Polish passport. (Clara Fuchs photo)

COLUMN: Honouring my Polish-Jewish grandmother after reports of swastikas seen on Parliament Hill

My bubby was spared the murderous violence of Hitler’s Europe but she grieved mightily from afar

Within 24 hours of International Holocaust Remembrance Day last week, there were Nazi flags with giant swastikas being flown on Parliament Hill amid the trucker protest signs against COVID-19 mandates.

This inexplicable display has prompted me to want to share something positive about the life and times of my Polish-Jewish grandmother, Clara, who was 96 when she passed away in 2003.

She made it to Canada years before the Holocaust. She persevered even though she never got over the fact that her entire family in Poland was wiped out in a campaign of murderous hate under the Nazi regime.

Bubby once shared a magically simple life lesson with my brother: “Just be happy.”

How can you argue with that?

I was always spellbound by the fact that Bubby could speak a whopping six languages, including English, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Yiddish and German.

As a bilingual Canadian with a mixed-European ancestry, I believe the more languages and cultural traditions you are exposed to, the better off we will all be. It helps us bridge our differences.

As I was writing my grandmother’s eulogy years ago, it occurred to me how rich we are in Canada to have forged a cultural mosaic, rather than an American-style melting pot, despite the periodic incidents of ugly racism.

Many of our family’s cherished memories about Bubby have something to do with food and politics. Loud family gatherings were the norm in my hometown of Montreal.

“Ess, meine kinder,” (In English: Eat, my children) our Bubby would say in Yiddish at the table with sheer joy. She was just happy there was always more than enough food for everyone.

As a child she watched her father scrabble out a living at various occupations, while her well-read and politically active mother hosted stimulating discussions. She also witnessed firsthand the violent upheaval from the Russian Revolution as it was spilling into her little town of Svisloch, Poland.

Bubby went through more hardship and political intrigue in Europe by the time she was just 17, than most of us see in our entire lives.

Shortly after that, she was headed for Canada. Her blue eyes must have sparkled in anticipation of wondrous new adventures and dreams of the big family she would one day cherish.

In her 1990 autobiography recorded by her grandchildren, she describes what it felt like as a teenager travelling by ship to Montreal for the very first time: “I felt good on this ship. Everything was new for me and I enjoyed every minute of it.”

She dreamed of a big family and was thrilled to eventually bring children into the world during the Great Depression, including my late father, Moishe.

“We worked very hard to bring up four children,” she recounted. “They were the best pleasure in my life. We tried to give them the best we could. In the summers we used to take them to the country …. Winters we’d go tobogganing on the hills of Mount Royal.”

She was keenly aware of how fortunate she was to have been spared the horrors of Hitler’s Europe. Yet she grieved mightily from afar in her new Montreal home, to lose everyone who was dear to her.

“When I heard the news I felt very sick,” she recalled. “Just to think that I never knew them very well. My sister was married and she had a little boy that I never even saw. I also never saw my little brother, my aunts and uncles. I lost everybody. Nobody was left. Nobody.”

So she poured all her considerable energy, passion and heart into raising her Canadian family. She was going to be a survivor, there was no doubt about that but there was always an ineffable sadness.

“Seeing my grandchildren growing up to be good, intelligent young people made me feel a lot better,” she told those recording her life story.

She had a keen intelligence and a fierce sense of justice, and those of us carrying her memory hope some of that has rubbed off on us.

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