Since I am a geriatrician, all my patients are elderly, many of them in their late 80s or 90s, and a few over 100. Because I work in the Baycrest geriatric care system, many are Jewish, and as might be expected from the history of immigration to Canada, a good number are Holocaust survivors.
Many of my patients and their families assume, because of my deep interest in their Holocaust histories, that I am likely a child of Holocaust survivors. I am not, and really had little exposure to survivors until my adult years, despite having grown up in Brighton Beach, a very Jewish part of Brooklyn, N.Y. My maternal grandmother, with whom I shared our one bedroom along with my younger sister, was a pogrom survivor, having come to the United States as a teenager in the early 20th century.
I was amazed by the fact that she seemed to understand and speak many languages, which she explained in one of the many stories she told me about her life in Lithuania: “[The people] in charge changed all the time, so you had to figure out what was the right language to speak so that you would be left alone – Yiddish was not one of them.”
My first recognition that there was something unusual about some of the people from Europe my grandmother knew came one summer when I was six or seven, and we went to Catskill’s farm for a week’s vacation.
My grandmother enjoyed her time very much. She was a singer in Yiddish choirs, and she and the other guests gathered in the common room in the evenings and sang songs in a multitude of eastern European languages and Yiddish. I noticed that most of the people had blue numbers on their forearms, the meaning of which I did not yet understand.
I was more taken with the young daughter of the people who owned the farm/guest house. She taught me how to catch flies by quickly running an open hand across a table or railing. We then took the fly, which was jiggling in the hand, tossed it into a beautiful spider web in the porch railing and watched the spider wrap the fly for some future meal. It was fascinating, but of course I did not get close to understanding the irony of subjecting a living thing to a trap and to death by another living thing, but this one was “nature” and not “human nature.”
My adolescent years opened up the historical aspects of the Holocaust for me. I was very interested in the history of Nazi Germany, and with that, came the story of the Jews, although often not as the primary focus.
But during my medical school years in Scotland, I decided to spend a month as an exchange medical student in the obstetrics and gynecology department in Rambam Hospital in Haifa. The trip became an epiphany in my life, and led to my recognition of my place in the world and in the history of the Jews.
Most powerful was my working with Prof. Aharon Peretz, head of the department, who did a weekly German reparations clinic for those who qualified because of gynecological afflictions. I asked him after one clinic why he indicated on the necessary forms that virtually all the problems he saw in these patients he attributed to their Holocaust experience.
He looked at me and said, “As far as I am concerned, all of these conditions have their source in these women’s Holocaust experience.”
It was years later that I discovered that he was a key witness at Adolf Eichmann’s trial: he had provided medical care in the concentration camps. Because of his aura and influence on me, my world changed. I eventually moved to Israel, but most importantly, my eyes and soul were opened to the Holocaust.
During my more than 37 years at Baycrest, I have been involved in the stories, fears, flashbacks, recountings of horror and heroism and survival that come with the survivors’ repertoire. For that experience, I am forever grateful that I could somehow participate in that epoch and in our collective history.
My own family’s experience of persecution predated the Shoah, but was part of the continuum that we must always remember as we honour those who came before us.