AW: And just also I’m interested, were your parents very involved in the Jewish community in Winnipeg?
SS: I would say yes and their friends were Jewish but life changed when you suddenly went from being prosperous to not having a telephone in the house and leaving your house on 337 Church Avenue. My older brother had to quit university in his second year. He had come out here when he quit university, took some machines from my father’s factory and came out to Vancouver. We came out a year later. He started a little storefront factory making taxi drivers’ caps and things like that. And then we came out a year later. To what I was told we just walked out of the house and dad couldn’t even pay the mortgage.
AW: What year was that?
SS: That would have been the ‘30s, mid ‘30s. I was finished high school and I was out of high school one year. So I was about 17 or 18, because I started at five and went only to Grade 11. I would have loved to have gone to Grade 12 but you had to pay a hundred dollars to go to Grade 12 and I wouldn’t even dream of asking my parents for that hundred dollars, things were so bad.
Also I remember going back to earlier years there was an epidemic in Vancouver of infantile paralysis. That was polio. And I remember standing in our front garden and a lady screaming across the street carrying a child. People were so worried. There was no vaccine. It came after that. One lady that I knew or played with her kids, she said, “I even washed the tomatoes.” I remember her saying, “I even take the skin off the tomatoes.” It was terrible. It was two items, the epidemic and the Depression. That was in the ‘30s. It started earlier, it started in the late ‘20s. We used to wait for my dad. My mother was quite ill, a neglected diabetic. There were doctors but they didn’t know it.
I remember waiting for dad to bring, there was no such thing as food…there was something like food stamps. I remember he’d make us cream of wheat pancakes. He had to feed us this and it wasn’t terrible for a kid to have this experience. I became very creative, I had lots of friends and I didn’t know too much what was going on with my parents, never. Busy, you know when you’re a teenager, it’s your friends, and there was a YMHA in Winnipeg so there used to be parties and things for teenagers. I wanted red shoes so I got a bottle of red nail polish and painted my shoes. Things like that. I think it helped me to be broke. I became very creative.
Interviewer: Irene Dodek & Cyril E. Leonoff
ID: So you were impressed with the escalator?
SW: With the escalator and the displays in the store and they had everything, you know, and when we came from Germany they had stuff but it wasn’t displayed so beautifully. It was actually almost immediately after the war, it was only a few years, and Germany was completely destroyed, completely destroyed and so we really didn’t see, and since I left Poland it was many, many years by then and so I liked everything, produce, I was impressed with everything. First of all it was so interesting that people were so easygoing and without any worries, no bad memories no bad experiences except maybe the Depression they went through but you know no cruelty, it was beautiful.
ID: That’s true, no cruelty.
SW: No disasters.
ID: The Canadian experience at least and there was a lot of it was food rationing, sugar rationing, and butter rationing, and so on.
SW: But nobody was going hungry.
ID: Nobody went hungry, of course there were young people lost in the war going to fight for the Allies.
SW: Yes, but they watched it from a distance, we saw dying, we saw dying of our closest friends, beaten up and mishandled and abused and cruelty all around and people who seemed to be friends who turned out to be traitors, those were very disappointing and painful things, but I was all over this now so I liked it so Monday morning I decided to go downtown and buy a hat and so Rose said, “How would you go, I mean you never went alone, you are here only three days.” I said, “Yes I will find my way, I can read and if you can read you have the whole world at the end of your tongue.” So she couldn’t come with me so I went alone and Ishu [Sophie’s husband Isaac Waldman] gave me some money, gave me $30; $30 in that time was a lot of money, a lot of money and I didn’t know the value of the money, the dollar. She told me which bus to take and I took the bus and I said to the bus driver, “Hoodsons Buy.” He looked at me and he said, “Hoodsons Buy.” He probably was a Ukrainian you know, there were lots of Ukrainians, his grandmother would probably say the same, so I sat close to him, next to him and when the Hudson’s Bay approached at the top of his voice he said, “Hoodsons Buy” [laughter] so I took off to Hudson’s Bay and I bought a beautiful hat and paid something like $22 for it when the average hat cost about three or four but that was the most beautiful and I didn’t know I just bought what I liked, I didn’t look at the prices, not because I was so lavish in spending money I just needed a hat. I came home and I gave the change to my husband and he said, “My goodness,” because all we had was about $80 to our name and we had to pay up for the flight and for our passage from the train.
