My mother’s journey to survive

Helen Edel's passbook

My mother’s journey to survive

Star columnist travels to his mother’s hometown where her family was slaughtered in the Holocaust

Barely 16 years old, she survived by adopting a false identity to live among her Nazi enemies inside Germany. Living by her wits, she escaped the fate of her parents — my grandparents — who were buried in mass graves that have only recently been uncovered.

Now, a memorial has opened at the killing field where thousands of Jews like them were slaughtered more than 70 years ago, at the height of World War II.

An invitation to witness the dedication ceremony came too late for my mother. She died last year, leaving me to complete the journey without her.

Guiding me in her place today is an unlikely surrogate — a French priest who knows Rava Ruska’s story perhaps better than any Jew alive: Father Patrick Desbois has dedicated his life to investigating the mass executions of Europe’s Jews by German killing squads and their local henchmen.

His grandfather, a French PoW held in a camp outside my mother’s hometown, hinted darkly at Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Like me, Desbois grew up hearing stories about this foreign-sounding place (pronounced Rava Rooska).

He wanted to learn what his grandfather lived through. I needed to know where my grandparents died.

During my years as a foreign correspondent, I came to understand the importance of place — of traveling to the scene of tragedy to bear witness and chronicle loss. Now I find myself thrust into a journalistic journey that is also an intensely personal quest.

Ahead of the memorial ceremony, Desbois asks me to join him on the route his research teams have taken countless times. Our destination, once a vital railway junction town, was transformed by the Nazis into a deadly crossroads for their war machine — a place for incarcerating PoWs while exterminating Jews.

Today, Rava Ruska is dilapidated and depopulated, its faded legacy kept alive by the families of the dead.

“There are so many Jews who don’t know what happened to their families,” Desbois tells me as our car approaches the town whose name has been on my lips since childhood. “In Rava Ruska the problem was that nobody knew where the graves were.”

The intrepid priest knows the way. Followed by bodyguards (protecting against threats on his life), our convoy bounces along a potholed road to a clearing on the outskirts of town, surrounded by pine forests.

It is this forgotten Holocaust that Desbois came upon a decade ago, and has documented ever since: the mass extermination site where victims were taken to be shot, one bullet per Jew, as part of Hitler’s Final Solution.

Overlooking the dead is a monument cobbled together from old Hebrew headstones plundered long ago from an old Jewish cemetery. The site is cordoned off by a knee-high enclosure of sombre concrete and stone, but a grimly-worded sign cautions visitors, “Human remains may be found scattered beyond the mass graves marked here.”

Tears flow easily as I look out at the grandparents I never knew.

It is hard to cover your own family’s funeral ceremony, even 70 years later. Were my mother still alive, I know she could not easily bear the pain of coming home to behold the graves of her dead parents.

Behind us, invited dignitaries are assembling to pay homage to the slain Jews of Rava Ruska. The German ambassador is here to atone.

An estimated 4,000 souls are buried in this killing field, one of three execution sites in the area uncovered by Desbois and his Paris-based Yahad – In Unum organization. A memorial pavilion is being unveiled today by the American Jewish Committee for a project underwritten by the German Foreign Ministry.

As the speeches begin, the question haunts me: is my grandfather, Abraham Edel, lying here under the scrubby earth? Is my grandmother, Regina — the inspiration for my middle name, Regg — listening all these years later? In a genocide, there are more questions than answers.

All these years later, we know much more. Local townsfolk have gathered to watch from the sidelines as Desbois takes the microphone to explain the reality of Rava Ruska’s history.

‘I wanted my children to hear it.’

“You must understand that Rava Ruska was a huge killing centre, one big place here for the Jews,” the priest tells them.

A rabbi says Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. Perhaps now they can rest in peace.

It is a dignified monument, designed with durable materials on the advice of Desbois to discourage desecration. He has seen too many other sites looted by locals carting off metal scraps or digging for gold teeth.

Led by their teacher, local high school students light candles at the site. The patchy ground is dotted with small purple flowers, prickly to the touch — Rava Ruska’s own field of thorns.

As the memorial ends, it is time to set off on my own search. Walking past the flickering candles, I wonder who will keep my grandparents’ memory from being extinguished after they are once again left behind.

