Memoirs

Connect with the voices of Holocaust survivors. Our program was established by the Azrieli Foundation in 2005 to collect, preserve and share the memoirs and diaries written by survivors of the Holocaust who came to Canada. These stories, told personally from the perspective of those who lived through the Holocaust, have a powerful impact on students. The narratives portray people in the fullness of their lives, adding individual voices to a collective experience and helping students make meaning out of the statistics. When taught in their broader historical contexts, survivor memoirs engage students in an educational experience that deepens their understanding of the Holocaust.

These diverse memoirs – published in both English and French – are distributed free of charge to students, teachers, post-secondary instructors, academic researchers, and school and university libraries across Canada. The program’s editorial and research staff carefully fact-checks the accounts and offers readers supplementary material, such as glossaries, introductions written by experts, and maps. A variety of bilingual educational resources are available to support teachers who are using the memoirs in their classrooms.

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From Generation to Generation

Survival in the Mountains

October 26, 1944, was a cool, rainy day in Kľačany. I was playing with my skipping rope when all of a sudden I heard my stepmother screaming that we had to run. We could hear bombs exploding in the distance. I panicked; everybody around me, including villagers with their cattle, began running to the forest. Instead of going inside for my warm coat, I grabbed only Ivan’s hand. My stepmother and step­-grandmother followed and we ran deep into the forest.

We met Slovak partisans in the forest who told us that the vil­lagers could return home, but that the Jews should stay. The parti­sans forced open a cottage and told the women and children to go in. We were wet, tired, hungry and pressed together like sardines. I fell asleep and had a dream in which I saved our family. I dreamt about my little green room in Bardejov, where it was nice and warm. I wanted to go into my room through a cold corridor when somebody grabbed my shoulder. It was a woman dressed like a nun and she told me not to go into my warm room, but to stay in the cold corridor. I asked, “Who are you to tell me such nonsense?” She replied, “I am your mother and I am watching over you.” I opened my eyes and felt my stepmother’s hands shaking my shoulder. She was shouting at me, “Wake up! It’s already dark outside. Grandmother wants to go back into the village and we have to join the other people who are going back.” I told her about my dream. A lady by the name of Mrs. Erdelyi was listening and said, “Sarolta, it is an omen. Don’t go back. We are staying too — let’s all stay until the morning.” My stepgrandmother was furious, calling my dream ridiculous. “Instead of going to my bed,” she argued, “I have to stay in this horrible place?”

We later heard that some of the Jews who had returned to Kľačany had been shot by the German soldiers who were guarding the entry into the valley. If not for my dream, we would all have died. My step­mother was very grateful for my dream and told everybody after the war about this story. For me, this incident confirmed for me what I had always known — that my darling mother was, is and always will be watching over me.

It turned out that my father had foreseen difficulties ahead. During one of his visits from Bardejov, he told me and Ivanko a huge secret. He had brought four brushes for clothes-cleaning with him, and embedded inside the brushes were plates of twenty-four-carat dental gold. Should it become necessary, we were to use the gold to save our lives. Fortunately, my stepmother had taken them with her when we escaped into the forest.

The morning after my dream, we were woken up by a very loud explosion. The partisans advised us to run even deeper into the forest because the German soldiers were getting closer. The villagers had already built several underground bunkers to sell to the Jewish refu­gees. My stepmother gave the first brush filled with gold as payment for our family to have accommodations in one of the bunkers. Several other Jewish families — including four members of the Svarin family, the five Landesmanns, the five Lippas, the five Erdelyis, and some other families — shared our bunker.

A total of twenty-nine people were crammed into a very small space. The bunker was camouflaged into the terrain so as not to be visible from the outside. It was approximately three metres by five metres. It had hardly any ventilation, just a small door that could be opened to get in and out. We slept on wooden bunk beds squeezed tightly together. We had no food supply. The first three days, when we had no food at all, Ivanko found a piece of bacon skin that had probably been thrown out by forest labourers. He and I chewed on it for two days. We melted snow for water, so at least we weren’t thirsty. After three days, we found horses frozen in the forest. The partisans had brought the horses with them from the uprising, but since they couldn’t feed them, they left them to freeze to death. Horsemeat was a huge luxury. Villagers often brought potatoes to the bunkers — which they sold to us at a very high price — and they also brought us a steel kettle so that we could cook inside the bunker on an open fire, which was also our only source of heat. Women cooked on the open fire once a day and everybody got a small portion of the food.

Not far from us was a larger bunker that was the headquarters of the partisan military unit. A doctor from the partisan headquarters warned us of the danger of a typhus outbreak and, therefore, to not use unclean melted snow for drinking water. We went out to look around and found several other bunkers containing Jews scattered around the forest within approximately fifteen minutes walking dis­tance from each other. After a few days of confusion, rules had to be established for the cohabitation of so many people, and a leader, Frankl from Prešov, was chosen to represent all the Jews. A number of rules were set, including one that three times a day we had to bring water for cooking and drinking from a creek fifteen minutes away.

Because we didn’t have our father with us, all this work was piled up on me. My stepmother, who was thirty-eight at the time, declared that she and her mother were too old to do such hard work. Ivanko was only ten, so it was left to me, at fourteen, to go with the rest of the men from the bunker to bring water and wood for cooking and heating.

We were still able to maintain contact with the villagers and they would let us know whenever the Germans pulled out of the village for a few days. This gave us an opportunity to bring some bread, potatoes and apples from the village. It was my responsibility to go with the men on this three-hour walk to the village. I continued to do this throughout the bitterly cold winter from October to March. I also had to carry the very heavy load of food to the bunker on my back. My stepmother never offered to go in my place. When the people from the bunker said to her, “You should go instead of this child,” her excuse was that if the Germans caught her, her dark colouring made it more likely that they would suspect that she was Jewish.

