HALIFAX — On a recent Friday morning at Windsor Forks District School in Nova Scotia, a short, grey-haired grandmother looked fondly at the children seated in front of her on the gymnasium floor.
Melissa Fox, a Grade 6 teacher at Windsor Forks District School in Nova Scotia, watches as Toronto’s Edith Gelbard, a Holocaust survivor, autographs a book after speaking to more than 240 students at the school.
As the kids listened, she slowly weaved her story of hope, heartbreak, chance and, finally, survival to make a full life.
Edith Gelbard, a 76-year-old Torontonian, was five years old in 1938 in when the Germans rolled into her native Austria to persecute Jews and other non-Aryans.
Her family escaped to Belgium, then to France, as the German onslaught continued. In France, little Edith, then eight, and her three-year-old brother, Gaston, were placed in one non-Jewish foster home after another for the next five years. In the latter stages of the war, to hide her Jewish heritage, she changed her name and birthplace and told people that she was an orphan.
Toronto author Kathy Kacer heard Gelbard speak in Toronto and asked to write her story. In 2006, Kacer published a 150-page illustrated book that has been re-printed twice, as well as translated into Japanese and printed in braille.
A chance discovery of that book led to Gelbard’s visit to Nova Scotia.
Windsor Forks Grade 6 teacher Melissa Fox found the book, Hiding Edith, on her mother’s kitchen counter last summer.
“I read the blurb on the back of the book, was interested and read it,” she recalled. “I was so captivated, I read it to my class last fall, and they wrote letters to Edith. They asked tons of questions and she answered them all. Then they asked her to come to our school to visit.”
Gelbard started telling her story to schools and other groups seven years ago after her husband died.
“It was something I needed to do,” she said, “even though I don’t sleep the night before any of my talks.”
At Windsor Forks, she showed pictures of her youth and related stories of how she was uprooted at age five, with her family, from their Austrian home; of how they escaped to Belgium and France; of separation from her mother and father, and of being hidden by fearless people until the end of the war, when she was reunited with her mother and sister.
She was 13 in 1945 and had spent more than five years in hiding.
Gelbard captivated more than 240 children at Windsor Forks, some of whom came from other area schools to hear her.
They sat silently for more than 40 minutes as she told them how, as a child, she could no longer go to school, movies, or to the park, and how stores owned by Jews were closed and Jewish teachers were unable to teach.
She talked about being bullied because she was Jewish, and implored the children, “Please, please, please don’t be a bully. Be good to everyone. You’re our next generation. Don’t let another Hitler come back.”
She talked about lacking food and eating rotten carrots that she found in garbage.
“I still eat carrots today, though,” she said with a smile. “But I cook them how I like them.”
Several times, she heard bombs dropping nearby, and, she admitted, “I’m still scared of thunder today.”
The students in grades 4 to 6 wrote poetry about Gelbard’s experiences and painted pictures of areas where she lived, of her hiding behind bushes, and of her eating carrots that she found in the trash.
Hands flew into to the air when she asked for questions.
One boy asked about her family.
She told him her father was in the Buchenwald concentration camp but was liberated on April 10, 1945.
“He died the next day,” she said, sadly.
Fox was pleased with the students’ reaction.
“When I was reading the book to them, they’d say, every day, ‘Don’t stop.’ As children, they could relate to Edith at a young age. When we invited her to speak to us, I told the kids we wouldn’t have this opportunity forever to hear, first hand, from a survivor,” she said.
“It’s important that the story never be forgotten. These children will be able to carry on the stories of the Holocaust.”