Susan Pasternak was born in northeastern Poland in 1939, just month before the outbreak of World War II. The Germans forced her family to live in the ghetto of Zambrów, but arrangements were made for her and her mother to hide in the apartment of a Polish woman in the town.
“My mother and I snuck out of the ghetto. We lived under a table with a heavy black cloth. That was home for my mother and me for 3-1/2 years.”
Pasternak told her story in Child Survivors – Then & Now: Understanding Our Childhood and its Impact on Our Lives, a documentary film that debuted at Baycrest Health Sciences Centre on Nov. 3 during Holocaust Education Week. About 100 people attended the event, which included a discussion with the child Holocaust survivors following the screening.
Humber College film professor Eva Ziemsen and her students produced the film. It featured participants in a group for child Holocaust survivors co-facilitated by Baycrest social workers Peggy Solomon and Shoshana Yaakobi.
The group – it now has about a dozen members from diverse European backgrounds – is held bi-monthly and was started by Solomon back in 2003. The participants began as a group of strangers and grew to become friends, Solomon said. “They’re a dynamic type of family.”
In the film, the members spoke about surviving the war as children, and some of them also discussed their experiences as new immigrants in Canada.
When Pasternak disembarked at Pier 21 in Halifax in 1947, she was only eight years old. “I was the first immigrant child to arrive from Europe after the war.”
But she came alone. Her mother suffered a fatal heart attack after the war ended in 1945. Pasternak was in a displaced persons camp until she was reunited with an aunt who’d immigrated to Canada before the war.
Faigie Libman was born into a prosperous family in Kaunas, Lithuania. She and her mother, the only survivors in their family, were able to stay together in concentration and labour camps, she recounted. “My mother registered me. Instead of saying I was 10, she said I was 12. She stuffed me in the right places. I remained in the concentration camp, and I was one of the best workers. I consider myself a miracle.”
Anna Cheszes was born near Bialystok as Pola Kaplan around 1940. When she was a toddler, she was sent to live with a Jewish family that had fake Polish identity papers, as well as baptism papers for an Anna Strzelczyk. Cheszes took on that name.
Beppie Erlich, who was originally from the Netherlands, was hidden under tiles when at age five and fed through a straw.
Gershon Williger, a participant in the group with wife Jane, is also from the Netherlands. His parents were killed at Stutthof in 1944. He said he found out he was Jewish after the war, when he was eight years old. In his youth, he became very connected to Israel through Habonim. “I fell in love with the State of Israel… I was eager to get out of Europe. Europe had robbed me of my family.”
Harry Rozendaal, another survivor of Dutch origin, described the isolation he and his wife experienced when they immigrated to Canada and never really felt connected to a community in Montreal. He also spoke of the loneliness he now feels since the death of his wife of 58 years. “I’m still suffering. I miss her every day.”
Etti Miller, who was born in the Vilna Ghetto in 1941, recalled the social challenges she faced when she first came to Toronto. “I didn’t know the language. I had two long braids. I was chubby and I was picked on. Two or three kids would beat me up. It was scheduled every day.”
The teachers overlooked the bullying, because she didn’t have the language facility to tell them about the harassment, she said. “Life was a misery.”
While things improved for her by Grade 7, as an only child, she was very aware of her parents’ suffering. “I felt that I should not put more burden on my parents. They loved me, but they had their own tzuris.”
They’d been Polish partisans. Her father, a wealthy, educated man, had a lot of prestige in Europe, she said. “After the war, my parents were broken. They lived in their own shadow. As I got older, I realized: thank God I survived the war, as opposed to other kids who didn’t. I have to make the best of it.”
Other participants in the child survivors group include Rose Factor, Hans Sanders, Yolanda Engels, Marika Freeman, Fili Cassares and Nina Koval.