My Parents’ Chuppah
Oil on Canvas 16x20
Original Image Taken: 1956
I was lucky to grow up in a home with parents who were completely in love with each other. Their romance was the stuff of fairy tales...sort of. Two young survivors of the Holocaust, my parents met in Montreal.
When my father was accepted to law school, they decided to get married and the plan was simple – they’d move to Toronto and my mother would work as a legal secretary to support my father as he completed his education. My mother’s side of the family saw this as a hopeful and wonderful new chapter – the Holocaust and all the obstacles of adjusting to a new life in Canada were firmly behind them and they could look forward to a bright future.
My father’s side of the family saw this marriage as the ‘end of hope’. They were furious – so much so that Zeidi and Usher refused to attend their wedding. Zeidi and Usher put all their hopes on my father’s achievements. All the suffering during the Holocaust and the financial troubles they had in Canada would be worth it ONLY if my dad became a ‘success’ and graduated law school. They were certain my mother would get pregnant immediately and my dad would drop out of school and shatter their dreams for his future. Added to this anger was the audacity of their son getting married before his older sister, my aunt Sylvia. Such was the mindset of my grandfather and his brother. Somewhere in that stubbornness were good intentions.
My father was undeterred. He enlisted one of the seamstresses at the garment factory where he worked to copy a Dior gown for my mom; he rented a tuxedo and my parents had a humble wedding in my great Aunt Cecilia’s living room. Five days later they were hunting for apartments in Toronto just as classes were starting at Osgoode Hall Law School. My parents made peace with Zeidi and Usher. Their first priority was to find a husband for Sylvia (which they did – my mom introduced her to a cousin). My mom was able to support my dad throughout his education. He graduated 4 years later without missing a beat. Both Usher and Zeidi loved my mother. She cared for each of them in their final months when they came to live with us before they passed away.
A Dignified Background
Oil on Canvas 24x24
Original Image Taken: 1940
The first time I learned about my great-grandfather Godel Mangel was in middle school. We had to create a family tree and present an heirloom for a special class project. My family tree was sparse. It included all the names of my grandparents but only a couple of names from my great-grandparents’ generation and nothing else. My parents were children during the Holocaust and knew very little about our past.
I asked about Godel - one of the few names on the exotic great-grandparent line. My mother told me that he was taken by the Nazis but provided no other details. I then asked if we had any family heirlooms and the answer was ‘no’. Everything we had was acquired after the family immigrated to Canada in 1949 (at that time, our ‘stuff’ was around 30 years old – so nothing passed from generation to generation). For a history lover like me, I felt deflated.
When it was time to present our trees and heirlooms to the class, I worried that my teacher would think that I didn’t put in any effort into the assignment. I recall a boy in my class, Teddy, proudly wearing his great grandfather’s First Nations headdress. His family had been on the land for thousands of years. I was jealous of Teddy - he had a proud history that he could trace. How ironic. As Teddy spoke I saw how much the Holocaust had robbed my family - our names, our records and our possessions were obliterated.
Fast forward to today: thousands of documents are being uploaded, almost daily, on websites dedicated to preserving precious details about who existed when the Shoah started. I searched “Godel Mangel”. Imagine my surprise when a photo (from a Krakow Ghetto identity card) uploaded onto my monitor. My handsome great grandfather, looking humiliated, resigned, terrified, brave and dignified all in the same moment, was staring at me. He was 66 years old. My mom recognized him immediately even though she was 5 years old the last time she saw him alive. She finally shared what happened to Godel. His was one of our family’s “unspeakable stories”.
Grandfather Godel was taken to one of the camps and was a victim of the Shoah’s most sinister of crimes. I heard my mother’s words like sound-bites: ‘they used him for science experiments’ and ‘they injected him with gasoline’. It’s no wonder she didn’t share details about him when I was in middle school. I can barely put words to it now. I suddenly realized that he has no grave and that his story was so close to being relegated to the dustbins of history. I could almost feel his soul lingering in the heavens with no peace. I decided to provide Great-Grandfather Godel with a small monument to honor his life. As best I could, I created this painting out of a photo that was taken in an act of hatred. My studio took on a sacred quality - I was able to reach across time and space and recreate an image of my great grandfather’s face, but this time with love. Every brush stroke felt important. A powerful moment happened when the music on my iPhone looped to the Leonard Cohen song “You want it Darker”. Just as I felt I had captured Godel’s likeness I heard the haunting words of the chorus singing: ‘Hineini - Hineini’ (which means ‘here I am’). My eyes filled with tears.
The background pattern is from my dining room wallpaper - the room where Godel’s great-great grandchildren come together every week to celebrate Shabbat and continue living our Jewish heritage - the real heirloom that has been passed down from generation to generation.
May you find abundant peace from heaven dear Great Grandfather Godel.
A New Chapter for Rivka
Oil on Canvas 30x40
Original Image Taken: 1967
Rivka is my mother-in-law and this moment was a turning point for her. She was celebrating her engagement to Harry and things were about to change.
