The Simcha (A Joyful Occasion)
Oil on Canvas 24x36
Original Image Taken: 1974
This is a painting I made at the beginning of the 2020 Covid 19 pandemic. Like everyone, I was at home in strict lockdown, anxious about the danger of being exposed to a virus that we were only just beginning to understand and fearful of the destruction it would bring. There were no vaccines on the horizon and we were just getting acquainted with the idea of wearing masks when we went out in public. Schools were shut down, families were being kept apart, weddings and graduations were being postponed. I needed something to do to keep me calm and a distraction from my phone (where I kept close track of the daily infection rates).
This was my quarantine project and it is lofty with 31 faces to paint in a single image. I was drawn to this image because this was the group in my family who started their lives together in Krakow before the Holocaust, survived the war, emigrated to Canada and built a new life. Every single person in this image was touched by the Holocaust in one way or another, (including my older sisters in the front row, all of whom were named for great-grandparents who perished).
When I see these people together in their pink and purple dresses celebrating a good occasion at a simcha, after everything they’d been through, it reminded me that dark times do pass. The quarantine and this virus will eventually end and life will return. It always does.
Oil on Canvas 24x36
Original Image Taken: 1975
I remember one of my earliest encounters with “FOMO” (fear of missing out). When I was in high school and we returned to class following winter break, I recall seeing a good many of the kids sporting white button-down shirts to highlight golden tans meticulously and evenly achieved at pools and beaches across Florida. I always returned to school looking as pale as ever. I spent my winter breaks at home – watching lots of TV, reading magazines and taking the occasional trip to the local ice rink. I enjoyed those breaks but how I wished I could come back to school looking like I had been somewhere exotic. I was struck by the glamor of it, wondering about fancy resorts and colorful drinks garnished with cocktail umbrellas. Most of my friends, it turns out, were visiting their ‘snowbird grandparents’. These were older Jews – often Holocaust survivors – who managed to save enough money to buy a modest apartment at places like “Century Village” and spend their retirement years in sunny Florida. These folks would leave the cold and snowy north from Thanksgiving until Pesach enjoying warm weather, good programing, fun activities and socializing. For two weeks every December, bubbies and zeidis from Miami Beach to Fort Lauderdale endured the disruption to the peace and quiet at their community pools, and ‘shepped nachas’ (felt pride) while hosting their grandchildren.
Oil on Canvas 9x12
Original Image Taken: 1956
When my family immigrated to Canada in 1949 after the Holocaust, there were so many obstacles to overcome. Every success was monumental. What could be better than passing the high school matriculation exams and then getting a degree and attending law school after virtually missing a lifetime of education during the war years and the time spent in DP (Displaced Persons) camps? When my dad graduated from Sir George William University (now Concordia University) it wasn't just for him. There were so many people who were invested in this achievement, especially those who hid in the forest with him for 19 months during the war. But the person who really deserves a special mention was a teacher named Miss Mitchell.
Shortly after my dad immigrated to Canada and was learning to speak English he happened upon a a tutor who was helping a boy who lived in his flat. Miss Mitchell wasn't wanting to take on any more students but she saw something special in my dad and decided to help him get ready to take the grade 11 matriculation exams. Realizing that he was a refugee and funds were tight, she refused to take her full pay. Here is how my father honored Miss Mitchell in his memoir:
"In late summer 1953 I learned Miss Mitchell was not well and that she couldn't continue tutoring and guiding me anymore. I soon wrote some 7 or 8 exams and passed. I was admitted to Sir George William University and I personally wanted to tell Miss Mitchell. I found out that she was now at the Royal Victoria Hospital. When I came there, her brother told me she was dying of cancer and that the diagnosis was the reason for her relatively early retirement. I was allowed to see her. She was alert and I told her the good news. I gave her my hand and she squeezed it hard. She died a week later. Amazing how she did not let on over all those months that she tutored me! The vehicle of this lady's generosity carried me through the roughest terrain on my journey to where I wanted to go"
1950 Ladies Auxiliary Tea - United Jewish Welfare Fund
Oil on Canvas 16x20
Original Image Taken: 1950
When my parents immigrated to Montreal after the Holocaust, they (like so many survivors) were absorbed by the established Jewish community. I never really thought about the task of welcoming thousands of refugees, many (if not most) of whom arrived in Canada traumatized by the events of the second world war. How did the established Jewish community prepare to help these people whose needs were so profound? I have nothing but gratitude for the types of women, like those pictured here, who came together to fundraise, collect material donations, volunteer at clothing banks and provide scholarships to young refugees who couldn’t afford tuition for Jewish summer camps and schools. I am certain that in the early 1950’s, my family benefited from these efforts and generosity.
In many ways, however, Montreal’s Jewish community (like so many established Jewish communities in North America) was strained by the sudden influx of Jews from the ‘old country’. While united by a common code of religious practice and customs, these Jews couldn’t have been more different from each other. It was nearly impossible for the survivors to talk about the horrors inflicted by the Nazis, and frankly, the established community was not all that interested in hearing about it (at least not back then). It was beyond overwhelming for both sides.
Furthermore, the arrival of the refugees altered the landscape of the established Jewish community and thus brought a sense of insecurity for them: would the very presence of these immigrants threaten the equilibrium and tentative acceptance the ‘Canadian Jews’ had worked so hard to achieve, living quietly in suburbs alongside the larger Gentile Canadian community?