During my first expedition, I went to our previous apartment to bring back a goose-feather duvet to help ease the frigid temperatures at night. My family was delighted that I had brought it back, but I never got to enjoy it. They covered themselves, not leaving enough of the duvet for me. I cried, asking my own mother to save me. The other people in our bunker were outraged at my stepmother’s behav­iour, and promised me that if we survived the war, they would tell my father what happened.

Every day we suffered from lice, hunger and cold. One day, as usual, I went with the men to get water. We would always see fresh footprints in the snow from the neighbouring bunker, but on this particular day, I saw only my friend Alice from one of the other bun­kers, and no other footprints. The adults I was walking with said, “Maybe they’re still sleeping.” At noon, when we went out for the second time, we noticed there were still no footprints, so we went to see what was going on. The sight that greeted us was the most hor­rific I’ve ever seen: the doors to the bunker were open, and approxi­mately ten feet from the bunker were the dead bodies of the families living there — sixteen children, parents and grandparents, who had probably been killed the evening before. All the bodies were already covered with snow.

In a panic, we ran from the bunker to the partisan headquarters. The partisans knew that the military gangs operating under the di­rection of former Red Army general Andrei Vlasov, who collabo­rated with the Germans, had committed many similar atrocities, and thought that this may have been some of his work. Now we knew that we had additional enemies among us and relied on the partisans to protect us. Among them were a few Jewish partisans who didn’t disclose their origins because of the strong antisemitism among their Slovak group. These undercover Jewish partisans came to the bun­kers to help us. They wanted to supply us with handguns for protec­tion against Vlasov’s forces, but none of the seven adult men from our bunker knew how to handle a gun. Instead, two men stood on guard every night. If they suspected any danger, one of them would run to the headquarters. It was a harrowing time.

De génération en génération

L’épreuve des montagnes

Le 26 octobre 1944, il faisait froid et pluvieux à Kľačany. Je sautais à la corde quand tout à coup, ma belle-mère nous a crié de partir en courant. Nous pouvions entendre des bombes exploser au loin. J’étais affolée. Tout le monde autour de moi a commencé à se précipiter vers la forêt, y compris les villageois avec leur bétail. Au lieu de passer chez moi prendre mon manteau, je me suis contentée d’attraper la main d’Ivan. Ma belle-mère et sa mère nous ont suivis et nous nous sommes enfoncés dans la forêt.

Nous y avons rencontré des partisans slovaques qui nous ont dit que les villageois pouvaient rentrer chez eux, mais que les Juifs devaient rester sur place. Les partisans ont ouvert de force une maison et ont ordonné aux femmes et aux enfants d’y entrer. Nous étions mouillés, fatigués, serrés comme des sardines, et nous avions faim. Je me suis endormie et j’ai rêvé que je sauvais notre famille. Je voyais ma petite chambre verte de Bardejov, un lieu agréable, où il faisait bon. Je tentais de m’y rendre en longeant un couloir froid lorsque quelqu’un m’a attrapé par l’épaule : c’était une femme habillée en religieuse qui me commandait de ne pas aller dans ma chambre, mais de rester dans le couloir froid. Je lui ai demandé : « Qui êtes-vous pour me dire une absurdité pareille ? » Elle a répondu : « Je suis ta mère et je te protège ». J’ai ouvert les yeux et j’ai vu ma belle-mère qui me secouait par l’épaule. Elle criait : « Réveille-toi ! Il fait presque noir dehors. Grand-mère veut rentrer au village et nous devons rejoindre ceux qui s’y rendent ». Je lui ai raconté mon rêve. Une femme du nom de Mᵐᵉ Erdelyi écoutait et elle a conclu : « Sarolta, c’est un présage. Ne rentre pas. Nous allons faire de même – restons ici jusqu’au matin ». Ma grand-mère par alliance était furieuse, déclarant que mon rêve était ridicule : « Au lieu d’aller dans mon lit, se plaignait-elle, je dois rester dans cet horrible endroit ? »

Nous avons appris plus tard que certains des Juifs qui étaient rentrés à Kľačany avaient été abattus par les soldats allemands qui gardaient l’entrée de la vallée. Sans mon rêve, nous serions tous morts. Ma belle-mère en a été très reconnaissante et a raconté cette histoire à tout le monde après la guerre. Pour moi, cet incident n’a fait que confirmer ce que j’avais toujours su – que ma chère maman veillait, veille et veillera toujours sur moi.

Il se trouve que mon père avait prévu les difficultés qui arriveraient. Au cours d’une de ses visites à Bardejov, il nous a révélé, à Ivanko et à moi, un grand secret. Il avait apporté quatre brosses à vêtements avec lui et avait inséré à l’intérieur des plaques d’or dentaire de 24 carats. En cas de nécessité, l’or pourrait nous sauver la vie. Heureusement, ma belle-mère avait emporté les brosses avec elle dans la forêt.

Le lendemain matin après mon rêve, nous avons été réveillés par une grosse explosion. Les partisans nous ont dit de nous enfoncer plus profondément dans la forêt car les soldats allemands se rapprochaient. Les villageois avaient déjà construit plusieurs abris souterrains pour les vendre aux réfugiés juifs. Ma belle-mère a donné la première brosse pleine d’or en paiement pour que notre famille puisse s’abriter dans l’un des bunkers. Plusieurs autres Juifs – dont quatre membres de la famille Svarin, les cinq Landersmann, les cinq Lippa, les cinq Erdelyi et quelques autres – partageaient notre abri.

