Review: Sheymes, A Family Album after the Holocaust

Chaja and Elizabeth Wajnberg, with Srulec and Lusia, Lodz 1949. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Wajnberg)
Chaja and Elizabeth Wajnberg, with Srulec and Lusia, Lodz 1949. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Wajnberg)

Chaja and Elizabeth Wajnberg, with Srulec and Lusia, Lodz 1949. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Wajnberg)

As survivors of the Holocaust dwindle in numbers, the burden of memory and the compulsion to record falls on the shoulders of their offspring. Silence – internalizing extreme pain and horrific scenes – has been a frequent, if ultimately corrosive, defense mechanism adopted by many survivors. Others did recount their experiences, as object lessons and necessary testimony, if not also for therapeutic effect.

Their children, many now seniors, have their own stories to tell, and one of the most moving and illuminating is Sheymes, the beautifully written memoir by Elizabeth Wajnberg.

The title is the Yiddish word for fragments of a holy book that are not to be discarded, but buried in consecrated ground. It is a metaphor for the world her Holocaust survivor parents left behind, and the ethno-cultural firmament ingrained in their being.

Wajnberg, born shortly after the war in Lodz, Poland, ended up in Montreal after moving with her parents, Chaja and Srulec, and older sister Lusia (Toba) from Israel where the family first re-settled. They lived here, first in the Park Avenue area where she attended Fairmount School, then Outremont High and McGill before moving on.

The book’s opening chapters describe the irony of the 1980s, when both sisters return to Europe, Elizabeth to live in Paris – “The most beautiful city in the world” – and Lusia to London, where she prefers to live and work.

Both are seeking to liberate themselves, find their way forward, and carve out their own space. But the dark past, which is woven into the family fabric, is ever-present.

Aside from playful moments, individual idiosyncrasies, and resultant family dynamics, the narrative quickly jumps to the wartime nightmare.

In October 1942, an instinctive Chaja understands, on some subliminal level, that death is approaching and leaps out the window with her infant child into the unknown. “She walked through the field of corpses in the dead of night carrying her child,” Wajnberg writes.

And where does that place the memoirist: “I am the puniest expression of my mother’s sentence to go on living, and the miraculous proof of her having passed through the fire alive.”

The memoir is set among the parameters of the past and the push and pull of life in North America as the sisters grow up in Montreal. It also recalls life in the shtetl, the poverty and beauty of community, with such traditions as tzedakah – Yiddish and Hebrew for justice and assisting the poor and needy – ingrained in the living culture.

Srulec, liberated at Buchenwald, too sick to be marched out, finds work at Pascal’s Hardware and then as a customer peddler.

But they are what we who were born in Montreal called greeneh, Yiddish for greenhorns. The newcomers called us geyleh –the Yiddish word for yellow, ripe and ready to eat, meaning fully Canadian. The memoir is replete with Yiddish phrases and expressions, and English equivalents that add to its down-home texture and charm.

These memories rekindled my own memories of that period. Yes, many looked askance at these Yiddish speakers who arrived from Europe with their strange winter coats, pushing huge baby carriages as they marched proudly along Park Avenue, and gathered in Fletcher’s Field to schmooze. Some of our new neighbours were Hasidim.

I remember our principal, Melach Magid, at Talmud Torah on St. Joseph lecturing us about who these people were, and what they had been through. But otherwise, the Holocaust was rarely discussed openly in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Instead, we celebrated the birth of Israel.

A second section of the book is its most raw and intimate as the author, by now married, returns to Montreal from California to care for her mom, in declining health.

Here the writer sees herself being transformed. From the object of overprotection by a mother who over-fed her daughters to counter-act starvation memories seared into her consciousness, Elizabeth surprises herself by becoming a devoted nurturer.

For the stoic survivor, Chaja Wajnberg, death is nothing to fear, considering what she’s been through.

With reconstructed dialogue and richly detailed scenes in Paris and Montreal, juxtaposed with her parents’ gripping memories of life in Poland, the inter-generational perspective and end-of-life issues raised in this book will affect many deeply, as they did me.

SHEYMES, A Family Album after the Holocaust, by Elizabeth Wajnberg, McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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