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November 09, 2002

The return of the Auschwitz nightmare

No,this article is not about the Middle East conflict, nor is it even about the ME. But it is a sharp reminder of what Israel has meant to Jews and why the Jews needed a land of their own. So central to Jewish thinking is the notion Always Remember. But this gives another perspective on that mandate.

[....] "We're often perceived as the Jewish old-age home on Bathurst," said Mark Gryfe, president of the Baycrest foundation.

"But what's important is sharing what we know about Alzheimer's and dementia and aging with the world. The work we're doing is universal."

As a country of immigrants, Canada needs such research. Many newcomers have survived political oppression, extreme poverty, war and ethnic cleansing. Many could end up reverting to their mother tongues and reliving their traumas.

"It's not just an issue for Jewish Holocaust survivors," said Dr. Gordon, the gerontologist, whose first wife's family died in Germany and whose second wife's family are survivors. "Our experience can be used for others who have comparable genocidal experiences, people who have watched their brothers murdered or their sisters raped."

Researchers estimate that 40 per cent of people will develop some form of dementia by age 80. As the population ages, the numbers of Canadians with serious brain-related disorders will triple over the next 30 years. Even baby boomers with happy-go-lucky childhoods will need help.

Whenever Chaya Vilenski would spy a half-eaten bun on the sidewalk in Toronto, she always picked it up. Food, or the lack of it, indelibly marked her life.

After the Germans invaded Lithuania in 1941, her one-year-old daughter, Miriam, starved to death in the Kaunas ghetto. Her husband died there, too. But Mrs. Vilenski was too healthy, so the Nazis forced her into slave labour.

"She was chosen to stay alive because she was healthy. She said they were always looking at her legs. They looked healthy," said Batia Schaffer, 52, the daughter she had after the war, after she married the widower of a cousin who was also killed in the war.

Where once Mrs. Vilenski dug runways at the Kaunas airport, now her legs are weak. A few months ago, she fell and broke her hip. On this day, she is sitting in a wheelchair at Baycrest, elegantly dressed in a blue straw hat and white sweater. Her nails are manicured. She's wearing pink lipstick.

At 88, she suffers from dementia. After all the losses she has suffered, the burning question for her is one of life and death. And so she asks, over and over again, if her brothers and sisters and cousins are alive.

With one exception, every member of her family perished in the Holocaust, not just her husband and their daughter, but her parents, all her cousins and four of her five siblings. One brother was sent to Auschwitz, but managed to escape. He died in California a few years ago. Like him, Mrs. Vilenski was sent to a Polish concentration camp from 1943 to 1945. She nearly died of starvation.

She speaks Russian, Lithuanian, Yiddish and Hebrew, but not English. Through Ms. Schaffer, a retired chemist, who translated, Mrs. Vilenski was asked what the death camp was like for her. She stared at the pastel carpet, and then described the food. "They gave us soup from grass."

Her second husband died of leukemia when Ms. Schaffer, her only living child, was a toddler. After Lithuania became a Soviet republic, Mrs. Vilenski worked in a cigarette factory. Ms. Schaffer said her mother was once caught exchanging stolen cigarettes for food. "I was very scared because they could send you to Siberia."

Mrs. Vilenski stopped stealing for a month. "And then she started again, because we couldn't survive," Ms. Schaffer said. "Food was very important in my mother's life. My mom was always shovelling food into me."

After waiting years for an exit visa, mother and daughter emigrated to Israel. In the late 1970s, they came to Canada. Even after Ms. Schaffer married and had a daughter of her own, they always lived together until Mrs. Vilenski moved into Baycrest a year ago.

At lunch time, Ms. Schaffer wheeled her mother into a dining room bright with natural light. The daughter hovered, but her mother didn't appear to need help. Although Ms. Schaffer said Mrs. Vilenski's appetite was a bit off after she broke her hip, she ate steadily, wordlessly. First she polished off a green salad, then a bowl of potato soup, then a plate of gefilte fish. She left nothing on her plate. Dessert was a dish of peaches, washed down with a container of apple juice and a cup of hot tea.

"You can ask her what she ate five minutes ago, and she can't remember," Ms. Schaffer said. "But she likes to eat."

During the Second World War, Hitler killed off the very young and very old, saving the fittest, such as Mrs. Vilenski, for slave labour. Now, 60 years after the first Jews were shipped to concentration camps, the survivors are in their 70s, 80s and 90s. Baycrest has 13 centenarians, all female.

These Holocaust survivors, who lost immediate and extended families, never lived with aging parents themselves. Their adult children, who grew up without grandparents, are also experiencing aging for the first time. Like Batia Schaffer, these children are often especially devoted and protective. "But their kids can't protect them from old age," said Paula David, the Holocaust Research Project co-ordinator.