As the last generation to have known Holocaust survivors personally, it falls on us to tell their stories.
Today I bear witness to one woman: Perela Weintraub Pila, my late grandmother, mein bubbie.
Perela was the youngest of eight children from a traditional Jewish family in a Polish shtetl. As the war came to her village, the Jews were rounded up in the market square. “Do not come with us,” were her mother’s last life-saving words to her. “Go out into the world.” She never saw her family again.
By then, she had already met my grandfather, Zalman. They wished to marry but felt it was unwise to do so during the war. After separating from her family, Perela tried to flee together with Zalman, but the Nazis caught up with them. Zalman was sent to Auschwitz. Perela was deported first to Graben and then to Bergen-Belsen, where hunger, cold and terror remained constant companions.
Perela contracted typhus on the death march and was transferred to a hospital after liberation. After months in and out of consciousness, she emerged from her bed and was returned to a now-liberated Bergen-Belsen. Here, she was reunited with a friend of her parents, who uttered these auspicious words: “Your fiancé is alive.”
Perela and Zalman married in October 1945. Both were the sole survivors of their large families. My grandmother recalled that her hair was still wet from the mikvah when she and Zalman took their wedding vows.
They came to Canada penniless and unable to speak English. They worked day and night to make a good life for their children and grandchildren. There was no narrative of victimization. The lessons and values they taught were exceptionally positive.
Here are a few simple pearls from the woman called Perela.
On transforming suffering to compassion: Both my grandparents took their suffering and transformed it into hard work and kindness. They knew pain in a way that few ever do and were determined to relieve it in others. Perela was force-fed hatred and inhumanity but nurtured others with love and compassion. She delivered food right to the doorsteps of those in need, visited the sick and provided financial assistance to any person or organization that asked. She always had a smile on her face.
On optimism: “Maybe today is not a good day. Tomorrow will be better.”
On anger and parenting: Parents must keep anger away from their kids. If a child is being difficult, bring that child closer.
On motherhood: “You are a mother and now you are going to suffer.”
On faith: Perela unequivocally ascribed her survival to God and the signs He gave her during those dark years. She was certain that God spared her for the purpose of doing good in the world.
On marriage: My grandparents’ marriage served as a model to our family. They made their decisions together as though they were a single person, and never raised their voices to one another. Her advice to my mother before getting married was to greet your husband with a smile on your face, and be sure to put on some lipstick before he gets home.
On judging others: “If you really want to know someone, you can’t enter the house through the front door. Peek through the back instead.” It was her version of not judging a book by its cover.
This was my grandmother, unknowingly the bane of the radical Islamist world, which accuses her and her ilk of being agents of the great Jewish lie of the Holocaust. She epitomized the ability to instil love into life despite her own unspeakable history. She was living proof of the fallibility of the Islamist promise of victory over the weak and despicable “lovers of life.”
Her memory will remain a testament to the truth of an ancient rabbinic dictum that a little light can vanquish great darkness.
Sheryl Saperia is director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.