We didn’t know much about Shimon’s family when I started digging around the Internet. Bela said her Aunt Nechama made dress forms in a big company, and that she’d bugged her mother, Ida, to help her find a boyfriend; Nechama married in 1939.
Two years later, Vilna’s Jews were moved to the Ghetto, then transported to labour camps and killed.
Shimon had been told that everyone perished in the killing pits of Ponar, a place around ten kilometres outside Vilna, where Jewish families used to go for summer picnics. Between 70,000 and 100,000 people were murdered there, most of them Jews.
Except Aunt Nechama’s story didn’t end in Ponar. In Yad Vashem I found a tiny card from a labour camp called Klooga in Estonia. There, Prisoner 1099, Nechama Gurwicz, born in 1913 in Vilna, a seamstress, is recorded as belonging to the Beton Commando division. She went to the camp Revier or “sick bay” for two days. A sister-in-law was there with her too. There’s no card for her beloved Abraham. Two thousand Jewish men and women were sent from the “liquidated” ghettos of Kaunas and Vilna to this concentration camp beginning in August of 1943. Prisoners poured cement, worked in sawmills and some kind of tailor shop, and built field barracks. They were allowed to wear their own clothes, and their heads were shaved. There was almost nothing to eat.
We only have these records because the camp clerk, a prisoner himself, named Josef Niedermann from Vilna, regularly updated the little prisoner registration cards. They are the only documents to have survived Klooga’s administrative records.
For a wild moment, I fantasize that Nechama made it, turning up someplace in Estonia, or sailing on an illegal boat to Palestine. But the reality is that as Russian troops advanced so close the prisoners could hear and smell explosions, those who hadn’t already died of starvation, disease or abuse were tied to piles of lumber, shot, and their bodies partially burned. The Germans ran for their lives, and the Russians found the camp four days later.
I thought of Prisoner 1099 when I heard the grim news of the discovery of 215 children’s bodies on the grounds of the former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. I felt incredible sadness, but not surprise. How could it be anything else, when First Nations leaders tell us that many more such discoveries will be made all over our country, from Kamloops to our own Shubenacadie?
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre and a professor of law at UBC, and a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation is working on piecing together the truth about residential school from memories of survivors. She’s searching for official records and expressed her frustration and outrage on June 2, 2021 on CBC Radio’s The Current: “And I’ll just tell you that, like as an example, we have a death, we have a death registry. And if you look at one of the entries in the memorial register, one child was simply referred to and I quote, Indian girl number 237. No last name. Very often there is misspelling of cultural names or people were given new names in English or French. It’s really hard to know who is Indian girl number 237 … there’s no way any Canadian should let us rest easy without knowing who is that girl and how are we going to find out who she is, who are her people and how did she get there?”
In his new book, Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy, author Gary Barwin links the stories of Jews and Indigenous people, writing: ‘Natives and Jews,” he began. We’re like a rash. Try to get rid of us, sure, but you never can. We refuse to die.” So, you and me, we’re genocide buddies…But a Jewish cowboy isn’t a regular one. He’s more like you First Nations, because he knows something about being rounded up, about not being able to live where you want. About being run off by the cavalry. Hunted by regular cowboys. Though they were wearing brown shirts and jackboots.”
After meeting the late Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe and absorbing her words about her life in the Shubenacadie Residential School, I asked myself, what did I know growing up about our First Nations people? Buried in a closet in my mother’s house is a notebook from elementary school. I can remember being made to memorize names of various tribes, whether they were “peaceful or warlike,” whether or not they still existed. I found this notebook but left it in the closet after reading “The Beothuk were peaceful, and were all slaughtered.”
Growing up, I spent lots of time with my grandparents in Pugwash, the Anglicized name given to the place the Mi’kmaq called Pagweak. It means “shallow water,” a reference to that place in the harbour where a reef prevents boats from easily entering.
My grandparents lived on what was to me a large property, full of endless places to explore – from my grandmother’s closet to the fields of hay leading to the water. The water wasn’t a place for swimming, but for gazing, reflecting, thinking and staring out at the nearby little island, where my grandfather said bears might live. I had a favourite tree on that little strip of beach, which I could climb with a book or a diary, sitting on a branch with the tree trunk holding my back, a place to imagine fantastic stories. No-one worried where I was or even noticed I wasn’t with them. It was private, all mine, with a soundtrack of gulls crying and crows cawing.
It’s fifty years later; now I’m responsible for that house and that property.
I smell apples as I walk through a mature orchard that didn’t exist when I was a girl. Then I smell the beach with its crunch underfoot of reedy dried seaweed before I see it and hear the sound of little lapping waves that brings me back to childhood. The river is salt. I instinctively look for the old rowboat that sat here for years, of course, long disintegrated.
I remember my Great Aunt Laura. Born in 1908, she lived to be over 100, silent at the end as dementia took away her talk. A gentle and hard-working woman, a Baptist, a believer. She lost her husband too young, and carried on raising their family. She never missed sending me a birthday card or a note at Easter, and I loved visiting her cozy farmhouse, cookies always fresh from the big wood stove. I played hymns and sang with her at her pump organ in the parlour.
As a child, she’d slipped away behind the family farm and wandered through the hay fields, past the big barn, the piggery and the chicken coop, down to the same shore of the Pugwash River that I loved generations later. There, she met and befriended Mi’kmaq children, who were probably camping at their traditional fishing grounds in the summertime. She learned some words in their language. She learned a song (or songs). We don’t know how many encounters she had with these children, but one day her father caught her and took her away. He told her that wasn’t safe, and never to visit them again. Being Aunt Laura, I bet she obeyed him.
We all regret that we didn’t record her singing the songs, telling the story, sharing the words she’d learned. Now she’s gone, the Mi’kmaq families she met too; this is just a story passed down in our family.
I walk to the shore, where her family used to discard old and broken things, where I used to discover shards of pottery and broken bottles as a kid. If I dug far enough would I find remnants of the other families that used to stay on this beach?
Looking for information about the Mi’kmaq in Pugwash, I find a letter in the Provincial Archives. Pugwashian H. G. Pineo asks Halifax for help. He was possibly related to me; members of the small community in Pugwash often intermarried. With a flourishing hand, he wrote on 19th February, 1857:
To Wm. Chearnley, Esq. Indian Commissionaire.
There appears to be in this Neighbourhood Five families of destitute Indians who are suffering for want of Blankets and clothing…I have therefore taken the liberty of addressing you on their behalf knowing them to very needy and if you feel justified in Sending a pair or two of blankets for each to my care, they will be dealt out according to your directory. I have the (?) to be your servant, H.G. Pineo.
(Written on side): Please excuse the liberty taken being a perfect stranger. I never had such an application before, but can truly say they are suffering.
I read this letter and think of the blast of winter wind that hurt my ear for weeks after I walked over the Pugwash River in March. I think of Nechama finding her beloved Abraham, writing to her sister-in-law in Palestine, hoping to visit one day. But then came 1944, Estonia. I imagine Aunt Laura, tucked in her feather bed c. 1914, probably missing her new friends. But then came 2021, Kamploops.
We find (or don’t) what’s buried and lost. And stand on the shores listening for the stories of Prisoner 1099, Indian Girl 237.