En tout, 29 personnes étaient entassées dans ce très petit espace. Le bunker était dissimulé dans le paysage de manière à être invisible de l’extérieur. Il mesurait environ trois mètres sur cinq. Il n’avait presque pas de ventilation, juste une petite porte qu’on pouvait ouvrir pour entrer et sortir. Nous dormions sur des lits superposés en bois dur, serrés étroitement les uns contre les autres. Nous n’avions aucune nourriture. Les trois premiers jours, alors qu’il n’y avait rien à manger, Ivanko a trouvé un morceau de couenne de lard qui avait sans doute été jeté par des travailleurs forestiers. Lui et moi l’avons mâchouillé pendant deux jours. Nous avons fait fondre de la neige pour avoir de l’eau, ainsi, au moins, nous pouvions étancher notre soif. Après trois jours, nous avons trouvé des chevaux gelés dans la forêt. Les partisans les avaient emmenés avec eux lors du soulèvement, mais, comme ils ne pouvaient pas les nourrir, ils les avaient laissés mourir de froid. La viande de cheval était un grand luxe. Les villageois apportaient souvent des pommes de terre aux réfugiés – qu’ils leur vendaient à prix d’or – et ils nous avaient aussi fourni une marmite en acier dans laquelle nous pouvions faire cuire des aliments sur un feu que nous allumions à l’intérieur du bunker et qui était aussi notre seule source de chaleur. Les femmes cuisinaient une fois par jour et tout le monde avait droit à une petite portion de nourriture.

Non loin de là se trouvait un grand bunker qui servait de quartier général à l’unité militaire des partisans. L’un des leurs, qui était médecin, nous a mis en garde contre les dangers du typhus et nous a recommandé de ne pas boire de la neige fondue, impropre à la consommation. Nous sommes sortis pour explorer les alentours et nous avons trouvé plusieurs autres bunkers abritant des Juifs, éparpillés dans la forêt, à environ 15 minutes de marche les uns des autres. Après quelques jours de chaos, des règles ont dû être établies pour faciliter la cohabitation de tant de personnes et un chef, Frankl, de Prešov, a été choisi pour représenter tous les Juifs. Un certain nombre de corvées ont été décidées, dont celle de se rendre trois fois par jour jusqu’à un ruisseau, situé à 15 minutes de marche du bunker, afin de rapporter de l’eau pour faire cuire les aliments et pour boire.

Comme mon père n’était pas là, tout retombait sur moi. Ma belle-mère, qui avait 38 ans à l’époque, a déclaré qu’elle et sa mère étaient trop âgées pour un travail aussi dur. Ivanko n’avait que 10 ans, aussi me revenait-il, à 14 ans, la responsabilité d’accompagner les hommes du bunker pour rapporter de l’eau et du bois pour la cuisine et le chauffage.

Nous étions encore en mesure de maintenir le contact avec les villageois et ils nous faisaient savoir quand les Allemands s’absentaient du village de façon prolongée, ce qui nous donnait le temps de venir nous ravitailler en pain, en pommes de terre et en pommes. C’est encore à moi qu’est revenue la corvée de faire ce trajet de trois heures avec les hommes, corvée qui a duré d’octobre à mars, tout au long d’un hiver particulièrement rigoureux. Je devais transporter les grosses charges de provisions sur mon dos. Ma belle-mère n’a jamais offert de me remplacer. Quand les autres personnes du bunker lui disaient sur un ton de reproche : « Vous devriez y aller à la place de cette enfant », son excuse était que, si les Allemands l’arrêtaient, son teint plus foncé que le mien désignerait clairement ses origines juives.

Lors de ma première expédition, je suis allée récupérer une couette en plume d’oie dans notre ancien appartement, afin de supporter les températures nocturnes qui étaient glaciales. Ma famille en a été enchantée, mais je n’ai jamais eu le plaisir d’en profiter. Ils se sont tous mis sous la couette sans faire de place pour moi. J’ai pleuré et demandé à ma vraie mère de me sauver. Les autres occupants du bunker étaient outrés du comportement de ma belle-mère et ils m’ont promis que, si nous survivions la guerre, ils mettraient mon père au courant de ce qui s’était passé.

Nous souffrions quotidiennement des poux, de la faim et du froid. Un matin, je suis partie comme d’habitude avec les hommes pour aller chercher de l’eau. Tous les jours, nous pouvions voir les traces de pas laissés dans la neige par les réfugiés de l’abri voisin, mais, ce matin-là, je n’ai vu que mon amie Alice, sortie d’un autre bunker plus éloigné, et aucune trace de pas. Les adultes avec lesquels je marchais ont dit : « Ils sont peut-être encore en train de dormir ». À midi, quand nous sommes sortis pour la deuxième fois, nous avons remarqué qu’il n’y avait toujours pas d’empreintes, aussi sommes-nous allés voir ce qui se passait. La scène qui nous attendait était la plus horrible que j’aie jamais vue : les portes du bunker étaient ouvertes et, trois mètres plus loin, gisaient les corps sans vie des familles qui y avaient vécu – 16 enfants, parents et grandsparents, sans doute abattus la veille au soir. Tous les corps étaient déjà recouverts de neige.

Pris de panique, nous avons couru vers le quartier général des partisans. Ils savaient que des groupes militaires opérant sous la direction de l’ancien général de l’Armée rouge, Andreï Vlassov, qui collaborait avec les Allemands, avaient commis beaucoup d’atrocités de ce genre et ils pensaient que, cette fois encore, ils en étaient sans doute responsables. Cela signifiait que nous avions des ennemis supplémentaires et nous comptions sur les partisans pour nous protéger. Parmi ceux-ci, on trouvait quelques Juifs qui ne révélaient pas leurs origines à cause du profond antisémitisme des membres slovaques de leur groupe. Ces Juifs clandestins sont venus nous voir dans nos bunkers. Ils voulaient nous aider et nous ont fourni des pistolets pour que nous nous protégions contre les forces de Vlassov, mais aucun des sept adultes de notre abri n’était formé au maniement des armes. Il a été décidé alors que deux hommes monteraient la garde tous les soirs. À la moindre alerte, l’un d’eux devait courir au quartier général pour chercher de l’aide. Cette période a été atroce.