Father Patrick Desbois

Father Patrick Desbois has almost single-handedly revolutionized Holocaust investigations. Kate Kornberg/Yahad – In Unum

‘We are looking for what happened’

Priest on quest for truth has revolutionized methods for Holocaust investigation

He is an unlikely Holocaust sleuth.

Not a Jew, but a Catholic priest.

Not a prosecutor of Nazi war criminals long dead but a pursuer of witnesses still living, who are only now willing to talk.

Father Patrick Desbois has almost single-handedly revolutionized Holocaust investigations. Documenting crimes against humanity, he has coaxed testimonials from thousands of ordinary villagers across Ukraine who were ordered to dig graves, pull out gold teeth, pile corpses, and conceal genocide.

More than one million Jews were shot in the execution fields, pits and swamps of Nazi-occupied Ukraine and eastern Poland.

Like Nazi hunters of the past, Desbois is in a race against time: aging Ukrainian witnesses, many of them children compelled to do the dirty work of occupying soldiers seven decades ago, are dwindling rapidly.

They are ready to talk, if only someone listens without judging.

“We are not looking for good people or bad people, we are looking for what happened.” the priest explains.

His methodology is simple but powerful: videotape testimonials, identify the sites of mass graves, and search for Nazi-era bullet casings scattered in the soil — ballistic evidence of what Desbois describes in his groundbreaking book, The Holocaust by Bullets.

Rava Ruska provided a breakthrough for the mass graves he documented, the first but by no means the last. He has come back here more than a dozen times to dig, literally and figuratively, for physical and historical traces of the thousands of Jews slain in the hometown of my mother, Helen Edel.

For Desbois, the motives are not merely religious but intensely personal.

As a boy in France, he heard his grandfather — incarcerated as a prisoner of war outside Rava Ruska — hint of unspeakable atrocities against the Jews. As an adult, Desbois travelled here to unlock the secrets that his grandfather had never fully shared about what the PoWs had heard.

In his clerical collar, the priest commands instant respect wherever he goes. Aging witnesses open up to the man in the black shirt as if he is taking confession — though most have no sins to confess, just horror stories to tell.

For decades, it was a forgotten Holocaust. On a 2004 visit by Desbois, Rava Ruska’s then-mayor, still steeped in Soviet-era evasions, stonewalled his questions.

But on a return trip the priest broke through the wall of silence. A local politician, Yaroslav Nadyak, led him to villagers who witnessed the Germans massacring the last few hundred Jews of Rava Ruska. They showed him a mass grave in the adjoining hamlet of Borove, the first of thousands of killing fields across Ukraine that he would investigate.

Desbois later documented two other nearby execution sites — the biggest situated alongside the frontiers of Ukraine and Poland, where several thousand Jews lie buried. The dead are trapped in the limbo of a no man’s land, unmarked, undisturbed — and inaccessible.

But the smaller execution site in Borove’s forest tells its own dark story. The Nazis forced Jews from the ghetto to dig their own grave, then abruptly led them away for a rest break. Secretly, they placed dynamite in the pit, then brought their captives back to resume digging for their own demise.

“They extracted the Jews from the houses of Rava Ruska, and they put them in a line near the mass grave — and they shot them in the back,” Desbois explains at a memorial ceremony for the dead.

As they tumbled into the pit, “the 30 Jews exploded,” he tells the crowd. “It was the end of the Jews after this mass killing.”

Locals were ordered to collect the body parts, scattered on nearby branches, for final burial. Some victims were left to die of their wounds because the Germans refused to expend more than one bullet per Jew. As survivors gasped for air, the burial ground kept shifting.

‘It took three days for a mass grave to die − I want you to know that.’

Desbois argues that the staggering efficiency and barbarity of extermination camps — where as many as 2.5 million Jews were gassed and cremated in places such as Auschwitz — has overshadowed the stark horror of individual deaths in villages like this one. Between those extremes of infamy and obscurity, an estimated six million Jews perished in the Holocaust.

After the ceremony at the main site, I ask Nadyak — the local politician who shared Rava Ruska’s dark secret with Desbois a decade ago — to show me the smaller burial ground at Borove, deep in the forest outside town. He drives me along winding village roads, past fields of poppies, stopping at an overgrown trail known only to a few locals. We pick our way past fallen logs, and thorns that shred our clothes, trailed by swarms of flies and ticks.

