Do you remember as a child when you would confuse a word that had two meanings? The adults around you would be talking about something and you’d hear a familiar word but in a context that made no sense to you. I’m sure it’s happened to most of us so I’ll just assume you know what I’m talking about. Things are going to get complicated enough as it is without me having to worry about that part of the story.
First off I need to explain my mother’s extended family to you a little for this to make any sense at all. Her mother’s family were Polish Jews who settled in Toronto in the early 1900s. They had been your typical Fiddler On The Roof-type farming/peasant people who managed somehow to get the heck out of Poland with what they could carry on their backs and made their way to Canada.
Her father’s family were Romanian Jews; well-educated city dwellers that probably never got their hands dirty in their lives. According to my grand father, they came to Canada because his father had an altercation with a Cossack — he knifed him — and the family was forced to flee forthwith. They settled in Montreal because they were fluent in French, but spoke very little English at the time.
Even during the times our family lived in Toronto we always seemed to end up seeing more of our Montreal relatives than those in Toronto. Part of it was that my Grandfather wasn’t that thrilled with what he called “the dumb Polacks” (even among the downtrodden there is a hierarchy: with European Jews, the only thing lower on the scale than a dumb Polack was a Litvack – Lithuanian) and my mother was closer to her cousins on that side of the family than on her mother’s side.
We usually ended up in Montreal at least once a year, more if by chance we happened to be living in Ottawa at the time. My father worked for the Canadian government in the Justice department, so he was transferred between Toronto and Ottawa every three to four years until he quit. Ottawa was only about an hour’s drive from Montreal, so it was easy to go up for a day visit if we wanted.
For some reason I remember a period of a few years when we seemed to end up in Montreal every year for Passover. I don’t know if this was accidental, but I do know they would always invite my grandfather and grandmother to come from Toronto, and I think it was a good excuse for all of us to get together when we were living in Ottawa. My grandfather was the last of his generation alive for the Montreal family. He had been the youngest child, born in 1900, and all of his brothers and sisters had died young.
It is during Seder, the traditional Passover meal, that the story of the Exodus is retold. (Not the movie starring Paul Newman – the original one featuring Moses and a cast of thousands.) Before the actual stuffing of the faces could begin, there were certain ritual foods that had to be consumed with the readings of passages from the story, but eventually we were all able to settle in and begin eating.
For most of the family this meant a lot of talking and very little eating. The seating was worked out so that the older the generation the closer to the head of the table you sat, and us young folk were usually seated at card tables that were attached like an extended kite tail to the main dinner table.
There is one year in particular that stands out for me, because of word-confusion and its nature. That year it seemed we younger folk were even further away from the head of the table; in fact we had to watch people in the middle of the table to know what to do because we couldn’t hear anything the reader was saying that year. It wasn’t until we all began the regular eating of the meal that we found out the reason for our being even further away from the centre of things.
The first words that trickled down the table to us exiles were that there were some very special guests in town. They were first cousins of our mom’s cousin’s wife. Of course she wasn’t really part of our family, so these first cousins weren’t related to us except by marriage and if was rumoured they might actually be Litvaks.
“Mary’s family,” the voice drifted down into our outer provinces, “God Bless them, are sweet people…” No words: I don’t know, maybe it’s because Hebrew has no vowels that Jews are so good at saying so much without using words. An eyebrow, a tilt of the head or a lifting of one hand says plenty for those who can read.
Even I, who was almost illiterate in that strange language of gestures and silences, could read something about cousin Mary’s family that wasn’t what it should be. I craned my neck to try and see these cousins who weren’t cousins – who might not be all they should be.
They were sitting near the very top of the table, almost in the place of honour where my grandfather was ensconced. If not for two chairs that contained his eldest niece and her husband, they would have been seated beside him. From where I sat they didn’t look much different than those folk across from them except they weren’t nearly so fleshy. Aside from my grandmother who had something wrong with her thyroid, they were the only two who didn’t have the sleek look of the well fed.
If forced to guess I would have said that maybe they would have been a few years older them my mom, but I couldn’t be sure; something about their faces could have taken it either way. They looked both like young children and aged, wizened elders. There was a quality about them that made you feel protective and wanting to keep them from harm. Just like any other orphans.
While I was looking up the table something was making it’s way down; its passage was marked by a head turning to one side to present a good ear to the mouth beside it, a lifting of shoulders and splaying of hands, or even the slightest of nods. You just knew everyone was watching, waiting their turn to be passed whatever morsel was making the rounds so they too could chew it over and add it to the hoard of information they could hand out over the coming year.
When the words “the camps” finally made it down to me, and obviously in reference to the two who weren’t anyone’s family really, I didn’t know what to do with it. The only thing the word “camp” meant to me was the place I was subjected to for two to four weeks each summer.
They didn’t look like the type of people who ran a place where kids slept together in log cabins and had pretend Indian stories and rituals foisted on them. They had none of the heartiness or pretend friend to every child attitude of all those camp directors whose hands my parents entrusted me to each summer. For one thing, I couldn’t see either of them getting up and leading everyone in a rousing chorus of “Johnny Appleseed” before each meal as thanks for mass-produced slop.
I looked around to try and get some clue from my younger cousins on what it could mean. I saw they had looks of awe and something close to fear on their faces as they talked together in little whispers. Not for the first nor last time did I think about the unfairness of having a gentile father. If not for him, perhaps I would understand more about these mysteries my cousins all seemed to understand without trouble.
It was while I was thinking these confused thoughts, feeling even more like a guest at a party where you were the only person who didn’t wear the right clothes, that I caught an inadvertently thrown lifeline: Auschwitz. I knew that word — the camps — must mean concentration camps. So those cousins who weren’t cousins except by marriage had been in a concentration camp — surviving things far worse than having to sing “Johnny Appleseed” before each meal.
The rest of the meal, as I remember, was spent trying to grab surreptitious glances up the table as if we hoped, or at least I hoped, to gain some insight into what they had experienced by merely staring at them. They did exist in a space of their own up there near the head of the table. It was as if they had extra room for the memories that were part of their permanent state of being.
Something had changed about them since the information had been passed around. They’d gone from being possible Litvaks to almost celebrity status. Most of us had never seen survivors before; all of our families had been in Canada long before World War One and didn’t have to worry about being caught up in the fires of the Holocaust. Our parents and grandparents had lived out the war in school and the war factories, so this was the closest any of us had ever come to tangible contact with people who had been through those horrors.
We all wanted them to be special, and might have each been a little disappointed in how ordinary they were. Two very quiet people in normal clothes that didn’t quite fit properly, who were quieter than the adults we were used to. I don’t know what we expected for our first survivors, but being raised on images of fighters, two little mice-like creatures that leaned into each other for protection was a slight disappointment.
We were driving home that evening after the meal, with no staying around afterwards to talk with anyone, so I was left alone with my confusion. Why did we use the same word for where I went to spend weeks during the summer as was used to describe those places where millions — a number far too big for anybody really to understand — of people died?
Obviously not all of them who entered the camps had died, some of them had walked away, somehow or other, and I saw two of them that night. Two very ordinary people who, unless you saw them in the company of others, really were no different to look at, which made it even harder to understand what had happened to them.
The lights of the oncoming cars as we traveled down the highway back to Ottawa that night could have been the search lights in a camp or the flashlights of campers out on a walk at night in the woods. Sometimes it was so hard to tell things apart.