The Slovak National Uprising

From Loss to Liberation

We made it to open space maybe an hour later. We weren’t even hungry due to the nervous pressure. We just kept on walking in the direction we had come from. I walked with Corporal Bystrický, also a Jewish soldier, who served at the outlook post like me. After an exhausting two-to-three-hour walk in the deep snow, our group arrived at Tři Vody, Three Waters. It is a confluence of three creeks, where three narrow roads also meet. There we found a sizable, slightly elevated wood stable; two or three steps led up to it. Since the door was unlocked, we walked in to sit down and rest.

The stable was already occupied by twenty-five to thirty partisan officers. We had been there with them, resting and talking, for maybe thirty minutes when, all of a sudden, we heard loud machine-gun shots very close to the cottage. At first we weren’t sure what was happening, but by looking through a small ventilation pipe we soon found out. We saw the Germans, who had followed our footsteps in the snow. A group of four or five of them were moving three machine guns on skis along the road, continuously firing parallel to the horse stable and the roads. There was no way out.

Some of the partisans in the stable jumped through the window and into the partly frozen creek. The Germans’ shots hit them all as they jumped out. We could see some of them fall through the ice. Some tried to run through another set of doors and into the dense forest that was only five metres away, across the narrow road. They were all hit, too, and died on the spot. Some twenty to twenty-five partisans and their officers were killed.

Corporal Bystrický and I both thought: why should we run into certain death? Let them come here and shoot us. One half of the door that faced the road was partly open, so we could see the dead bodies piled up near the doors and windows. Resistance seemed useless; death seemed inevitable. The shooting stopped, but we sat on the floor and waited. It was just the two of us, waiting inside the stable for the Germans to come and open fire. But they never came.

Alone in the Storm

Flowers and Forced Labour

Miklós Horthy, the Regent of Hungary, made his declaration of intent to make peace with the Allied forces, including the Soviet Union. That same day, the fascist Arrow Cross Party, with the support of the Nazi relgime, seized power in a coup. Instead of returning to his unit, George went into hiding.

Everything was in chaos. Lieutenant Ujvary called me into his office and said, “My boy, I am sorry to say that you have to pack your repair shop into boxes – everything. The unit is going far away. If you have some plans in your head, talk to Private Jozsi Denes, a gypsy soldier, and have some money ready. I wish you good luck, and if we survive this unfortunate and terrible war, we will celebrate together. What I have told you is confidential.” I shook his hand and replied, “Thank you very much, and I wish you good luck as well. You have been a real gentleman. Take care, and God bless you.”

I understood what Ujvary meant. I told Tibor and eight other close friends that I was planning an escape because, in view of the takeover of the government, the unit would almost certainly soon be forced to go to Germany to work for the war effort, and I asked them to join me. I told them we would have to pay somebody a bribe to look the other way while we escaped. We managed to put together some money that our families had given us.

The next evening, I asked Jozsi, the guard, to come to the repair shop so I could adjust the heels on his boots. I revealed our plan to him and asked for his cooperation. I gave him the money we had collected, an amount he was content with. According to our plan, he would be on duty during the morning at the side entrance, a fence of wood planks. He said he would intentionally “look the other way” for ten minutes. This would be sufficient time for the ten of us to escape by moving away a loose plank.

Everything was set. I put my repair equipment into boxes and left all my clothes hanging from the nails. At 5:00 the next morning, we left the room quietly. Jozsi was there, as he had said he would be. I was the last one to go through the fence. One of my legs was outside the fence when a German army unit, made up of about fifty soldiers, passed by. I pretended I was repairing the broken fence. The soldiers glanced at me but did not stop. In the last seconds of the ten-minute reprieve, I made it outside. What a close call!

I removed the yellow band from my arm and bid farewell to my friends. With money in hand, I boarded the first streetcar that came by. Luckily, it was almost empty and the elderly conductor did not seem to care who I was.

When I came back to Budapest after the war, I was saddened to learn that none of the friends with whom I had escaped survived the war.

Seul dans la tourmente

De Bouquets et Travaux forcés

Miklós Horthy, le régent de la Hongrie, a déclaré qu’il avait l’intention de demander la paix aux Alliés et à l’Union soviétique. Le jour même, le parti fasciste des Croix fléchées, avec l’appui du régime nazi, a usurpé le pouvoir par un coup d’État. Au lieu de réintégrer son unité, George est entré en clandestinité.

C’était le chaos. Le lieutenant Ujvary m’a convoqué dans son bureau et m’a dit : « Mon garçon, je suis désolé de te dire que tu dois emballer ton atelier de réparations dans des boîtes – tout. Notre unité est sur le point de partir. Si tu as des projets, parles-en au deuxième classe Jozsi Denes, le Tsigane, et procure-toi de l’argent. Je te souhaite bonne chance et, si nous survivons à cette maudite guerre, nous fêterons ça ensemble. Ce que je t’ai dit est confidentiel. » Je lui ai serré la main et j’ai répondu : « Je vous remercie et vous souhaite bonne chance aussi. Vous avez su être droit et intègre. Que Dieu vous garde. »

J’ai compris le message d’Ujvary. J’ai révélé à Tibor et à huit autres proches amis que j’envisageais de m’enfuir car, vu la prise de pouvoir du gouvernement, l’unité serait presque certainement obligée de partir prochainement en Allemagne pour travailler à l’effort de guerre. Je leur ai ensuite demandé de se joindre à moi. Je leur ai dit que nous aurions à payer une sentinelle qui accepte de fermer les yeux sur notre évasion. Nous nous sommes arrangés pour réunir le peu d’argent que nos familles nous avaient donné.