In a small clearing among the pine trees lies the final resting place of Rava Ruska’s last Jews, marked by a modest Star of David embedded in wood on the ground. Perched deep in the forest, hidden by primrose shrubs that are eerily scentless, the gravesite is being reclaimed by nature as rapidly as it is fading from memory.

Helen Edel at age 16 with Antoni (Antek) Chruszczyk, who smuggled her out of the Jewish ghetto. On the back of this photo she wrote in Polish, shortly after the war: “The man next to me is my noble rescuer who, in the hardest time of my life, extended a helping hand.”

Escape from Rava Ruska

The final days of the Jewish ghetto as the Nazis close in

As the spectre of genocide descended on Helen Edel’s hometown, the Nazi security apparatus settled into its new headquarters in the local courthouse.

The sprawling edifice still stands, its red tile roof intact, though the interior was gutted years ago. It is my first stop as I try to retrace my mother’s escape route, searching for clues about her life here — and her parents’ death.

This is where agents of the Gestapo, SS, police and their local collaborators joined hands to choreograph — and meticulously chronicle — the slaughter of the Jews, including my mother’s family. Within its cloistered walls, German commanders processed weekly reports about the eradication of a Jewish population that had once constituted a majority of Rava Ruska’s 12,000 residents — a place known to local Ukrainians and Poles as “Rava the Jew.”

I walk along the route my mother took home from school before the Nazis shut it down. This is where her Polish teacher had started every class by sniffing the air and complaining, “I can smell stinky Jewish feet.”

Her old school still stands, but the classrooms are long gone, the roof gutted, the walls crumbling — a metaphor for a town in decline. Today, Rava Ruska’s economy is slumping, its pre-war population shrunken to a mere 8,000 people.

The town has become a village. And most of my mother’s reminiscences have been reduced to rubble.

I continue along desolate streets with shuttered shops to the town’s main market square, holding an address in my hand that my mother never forgot — 24 Rynek St. — though a street number is of little use when there are no houses left. Her family home, and those of all Jews, were long ago razed, replaced by a lowrise apartment block and a vast emptiness that bespeaks an aching gap in the town’s collective memory.

In mid-1942, the old market area where she grew up was transformed by the Nazis into an overcrowded Jewish ghetto whose inhabitants were penned in. To avoid panic in the early days they could come and go for work, but soon the ghetto was sealed off from the outside world.

I can only imagine my mother’s final days here as she sensed impending doom. She had witnessed the Nazi Aktions — the German phrase for terrifying roundups of local Jews who were grabbed off the streets or pulled from their homes, killed if they resisted or marched off to certain death if they acquiesced.

The first, in March, 1942, sent more than 1,000 Jews to their deaths in the Belzec extermination camp, 22 kilometres away. In July of 1942, the Nazis mounted their second deadly Aktion, rounding up another 2,000 Jews.

As security forces combed the streets, my mother hid in the nursery of a garden. Wondering if her parents were still alive, she hurried home to find her mother had hidden in a cellar. Her father had eluded the sweep while at work.

There were more Aktions to come. Thousands of Jews from surrounding villages were being crammed into the ghetto. Water and bread were in short supply.

This is where they endured a slow death as waves of typhus engulfed them and executions loomed.

Barred from the sidewalks, Jews were made to walk on the roads alongside horse carts. And forced to wear the Star of David patch, the Nazi way of designating and demonizing them.

As Rava Ruska’s Jews were slowly suffocating, my mother came home one day in late 1942 to find her family huddled in the house. Her bags were packed, a plan mapped out.

Only one escape route remained, and only one among them could avoid detection. By virtue of her appearance, demeanour and diction — her unaccented Polish and her command of German — my mother was deemed most likely to pass as a non-Jew. Her parents had arranged for her to assume a false identity as a Polish Catholic girl seeking work in Germany.

The discussion was hushed, the decision hurried.

A clean-cut man in his mid-20s stepped forward from the living room. Antoni (Antek) Chruszczyk was the smuggler hired to guide my mother to safety. After the introductions, he headed to the train station ahead of her.

Family members lined up for a final farewell, trying to reassure her with predictions that the war would be over in three months. Nearly three years later, the war finally over, none would be left in Rava Ruska.

First to bid goodbye was Aunt Hela Schipper, with her 5-year-old son Janek. She would be killed within weeks in an Aktion, and her son shot the next day.

