The first time I remember meeting my aunt, Tante (Auntie) Lisle, was in 1961, when my family and I drove from Montreal to Quebec City. My dad parked our Pontiac in front of the mental institution in Quebec City where my aunt was working as a nurse. After being buzzed in through the heavy security doors, we walked down a hallway to a waiting room.
Appearing in the doorway was a woman wearing a full nun’s habit. A silver-coloured crucifix hung from a rope-sash on her waist.
It was my Tante Lisle. She was not only a nurse, but a Carmelite nun. While I was well aware of our family history, it still seemed odd that my dad’s sister would be dressed that way. Perhaps especially strange since I was studying for my bar mitzvah.
During the war, my dad’s father, Otto, sensing the coming storm, left Vienna for Brussels with his wife Gretl and their two children; my dad, Walter, and his sister Lisle. After Germany invaded Belgium, the family hid in a small apartment. One day, while both my dad and his sister were out, their parents were arrested by the SS and forced into a crowded cattle car. After hours of stifling entrapment, the door would have opened to the sight of the gates of Auschwitz.
My dad, then all of 17 years old, placed his 15-year-old sister in a convent in Waterloo, Belgium, in order to keep her safe.
Their parents never returned. When the war ended, Lisle was adopted and brought to Britain by my uncle Alli and his wife Fritzi, who was the sister of Lisle’s mom, Gretl. While there, she completed midwifery school and some nursing courses, but then she ran away and headed back to the convent in Waterloo.
I sat in that waiting room looking at her. Her face was soft and pretty, and her large, brown eyes were warm and welcoming.
She seemed surprisingly cheery, considering everything she’d been through. Before arriving in Quebec, she had spent years in the Congo. While there, she worked in a small hospital, but was frequently summoned to the outer villages in the jungle to attend to births and various health crises. She spoke so fondly of that time and of the people, especially the children, before things changed drastically.
The Congo was officially controlled by Belgium from 1908 to 1960, although the Congo Free State had been ruled by King Leopold II of Belgium as his personal colony since 1885.
His rule was unimaginably brutal, especially during those early Free State years, resulting in estimates of between 3- and 13-million Congolese deaths. Independence was not achieved without its share of violence. When the revolt occurred, it was angry and brutal. Doctors in the hospital where Lisle worked were beaten with bicycle chains. Phone lines went down throughout the country. I recall that my dad had contacted a ham radio operator, in a frantic attempt to find out what was happening inside the country.
It must have been yet another horrible time for her. And now here she was, safe with her long lost brother and family in Canada, in this strange institution. How different it must have been from her previous life. Aside from what must have been challenging work with her psychiatric patients, her situation in Quebec must also have been a difficult adjustment. My dad, who was happy to be with his sister after more than a decade apart, drove back to Quebec City on his own a few weeks after our initial visit. There was a skating rink outside of the institution, so my dad bought two pairs of skates. But Lisle’s superiors in the Carmelite order wouldn’t allow her to go skating with a man, regardless of the fact that he was her brother.
A year or so later, Lisle was transferred to Switzerland, and from there, to France. I didn’t see her again for a number of years.
When my dad turned 60, my sisters and I flew to Vienna to meet him and my mom, who had flown over earlier. Having such bad memories of the war, they had not wanted to return for more than 30 years. After some days in Vienna, visiting places that were, for my parents, full of poignant memories, we drove to Brussels, where Tante Lisle joined us.
My sisters and I were full of questions. I wanted to know why she’d decided to become a nun. She told me that she felt that she had been called by God. My dad’s version was that she had been a mommy’s girl, and when her mom didn’t return after the war, she was lost. The convent provided the security and direction she was looking for. But who’s to say? Perhaps there was truth in both versions.
On my way home from India in the early 1970s, I decided to visit her in France, where she was working at a women’s convalescent home run by the order of Carmelites.
Unfortunately, she was away at the time. While there, I discovered that she was in fact the mother superior of the place.
Many years later, she visited me at my home in rural Ontario. It was a lovely time that gave us a chance to bond. She was thrilled when we went out in my canoe on the river. I last visited with her when she was living at a nun’s retirement convent in Fribourg, Switzerland. Despite being in her early 80s, it was an effort to keep up with her brisk pace, as we walked about the town.
The order of Carmelites, which was founded in the 12th century on Mount Carmel, is an austere order of abstinence and poverty, but as I discovered, my Tante Lisle certainly did enjoy a fine restaurant; as she pointed out – ones with cloth napkins, not paper.
Later, when she fell and broke her hip, things seems to spiral downwards for her. She spent her last months at the same Carmelite convalescent home where she had once been the mother superior.
My Tante Lisle was born and raised in a Viennese Jewish family, but through terribly difficult circumstance that no 15-year-old child should have had to endure, she found a life in faith, a different faith, that stayed with her ’till the end.
My Tante Lisle passed away early in the morning of August 9, 2017. She was 90 years old. She lived a remarkable life.
Photographer Micky Absil’s film, A Witness To History, is available on YouTube.