Le lendemain soir, j’ai demandé à Jozsi, le soldat de garde, de venir me voir à l’atelier afin que j’ajuste les talons de ses bottes. Je lui ai dévoilé notre plan et lui ai demandé sa coopération. Je lui ai donné l’argent que nous avions réuni dont la somme a semblé lui plaire. Notre plan comptait sur le fait qu’il montait la garde le matin, à l’entrée secondaire dont la clôture était en planches de bois. Il a dit qu’il regarderait intentionnellement dans l’autre sens pendant 10 minutes. Ce délai serait suffisant pour nous échapper tous les dix en déplaçant une planche mal ajustée de la clôture.

Tout était réglé. J’ai placé mon matériel de réparations de chaussures dans des boîtes et j’ai laissé tous mes vêtements suspendus à leurs clous. À 5 heures le lendemain matin, nous avons quitté la pièce en silence. Jozsi était présent, comme convenu. J’ai été le dernier à passer la clôture. Une de mes jambes était à l’extérieur de la palissade quand un détachement de l’armée allemande d’environ 50 soldats a fait son apparition. J’ai immédiatement fait semblant d’être en train de réparer la clôture endommagée. Les soldats m’ont jeté un coup d’oeil, mais ne se sont pas arrêtés. Quelques secondes à peine avant l’échéance des 10 minutes, j’ai pu me dégager et fuir. Je l’avais échappé belle !

J’ai fait glisser le brassard jaune de mon bras et dit adieu à mes amis. Mon argent à la main, je suis monté dans le premier tramway qui passait. Heureusement, il était presque vide et le conducteur, un vieil homme, n’a pas semblé se soucier de qui j’étais.

Quand je suis revenu à Budapest après la guerre, j’ai été attristé d’apprendre qu’aucun des amis avec lesquels je m’étais échappé n’avait survécu.

Knocking on Every Door

The Gathering Storm

November 9, 1938, was the infamous night now known as Kristallnacht. This supposedly spontaneous demonstration against Jews in all the Nazi-occupied lands was, in reality, carefully planned. The world was shocked by the vicious display of hatred and violence, and there were protests from the free world. England subsequently offered a haven for Jewish children called the Kindertransport. Our son Milan and his cousin Harry, both only four years old, were registered to go but we changed our minds about letting such small children go and took them off the list.

Many Germans were shocked by the destruction and brutality as well and the Nazis realized that such an event should not be repeated — at least not under public scrutiny. Some people didn’t approve when they saw a kindly neighbourhood merchant being beaten up, but there were others who felt that it should be done, but out of the public view. The latter was the official belief that the Nazis held until the end.

Not long after Arnold and I were married, he had opened a jewellery store in partnership with my brother Erna. Before Christmas 1938, my husband decided to close the jewellery business in Prague and sold it for next to nothing to the brother of his friend, Cenek Sykora. The transfer took effect on January 1, 1939. Arnold made this decision on the spur of the moment after an incident with a beggar. Arnold had regularly maintained the practice of distributing alms from the store on Fridays. On this particular occasion, the beggar insolently demanded more. In response, Arnold calmly and silently slid the money back into the drawer. The beggar went to the store entrance and screamed into the busy street that the Jew was beating him. A big crowd gathered, but fortunately, some police officers who knew my husband picked up the beggar and quickly ended the whole incident. But to Arnold, this was another clear sign that times were changing and that what was left of the republic would not last much longer….

At the end of February 1939, Arnold sent my brother Vilda, who was a lawyer and not married, to Switzerland to arrange some money matters for him — Arnold had sent money and jewellery out of the country through people who were paid twenty-five cents for every dollar they smuggled out. Vilda was to wait in Switzerland to receive that money from the couriers and then deposit it in a Swiss bank. When my brother called to say that he was coming home because everything had been accomplished, Arnold told him to stay a few more days. He was lucky — a few days later, on March 15, 1939, the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. At least one of us was in the free world.

The day that the last remaining island of democracy in Central Europe disappeared was depressing and unforgettable. It confirmed that my husband had been right in his efforts to leave. “Go anywhere,” he would tell people, “go as far as possible.”

On that terrible Wednesday, March 15, 1939, Andulka woke me up at six in the morning and told me that Hitler’s troops were on their way to Prague. We got up and I asked her to pack a suitcase for my husband and me. The nanny was to pack a suitcase for the children. Without discussion, we decided to go to my parents….

We had left our home in such a hurry that we hadn’t even had a chance to tell my parents that we were coming. It’s interesting to see how our family’s sense of togetherness immediately came into play. Our car was parked in front of my parents’ building and an hour later, my brother arrived with his wife, Hilda, and their baby, Eva. Erna and Hilda had gotten married on October 28, 1937, and their first daughter, Eva, was born a year later on October 29, 1938. We had all instinctively gathered there, without having called each other first. From that day on, we lived in my parents’ apartment on 18 Celetná Street, in the centre of Prague — it was upstairs from the jewellery store that Arnold had owned. As soon as we arrived, Arnold left the house to try to get exit visas for all of us. He came back that afternoon, discouraged because he had only managed to secure one exit visa — for himself….The exit visa was valid for ten days, but in the end he had to let it expire because he wouldn’t leave without the rest of the family.

Frapper à toutes les portes

Le ciel s’assombrit

La tristement célèbre Kristallnacht est survenue le 9 novembre 1938. Cette manifestation prétendument spontanée contre les Juifs dans tous les territoires occupés par les nazis avait en réalité été soigneusement planifiée. Le monde entier s’est indigné devant un tel déferlement de haine et de violence, et les protestations ont fusé de toutes parts. Quelques semaines plus tard, la Grande-Bretagne a offert refuge à des enfants juifs, une initiative humanitaire appelée Kindertransport. Notre fils Milan et son cousin Harry, tous deux âgés de 4 ans à peine, avaient été inscrits sur une liste, mais l’idée de laisser partir de si jeunes enfants nous a fait changer d’avis.