Next was Aunt Klara Losberg, a university-educated math teacher who had always been a role model. That night in the living room she was nursing her 3-week-old child. Mother and daughter would die within two months.

Grandmother Matylda, looking sad and mournful, kissed her goodbye. She too would perish in the ghetto.

Tearing up, her father Abraham embraced her tightly, wordlessly. Her mother, Regina, wearing an expression of frozen anguish, kissed her on the forehead and gave a last hug. They promised to write — a promise they kept, though not for long.

Helen was only 16, leaving home for the first and last time. With a train to catch — an escape route that would soon be closed off — there was no time for emotional farewells. Steeling themselves, mother and father ushered their teenage daughter out of the house.

But no sooner had she departed than the ache in her heart made her turn back for a final embrace. The tortured look in her parents’ eyes told her that she must continue on her way.

My mother knew what her parents were trying to tell her. She must survive.

Helen Edel at age 5 surrounded by family in 1930. From left, Hela Schipper (died in 1942), husband Herman. Matylda Schipper, her grandmother (d. 1942); Aunt Klara Losberg (d. 1942 with her infant daughter); Yitzhak Schipper, Helen’s grandfather (d. 1942); Motus, Helen’s younger brother (d. 1940); her father Abraham (d. 1943) with her mother Regina (far right).

Abraham Edel Regina (Schipper) EdelHerman HelaHerman's son

1. Abraham Edel, Helen’s father, in uniform as an officer drafted into the army of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire (circa 1917). 2. Regina (Schipper) Edel, Helen’s mother, posing for a formal photo (c. 1922). 3. Uncle Herman Schipper (emigrated before the war) with his wife Hela (c. 1930). 4. Their 5-year-old son, Janek (c. 1939) was shot by a Ukrainian collaborator.

Into the heart of the killing machine

A teenage girl in a new guise leaves her home for Nazi Germany

Slipping out of her home under cover of darkness, cloaked in a false identity, 16-year-old Helen Edel walked self-consciously out of the Jewish ghetto for the last time.

Adopting her new persona, my mother removed the mandatory Star of David patch from her coat and carried a Catholic prayer book.

Coming upon the train station, she felt an overwhelming need for a farewell embrace. With no one in sight, she silently wrapped her arms around a large tree, seeking solace.

Composing herself, she entered the stone building and approached the wicket steadily. Terrified that she might be recognized and denounced, she feigned outward calm while purchasing her ticket.

Seven decades later, I retrace her steps from the ghetto all the way to the platform, clutching my own ticket to catch the day’s last, lumbering train out of Rava Ruska. Then as now, the train station is the town’s touchstone, barely changed but for a layer of ceramic tiles draped crudely over its once-graceful stone facade.

As my train pulls out and the station recedes from my window, I can barely fathom what she must have felt, utterly alone as she left everyone behind, a teenage girl in a new guise.

Her old life here was over. Her wartime journey was just beginning.

Antoni (Antek) Chruszczyk, the hired smuggler, was waiting on board as the steam whistle pierced the chill air that October night in 1942. No sooner had the train lurched out of the station than a fellow passenger began loudly praising Hitler for ridding Rava Ruska of its Jews. Listening in stunned silence, Antek squeezed my mother’s hand in solidarity, but not a word was exchanged between them.

Suddenly, a security inspection was announced. With no formal identity papers yet — Antek would only secure the documents at their next stop — this was the most dangerous part of the journey. Instinctively, my mother slipped into the washroom to wait out the police sweep.

Arriving in Przemysl, 80 kilometres to the southwest, there was another close call when an official grew suspicious about her initial job application: “She does not look like a maid,” he muttered darkly, demanding full identification on the spot.

Still lacking the proper documents, my mother had to think quickly. She claimed to have forgotten them in another purse — the one she used for church — and promised to return. Rushing down the stairs to a waiting Antek, she warned of trouble.

Spooked, they hid with his parents on the outskirts of town until he could secure better documents. Working as a clerk at the local employment office, Antek made new arrangements: 16-year-old Helen Edel was rechristened Stefania Stefanowicz, a Catholic girl from Przemysl, age 18 — the minimum age for foreign workers — with a new job awaiting her inside Nazi Germany.

