Second World War
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.
ID: How did you feel about becoming a parent for the first time?
EH: Oh incredible, incredible because Paul was against it at the time. I was in England and I was very depressed about my family, extremely depressed because no news and in the Blitz it was pretty tough. So I said to Paul that I would like to have a baby, that was after the collapse of France. So he said, “This is insanity, I mean look we may be invaded, and the money, I haven’t got a job here,” because we had export to England, we had an office in London so once the war started, you know, the office wasn’t any more. So I said, “Look it’s true we don’t have that money,” but I wasn’t so used to it then only three years. But I said, “We’re not left completely without money so whatever happens to us will happen to the child,” and I said, “I don’t think I can survive the war without my family and without anyone.” So Paul said, “But it doesn’t make sense,” he said, “because we can be invaded,” I said, “I know it doesn’t make sense but I feel so lonely that I just can’t. I have to have something to live for.” So we started trying to have a baby for a month I hadn’t conceived and I was so stupid I went to a doctor, to a specialist, and he said, “For what are you here?” And I said, “I cannot become pregnant.” And he said, “How long did you try?” and I said, “One month.” [Laughter]. So that’s how Irene was conceived in London and I think that saved in a way my life.
ID: Did it?
EH: Absolutely, I went through a terrible time through the Blitz because we went at a very bad time in the Blitz but at the same time that made us come to Canada.
ID: That gave you more of an impetus to move.
In 1938 Margaret Libbert and her family left Czechoslovakia for England due to increasing German aggression in that area.
ML: And then of course the Germans marched into the whole of Czechoslovakia in March, ‘39. We finished our year at school and in April of ‘39, my grandmother on my father’s side, she was, she got out and somehow her chauffeur was driving and German tanks were coming in the opposite direction and she managed to get out and join us in London. And then came the big effort to get her husband, my grandfather, who was the head of the German department Chamber of Commerce, member of the Rotary Club, and all these things and he somehow thought nothing could possibly happen to him because of his position.
Yet, I should explain that in Czechoslovakia the German minority—because it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—had retained very generous language rights, they had their own schools, and as I said they had their own department of commerce. And there was a large German minority which of course, after the war, was thrown out by the Czechs. But the Germans said, ‘Oh, this minority’s badly treated and so we have to come and help rescue them.’ That was one of the excuses they gave for invading Czechoslovakia.
But as I said, my grandfather just couldn’t believe that anything would happen. And so we had our family and made arrangements and sent over an Englishman, because England was still, you know, not at war with Germany, to try and find my grandfather. And he has written a book, it’s called Epic of the Gestapo, it is out of print but we have copies, our family has copies of this.
AG: Who wrote the book, this Englishman?
ML: The Englishman called Sir Paul Dukes. And he eventually found a man that had died in mysterious circumstances on the border of Czechoslovakia and Germany and we think that that was probably my grandfather, with a different name. So all this was going on and at the same time we were contacting various embassies of countries to see where we could go because we only had a limited visa to stay in England. So I’m finally getting to your question…
AG: It’s very interesting.
ML: …of how we got to Canada.
AG: Of course. It’s a significant part, this background.
ML: And we were very, very, very fortunate to be one of the thousand people, that I believe there were only a thousand people that were let in by Order in Council, that is cabinet making special, for each family a special order during these times. And I must admit that it was probably because we had some funds and probably because my father said he would try and set up a business. A bit like letting the Chinese in, you know, having to have a minimum amount of money now. But that’s how it was, because in those days the only immigration quota was for British or French speaking people. I don’t think anybody else was allowed in until the late ‘40s, ‘50s. I know this because later on in my life I worked for the Department of Citizenship and Immigration.
AG: I thought you did. And no one of course, there’s lot of books written now about who was not allowed in…the “none is too many.”
ML: Yes, that’s right. So we were, I think we were the first ones to arrive of our family. But in a few weeks, because it was a week before the war started, that we came.
AG: So precisely, what week was that?
ML: It was August, ‘39.
AG: August, ‘39, you arrived where? In Canada?
ML: In Quebec.
MD: Earliest memories. Being called a ‘dirty Jew.’ Wearing a yellow star. Being called a ‘dog.’ Being thrown rocks at.
SR: What year was this?
MD: I would say 1940.
SR: You were born in what year?
MD: ’35. May 10, 1935. ’39, ’40, I would say. That’s the earliest memories that I have. The other things, the year when my brother Jean came home and started to yell at my mother which I knew, no children yelled at their parents in those days or raised their voice. And my brother Jean died, so did Albert. We were all separated at a time when Jean came home and yelled at my mother. I still know the story because I know now why he yelled at my mother. She believed in the propaganda from the radio when the Germans said if you register your family at the police station they wouldn’t pick you up. So my mother being a widow registered all the cousins and everybody, all the children at the police station and Jean found out about it and so we were all separated. And that was my earliest memory, the next one was living with different people. Kept moving around. Lived in a convent. Once sold by a nun, I know the mother superior came and woke me up and said I had to hide in the sewers of the convent because one of the nuns had called the Gestapo and found out I was Jewish and was selling me. Other memories, living on a farm, seeing people being picked up, I remember a man with no nails or no toenails. I found out later on that his nails were pulled out and he was tortured. Hunger. I don’t think I want to go into any more details than that. Orphanages, loneliness, feel nothing. I felt nothing, I became a void. Never any feeling at all. Fear was forgotten after a while because the bombs were falling, the shrapnels were falling.
SR: And where were you, you were going from place to place?
MD: Place to place, that’s right. Orphanages. Very sick.
SR: Always in Brussels?
