I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors distills, through text and drawings, including panels in the comic-book format, Bernice Eisenstein’s memories of her 1950s’ childhood in Toronto with her Yiddish-speaking parents, whose often unspoken experiences of war were nevertheless always present. The memories also draw on inherited fragments of stories about relatives lost to the war whom she never met.
Eisenstein’s parents met in Auschwitz, near the end of the war and were married shortly after Liberation. The book began to take root in her imagination several years ago, almost a decade after her father’s death.
With poignancy and searing honesty, Eisenstein explores with ineffable sadness and bittersweet humour her childhood growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust. But more than a book about the Holocaust and its far-reaching shadows, this moving, visually ravishing graphic memoir speaks universally about memory, loss, and recovery of the past.
No one who sees this book will not be deeply affected by its beautiful, highly evocative writing and brilliantly original and haunting artwork created by the author. I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors is destined to become a classic.
“I am lost in memory. It is not a place that has been mapped, fixed by coordinates of longitude and latitude, whereby I can retrace a step and come to the same place again. Each time is different. . . .
“While my father was alive, I searched to find his face among those documented
photographs of survivors of Auschwitz — actually, photos from any camp would do. If I could see him staring out through barbed wire, I thought I would then know how to remember him, know what he was made to become, and then possibly know what he might have been. All my life, I’ve looked for more in order to fill in the parts of my father that had gone missing. . . .”
—Excerpts from I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
I have always been able to step into the presence of absence. It is something that I have needed to do. But I have never found for myself the right distance from the time when my parents’ lives had been so damaged.
I was born in October 1949, in an area of downtown Toronto called Kensington Market. Bordered by Spadina Avenue, one of the city’s main north-south arteries, the streets to the west – Augusta, Kensington, Baldwin, Nassau, Oxford – held a maze of narrow alleys and densely packed-together houses. Eastern European Jewish immigrants arrived in the early twentieth century and made their first homes here. Residents quickly set up shop with bolted-down pushcarts in front of their houses from which they sold a variety of goods.
Those who prospered over time left their frame houses and moved north, to other parts of the city. After the war, room was made for the next wave of immigrants and, with them, shtetl life became transplanted and took root.
The day of my birth that year happened to coincide with Yom Kippur. I don’t know whether or not my mother fasted on the eve, but her Day of Atonement provided a new name for the Book of Life. I’ve never been quite sure if being born on this auspicious date meant that from then on I was off the hook for feeling guilt over any deed or thought or so riddled with it that I believed The Guide for the Perplexed, written centuries before my arrival by the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, was intended for me. Whatever. A state of confusion seemed an appropriate place to start from, especially within the labyrinth of Kensington Market, which was home for the first four years of my life.
Kensington Market is my babysitter, while my father and mother are in their shop just around the corner, plucking feathers from chickens.
I’m standing in front of the Lottmans’ bakery on Baldwin Street, a pint-sized version of the Michelin Man, unable to move in my quilted snowsuit. Silver-coated sugar ball bearings – the kind that decorate wedding cakes and break your teeth when you bite into them – roll around in my hand. Someone from the bakery must have given them to me, and anyway, the broken baby tooth of a child would not be such a tragedy.
The warm smell of baked goods escapes each time a customer goes in or comes out, and instead I wish I had been given a Nothing – a puffed baked confection sprinkled with sugar, manna from heaven. Who would have named something “nothing”? Probably the same person who first tasted the sweet and then, with a shrug, said in Yiddish, “Vus eppes” – literally, “What something.” It should have been called a Something from the start, but that would have been too simple. Vus eppes, go figure. It must be itself and its opposite at the same time, both present and absent, much like this place from the past where I stand.
Across the street is the cheese emporium, displaying giant wheels of cheese in the window. From the market’s small, narrow stores, all crowded one on top of the other, everything can be purchased. Fish fresh from a tank or scaled and filleted, chicken plucked and trussed or sectioned into parts, barrels of herring – brined and pickled – barrels of pickles – brined and pickle-pickled – bagels, braided breads, rye bread, with or without kimmel, black bread, with or without raisins, and a cornucopia spill of fruit, vegetables, and nuts. Chickens, trying to cheat fate, can be seen roaming the concrete sidewalks and streets that might as well have been made of the straw and mud of the past.
The Anshei Minsk Synagogue on St. Andrew, with its Russian-Romanesque architecture, watches over the streets half a century before its windows will be broken, its books burned, in 2002. But for now it is still able to pulse klezmer music into the air and over the rooftops of the market, cadences of the Yiddish soul, another kind of sweet Nothing. Marc Chagall must have floated paint onto his canvasses in Russia with these sounds on his brush.
Our first home in Kensington Market is an apartment on the second floor of a house on Wales Avenue. There are two bedrooms, one for the four of us, the other for a boarder, Mr. Pick, with whom we share the kitchen and bathroom. He was alone and old and I would come to think of him as Mr. Toothpick, wanting to complete his name so that he more closely resembled how I saw him – skinny and tall. Sometimes after my mother bathed me, while I was being dried off and changed, our lodger would appear with a LifeSaver tied to the end of a string, which he dangled over my head to lick.
We lived on Wales for less than two years. In 1950, my mother’s parents, Moishe and Machele, and my aunt and uncle, Jenny and Jacob (whom we called Jack), and their son, Michael, arrived from Sweden, where they had found themselves after the war. Finally, they are all reunited, and from then, my parents, my grandparents, and my aunt and uncle will live within close proximity to one another, no matter how often moving house was entailed.