Rivka didn’t know it then but within a few years of getting married, she and Harry would embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Harry had a dream of raising his family in Israel and Rivka became a willing player. Together they quit their secure jobs; they sold their comfortable home and moved with their 3 children to an absorption center in Jerusalem. I admire the fact that Rivka was able to shift gears, set aside everything she thought her life would be and go on this journey with an open mind. The Israeli dream only lasted five years but the memories are still a great return on the investment.
Teen Tour at the Dead Sea
By J. Kott-Wolle
Oil on Canvas, 24x30, painted 2019
Original photograph taken – 1988
When I was 19 I travelled to Israel for the first time on a teen tour organized by the AZYF (American Zionist Youth Federation). In those days there were no free ‘Birthright’ trips to Israel. Rather, I held a part-time job for over a year and saved my money to pay for the experience on my own.
I didn’t go to Israel with the intention of ‘connecting’ to my Jewish self. At that time, the role of Judaism in my life had started to wane in a big way. I no longer kept kosher (but hid that fact from my family); Hebrew school was behind me and I had traded in weekly Shabbat services for sleeping late on Saturday mornings. Honestly, I was motivated to go to Israel because my friends had gone and it looked like a huge party to me. That was my primary attraction.
Presently there are literally thousands of youth groups that travel through Israel, all with the goal of helping the cause of Jewish continuity – ‘marketing Judaism’ to a generation that appears to have only a peripheral interest in maintaining Jewish identity, religion and culture. I can only imagine the organizers of these programs wondering if their efforts have any impact at all on shaping the Jewish identities of the young people who participate. Thirty plus years later, I can attest to the fact that my youth trip to Israel ‘worked’. In the midst of all the fun and freedom, I for one, found myself very introspective during that experience. I returned home with the realization that my Judaism was no longer my mother’s responsibility but was on me now. I made a promise to myself to take as many Jewish studies classes I could find in college - where I met my husband; made a career decision to work in Jewish communal service and ensure that my children had positive experiences with both Jewish camp and education so that they’d be literate and proud Jews. In the end, the AZYF “Taste of Israel” trip was probably one of the most important Jewish experiences of my life.
Baby’s First Chanukah
Oil on Canvas 16x20, painted 2019
Original photograph taken – 1999
I remember my oldest child’s first Chanukah like it was yesterday. It had been a very busy day and we forgot to light the candles to mark the holiday. Late that night, when we reminded ourselves to do it, all I wanted was to go to sleep. In my delirium I had an internal debate – does it even matter if we light the Chanukah candles for a baby who doesn’t know the difference? Can’t we just observe these rituals when he’s older and understands what is going on around him? In the end, tradition won out and we dragged ourselves over to the living room window to light the Chanukiah – Henry was so squirmy in my arms. I’ve often wondered: are you born Jewish or do you become Jewish after being exposed to it and having it cultivated in you? On reflection I’ve come to the conclusion that both answers are true. Jewish identity, a feeling of spiritual and emotional connection to Judaism, it’s history, people and culture, however, involves being ‘sparked’ and that can happen at any age.
Shacharit (Morning Prayers) at the Jewish High School
By J. Kott-Wolle
Oil on Canvas, 18x18, painted 2017
Original photograph taken – 2017
Prayer in Judaism is an awkward place for me. I went to synagogue every week as a child so I’ve always known the tunes and most of the Hebrew words in the prayer service but I actually don’t have a clue what most of it means. Prayer services have always felt long and repetitive. I’m never sure when to bow or stand and then sit down again and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to think about when I’m saying the words. I’m that person who counts how many pages are left in the siddur (prayer book) until the service is over. This void in my knowledge base has been a ‘private shame’ for most of my life. I always felt embarrassed to admit that the shul sanctuary is the place where I feel most out of step with Judaism. I also believed that I was too old to do anything about it. (The year I said Kaddish for my father I finally committed to getting a very rudimentary understanding of the rhythm of the service). When I sent my kids to Jewish Day School parents were always encouraged to sit in during morning prayer services (Shacharit). At first, I thought it was ‘too Jewish’ when I’d see all the kids in their tallit and tefillin. But I was that parent who listened hard when the prayers were being explained and taught to the kindergarten students. I needed that information to round out my personal Jewish literacy. I’m so grateful that all 3 of my kids can walk into any synagogue service anywhere as informed participants and leaders. I envy them.