ID: Where did you get the money for your passage, did the Waldmans give you the money to come?
SW: No, no we had money but we paid it up because I worked and he worked, I worked in the dispensary, I think I said I was in charge of the dispensary and he was director of ORT so not much but enough but not enough to come here and make a living so we had to work immediately and pay up these things.
ID: How long did you keep that hat?
SW: I had this hat for about 20 years, it was a beautiful hat as a matter of fact I went to a Hadassah meeting with Rose because there was a special opening luncheon right after Pesach you know to start the season and she invited me to come with her and I was the best dressed woman on the floor, I had a beautiful dress from Germany but we all used to wear hats at that time and I had the most expensive, beautiful hat and I was the best and people just couldn’t believe that this poor girl who came from Germany as a refugee was dressed so nicely, but that was my first experience with ‘Hoodsons Buy.’
Interviewer: Irene Dodek & Cyril E. Leonoff
ID: Then the Germans came and that was it.
SW: And that was it. And I was working in a [pharmacy] dispensary at that time and first the Gestapo came in, you know, and then the military came in and they were very nice, just the soldiers and so on not Gestapo, and they were nice people you know, Germans, nice people who had to serve and go and the front moved farther east, the Gestapo remained and then they started to introduce their own system. There were quite a large number in that city, at that time I lived in the city Brody and Brody before the First World War was a free city, it was between Austria and Russia and it was a free city, a very prosperous city and eventually it became Poland and it was a nice big city with many Jewish people and the majority of people there were merchants and tradesmen and professional people. There were three pharmacies and all three belonged to Jewish people, the majority of doctors were Jewish doctors only two Polish doctors and one Ukrainian and otherwise we had about 15, 16 doctors, Jewish doctors and they were well off and all the lawyers, the majority of lawyers were Jewish people so a lot of intelligentsia. So the Gestapo called up, there was an order that all the intelligentsia, all the professionals have to report to one of the barracks because they are going to make a Jewish community and they wanted, they didn’t call it ghetto just a separate Jewish community and [they wanted that] Jewish people would have to do their own administration and supervision and they will not be under the Polish government, they will just have to have their own rules and regulations and so on. So they had to order to come and report and naturally all the people came. I went too but my husband didn’t, my husband actually was in hiding because he was known as very pro-Soviet at that time so he didn’t show up, he just didn’t leave his room, absolutely not because he was exposed…
ID: Wasn’t that dangerous for him though? Would anybody have reported him?
SW: No, nobody reported him, nobody kind of specially, he was not actually, he known among the teachers but actually he didn’t have enemies, he was just a Socialist but, you know, that was enough, he was an inspector and he was a principal so that was enough to expose him if he would have been caught, so he did not go but I went. And everybody came, they told us to call the pharmacist for about two hours and we did and then everybody came, in our pharmacy there were four employees, all the pharmacists who were in charge, three of us, three pharmacists and one assistant pharmacist and so they gave us instructions that we have to meet together and everybody has to be assigned among us, that was the trick, to get us all in and we didn’t realize, nobody realized that, and that we have to have a president, a leader, and we have to have secretaries, everybody had to have a function, a position in that government, in the Jewish government. So they said, “Next week we will call you all again and you have to come and then we will know how you have to present.” Naturally if you know Jewish nature everybody wanted to have a chair, everybody wanted to do something and there was quite a bit of fighting between the community. I stayed away I never wanted to be exposed to any offices the same as I don’t want to be now in the public eye for any reasons and I was the same before so but I had to come but I didn’t have any position, I didn’t apply for anything so the pharmacists had to have a head pharmacist, a doctor in charge of the doctors, and the lawyers and everybody, you know, the merchants didn’t come just the professional people. And I went to see my parents in the country and I was late, when I came to the gate of the barracks there were some Gestapo men and I said, “I’m so sorry I’m half an hour late because my mother was sick and I had to go and see her.” So he said to me, “You are not Jewish, you don’t look Jewish and I don’t know why you wanted to go in, you just go home.” So I said, “I may be punished, we all had to report here.” He said, “Well I am telling you and you go, and you go now.” So I went home and I was very unhappy because I was sure that I would have to pay the consequences because I didn’t report, and they took them all out into the field and they shot them, every one of them. Not everyone, I’m sorry, they left three doctors, they left three pharmacists in charge of every pharmacy because they were needed and two or three more but there were about 60 of them or 70 that reported, the rest were taken and disappeared, they told us that they were sent to other cities, to work in other cities and for many, many months…
ID: Did you believe that?