MD: No, I was in Holland. I know because of the wheels, you know, the…[laughing] the [tulips], the flowers. I remember a place, now I know it’s called [inaudible] because of the flowers as well. This beautiful garden. I don’t know why I was there, but I was there. I remember different languages. Being in trucks, on motorcycles, walking. Earliest memory: a plane shooting down at us and people falling dead around us.
SR: You were by yourself, you didn’t…
MD: No, I was with my mother and Henri, and Esther and Jacques and I and we…My first toy, I can only remember a toy, was a little [dog] purse, it was a purse, I didn’t know it was a purse, and the other thing was a gas mask. That’s all I know of, that’s the only toy I’ve ever had in my whole life. And I lost it somewhere at the end of the war I think.
SR: But you kept it with you from orphanage to orphanage.
MD: And from home to home, I lived with Catholics, and different people. Never knew their names. Don’t think I was there long enough. Never…earliest memory, never being hugged. Only my mother. Last memory where I stopped crying was on my seventh birthday when I came home. The lady that was hiding me took me home and had arranged for me to see my mother. And as I was skipping down the road I saw my brother and Albert being shoved in truck and that was my seventh birthday. Today I know it wasn’t in May it was on July 2nd because I have the record of when my mother was picked up. The Germans kept a very good record and I have it now with me and I just got it a year ago.
Note: audio quality is quite poor.
BD: How was morale at the camp?
JR: It was pretty good. The only way one could survive that kind of thing was to think, ‘Today is here, and tomorrow something exciting is going to happen and we’re going to get out of here.’ And when tomorrow came, it was today again…and the next day, something exciting was going to happen. Some fellows were really sharp and smart. One fellow he told everybody that he had these dreams and he knew what was going to happen, and when it was going to happen. And of course we were ready to believe anything…the conditions were so awful, it didn’t take very much…If anyone said anything good, we wanted to believe it, because the status quo was so horrible. But he was smart. He always said, “Well, I can’t dream on an empty stomach. I’ve got to have something to eat. I dream better.” [Laughing]. So, every once in a while, he’d say, “I know something is going to happen, but I won’t be able to have a dream unless I have something to eat.” Fellows would take a little bit of food and everybody would give him a little. [Laughter]. Then he would dream, then he would come back and say, “In one hundred days we’re going to be free.” Everybody would take, you know they’d have a pencil on the wall and they’d mark off every day up to one hundred and when that hundred was over then something else would happen in another hundred and another hundred and another hundred. And we were there for over a thousand days, that’s a long time. That’s how we survived. I always knew I was going to come home, though.
CL: Is this 1914?
Interviewer: Rick Marcuse & Molly Winston
In 1942, Dr. Ferdinand Knobloch, a non-Jew, married his first wife Susanne in Prague. This prevented her from being sent to the gas chambers with her parents. However, after their marriage Susanne was caught by the Gestapo. She died on November 25, 1943 in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
RM: So is this to say that Susanna’s parents were both very assimilated as well…?
FK: Yes, yes.
RM: Were they practicing Jews do you know?
FK: No, they were not.
RM: Would they have been agnostic? Or atheist or…?
FK: No, I don’t know. But actually I’m, even, I’m not informed, I think they were just…I don’t recall that they ever visited the synagogue so…
RM: Okay. Do you recall Vituzslav’s work? Susanna’s father’s work?
FK: Oh sure. He was owner of a shop in Prague, the, the, the most precious carpets…the Persian carpets. By the way, you know the brother of Susanne after the war who came once to our apartment his first statement was, “This is our carpet.”
RM: Right, that occurred to you recently didn’t it, because you’d forgotten that I think until recently.
FK: Oh well no I didn’t forget. You know, and I was, I could have after the war, I could claim because it was big property, big business the carpets and her parents died earlier than she so she inherited the entire…I could have claimed, I never claimed anything, I could have part of that property, of that business…
RM: Of her family, the family’s estate. Right I understand. Well okay, so you met Susanna at some point when she’s in the communist youth group, you may have been a teenager, you may have been in your early 20s…
FK: Yeah, yes.
RM: You end up later on marrying her.
FK: Yes. I married her when it was clear that if she, I not marry her she would go with her parents, and her parents obviously died in gas chamber, they have the same date, which I have upstairs the dates.
RM: 1942, sometime in June I think, or whenever.
RM: So can you recall the year in which you met Susanna? Or can you recall when your relationship began to become more intimate, because you marry her in ’41, am I right?
FK: ’42. ’41 or ’42 I can’t say but it was obvious that either I marry her or she goes.
RM: Right. And how long had you known her at that point?
FK: How long? I would say ’41, I must say 5, 6 years, I think. So she was probably 15 or so…
Interviewer: Irene Dodek & Cyril E. Leonoff
ID: Were you faced with any anti-Semitism?
JS: Yes, in the officer’s mess I’ll never forget there was an individual. I won’t use his name.
ID: Excuse me is this Canada? Or…
JS: No, overseas. He was a captain and he was from Victoria, and the comment you’d hear they didn’t take me as being Jewish, I was very blonde. And the comments, “Well what the hell are we doing here, we’re fighting a war for the goddamn Jews?” You know, that kind of a thing. “We’re here for the Jews?” Now, on the surface I guess because of Hitler that was the impression. But this was not prevalent, but it did exist.
ID: Among your equals in the army this was…
JS: Was there prejudice?
ID: Yes, I mean Segal is a Jewish name, they must have known you were Jewish.
JS: It’s a Jewish name but I didn’t experience it on a one to one basis. But at the same time there was prejudice. We had a black guy by the name of Estes. He got killed, but quite often they would refer to him on a prejudicial manner when he was alive, but the color of his blood was the same, the colour of anybody else’s.