(In 1986, my mother and I travelled together through Przemysl after being turned away from Rava Ruska. Still steeped in Soviet-era paranoia, border guards had grown suspicious of my Canadian passport because of the journalist stamp in my visa. Improvising as always, my mother explained in fluent Polish that my newspaper, the Toronto Star, took its name from the Red Star — implying it had Communist leanings. Reassured, they relented and let us through. Antek, the smuggler who had saved her life, was no longer to be found when we passed through. His widow told my mother he had died of cancer years before.)

From Przemysl, my mother continued on her wartime train journey 200 kilometres west to Krakow, for a transit stop. It was almost her undoing.

Lining up for a pre-employment medical test, she stopped cold on catching sight of a familiar face. She recognized the examining doctor as a notoriously anti-Semitic Ukrainian chauvinist who had lived near her in Rava Ruska.

Would he recognize her?

The doctor barely looked up as the line of newly recruited women workers slowly snaked past him. When it was the turn of Helen Edel, a.k.a. Stefania Stefanowicz, he scrutinized the face of his former neighbour.

“Stefcia?” he asked quizzically.

Other girls had given themselves away by blurting out too much at such times. My mother wore her most nonchalant expression, nodding respectfully while saying nothing.

Her heart skipped a beat as he took her pulse. For whatever reason — uncertainty, confusion, seeing her out of context — the doctor did not call her out.

Had he exposed her, my mother’s carefully planned route would have diverted to Auschwitz, the notorious extermination camp just outside Krakow — and she would have suffered the same fate as other Jewish girls unmasked by the Gestapo.

Retracing her route all these years later, I detour to the concentration camp where nearly 1 million Jews were gassed, or worked to death as slave labourers. They were greeted by the cruelly ironic exhortation at the main gate: “Arbeit Macht Frei” — “Work sets you free.”

Up to this point, however, my mother’s cover story was still holding, allowing her to continue another 450 kilometres northwest by train to Germany, to the calm in the heart of the killing machine. Her ticket would take her to a new work assignment in the small agricultural town of Seedorf, 150 kilometres southeast of Berlin.

At the start of her journey, she had worn a patch with the Star of David marking her as Jewish. Now, it had been replaced by the required patch showing a “P,” for Polish worker — a Catholic girl who crossed herself at prayers and sublimated her Jewish self in order to survive.

Postcard from the 1940s shows the inn and farm property where Helen Edel worked for a German couple in the pastoral town of Seedorf, 150 kilometres southeast of Berlin. Using false papers, she assumed the identity of a Catholic girl from Poland. The German postcard caption says, “Greetings from Seedorf.”

All alone in Nazi Germany

Holding fast to a Jewish secret — while living amid Hitler’s followers

Disembarking in the idyllic German town of Seedorf, Helen Edel — now Stefania Stefanowicz — entered a world of Nazi plenty and prosperity. Seeking directions from townsfolk, she walked a couple of kilometres to the home of her new employers, a childless German couple.

Franz Nejedli was an aging storm trooper, from whose ranks came Hitler’s most loyal followers. Wearing his crisp SA uniform at age 50, boasting a bright red swastika on his arm and a gun in his holster, Herr Nejedli was the picture of Nazi militarism and fanaticism. Nejedli commanded the Arbeitsamt (employment office) in Przemysl.

His wife, Anna Nejedli, 60, was a former language teacher who had studied in Paris and taught in Russia. Bright and multilingual, Frau Nejedli was a woman of small courtesies and dark moods. The couple ran a large inn, where my mother’s duties were to work as a waitress, maid and farm hand.

Settling in, she wrote her first letter home (relayed via Antek, the smuggler who brought from Rava Ruska), sharing the news of reaching safety. The reply came back quickly from Regina — addressed to her daughter under her false name.

“My Dear Child,” her mother begins.

“Stefcia, be happy and content.”

It is dated Dec. 29, 1942. Despite the brutality and privation of ghetto life, Regina maintains a tone of equanimity to keep up appearances.

Between the lines, though, the letter is full of foreboding. There is no mention of Grandmother Matylda, no references to Aunt Klara or Aunt Hela and their children — signalling they are all dead.

There is also an ominous code word inserted by her mother:

“We are awaiting the arrival of Uncle,” she writes.

Uncle meant Gestapo. The prediction proved to be accurate.

