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Elsa Thon

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Born
January 10, 1923 Pruszków, Poland

Map of Mukacevo, Czechoslovakia

Immigrated
1980 Toronto, Ontario

Elsa Thon was a sixteen-year-old photographer's apprentice when the Nazis occupied her town of Pruszków, Poland. When her family was sent to the Warsaw ghetto, Elsa joined a community farm and was recruited by the Underground. Despite her deep belief in destiny, Elsa refused to bow to her fate as a Jew in war-torn Poland.

About Elsa

Elsa Thon was born on January 10, 1923, in Pruszków, Poland. After liberation, she married Mayer Thon, a Soviet tank commander, and moved to Israel in 1948. As war survivors, they were given special permission to immigrate to Argentina in 1955, where they lived until moving to Canada in 1980. Elsa Thon lives in Toronto.

Photos and Artifacts

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    Elsa's Aunt Dina (centre) with her children before the war. From left to right are Elsa's cousins Toby, Marysia, Benjamin and Itzhak. Pruszków, Poland, circa 1930.

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    Elsa (back row, second from left), age twelve, in a school photo. Pruszków, Poland, 1935.

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    Elsa's sister, Regina, in a photo Elsa took while working at the Abramowicz photography studio when she was fourteen. Pruszków, Poland, 1937.

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    The Bielec photo studio in Krakow, where Elsa worked between 1942 and 1943. Photo credit: Elwina Pokrywka.

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    Elsa and her husband, Mayer Thon, after the war. Lodz, 1946.

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    Elsa in her mid-twenties. Israel, circa 1948.

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    Elsa and her children, Sonia and Nathan, circa 1954.

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    Elsa's children with their extended family in Argentina. In the back is her cousin Benjamin's son, Sergio; in the middle row, Benjamin's daughter Berta (left), and Elsa's daughter, Sonia; in the front row, Elsa's son, Nathan (left), and Benjamin's granddaughter, Diana. Buenos Aires, circa 1956.

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    Susanna Synalewicz, daughter of Elsa's cousin Benjamin.

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    Elsa and her children, Sonia and Nathan, in Argentina. Circa 1965.

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    Elsa with her husband, Mayer, and son, Nathan, in Argentina in the mid-1970s.

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    Elsa's son, Nathan, at his graduation from university in Buenos Aires with his wife, Lucia.

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    Elsa and her family soon after her son's Nathan's arrival in Toronto in the mid-1980s. From left to right: Elsa's husband, Mayer; her granddaughter, Naomi; her daughter, Sonia; her daughter-in-law, Lucia; Elsa; and her son, Nathan. Seated in front are grandsons Joshua (left) and Jonathan (right).

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    Elsa's childhood friend Halina with her family in Toronto in the 1980s.

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    Elsa and her family in the 1990s.

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    Elsa with her daughter, Sonia, and her granddaughter, Naomi, after Sonia was awarded her PhD from the University of Toronto.

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    Elsa signing the Spanish edition of her memoir. Buenos Aires, 2000.

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    Elsa and family at the inauguration of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem's Wall of Remembrance Holocaust memorial at Earl Bales Park, where her parents' names are engraved. Her grandson Joshua and son, Nathan, are in the back row; in front are Elsa; her daughter-in-law, Lucia; and Mayer, Elsa's husband. Toronto, 2001.

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    Elsa speaking at Holocaust Remembrance Day, with member of parliament Art Eggleton standing behind her on the far left. Toronto, 2002.

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    Elsa's granddaughter, Naomi, celebrating Rosh Hashanah with Elsa's husband, Mayer, and Elsa's son, Nathan. Toronto, circa 2005.

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    Elsa's husband, Mayer; her grandsons, Joshua and Jonathan; and her son, Nathan. Toronto, circa 2006.

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    Mayer and Elsa. Toronto, 2007.

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    Elsa. Toronto, 2007.

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    Elsa and her husband, Mayer, at grandson Joshua's admission to the bar. From left to right: Joshua's wife, Cindy; Joshua; Jonathan's wife, Lauren; Elsa's grandson Jonathan; Elsa's daughter, Sonia; Elsa's son, Nathan; and Nathan's wife, Lucia. Toronto, 2012.

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    Elsa's great-grandson, Matthew.

The Book

Cover of If Only It Were Fiction

If Only It Were Fiction

Only a miracle could save me now. What God would accept my prayers? I was a fraud. I carried forged documents. I lied all the time. I wasn't who I said I was. But I wanted to live.

Explore more of Elsa’s story in Re:Collection

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If Only It Were Fiction

Elsa Joins the Resistance

In the middle of the summer of 1942, we were coming in from the fields one day when someone said that Leah wanted to see me. She was in the kitchen with another woman, chatting. Leah introduced her to me as Irena Adamowicz. Irena was a leader in the Polish scouting organization. Outraged by the injustice done to the Jews, she helped out however she could. Irena travelled across the country, making contact with chalutzim in the major ghettos and telling them about how the underground resistance operated. Although travel was dangerous for Jews, a few chalutzot, like Lonka who had come to the farm earlier, successfully fulfilled their mission as messengers too. The messengers were purchasing weapons, which then were smuggled into the ghettos through the sewers. Most people in the ghettos couldn’t communicate with others about what to do in case of a massacre but through Irena, they knew how the others were preparing for such a time.

Irena talked to me for a while. She told me that I was being sent to Krakow. She asked how I felt about resistance work and whether or not I knew Christian prayers. I told her I knew many of them by heart after so many years of hearing Catholic students saying the prayers every morning at school. She seemed satisfied with my answers. Irena gave me the address of a convent and told me to send a letter to the Mother Superior on the seventh day of every month as a sign that I was still alive. Whenever the underground needed me, they would let me know. She handed me a prayer book and said only, “Be careful and good luck.” That was the only advice I was to receive. The rest of my training would come from real-life situations. I would have to trust my intuition to keep me out of danger, just as animals do. They don’t think about it, they simply know when danger is near.

The next day, the resistance had organized for Hela and I to go to the village to have pictures taken for our identification documents. Dvora lent me a pretty blouse and combed my hair, so I would look my best. We walked through the village, afraid that someone would recognize us as Jews. The photographer took me by surprise when he asked me my surname. In shock, I didn’t think but just said the first name that came to my mind, a surname connected to the aristocracy. That name, Elżbieta Orlanska, was the one that was used in my forged documents. This was a stroke of luck because later it was useful in getting other documents required by the German authorities.

A few days later, with a forged document that stated that I was from Rzeszów and a letter from Leah for Laban, the leader of the resistance movement in the Krakow ghetto, I was sent to Krakow on the morning train. Hela was sent to another city in the afternoon.

After the war, I discovered that the rest of my group back on the farm in Czerniaków were sent to the Warsaw ghetto about four months after I left for Krakow. In April 1943, when an order came from the Nazis to concentrate all Jews in the ghetto for a massive deportation, some of the group, who were living at 18 Mila Street and belonged to the underground Jewish Fighting Organization, rebelled. Others simply dispersed. Most of them did not survive.

To my friends from Czerniaków who were killed while taking part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, as well as to those on missions who were caught outside the ghetto, dragged to the Umschlagplatz – the assembly point inside the Warsaw ghetto – and killed indiscriminately, I offer my eternal homage.