Reaching a 100th birthday means defying the odds, but for Olga Perlmutter, celebrating that milestone is, as she says, a miracle – actually, a series of miracles.
The still sparkling centenarian is a survivor of Auschwitz who lost her parents and four siblings in the Holocaust, after they were deported from Hungary.
But liberation did not end her trials: she faced early widowhood, dislocation, poverty and troubles adjusting to her new life in Israel, and later Canada.
Family and friends are not surprised she endured, because they know how extraordinarily strong, determined and hardworking she is. Adversity and time have not diminished her charm, wit and graciousness, as was evident when her loved ones gathered at her Côte-St-Luc, Que. condo for her special birthday.
Perlmutter (née Taub) was born on Mar. 2, 1919, in Sarospatak, Hungary. She was one of seven children. After the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944, she turned down the opportunity to escape by going underground with her brother, Joseph Taub.
“She refused to save herself, if doing so meant abandoning her father, mother and most of her siblings,” said the elder of her two sons, Joseph Perlmutter.
Upon arriving in Auschwitz, she was branded “A21364,” which is still visible on her arm. She refused to remove the tattoo, so that younger generations would know what happened.
During the selection process, she watched the Nazis shoot two of her siblings and witnessed her remaining family vanish into the gas chambers.
She survived by toiling as a slave labourer. Today, she points heavenward, suggesting that was only possible through divine providence.
After the war, Perlmutter returned to her hometown and married another Auschwitz survivor in 1946.
They had two sons, Joseph, a real estate investor who has lived for many years in Los Angeles, and Tom, who was chair of the National Film Board of Canada from 2007-2013.
Her husband died a short time later, leaving her alone with a two year old and a six month old.
With life under communism becoming increasingly oppressive, she fled Hungary, managing to get her family to Vienna, then Rome and eventually to Israel.
“She lived in a dirt shack with her toddlers, working nights in an asbestos factory and taking care of us during the day,” said Joseph Perlmutter. “Times were very tough and dangerous, especially for a widow. She feared for the lives of her children.”
Later, her brother, Joseph Taub, urged her to join him in Montreal. Reluctantly, she did so in 1952, only to find herself in a small flat on St-Joseph Boulevard with three other families.
She married Max Perlmutter, a fellow Hungarian survivor, and later opened a hair salon. The family finally enjoyed a comfortable life.
Max died in 1983, so Perlmutter has known a long second widowhood.
She had always been a great cook and baker, and to this day, she continues to make marvellous creations almost every day for her friends and family.
With her family scattered, friendship has been what has sustained her in recent years.
Several times a week, she and a half-dozen other women, all Hungarian Holocaust survivors over 90, get together to play bridge. They play for up to five hours at a time, gossiping as they go. Among them is Hedy Landau, who boasts that she’s been friends with Perlmutter for 79 years.
The group of friends are all widows who live autonomously and are “fiercely independent, smart, sharp and funny,” said Tom Perlmutter. The veteran filmmaker knew a great story when he saw it, which is why he’s co-directing and co-producing a documentary on them called The Card Game.
Now in its final edit, the film was shown at the birthday party – much to the delight of Perlmutter and her friends.
It’s a charming portrait of mutual support, humour, wisdom and resilience, but becomes poignant when they confide that they are still haunted by their narrow escapes from death.
“You never get over it,” said Perlmutter, showing some of her old defiance. “We suffered so much, but for what? We’re just the same as everyone else.”
Their tight-knit circle reassures them that they are not alone. Rare is the day they are not, at least, in telephone contact.
Perlmutter is quite comfortable in front of the camera. She already stars in a short YouTube video of her making Hungarian crepes that was filmed by her granddaughter.
Food is her expression of love and gratitude, said Tom Perlmutter, which she has made into an art form.
“She is an artist,” he said. “She gets agitated if you do not handle a cake the right way. When she cuts her chestnut roll, each slice is perfect.”