Sophia Had Peace of Mind
Oil on Canvas 30x40
Original Image Taken: 1974
My grandmother Sophia was an incredible woman. When her husband was drafted to the Polish army during the Holocaust, Sophia was left alone with 3 small children to protect. She made sure they always had food; she identified Righteous Gentiles to hide my mother and her siblings when there were raids on the Krakow ghetto; Sophia was able to secure false Argentinian passports for her family – which saved them from Nazi firing squads on more than a few occasions. Sophia refused to leave Poland (even though the passports could provide safe passage out of Europe) because her sisters were interred in Auschwitz and she arranged to have food smuggled to them on a regular basis. Sophia was fearless and driven. When she immigrated to Canada she continued to lead. Sophia had her own small wholesaling business; she hosted her sisters (who survived) and the whole family for all the holidays; she ensured that her children had every opportunity. She took a job washing dishes at a Jewish overnight camp so that my mom and her siblings could spend the summers like all the other kids in their community. She supported my mother’s artistic and educational aspirations. She was extremely proud when her son Ronnie finished McGill medical school and did graduate work at Harvard. She treasured her grandchildren more than anything. My daughter Sophie is named for her - what a legacy.
Chaya Lea Tried to Come to America
By J. Kott-Wolle
Oil on Canvas, 30x40, painted 2019
Original photograph taken – 1925
One of the legacies of descending from Holocaust survivors is that you grow up in a house without old family photos - a huge piece of your history is simply ‘erased’. By some miracle one precious photo made it through my family’s escape from the Nazis. This image is of my great grandmother, Chaya Lea in the 1920’s. Her husband had moved to New York and she was set to join him with their 5 children once he had earned enough money to sponsor them and pay for their travel. Chaya Lea had this portrait taken as part of her sponsorship application. A cruel twist of fate happened when her husband died suddenly. Chaya Lea became a widow and her immigration plan was thwarted. She and her five children stayed in Poland.
My mother recalls the day her grandmother was murdered. There was a raid on the Krakow Ghetto. My mother (only 5 years old at the time) was hidden with Righteous Gentiles. When the raid was over my mother was returned to her family and she remembers that everyone was crying and sitting shiva (mourning) for Chaya Lea. Chaya Lea was taken during that raid and was possibly transferred to the Auschwitz concentration camp or shot in the street. Her story was one of the ‘unspeakables’. Chaya Lea has no grave. Four of her five children did survive. The little girl beside her, my great Aunt Cecilia, was saved by Oskar Schindler.
The Second Generation
By J. Kott-Wolle
Oil on Canvas, 24x24, painted 2019
Original photograph taken – 1969
The ‘Second Generation’ refers to children born to Holocaust survivors. Officially, I fall into that category. We are a unique sub-set of the Jewish community – we were raised by parents who went through one of the darkest chapters in history and that experience had implications for us.
Our homes were different from the homes of our friends whose parents were born in North America. Our parents spoke English with an accent and broke into other languages to talk about things they didn’t want us to know. Some of our parents had numbers tattooed on their arms. We are a generation named after relatives who died unspeakable deaths. All of us know that our existence is a miracle – we shouldn’t even be alive. Growing up we understood that our parents had been through ‘enough’ and ‘our job’ was to make sure that we did not disappoint them. We know a thing or two about resilience. We wonder if we are as tough as our parents – could we have survived what they went through? We secretly fear that we would not have.
Some Second Generation kids were born as ‘replacement’ children – their parents were married with families before the war and had lost everyone – their spouses, children, parents and siblings. These Second Generation children felt the impossible burden of trying to make highly traumatized parents feel whole again.
This 1969 image is of my mom’s first cousin Mary with her new husband Lou. I remember Mary’s parents. They were so gentle and lovely. Aunty Rutka (prisoner number 76322) and Uncle Mishu (prisoner number 68881) were both in the concentration camps and were saved by Oskar Schindler. Now that most survivors are no longer alive, Second Generation children feel a tremendous obligation to tell their parents’ stories.
Oil on Canvas 28x30. painted 2017
Original photograph taken: 1968
The defining moment of my great Uncle Usher’s life happened when he took the ‘hit’ for his brother Jankel (my grandfather). It was 1942 and the Nazis were confiscating all the property belonging to the Jews in their small Ukrainian village. My grandfather Jankel could not stand the humiliation any longer and lost his temper. He made the foolish mistake of beating up a young Ukrainian police officer (who was carrying out the orders). Jankel knew that the consequence of beating up a police officer would be deadly for him so he ran away.
Later that day the police came to their house looking for Jankel and instead took Usher to the police station. They wanted to know where Jankel was hiding but Usher would not cooperate. They tried to coerce Usher by beating him with a bicycle chain to force the information out of him. Usher was loyal and would not betray his brother. Eventually the police gave up. Hours after the beating, Usher, along with my grandfather, my dad, my aunt Sylvia and great grandmother fled to the forest outside their village and ended up hiding there for 19 months until the war was over. Out of nine Jewish families, theirs was the only one from that village to survive the Holocaust.
Poor Usher – that beating was the biggest moment of his entire life. He never married or had children. All he had was his brother and his niece and nephew. After immigrating to Canada he had no real success either professionally or personally. His greatest pleasures in life were cigarettes and Jankel’s grandchildren. Usher showed up to all of our family gatherings and birthday parties. I was only 3 when he died of lung cancer. In broken English my grandfather used to ask me “do you remember Uncle Usher?” I’d lie and say that I did. I understood that my grandfather needed to know that his brother’s life mattered.