Numbered forearms were everywhere, and everyone knew what that meant

Toronto, like many post-war Jewish communities, was welcoming to the refugees – and not.

‘NUMBERED FOREARMS were everywhere and everyone knew what that meant, including the children.’  (photo credit: FLICKR)
‘NUMBERED FOREARMS were everywhere and everyone knew what that meant, including the children.’
(photo credit: FLICKR)
It was all bungalows, back splits and side splits, the north Toronto neighborhood where I lived until I was 10; winding crescents, manicured yards, swing sets. Very Ozzie and Harriet.
Except that the native tongue of approximately half the adults living there in the ‘60s, was Yiddish. Numbered forearms were everywhere and everyone knew what that meant, including the children. We knew the names of the camps and had a pretty good idea of what went on there. It all seemed “normal” but we all knew it was anything but.
My father was from Europe, but he was different from the others. He never spoke Yiddish and seemed hell-bent on pretending, to the outside world and to us, that he wasn’t Jewish. It was a futile but primal obsession he had.
My brothers were not bar-mitzvahed, and every Jewish holiday became an occasion for him to erupt in terrifying rages. The curtains in our home were drawn and we kids felt as if we were in hiding, enveloped in a dark, confusing joylessness. Rage.
My mother, Toronto-born, was overwhelmed by so much, including this toxic fury that saturated our home. We each developed our own, isolated way of navigating the emotional and psychological chaos. Once, as a teenager, I asked my father why he was so harsh. And he replied, matter-of-factly, without missing a beat: “The home is not a sanctuary. The home is a place where I toughen you up so that you are prepared for what you will have to deal with ‘out there.’”
“And don’t tell me it can’t happen because it did.”
Once, despondent, age 11, I came home after a very bad day. And I was told: “A bad day is being on the next train to Auschwitz.”
Empathy, in our bungalow, was in scarce supply.
My mother was and remains gentle, pretty and smart. Toronto-born to Russian immigrant parents, she was overrun with guilt at what had happened in Europe while she sallied through high school. Her family opened their home to Jewish refugees from Europe, one of whom happened to be my dad. Until, shock horror, the shayne maidele fell in love with the refugee.
Their marriage was anomalous and for good reason. Statistically, more than 90% of Holocaust survivors married another one; no one else could begin to understand the singular hell in which they persisted, day in, day out, even after the physical ordeal had ended.
In my parents’ small circle of friends, all the couples were like them: a Canadian girl married to a Holocaust refugee. They were at ease, as much as they ever could be: at least free from the scorn and judgment which so many established Jewish Canadians directed at the newcomers.
These were the days when the general consensus was that they all “went like lambs to the slaughter.” So heartless, cruel, contemptuous and untrue.
Toronto, like many post-war Jewish communities, was welcoming to the refugees. And not. Yes, they allocated resources. Stuff. But not their hearts. We children felt it, too. We were different and we were to bury our inherited torment and forge on.
Explaining this reality to hyper-emotive, intersectionally-inclined millennials (I am the mother of two in this cohort) is an extreme challenge, but that was the world we lived in. Emotions were to be controlled or expunged. To suggest that we were in any way “privileged” would have been received as an unthinkable absurdity.
NOTHING. NOTHING that we children experienced could ever come close and, accordingly, didn’t merit attention. That was the reality in which we grew up. We could never measure up.
Attachment and sentiment were weaknesses to be mocked and rebuffed. Accomplishments, however great, were to be expected. Failures or setbacks were unforgivable. Our individual dreams and character were to be suppressed in favor of steeling for survival. Psychological. Economic. Physical.
Stripped of all that gave life meaning, survival became psychological torment, in the paradoxical calm of North America. Survival was all that mattered.
The survivor’s hopeless dilemma: How do you enjoy life when they – all six million – cannot? Every moment is clouded with incomprehensible memories of cruelty and destruction. Survivor’s guilt, we call it.
Just over a year ago, I travelled to Bucharest, and paid a visit to the grave of my grandfather, Marcu Bercovici. He died at age 37 in 1937. Workers at the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of the city were hired to hack and thrash at the overgrown trees and bushes so that the gravesite was accessible. It is one of the few that has not been vandalized over the years. Even the shellacked photograph of my grandfather is in perfect condition.
Before he died, a month ago, my father remembered with me the headstone and said he wants one just like it.
At his funeral, on a typically gloomy November morning in Toronto, my father was remembered as a difficult man, a complex man, who hated being Jewish but was an ardent Zionist. Among his favorite memories, one of the few that he shared with joy, was that he sang in the boys’ choir in the Great Synagogue in Bucharest. How grand it was. How special he felt.
Romania was anomalous in Europe, having a homegrown fascist movement – the Iron Guard - that was even too savage, at times, for the occupying Nazis. For the most part, the Germans left the brutality to the locals, who did a reasonably efficient job in murdering 50% of the 900,000 Jews in Romania as of 1939.
Shortly after the death of her husband in 1937, my grandmother married her brother-in-law, Julius. His wife, her sister, had passed away, and in those days family arrangements were very pragmatic. They had to get on with things. Love and personal fulfillment were very secondary.
Julius had an artificial leg and owned a small millinery. He was also a communist. As things became unbearable in Bucharest, he packed up the family and headed for Botosani, a town in northern Romania. The idea was to cross into the Soviet Union and head to the far-eastern “Jewish autonomous region” in Stalinist Russia – Birobidzhan. There, he decided, they would be left in peace.
My father, like many from central and Eastern Europe, was a fervent anti-communist, and considers their failure to make it to the Soviet Union one of his luckiest moments in life. He survived the war in forced labor; four years of grinding, manual work in an airfield near Botosani, which was a main supply route for German troops on the Eastern front.
In September, 1945, he left home and made his way, on foot, riding rail cars, escaping death multiple times.
After several years in a displaced persons camp on the outskirts of Rome, my father, his younger brother and some close friends finally were accepted to migrate to Canada under the tight entry quotas. He was 19 years old.
He did it. He survived. To age 91.
The writer was the Canadian ambassador to Israel from 2014-2016. A former lawyer, she consults for international clients on a range of issues and resides in Tel Aviv.