St. Urbain Street – which was made famous by Mordecai Richler’s descriptions of immigrant life in that dense, colourful, Montreal neighbourhood during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s – was my street. Everything was close by – school, my father’s grocery store, the bakery, the Jewish Y and Mount Royal, the lush park where we hiked, picnicked and played. We lived in an apartment building abutting the sidewalk, amid the constant noise of cars, trucks and horse-drawn wagons. I can still hear the rhythmic clip-clop of the hooves, as the milk wagon, ice wagon and peddlers’ carts trotted by my window.
My room was the smallest, but it had a large window facing the street. On mild days, my brother and I could hang out the window, call to our friends, count cars and smell the horse manure. On a Sunday, friends of all ages joined us at home for a midday meal in our crowded kitchen. Conversation was in Yiddish, our vernacular and my first language. The adults talked politics, followed Second World War developments and sang songs. Sometimes, refugees from the Holocaust joined us, sitting silent and scared. I was too young to understand what was happening in Europe.
Letters were our lifeline across continents. There had been weekly letters from my mom’s parents and sisters in Lithuania, dating from 1936, when her brother, Uncle Jack, first came to Montreal as a young man. The whole family should have come to Canada at that point in time, but my grandmother was hesitant. By 1938, they realized they had missed their chance to emigrate.
Over time, my grandmother’s letters to my mother and Uncle Jack became desperate:
“What’s happening dear children about the trip? The situation here is very tense. There’s the same trouble as before. Now we would like to run away but it’s too late. A mountain stands before us and it’s hard to climb. You should find out everything in detail and immediately write us.”
The urge to escape was strong, but both sides faced major obstacles, including a lack of money and visas. My mom tried to raise the funds, asking for help from our cousins in New York. And she sought ways of getting the necessary documents, all to no avail. Meanwhile, grandmother also had no money and could not get the necessary visas.
In 1939, my grandmother dreamed of seeing her Canadian grandchildren. “Tell your children when we see them, we’ll bring a present,” she wrote.
Fear went both ways. By 1940, my mother was worried about her stranded family and my grandmother was worried that Canada had declared war, putting her loved ones in danger.
“Malca’s husband is in the Russian army, we want to know if the men in your family are in the Canadian army. We haven’t heard from you in months and are sick with worry about all of you,” she wrote.
The last letter I have from that time period was from 1941. It read: “My dear children, if only we could be there with you.”
After that, the letters stopped coming. The Germans moved into Lithuania around June 1941, mobilizing troops of locals to slaughter Jews. Of our 11 relatives, only two survived the war. It took my mom years to find out that all were dead except for my aunt and uncle. On both sides of the Atlantic, the family was torn apart by guilt and anguish, with most never to meet again.
Like so many, the Holocaust hit our household hard. When the letters stopped arriving, a dark cloud hovered over the house. And my memories of St. Urbain Street, coloured by the sweet times my brother and I enjoyed together, were deadened by the tragic trials etched in my brain. I will never forget my mother’s sorrow over the fact that she could not rescue her dear ones, and the way she cried as she cooked, cleaned and washed laundry in the bathtub.
Sarah Angrist is a retired sociologist who has created a family archive of letters, photos and documents at the Canadian Jewish Congress. She lives in Pittsburgh. (firstname.lastname@example.org)