Beaucoup d’Allemands ayant également réprouvé ces mesures si destructrices, si violentes, les nazis ont compris qu’ils devaient empêcher un tel événement de se reproduire – du moins publiquement. Si certaines personnes s’opposaient aux mauvais traitements infligés à un sympathique marchand du voisinage, d’autres estimaient que cela devait se faire, mais à l’insu du monde. Cette dernière position constituerait la politique officielle des nazis jusqu’à la fin.

Peu après notre mariage, Arnold avait ouvert une bijouterie avec mon frère Erna. Avant Noël 1938, mon mari a néanmoins décidé de fermer le commerce à Prague et l’a vendu pour presque rien au frère d’un de ses amis, Cenek Sykora. Le transfert de propriété a eu lieu le 1ᵉʳ janvier 1939. Cette décision s’est imposée d’elle-même à la suite d’un incident avec un mendiant. Mon mari donnait régulièrement des aumônes le vendredis. Un jour, le mendiant en question en a insolemment demandé davantage. Pour toute réponse, Arnold a calmement et silencieusement remis l’argent dans son tiroir. Le mendiant est alors allé à la porte du magasin et s’est mis à crier aux passants que le Juif était en train de le battre. Une foule a commencé à s’amasser devant l’entrée. Mais, heureusement, des policiers qui connaissaient mon mari ont emmené le mendiant et mis fin à l’incident sans tarder. Pour Arnold, toutefois, cet épisode indiquait clairement, une fois encore, que les temps changeaient : ce qui subsistait de la République ne durerait pas bien longtemps....

À la fin du mois de février 1939, Arnold a envoyé en Suisse mon frère Vilda, avocat célibataire, pour qu’il s’occupe de certaines transactions financières en son nom – Arnold avait fait sortir de l’argent et des bijoux du pays par des gens qui recevaient 25 cents pour chaque dollar passé. Vilda devait attendre en Suisse que les passeurs lui remettent l’argent qu’il devait ensuite déposer dans une banque du pays. Lorsqu’il nous a téléphoné pour nous dire qu’il avait accompli sa tâche et qu’il rentrait chez nous, Arnold lui a demandé de rester sur place encore un peu. Vilda a eu de la chance : quelques jours plus tard, le 15 mars 1939, les nazis ont occupé la Tchécoslovaquie. Au moins l’un d’entre nous se trouvait dans le monde libre.

Impossible d’oublier ce jour déprimant où l’Europe centrale a vu disparaître sa dernière oasis de démocratie. Mon mari avait eu raison d’envisager la fuite : « Partez n’importe où, disait-il aux gens, partez aussi loin que possible ».

En ce terrible mercredi 15 mars 1939, Andulka est venue me réveiller à 6 heures du matin pour me dire que les troupes d’Hitler étaient en route vers Prague. Nous nous sommes levés et nous lui avons demandé de préparer une valise pour mon mari et moi. La gardienne d’enfants s’occuperait de la leur. Sans même en discuter, nous avons décidé de nous rendre chez mes parents....

Nous étions si pressés de quitter la maison que nous n’avons même pas eu le temps de prévenir mes parents de notre arrivée. Il est intéressant de voir comment l’esprit de famille s’est immédiatement mis en action. Nous avons garé notre voiture devant leur immeuble et, une heure plus tard, mon frère est arrivé avec sa femme, Hilda, et leur bébé, Eva (Erna et Hilda s’étaient mariés le 28 octobre 1937 et leur première fille, Eva, était née un an plus tard, le 29 octobre 1938). Sans nous consulter, nous nous étions tous réunis là, d’instinct. À partir de ce jour, nous sommes restés dans l’appartement de mes parents au 18, rue Celetná, en plein coeur de Prague – ils vivaient au-dessus de la bijouterie qu’Arnold avait naguère possédée. Sans tarder, mon mari a quitté l’appartement afin d’obtenir un visa de sortie pour chacun de nous. Il est revenu dans l’après-midi, découragé, n’ayant pu se procurer qu’un visa – pour lui-même. Il l’avait payé 50 000 korun, ce qui n’était pas grand-chose. À cette époque, le taux de change avait chuté d’environ 30 à 600 korun pour un dollar américain. Le document ne lui avait donc coûté qu’environ 83 dollars. Le visa était valable dix jours, mais il a dû le laisser expirer car il ne serait jamais parti sans le reste de la famille.

The Aktion

A Lasting Legacy

And then came the bloody day of October 28, 1942, which I will never forget for as long as I will live. It was a beginning in my life and the day that I changed from a child to a serious man who survived four years in many concentration camps, and who survived only with the thought of revenge on the bloody German murderers.

Now I will describe that one day:

We got up that morning to go to work, when all of sudden we heard our mother screaming as she looked through the window (our window was facing outside of the ghetto). We all ran to look and we saw what we had been afraid of for quite a while. The ghetto was surrounded by SS troops specially trained for “liquidations” (killings) of Jews. What the word Aktion means we now know very well. It means hundreds of dead people and thousands taken for transport to an unknown destination (later on we found out that the unknown destination was the crematoria in Bełżec, Treblinka, Majdanek and many others, where we lost millions of our brothers).

You have to forgive me, dear uncle, for the chaos in my writing, but when I start to remember the horrible times, then I can write only the way that I remember. Well, let us continue.

We are sitting and huddling together in one room, because we’re not allowed to go out, and listening to any noises coming from outside where, in the meantime, it was very quiet (quiet before the storm). Mother is crying very quietly; she knows that something very terrible is coming. We are trying to assure her that everything will be okay. I felt like a grown-up person, although I was only sixteen years old.

Our thoughts were with you in far-away Palestine, where most likely you had no idea what was going on here.

All of sudden, we start to hear a few shots and then a whole volley. It had started! We hear crying, yelling, moaning, and we know for sure that there must be many dead. Mother is crying together with our small cousin, who was living with us with his mother, Aunt Sally.