‘I wanted to cry and I couldn’t.’

The third and most deadly Aktion had just been carried out by the Nazis in early December, with more than 5,000 shot dead and another 2,500 deported to the nearby Belzec extermination camp. Her parents appear to have survived to this point, but there would be more roundups and deaths to come.

“We await with longing your second letter to which we will reply in greater detail.”

But there would be no further replies, ever. Only these final words from her mother:

“Be healthy. I kiss you warmly.”

My mother kissed the letter back. And kept it, folded and tattered, for the rest of her life — her only tangible link to her family.

When no more letters arrived, she asked Antek to check up on “Aunt Rava” — a euphemism for her hometown. He wrote back three months later to say the “Aunt” had left for places unknown.

Her parents were now dead. Surrounded by Nazis, she was now alone with her Jewish secret − and began to wonder if she would be the last Jew left on earth.

Meanwhile, her German employers had become inordinately proud of their well-bred, well-read domestic servant. Over time, the childless couple mused openly about adopting their “Steffie” as their own daughter.

Their plan never came to pass. By early 1944, the Russians were advancing.

Yet even in the final days of the Nazi regime, even as her husband — the once-proud storm trooper — had retreated from his post and come home humbled, Frau Nejedli’s devotion to the cause proved unwavering. With Russian shells landing closer to the inn, she tuned in to Hitler’s radio broadcasts and heeded his call to sew linen bandages for wounded German soldiers.

The long delusion ended one day in the dead of winter with a pounding at the door. Cowering at the arrival of Russian troops, the Nejedlis ordered my mother to approach the entrance lest they be shot on sight.

On the spot, she hatched a survival plan: opening the door, my mother raised her arms triumphantly and exclaimed, in flawless Russian:

“Greetings, comrades!”

A sea of Russian faces responded with stunned silence, then shouted exuberantly, “Russkaya! Russkaya!”

“Nyet! Polskaya … Polskaya,” she replied, calming them.

As the troops fanned out across the inn, one of them pointed his rifle at her boss and demanded, “Did she treat you well? You tell me — I’ll kill her like a dog.”

With Nejedli’s life hanging in the balance, my mother chose her words carefully: Nejedli had always acted decently, she replied evenly.

The soldier relented, but there was still danger in the air. Overnight, the Russian liberators turned to predators as they attacked women across town.

Once again, my mother had to rely on her instinct for survival. The next morning, she packed her old suitcase to leave.

Retrace Helen Edel’s escape route from Rava Ruska

Map by William Davis/Toronto Star

For the past two years her German employers had withheld her wages on the pretext of safeguarding the money. They still weren’t offering to pay up.She wasn’t about to demand what was owed. Nor did my mother feel she owed them any explanations about her true identity. They had been harbouring a hated Jew while dreaming of adopting her — all the while paying homage to Hitler. She was in no mood to confront them over these grotesque contradictions.With the ground shifting fast beneath them, they had no time for each other. They shook hands, brusquely, and parted. They never spoke or saw each other again.

Leaving the inn, my mother joined up with other Polish workers at a local dormitory. For the next few nights, they heard the screams of local German women being raped by Russian soldiers.

When she and her fellow Poles tried to leave for home a few days later, the Russians blocked their departure. All foreign workers were conscripted to a nearby dairy supplying milk for Red Army troops advancing on Berlin.

Working at the dairy with a Russian-issued rifle on her back, my mother came face to face with hungry German mothers begging at the main gate every morning. She gave them milk when she could.

By the spring of 1945, her Jewish identity still secret, she was free to go. But go where?

Helen Edel

In a post-war portrait from Poland, Helen Edel shows a different face to the world. Liberated from Nazi rule, she is now 18 years old — a young woman posing brightly for the camera, the rest of her life still ahead of her.

History has a way of remembering

Helen Edel didn’t live to complete her journey, but her story lives on

By age 17, Helen Edel had been orphaned twice.

My mother had lost her parents in the Holocaust. And been forced to give up her identity — her Jewish ancestry — to survive Nazi rule.

Despite that double jeopardy, a powerful survival instinct kept her going. Still young, she kept telling herself that she had the rest of her life ahead of her.

She also needed to reclaim the life she’d left behind, both as a Pole and as a Jew. Even in peacetime, however, it proved harder than she could have imagined.

