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Finding My Voice as a ‘3G’ Holocaust Survivor

Photo by Lāsma Artmane on Unsplash

My teenage son’s teacher wrote in the class Whatsapp Group a week before Yom Hashoa:

“Second reminder: We are looking for a Holocaust survivor or descendant to tell their story to the class on Holocaust Memorial Day. Contact me privately if relevant.”

My heart started racing. “Oh no, it’s my turn,” I thought. The second reminder suggested a lack of volunteers. It made sense; most Holocaust survivors have passed on, and the second generation is thinning out as well.

I knew my day would come—to share my grandparents’ survival stories. Yet, I kept putting it off, preoccupied with work and raising kids. But if not me now, then who? So, I volunteered to recount my grandfather’s survival of Auschwitz to a class of 15-year-olds.

When I told my kids that I would be speaking, and my expectation that all three of them attend, one of them said, “Mom, you should be part of the school’s main memorial ceremony on Monday morning.” “You think?” I asked. “Yeah, I mean, how many people have a grandfather who escaped the Death March? How brave is that?”

Although my kids had heard my grandfather’s story, its significance hadn’t fully sunk in for me until that moment. My son’s words opened my eyes to the profound impact that it had on him. Reflecting on my younger self growing up with these grandparents, who always seemed strange and different from everyone else, I realized how much I underestimated the power of their journey.

It’s 1984 and I’m six years old. I’m sitting on Bubie and Zaida’s green velvet sofa, the transparent plastic covering each pillow sticking to the back of my thighs. It was a humid Toronto summer, and my grandparents didn’t believe in air conditioning, so the sofa was extra sticky.

Their living room was a sea of green and gold—the sofa, the carpet, and that gold standing clock encased in a glass bubble with a turnstile pendulum on a white doily. It was my favorite thing in the room. Least favourite was the decorative plate hanging on the wall of Golda Meir. She seemed to watch my every move, her eyes following me.

We were there for Zaida to take my measurements for my aunt’s upcoming wedding. He was a tailor and was making all of our dresses. I was going to be the flower girl, and I couldn’t wait to see my dress.

I stood in front of the hallway mirror, in awe of the reflection: me wearing a white chiffon dress with a fuchsia ribbon tied around my waist to match the bridesmaids’ dresses.” It was perfect. I felt like a princess. Zaida kneeled down to check the hem. He didn’t even need a pin to remember where to make it. He just knew.

To me, Zaida had the power to make me a princess, but I didn’t know much else about him. He and Bubie kept their lives before coming to Canada in the late 1940s a secret from us, their past concealed in darkness. They wanted us to be fresh and new—Canadian Jews, speaking English and learning French as a second language. Yiddish never touched our lips.

When I noticed the blurred numbers tattooed on Zaida’s arm, I asked him about it. He chuckled and replied, ‘It’s my phone number. How else would I remember it?’ Now I know he was shielding me from the truth out of love, but then Zaida seemed silly to me — a small, older man with piercing grey-green eyes and a funny accent. He stood out among our Canadian family, always dressed in a suit and a hat instead of a kippa, not wanting to appear too Jewish. He was just my funny Zaida, who made me princess dresses and snuck me grape-flavoured candies covered in lint from his pocket when no one was looking. 

Little did I know at the time, this older, awkward man had jumped out of line during the Death March from Auschwitz in the bone-cold winter of 1945, risking being shot dead for trying to escape. He survived for weeks in the forest on raw potatoes. That’s what my sons know about him—not about the funny accent, the grape candies or his phone number tattooed on his arm. They know only the heroic Zaida, and maybe I should see him more in that way too. 

About the Author
Leigh is a Communities Manager at Waze, Google. She moved to Israel from Toronto, Canada, in 2001, right smack in the middle of the Second Intifada. She’s obsessed with Jewish family history and uncovering the secret lives of the heroic Bubies and Zaidas that came before us.
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