Then we hear heavy steps of the SS coming to our door. They are here! We are sitting together hugging each other, waiting for something terrible to happen. Then, the steps stopped right in front of our door ... a big bang and they are in. Sadistic faces with sadistic smiles slowly coming toward us.

One of them gives a yell: “Now I’ll deal with these damn Jews!”

One of the beasts started to beat my dearest mother. Then something snapped in me. Blindly, and with the most hate I could muster to the animal who could raise a hand to my mother, I threw myself on him with the fist. Me, a sixteen-year-old boy, trying to fight the big German.

I can still hear his sadistic laugh together with my mother’s scream. Then I felt a blow to my head and I lost consciousness. I was left for dead. They left me bleeding on the floor. In the evening, a few of the boys, who were working in the Gestapo headquarters (cleaning the toilets), found me on the floor. They said that I was very lucky (lucky, who in few minutes had lost everybody). I did not cry. I swore to myself that if I survive, I will seek revenge.

From Generation to Generation, Agnes Tomasov

Hiding from the Nazis in the forests of Slovakia’s Low Tatra Mountains in the fall of 1944, in constant danger from the Germans occupying nearby villages, fourteen-year-old Agnes Grossmann and her family make the daring decision to escape high into the mountains and hike along treacherous ice-covered peaks to safety. Twenty-four years later, Agnes Tomasov – now married with two children – finds herself on the run from postwar Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime and defects to Canada with her family, carrying only what they can fit in two suitcases. Her sweeping memoir of life under two totalitarian regimes is an extraordinary and inspiring tale of courage, love and hope in the face of tragedy. Imbued with the author’s warmth, unflagging resilience and determined independence, From Generation to Generation is a true testament to the strength of the human spirit.

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At a Glance
Slovakia
Hiding
Postwar Czechoslovakia
Life under Communism
Arrived in Canada in 1968
Adjusting to life in Canada
Wife of Azrieli author Joseph Tomasov
Recommended Ages
14+
Language
English

240 pages

2011 Independent Publisher Silver Medal

About the author

Photo of Agnes Tomasov

Agnes Tomasov was born in the small town of Bardejov, Slovakia, on June 16, 1930. In 1968, following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, she immigrated to Canada, settling in Toronto with her husband, Joseph, and their two children.

De génération en génération, Agnes Tomasov

En 1944, Agnes Grossman, adolescente tchécoslovaque, s’est réfugiée avec sa famille dans les forêts des Basses Tatras pour échapper aux nazis. Mais, devant l’avancée des Allemands, la famille tente l’impossible : fuir l’occupant en franchissant des sommets montagneux escarpés et enneigés. Plus tard, Agnes Tomasov, mariée et mère de famille, est à nouveau en fuite pour échapper au régime communiste en Tchécoslovaquie. Avec sa famille, elle trouve asile au Canada. Ses mémoires témoignent de la vie sous deux régimes totalitaires et nous interpellent par le caractère exceptionnel des situations évoquées et par le courage nécessaire pour résister à la barbarie environnante.

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At a Glance
Slovakia
Hiding
Postwar Czechoslovakia
Life under Communism
Arrived in Canada in 1968
Adjusting to life in Canada
Wife of Azrieli author Joseph Tomasov
Recommended Ages
14+
Language
French

264 pages

2011 Independent Publisher Silver Medal

About the author

Photo of Agnes Tomasov

Agnes Tomasov was born in the small town of Bardejov, Slovakia, on June 16, 1930. In 1968, following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, she immigrated to Canada, settling in Toronto with her husband, Joseph, and their two children.

From Loss to Liberation, Joseph Tomasov

In the fall of 1944, the Slovak National Uprising both endangers and saves Joseph Tomasov’s life. Joseph has been a constant target of the Nazis and their Slovak allies and joining the resistance movement is his only way out, even though life on the run is steeped in peril. In 1945, Joseph finally experiences the relief of liberation, but his safety lasts only ten years — imprisoned by the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, he is separated from his new family and faces a potential twenty-five-year-sentence. Once he rebuilds his life, Joseph and his family face yet another threat and he must find his way to freedom. Joseph’s journey From Loss to Liberation is the harrowing story of a young man who never gives up and who, ultimately, fulfills his hopes and dreams in Canada.

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At a Glance
Slovakia
Labour camp
Resistance
Slovak National Uprising
Postwar Czechoslovakia
Imprisoned by Communist regime after the war
Arrived in Canada in 1968
Husband of Azrieli author Agnes Tomasov
Recommended Ages
14+
Language
English

216 pages

About the author

Photo of Joseph Tomasov

Joseph Tomasov was born on May 25, 1920, in Trstená, Slovakia. After the war, he graduated from Prague’s Charles University with a degree in engineering. In November 1968, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Joseph immigrated to Canada with his wife, Agnes, and their two children. Joseph Tomasov passed away in 2019.

Alone in the Storm, Leslie Vertes

In 1944, twenty-year-old Leslie Vertes escapes from a forced labour detail in Budapest and miraculously survives by assuming a false identity. About to taste freedom and security as the end of the war nears, his liberation is short-lived when he is caught by the new Soviet regime and sent for two years of back-breaking labour and captivity. While rebuilding his life and finding love, Leslie is once again threatened during the 1956 Hungarian uprising, and he must run for his life. Arriving in Canada with his family, Leslie finds hope again as he finally tastes true freedom.

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At a Glance
Hungary
Forced labour
Passing/false identity
Arrow Cross regime
Siege of Budapest
Postwar Soviet labour camps
Postwar Hungarian Uprising
Arrived in Canada in 1957
Adjusting to life in Canada
Recommended Ages
14+
Language
English

192 pages

About the author

Photo of Leslie Vertes

Leslie Vertes was born in Ajak, Hungary, in 1924; he immigrated to Canada with his family in 1957. In Montreal, Leslie has been actively involved in Holocaust education and has volunteered for various organizations. In 2015, he received Quebec’s YMCA Peace Medal and the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award in recognition of his volunteerism and contributions to the community. Leslie Vertes lives in Montreal.