She headed back to Przemysl, in eastern Poland, where she looked up Antek (the smuggler who had saved her, by now married with children). He told her what she already knew from his last letter — that there was nothing left in her hometown, no one in the ghetto but ghosts.

Utterly alone, she walked into the Jewish Agency, a charity helping displaced persons in the aftermath of war, where she could finally be herself. She identified herself as a Jew, using her real name.

Searching its records, the agency put her in touch with her uncle, Herman Schipper, who had emigrated to America years before. Uncle Herman was not about to let another loved one stay behind in Poland.

The country was becoming unsafe for Jews again — dozens were killed in an anti-Semitic pogrom in Kielce, 180 kilometres south of Warsaw. He arranged for his teenage niece to be smuggled out to neighbouring Czechoslovakia with other Jewish war refugees.

She arrived safely but anonymously: in postwar Poland she had been an undocumented Holocaust survivor; now in Czechoslovakia she was a stateless refugee.

Thanks to the kindness of diplomats at Poland’s embassy in Prague who verified her citizenship, Helen Edel was finally issued a Polish passport in her real name. She kept it for the rest of her life (though later in life it would prove worthless — rejected by the very country that had issued it).

After a yearlong wait in Czechoslovakia, she secured a visa to France, and from there obtained an immigration visa for Canada, thanks to a program for war orphans. Settling in Montreal, she completed her education, raised a family, and began her career as a social worker, later moving to Toronto.

Decades later, however, she found her identity still being questioned: in 2011, her eldest granddaughter, Emily (the daughter of my older brother, Arthur Cohn) applied for Polish citizenship, which is routinely granted to expatriate family members. Inexplicably, the Polish government refused to recognize my mother’s citizenship, demanding further evidence despite the wartime destruction of her birth records.

In her last years, Helen Edel supplied proof of her origins, notably her 1946 passport and a notarized account of her escape from Nazi death squads. But her submissions were rejected, and appeals to the Polish embassy in Ottawa went nowhere. My mother fiercely resisted Hitler’s impulse to rid Poland of its Jews, but she could never comprehend why Polish officialdom rejected her roots — somehow writing her out of the country’s history.

In 1986, when we tried to visit Rava Ruska together, only to be turned back by local authorities, she was devastated. For the rest of her years, she relived her dramatic wartime departure — retelling the story of her survival, and imagining what a return to her birthplace would look like.

My mother wanted me to see me how she survived the Holocaust by hiding right under the noses of the Nazis, living among her enemies in wartime Germany. She always talked of writing her own story, but found it difficult to produce more than a few pages.

After her death, I found this memorable passage among her papers:

“What enabled me to play my role almost to perfection was my ability to separate my public and private personas,” she wrote. “One thing I couldn’t do was cry. When I was feeling depressed, which was often, I wanted badly to cry, sensing that tears will relieve my pain. But no tears came. I think I knew that if I cried I wouldn’t be able to stop.”

In 1998, she recorded a three-hour oral history for the USC Shoah Foundation’s project on the experiences of Holocaust survivors, which provided additional background for this series (and the accompanying videos).

This year’s memorial ceremony came too late for Helen Edel to resume her unfinished journey. But it allowed me to see up close what I had only heard from afar about Rava Ruska, the East European town with the mystical name whose stories my brother and I grew up with in Canada.

Jewish life and culture have been largely erased from my mother’s birthplace, but being there and bearing witness — even without her — added new layers of reality. Despite the passage of time and the personal loss, history has a way of remembering. There are fragments still to be retrieved, images waiting to be recovered.

It is not easy to cover your own story when the journey is both journalistic and personal. And it is difficult to write about past events when the victims are your own grandparents.

I finally saw what my mother had always wanted to show me, and I now understand why she wanted me to see it. A year after her death, the story of her life — and her parents’ death seven decades ago — lives on.

Margin Regg ConnMartin Regg Cohn writes the Ontario politics column for the Toronto Star. A foreign correspondent for 11 years, he was chief of the Middle East and Asia bureaus, then Foreign Editor, and a world affairs columnist. He has reported from more than 40 countries, from Afghanistan to Yemen, and been nominated five times for the National Newspaper Award. He previously covered national politics from Ottawa. Reach him at 416-325-3850 or mcohn@thestar.ca.

Published November 2015

Original Article HERE

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