passivity under the occupation, all my repressed energy, now exploded in fearless exploits.”
After the failed revolt, she, her Polish girlfriend and a third young woman they met joined the thousands fleeing the city, and were eventually sent to Germany to do forced factory labour. The trio escaped the drudgery on a Dutch canal boat docked on the Rhine, only to be cast out with nowhere to go.
She lit up the lives of almost everyone she met.
– Carl Aspler
A young farmworker urged them to work on farms, where they could at least have enough to eat. That was true for Aspler, but she had to work hard to earn her keep.
One day, American soldiers in tanks arrived. Aspler went to a DP camp in Landsberg that was run by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. The deputy director was Moe Aspler of Montreal. They married at the camp.
Carl Aspler says his mother always spoke of her life in Canada as a rebirth and her marriage as a genuine love that ended only with Moe Aspler’s death in 1981.
“Unlike many Holocaust survivors, my mother was able to put the past behind her,” said Carl Aspler, who describes his mother as a resourceful, cheerful person who had a thirst for life, enjoying cultural events and learning. She was probably one of the first people in Montreal to take up yoga and worked out at the YM-YWHA until she was in her 80s.
With Moe Aspler, she was involved in numerous fundraising and charitable activities and welcomed many into their home. Carl Aspler and his twin sister, Fanya, dubbed it “Hotel Aspler,” because so many newcomers and foreign visitors passed through.
“She lit up the lives of almost everyone she met,” Carl Aspler said.
Fanya Aspler, who lives in Israel, described her mother as “funny, strong and caring. She believed that, regardless of the past, people had to move on.… She had a positive outlook throughout her life. People were entranced in her company.”