TORONTO — By any measurement, my mother has beaten the odds. Her recent 100th birthday was an auspicious moment leavened by sadness. But as I celebrated, I felt torn — I rejoiced in her longevity, but I was saddened by the physical and mental burdens she carries.
My mother has battled health problems all her life. And now her body and mind have succumbed to the frailties of time and the ravages of dementia.
Despite my misgivings, I know she’s in a good place. My father, who reached the age of 100 last year, is there to keep her company. He, like my mother, is a Holocaust survivor, a veteran of the Polish army.
That they’re still together as a couple — their spats and arguments notwithstanding — and still living in their own home, is remarkable. There are precious few couples like them. The vast majority of Holocaust survivors have already died, but they’re still here, ailments and all.
Surviving the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz
My mother was born in the central Polish textile town of Lodz in the second year of World War I. She goes by three first names — Genia, Golda or Jean. When she speaks Polish, she’s Genia. When she lapses into Yiddish, she’s Golda. When she uses English, she’s Jean. I call her “mamo,” the Polish word for mother.
Like my father, David, she’s a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto. When the Germans liquidated the ghetto in August 1944, most of her family, as well as her first husband, already had been killed. She and her five-year-old son, my brother whom I never knew or set eyes upon, were sent straight to Auschwitz-Birkenau by train. My father suffered the same fate.
My knowledge of her confinement at the Nazi death camp — which devoured one million Jews — is sketchy. She was always reluctant to discuss this awful period, understandably enough. What I do know for certain is that she was forcibly separated from her son in the first moments of her arrival there. She never saw him again.
‘I was resurrection. I was hope. I was a new beginning’
After surviving Auschwitz-Birkenau, my mother was sent to other concentration camps, including Bergen-Belsen. In April 1945, starved and sick, she was liberated by British troops. By then, she and my father had met again. Like so many survivors who yearned for company and normalcy, they got married, even if they were not temperamentally compatible.
I was born in Bad Reichenhall, an attractive town in the German Alps. As my mother’s first child after the Holocaust, I was more than just a bouncing, blue-eyed baby. I was resurrection. I was hope. I was a new beginning. And that’s the way she treated me, holding me close, showing me off, pampering me.
We arrived in Halifax in the winter of 1948, when I was less than two years old. The Canadian Jewish Congress had persuaded the Canadian government to admit survivors with skills. My father was a tailor and the garment industry in Canada was short of them. It was a perfect match.
From Halifax, we boarded a train bound for Montreal. There, my father started work at Stein & Gerson — a manufacturer of ladies’ clothes — almost immediately upon arrival. He held his position as a foreman for 20 years.
We lived in cold-water flats off St. Lawrence Boulevard, as it was then called. My father worked hard, but his pay check was paltry. As a result, my parents took in a boarder, an Italian immigrant named Benny, who introduced us to the pungent aroma of Romano cheese and the uplifting arias of Italian opera.
In the early 1950s, we left Montreal’s old Jewish quarter after my parents bought a duplex off Decarie Boulevard. We lived on the first floor and rented out the top unit to a car salesman, who effectively paid for our mortgage. My mother entered the job market after we moved into a bigger duplex in Cote St. Luc, a neighborhood heavily populated by Jews. She worked in a bakery owned by Leon Eisenberg, a fellow survivor. She would bring home cakes and pastries, feeding my appetite for sweets.
I was raised on traditional Jewish food with a Polish twist. Thanks to my mother’s culinary prowess, I was brought up with such delectable staples as sauerkraut and potato soup, chicken soup garnished with egg noodles, roast chicken and turkey, meatballs in a tangy sauce, dumplings slathered with fried onions and apple cake. She discovered a gastronomic novelty, spaghetti, fairly late, but once we had tasted this exotic dish, there was no turning back.
When my father was laid off after his employer declared bankruptcy, a pall of gloom settled over the house. How would the bills be paid? The answer was not long in coming. My parents bought a dry cleaning store in downtown Montreal and they prospered, at least for a while.
Around this time, I went to London to do a postgraduate degree. When I returned 10 months later, I learned that my father had been shot and grievously wounded in a holdup and that the business had been sold. When I asked why I hadn’t been informed, my mother replied, “We didn’t want to interrupt your studies.” My mother was a great believer in education.
The following year, I went to a kibbutz to study Hebrew in Israel. When my parents visited me there in 1971, I was dating a young Israeli woman of Polish origin. I wasn’t ready to commit, but my mother told me she had a diamond engagement ring in her purse in case I decided to take my relationship to the next level. It didn’t happen and she was disappointed.
Shortly afterward, I met Etti, a Bulgarian Israeli who was pursuing an MA degree in English literature at Tel Aviv University. We were married in Tel Aviv in 1972. I returned to Montreal almost two years later. Within a month and a half, Etti joined me there. Eventually, we moved to Toronto, where we had two lovely daughters, Mia and Lauren.
In 1981, my parents left Montreal for good, eager to be near me and my sister, Marilyn. Subsequently, my youngest sister, Shirley, settled in Toronto as well. My parents were content in Toronto, pleased by their close proximity to their children. They enjoyed their retirement and watched their grandchildren grow into adulthood.
‘When dementia tragically took hold of my mother, everything changed’
But when dementia tragically took hold of my mother, everything changed. Confined to a wheelchair, she no longer cooks and cleans and has lost her mobility and freedom.
She rarely speaks English now, having reverted to her childhood Polish, which I don’t understand. Conversation with her has become virtually impossible.
Her face lights up when she greets me. And when I press my cheek against hers, she gives me a kiss. Having lost her ability to converse, she mutters a few words, but they usually leave her lips in the form of fragmented sentences or gibberish. It’s frustrating and infinitely sad for all of us.
My mother, at 100, is not the same vital person she was five or 10 years ago. Imprisoned in a decrepit body, she can’t function normally. The lamentable condition in which she finds herself will only get worse, though I trust she’ll be made as comfortable as possible.
Whatever happens in the near future, Genia, Golda and Jean are embedded deep in my heart. She’s my mother and I love her.
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