The Canadian Jews had their own history. They were the descendants of parents and grandparents who fled the pogroms in Russia. At the turn of the century, these people arrived on boats only to be greeted by a Canadian society that had restricted neighborhoods, hotels and beaches, quotas for higher education and outright disdain for the Jewish immigrants and their ways. It took 50 years for the Jews in Canada to respond to this brand of anti-Semitism and build their own parallel institutions, like the Jewish General Hospital, social clubs, the YMHA and various Jewish Community Centers. As these early Canadian Jews amassed wealth, many wanted to simply ‘fit in’- to look and act like their Gentile neighbors and deflect any negative attention. The presence of the Holocaust survivors must have reminded them of their grandparents and the obstacles they overcame. The Canadian Jews definitely cared about the well-being of the Holocaust survivors and took responsibility to help them. But they didn’t always want to socialize with or live in the same neighborhoods as the refugees. Perhaps it was too painful, or it was snobbery, or maybe a little of both.
Time is a funny thing though. Within a generation, the children and grandchildren of the refugees and those of the ‘established’ Canadian Jews almost immediately became indistinguishable. I know this firsthand. Most of my friends descended from the ‘established’ Canadian Jewish community. We freely and happily socialized in each other’s homes, we went to the same summer camps, high schools and universities, attended the same parties, dated each other, got married and built life-long friendships together. For better or for worse, this pattern repeated itself when the influx of Russian Jews arrived in Canada and the US in the early 1990’s.
Newcomers at Fletcher's Field
Oil on Canvas 24x36
Original Image Taken: 1949
My father always told me that he never had a childhood. The hardships of the Holocaust forced him to grow up fast and become an adult literally overnight. In 1949, he was only 16 that first summer in Canada but his ‘social life’ mostly included people much older than him. As Holocaust survivors these people found community with each other. They were hollowed out by atrocities of the war and together they could just be themselves at gatherings like the one pictured here. Fletcher’s Field was a park right across the street from the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services office in Montreal. The park offered green spaces for newcomers to gather, search for ‘landsmen’ and share stories about adapting to the strange new culture they were trying to understand and find their place in. These people did not want to be at the receiving end of community assistance. They just wanted to get on with life, rebuild their families and contribute to the country that had taken them in.
Family Reunion at Val Morin
Oil on Canvas 24x30
Original Image Taken: 1953
In the early 1950’s, just a few short years after my mom immigrated to Montreal, she and her family were often invited to the ‘country homes’ of distant cousins who had arrived in Canada a generation before them. How awkward these reunions must have been. Well-intended relatives wanted spark friendships amongst teenaged cousins whose lives and experiences were so very different. The suffering of the Holocaust hovered over these gatherings but nobody wanted to talk about it. The newcomers tried their best to fit in with the ‘Canadians’ but I suspect it never really felt natural for anyone.
Oil on Canvas 16x20
Original Image Taken: 1975
One of the things I love most about being Jewish is probably the very thing that I have always taken for granted: the organized Jewish community and the infrastructure that supports it.
At any stage of my life, whether I was a new mom searching for camaraderie through ‘Tot Shabbat’ classes, or finding a kosher caterer for my wedding, or joining the JCC (Jewish Community Center) to take an aerobics class, I have always been able to connect to the right organization and seamlessly have my Jewish needs met. The organized Jewish community has never let me down.
Having worked as a professional in Jewish communal service for many years I also know that the Jewish community is there to step in and support its most vulnerable members with high quality assistance that is culturally sensitive in every way. “From the cradle to the grave”, the Jewish community is there when you need it.
But who makes it happen?
Women like the ones pictured here are often at the heart of community fundraising efforts. One of my dear friends recounted memories of her mom’s tireless devotion to fundraising for her local Jewish Federation. Shawna told me that her mother, a gifted philanthropist, approached the task with flair and a sense of occasion to motivate her women friends to come to her living room and get involved. Through personalized note-writing campaigns armies of women raised funds for anything from feeding the hungry to opening a new wing at the senior citizen’s memory care facility. Shawna remembers the preparations that her mother organized in advance of these meetings: the wall-to-wall carpeting was freshly vacuumed such that you would see tracks from the Electrolux; the silver was polished to a shine and baked goods (that had been frozen in tins for weeks) were laid out on the good china. Hair appointments and elegant dresses with the smell of different perfumes wafting through the house were all a part of the effort. But in the end, “community” was as the forefront of these meetings where women gathered for socializing and hard work to plan galas, special events and auctions that raised the funds needed to achieve their goals.
Nobody Asked Aunty Sylvia
Oil on Canvas 30x30
Original Image Taken: 1977
Have you ever wondered about the unsung heroes of your life – the people whose efforts and quiet sacrifices are at the heart of your success and maybe even responsible for your very existence? For me, that person is my Aunty Sylvia.
When my dad and his sister Sylvia were small children, she saved my father’s life by feeding him bits of ice to keep him alive when they were hiding in the forest during the Holocaust. Zeidi and Usher had gone to get food from a righteous Gentile and my dad and Sylvia, only 9 and 10 years old respectively, were left alone for 24 hours as they waited patiently for their father and uncle to come back. Poor Aunty Sylvia. She was cold, hungry and terrified as she watched her little brother grow weaker and weaker in her arms. Sylvia did all she could do to soothe him and make sure he had tiny drops of water in his body to sustain him. Luckily Zeidi and Usher returned before it was too late and they nursed my father back to health.
After the war, when the family arrived in Canada, Zeidi and Usher were pretty clear about the role teenaged Sylvia would have in the family. My grandfather and his brother weren’t exactly reading Betty Friedan when they immigrated. Nobody asked Sylvia if she would enjoy or benefit from a higher education. That privilege (and all the generational opportunities it afforded) was reserved for my father. Sylvia was relegated to the kitchen to cook for the men and work in the garment factory to help pay for my dad’s tuition at Sir George William College while he and my mom read poetry and ate picnics on the campus Quad.
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.