Hidden child has no memories of the parents who gave her life

Imagine the fear that drove mainly Jewish parents of small children to place them with strangers in the hope they would survive the Nazi onslaught as German forces swept across Europe 80 years ago and began the mass murder of Jews.

Imagine the trauma thousands of children experienced as they were placed with strangers, forced to pretend to be non-Jews, or forced to live hidden from public view, in cellars and attics.

The Making of a Family: A Memoir, by Aviva Ptack, with Richard King (John Aylen Books), is the moving and ultimately beautiful story of one such hidden child, who had no idea of her early life in Lithuania or the identity and fate of her biological parents, until she was a young adult in Montreal

As she writes in her opening paragraph, Aviva was born in September 1940 in Kovno, today’s Kaunas, to Leah and Abba Deitch. “Lovingly they saved my life. Yet I have no memories of them.”

Aviva’s story was pieced together from relatives and older members of the Litvack community who survived the Holocaust and the Kovno ghetto, and it is a fascinating read, both horrifying in recollecting brutal times and beautiful in its life-enhancing outcome.

As a mother and grandmother, Aviva imagines what it must have been like for her parents to send her away in the hope she would survive and they would be reunited after the war.

“Emotionally, I know that if I were in that situation, it would feel like having a body part ripped off without anesthetic.”

This memoir is enhanced by Richard King’s research, and clear and sensitive editing. It is a great read, and the background material bolsters the memories and taped recollections of Aviva’s adoptive parents. Books consulted include The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Police (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014) and Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto (Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1997).

When the war started, Aviva speculates that her parents may well have been aware of how Jews in neighbouring Poland were being treated once the German drive to the east began in June 1941 and they replaced
the Soviets in Lithuania.

She believes her parents saw how “many Lithuanian Christians turned on them” and since escape was impossible, realized they had to act. This became extremely urgent when in July, 1941 all Kovno Jews were ordered to relocate in a ghetto established for them in neighbouring Slobodka.

Abba and Leah provided funds for a young gentile couple with two young daughters to purchase a farm and look after Aviva and a cousin there. In return, when the war ended, the “adoptive” family would get to keep the farm. Aviva believes she and her cousin were sedated for the trip – Aviva was barely a year old – and in the process the cousin died.

Aviva only has limited memories of her time on the farm, but recalls that food was scarce, that she spoke Lithuanian and went to church on Sunday, and that being dark-haired while her “sisters and parents” were fair-haired, there was always a danger of being discovered.

Aviva survived and after the Red Army liberated the Kovno Ghetto in Aug.1944, the four-year-old was picked up by her mother’s cousin who knew where the child had been placed. Aviva never found out what happened to her parents.

Aviva couldn’t stay with her mother’s cousin because the cousin’s own daughter became jealous so Luba Schmidt agreed to adopt her and, as Aviva writes, “I was four and a half years old and had been with five families before my mother and I found each other.”

This is just the beginning of a remarkable story, of survival, resilience, hope, and commitment to rebuild shattered lives and prosper, how Luba met Pinchas Rosenfeld, how they married and moved to Montreal, and were helped by fellow members of the Litvish community here. And so many surprises emerged as Aviva learned about the story of her survival.

Life in Montreal was not easy, but like the story of many survivors who came here, the family did well, and the book is replete with nostalgic memories as Aviva recounts what it was like growing up in Montreal of the 1950s and 1960s. Of course, Aviva felt she had more to offer than being a wife to accountant Morty Ptack and mother of their son and daughter, and in the late 1960s enrolled as a mature student at Concordia, graduating with a double major B.A. in literature and psychology.

Like many survivors, she ended up in one of the caring professions. Three years of study resulted in a Certificate in Family Life Education. She then earned an M. Ed. degree in psychology at McGill, and worked at Jewish Family Services before training and working as a psychotherapist at the Argyle Institute for Human Behaviour.

This is an inspiring book – Read it to appreciate what some of our neighbours went through before they arrived here after the war, and how they resumed “normal” lives.

As she concludes, “My name is Aviva Ptack. My real name is Leba Deitch and I am one of the lucky ones.”

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