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Seul dans la tourmente, Leslie Vertes

En 1944, le jeune Leslie Vertes, âgé de 20 ans, s’évade d’une unité de travaux forcés à Budapest et parvient à survivre sous une fausse identité. À l’issue de la guerre, alors qu’il pensait vivre libre et sans crainte, le nouveau régime soviétique l’envoie en captivité, le condamnant à des travaux éreintants. Leslie finit par reconstruire sa vie et rencontrer l’amour, jusqu’à ce que la révolution hongroise de 1956 le contraigne à fuir son pays. C’est en arrivant au Canada avec sa famille que Leslie découvre enfin l’espoir et le vrai goût de la liberté.

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At a Glance
Hungary
Forced labour
Passing/false identity
Arrow Cross regime
Siege of Budapest
Postwar Soviet labour camps
Postwar Hungarian Uprising
Arrived in Canada in 1957
Adjusting to life in Canada
Recommended Ages
14+
Language
French

208 pages

About the author

Photo of Leslie Vertes

Leslie Vertes was born in Ajak, Hungary, in 1924; he immigrated to Canada with his family in 1957. In Montreal, Leslie has been actively involved in Holocaust education and has volunteered for various organizations. In 2015, he received Quebec’s YMCA Peace Medal and the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award in recognition of his volunteerism and contributions to the community. Leslie Vertes lives in Montreal.

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Knocking on Every Door, Anka Voticky

As Hitler’s army sweeps into Czechoslovakia in 1940, Anka Voticky, a twenty-five-year-old mother of two, her husband, Arnold, and her family flee halfway around the world to an unlikely refuge – the Chinese port of Shanghai. Estranged from all that is familiar, their security is threatened yet again when the Japanese occupying the city force the Jewish refugees into a ghetto. After the war, the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia sends the Votickys on another harrowing journey out of Europe, this time to safety in Canada. Global in scope, Anka Voticky’s memoir provides a rare glimpse of the far-reaching impact of World War II. At the same time, Knocking on Every Door is an inspiring story of love, family commitment and Anka’s willingness to cross oceans in search of freedom and a better future for her children.

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At a Glance
Czechoslovakia; China
Escape
Hongkew ghetto, Shanghai
Arrived in Canada in 1948
Recommended Ages
14+
Language
English

192 pages

About the author

Photo of Anka Voticky

Anka Voticky was born in the small town of Brandýs nad Labem in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1913 and moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), in 1918. In 1948 she and her family fled the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia and settled in Montreal. Anka passed away in 2014 at one hundred years old.

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Frapper à toutes les portes, Anka Voticky

Tandis que l’armée d’Hitler fond sur la Tchécoslovaquie en 1940, Anka Voticky, son mari Arnold, ses enfants et sa famille trouvent un refuge inattendu à l’autre bout du monde : Shanghai. Leurs existences sont encore une fois menacées lorsque l’occupant japonais enferme les réfugiés juifs dans un ghetto. Au lendemain de la guerre, la prise de pouvoir communiste en Tchécoslovaquie force les Voticky à un autre voyage déchirant vers un lieu sûr, le Canada. Ces mémoires nous montrent l’impact international de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Ils sont aussi l’histoire d’une famille unie qui n’hésitera pas à traverser les océans pour assurer sa survie et un futur meilleur à ses enfants.

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At a Glance
Czechoslovakia; China
Escape
Hongkew ghetto, Shanghai
Arrived in Canada in 1948
Recommended Ages
14+
Language
French

224 pages

About the author

Photo of Anka Voticky

Anka Voticky was born in the small town of Brandýs nad Labem in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1913 and moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), in 1918. In 1948 she and her family fled the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia and settled in Montreal. Anka passed away in 2014 at one hundred years old.

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Carry the Torch/A Lasting Legacy, Sam Weisberg, Johnny Jablon

The turmoil of war and persecution pulls both Sam and Johnny to the Plaszow forced labour camp in Poland. In 1943, Johnny and Sam, only teenagers, quickly learn of the brutality of the new camp commandant, Amon Göth. By sheer luck, Sam becomes the commandant’s houseboy, a privileged, yet risky, position, and Johnny gets a job in the carpentry workshop, “useful” yet still living in constant fear. The young men both feel like they are walking a tightrope, where one wrong move can make them the target of Göth’s unpredictable volatility. Ultimately deported and on different trajectories, their experiences in Plaszow become an ever-present reminder that their fates can change in an instant. Carry the Torch and A Lasting Legacy are the different yet parallel stories of two men who, as the sole survivors of their immediate families, must find their own way after the war and decide whether to keep their histories in the past.

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At a Glance
Sam Weisberg:
Poland
Plaszow forced labour camp; concentration camps
Death march
Postwar Germany, displaced persons camp
Arrived in Canada in 1959
Johnny Jablon:
Poland
Plaszow forced labour camp
Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp
Death march
Postwar Austria, displaced persons camp
War Orphans Project
Arrived in Canada in 1948
Educational materials available: Johnny Jablon Activity
Recommended Ages
16+
Language
English

256 pages

About the author

Photo of Sam Weisberg

Sam Weisberg (né Avraham Gajer) was born in Chorzów, Poland, in 1927. After liberation, Sam lived in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons (DP) camp, where he met his wife, Rosa. They immigrated to Toronto in 1959. Sam Weisberg passed away in 2019.

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About the author

Photo of Johnny Jablon

Johnny (Ephroim) Jablon (né Jan Rothbaum) was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1926. After the war, Johnny lived in the Bindermichl DP camp in Austria. In 1948, as a war orphan, he immigrated to Montreal, where he still lives.

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