SW: You know the people want to believe, because it was just the beginning of it, of this extermination, and this is how I got out.
ID: Did you pass yourself as a non-Jew after that?
SW: Yes, I did. When they formed a ghetto I was never in the ghetto and then after that they had an order on every wall, big signs that Jews have to wear a white band with a blue star of David, I had the star but I never wore it, you know. First of all I didn’t look Jewish, my great grandmother was not Jewish and I had contacts, you know, we never associated with that family never and I grew up and I didn’t know that my great grandmother was not Jewish and nobody told me, my mother told us when we were just about engaged and we were grown up and my sister had a family already. I knew that sometimes she would send some money to somebody but I never thought of it, we didn’t associate with them, it just happened two generations back, that was my mother’s grandmother. So anyway, during the war that came in handy because these people came forward and they gave me the papers, original papers, one of these distant relatives whom I never met in my life she knew of us, she found us and she came and she gave me and my sister papers and I used that name and my name was Eugenia Homich, Jenny Homich, and this is what I used.
ID: Who was this name? Was this somebody from your great grandmother?
SW: Great grandmother, one of the family.
ID: And they had the papers, maybe had died a long time ago?
SW: They had the papers and they just gave me and I was eight years younger on these papers.
ID: So that’s how you survived.
SW: This is how I survived but it was difficult because my sister did not survive.
CL: So looking back at life in those days what do you have to say about it?
RL: I think we’re very lucky, I was very lucky. I lived in the city where my grandmother used to walk from Haro Street down through the forest to Stanley Park and the English Bay, there were no streets. And I was just telling them, looking here out the window, that I went to King George High School. I walked from Denman and Comox where we lived pretty well, all the way up to King George which is Burrard and home for lunch and back up again and back down again. And then after that we would walk along Denman and along Georgia and into Stanley Park and out to Point Grey and play grass hockey for an hour after school. And then walk all the way back. And that’s the kind of, nobody was spoiled in those years because you did those things.
Unidentified man: And you were taught how to swim by the famous Joe Fortes.
RL: Oh yes, Old Black Joe [Joe Fortes was a well-loved swimming teacher and lifeguard at English Bay. Many people respectfully called him ‘Old Black Joe’].
CL: Is that right, eh?
RL: Yeah, yeah. He taught my aunt, he taught my aunts to swim, he taught me to swim.
CL: So what were the sports? Grass hockey was popular then?
RL: I happened to be one of those that was interested in sports. There weren’t too many, I don’t think there were many Jewish girls who were interested in sports. My father had been a baseball player in the United States, so he always taught me…That’s a funny story. I went to Lord Roberts. I was probably the only Jewish girl in Lord Roberts and I was short and fat and not the most popular of all. And this was in the lower grades and baseball was the great game. And so whenever they picked the side, you know, you stood there and you’d be chosen.
Unidentified woman: Yeah right.
RL: I’d be the last one to get chosen. So, but my father always loved to play ball with, you know, he’d pitch a ball and I’d catch it, because I wasn’t a boy and he was frustrated. So it’s what we did. Anyway, one day the pitcher, something happened to the pitcher so I said, “Well, I’d like to try pitching.” And they sort of laughed, “Ha, ha, ha.” Well, I put a strike out every time I threw a ball.
Unidentified woman: [Laughs].
RL: Suddenly I became from the least desirable to the most desirable. But that wasn’t the end of the story. We were playing Dawson School and I guess Dawson School was gone by now. You don’t even know where it is, do you?
CL: That was up here too, wasn’t it?
RL: Yeah, on Burrard Street.
CL: I remember, sure.
RL: We were playing Dawson School and I had never told my father of the success that I had had. I was a little ashamed of it in a way because, you know, [I didn’t want to tell]. I was hot, as hot as you can imagine. Every one of those things was a strike I was putting in. Suddenly, I look up over the fence and who’s standing on the other side…
Unidentified woman: Your father!
RL: My father. I blew, I couldn’t throw a ball. They put me out in the field again. But no, I always loved sports. Basketball I played for, basketball for high school. I played grass hockey for high school.
Unidentified man: You played it at UBC?
RL: Yeah, I played basketball for UBC. I loved…Oh, tennis, we used to get up at four o’clock in the morning and walk down to Stanley Park and play for two hours before school and then walk up to school.