My father and his brother buy a building on Spadina Avenue that has a grocery store on the street level. Jack will run the store while my father continues to work in his shop nearby on Kensington Avenue in the market. My grandparents find a home for themselves just a few streets away. When our family and Jack’s merge under one roof, filling the two floors above the store, Mr. Pick is invited to gather his few belongings and move into the room in the attic, and the taste of candy on a string will sweeten a new home.
Yiddish was the soul and substance of the life in our home. A veltele, a world within a world. Looking back, it is embodied in the intense gaze of my father and in the resilience of my mother. It is in the stern silence of my mother’s father and in the endurance of his wife, and in the close presence of my aunt and uncle. It is every bar mitzvah, wedding, picnic, and weekend gathering of my parents’ friends. Yiddish is spending the summer at Wasaga Beach, where several cottages make up a shtetl of Greenie families, and watching overweight, overtanned sunbathers bend, knee-deep in the lake, abluting themselves with scooped handfuls of water and sighing, “Ah, what a mechaieh,” what a pleasure.
Yiddish was our home. It was outrunning my mother to the bathroom and locking the door so that she couldn’t patsh my tochis again, and it was the shreklech shrieking of my parents’ anger. It was the dining-room table laden with memorial yorzeit candles on Yom Kippur, the day’s serious meaning relived for the rest of the year when we drank juice out of the small glass containers that once held enough wax to burn for twenty-four hours. It was the toasted rye bread rubbed with knobl, garlic, that I had for breakfast before being sent off to kindergarten with a salami sandwich, thickly sliced, spread with shmaltz. Yiddish was the medicinal remedy my mother used when she hollowed out a potato and placed it over my throbbing, badly burned thumb. Five pounds of potatoes later and a sizable infected blister, she finally allowed a doctor to prescribe antibiotics.
I don’t remember hearing English as a language until I went to school. As my parents’ English vocabulary grew they attached these words to Yiddish, although at the time I was only aware of one harmonic language being spoken. From an early age, my ear became tuned to hear words voiced with a certain cadence and pitch. To this day, any time my mother and I have a conversation, I absorb what she says without any consciousness of her mixing in Yiddish words.
The primary residence of Yiddish in our home managed to affect my relationship to English after I began to go to school. Example: Imagine that you’ve gone on holiday, a stranger in a strange land. You’re all dressed up – fartrasket – ready to go out for an evening of exploration. You get into your rented car and drive for a while until you run out of gas on the highway on a country road in the middle of who knows where – that’s a farshtinkener (really lousy) situation. Then you realize that you have fargessen (forgotten) to take your cellphone with you, having left it in your farkrimmt (crowded) hotel room, and you start to feel the whole holiday is farkuckt (screwed up). In hindsight, the excursion was poorly planned and the fault is yours and now you feel farblondjet (not only lost, but way off track). Suddenly a swarm of wasps comes out of the finster (dark) and you are completely farpotshket (messed up) from head to toe. All is farfolen (lost). The day is fertig (finished) and you lie down in a farkrimmt, farshtinkener, farkuckt ditch by the side of the road.
With its syllabic repetitions, Yiddish often rattled the way I heard English when it was being spoken. Now in order to experience the full flavour of my predicament, start to speak and then sneeze at the same time. Try it: far-fetched, far-flung, far be it, forspent, foreshadow, for shame, furnish (could be confused with gornisht, nothing), forlorn, forbidden, foreplay, furtive (often confused with fertig), and fermented – one of my favourites because it sounds as if it should really mean something that was intended to be, as in fate.
In the late 1950s, I used to watch a TV show called The Millionaire. Every week, Michael Anthony was handed a cheque to deliver to some deserving individual, changing a life forever in American-dream-come-true-land. The only things revealed about the magnanimous benefactor, at the beginning of each show, were his voiceover, the sight of his two hands, and his name: John Bears Fartipton.
Or, at least, that’s what I heard. Only much later, during a conversation about TV trivia, was I corrected: John Beresford Tipton. Even so, my spliced-together interpretation made more sense, since to be fartipt means to be askew, off-centred, which this man had to be if he was handing out one million dollars weekly. But instead of being a meshuggener, a crazy person, perhaps he was a televised version of the ultimate do-gooder, a genuine tzaddik, someone who will magically do God’s bidding and then vanish, since a deed done anonymously is deemed the worthiest. “Heaven will know and God will remember.”
Yiddish defines the world that I came from. It was the language that was spoken for most of my childhood years. It was my parents’ mother tongue, their mamaloshen, filling every step they had taken from one country to the next. Once, when I was very young and never again, I saw my father sweep up crumbs from the living-room floor, using the wing of a goose, a fledervish, as a dust broom. He then burnt the small pile of crumbs, the chometz, on a plate, symbolically ridding our home of the last remnants of cereals and grains, the final readying of the house for Passover. As my father crouched low over the small fire in the corner of the room, I felt the wonderment of a strange sight and sensed for the first time the way the past and a language are fastened together.
From the Hardcover edition.
Bernice Eisenstein was born in 1949 in Toronto, shortly after her parents immigrated to Canada. She is an artist whose illustrations have appeared in a variety of Canadian magazines and periodicals, including the Globe and Mail. She has worked as a freelance editor while also writing the occasional book review for the Globe and Mail. She lives in Toronto.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
“A powerful and emotionally charged memoir. . . . Some of the best writing ever on the subject of the 20th century’s most brutal human catastrophe.”
— NOW magazine (5-star review)
“A uniquely gripping articulation of the heart. . . . An emotional and aesthetic triumph.”
— Canadian Jewish News
“Beautifully conceived and constructed, intimate and engrossing.”
— Quill & Quire
“The most lucid, funny, moving book I encountered in 2006. . . . Remarkable. . . .”
— Molly Peacock, Globe and Mail Books of the Year