The arrival of 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada recalls the experience of the few Jews who made it here from Europe on the eve of World War Two.
My mother, Ruth Block, was one of them. She came here in 1938 from her native Poland, sponsored by her half-sister Lipche (Lilly) and brother-in-law Avrum Merowitz. Family sponsorship was one way a Jew could surmount anti-Semitic Canadian immigration policy of the time, characterized by the phrase ‘None is Too Many’, when it came to Jews.
As a supporter of her synagogue’s commitment to sponsor five Syrian refugee families, she recalls that time in her life when she sought refuge, and how that parallels with today.
It was a winter when Rochelle Markowicz, as she was known then, waved goodbye to her only brother, Wovche (Wolf), on the docks at the Polish port of Gdnask. She was 19. She did not realize it then, but it would be their last meeting.
“I was standing on the boat, and I saw him standing there – It’s as if I can see him right now. He was tall, it was the middle of winter, he was wearing a beautiful coat, and, little did I know, I would never see him again.”
She would also never again see her father, Mordechai (Motel) and mother Minda, cousins and many friends in her native Zloczew, 70 kilometres southwest of Lodz, and sister-in-law Bela, who all became Holocaust victims. Her Canadian relatives met her in Halifax and accompanied her to Montreal. She lived with them in their apartment, above their store, Canadian Glass and Mirror, on Park just above Mount Royal.
After a while, Ruth began to feel what many refugees and immigrants experience—a huge letdown and much regret.
“In Zloczew, we heard that in America (Canada included) people lived such a wonderful life, everybody is rich.” But reality was something else. “Here I see my sister works the whole week in the store, and on the weekend, she does the washing, the cleaning. What kind of life is that? This is Amerikeh?” she wondered.
Speaking only Yiddish and Polish, Ruth helped with the housework and found a job sewing linings into coats in a factory in the old garment district downtown.
To be on her own, she rented a room from an older couple on Hutchison St. between Villeneuve and St. Joseph—the rent was $7 a month, with a hot meal— “soup with a piece of meat, some bread” for supper. It was a quarter of her monthly salary. She also walked downtown to save on carfare and get the exercise she needed. The walking remained a constant habit that in part accounts for her good health.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Having indoor plumbing and electricity was a big change from Zloczew, yet Ruth remembers her disappointments about other aspects of Montreal living.
“I saw people work, work, work all the time. What kind of a life was this? In Zloczew I had friends, we talked and we walked. I wrote about that to my brother. I said ‘I’m thinking of going back’ but he said I’d get used to it.”
Her job, she remembered, was “hell. All you did was sit and sew on the machine. There was a foreman and you couldn’t stop for a minute. In the summertime it was hot, and it got hotter because they were pressing the clothes.”
It didn’t take long before Ruth stopped thinking of going home. Reading reports of growing anti-Semitic acts in Germany, Kristallnacht in November 1938, and rumblings of imminent war ended any thoughts of returning.
Ruth met Anne Applebaum, visiting from Windsor, Ont., who became her private English teacher at 25 cents a lesson. Ruth then met Anne’s uncle, Harry Block, who became her husband, and my father.
They soon married and a first child was born in November 1940. The situation in Europe became darker and a letter from her father, pleading for financial help, was a sign of desperate times. When her brother, a successful executive working in the Lodz textile industry, wrote from the ghetto, ‘G-d knows if we will ever see each other again’, Ruth saw these words as code for the worst.
“If he wrote that, it was very bad. He knew he would perish. I cried my eyes out, during and after the war. Even today, not a day goes by that I should not think about it, not just that my family died, but the way they died. The Germans made them work very, very hard with very little food, and when they couldn’t go on, they were sent to the gas chambers. That kills me, even now.”
As for helping Syrian refugees, Ruth says, “Now is my time to do the same thing that was done for me. I am very happy to participate.”
Ruth Block celebrates her 98th birthday this month. She is proud of having raised a family of three children, seven grandchildren, and ten great grandchildren.