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A family tree without branches: The children of Holocaust survivors reflect on finding community on Bowen

'My parents weren’t in camps but they were always escaping. They were always running'

When Jack and Soorya Ray Resels moved to Belterra in 2015, they were looking for community. The co-housing development offered a communal experience that the couple, who married in 1969, long sought as they travelled the world.  

But their love of and need for community reaches much deeper than the human need to be around people. It fills the deep hole violently ripped into their families – as had happened with so many Jewish families during the Second World War. 

Both Jack and Soorya are children of Jewish Holocaust survivors. Their parents escaped from Poland and Lithuania, respectively, fleeing to Uzbekistan. 

 

Soorya’s parents, Leon and Betty Kamay, were from Vilnius, Lithuania. Her father arranged for a truck to take as many family members as possible out of the path of the Nazis in 1941. “Most people didn’t believe that anything that bad would ever happen,” she says. Her grandparents, some of her aunts and uncles decided to stay in Lithuania. They all died. 

Jack’s parents, David Resels and Mania Krafchik, had been in Poland for generations when his mother and father fled independently to the USSR in 1939. None of Jack’s extended family — grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins — survived. 

His parents met in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where Jack was conceived. Though they’d escaped the Nazis, the situation was dire in Uzbekistan. “People were starving. They were starving and dying,” says Jack. His father told him stories of people with wheelbarrows and horse-drawn carriages rolling through the streets doing morning rounds — picking up people who’d died in the night and throwing them into the carriage. 

By the time Jack was born in 1947, the war had ended but going home wasn’t an option for many Jews. A pogrom (a violent riot meant to kill or expel religious or ethnic groups, particularly Jewish people) in Poland in 1946 killed 42 Jews. Instead, many Jewish people ended up in displaced persons (refugee) camps. For the first two years of his life, Jack lived in such a camp in Steyr, Austria. 

“When I was born, I was sick,” recounts Jack. “They were all telling my mother, ‘Give him up. He’s not gonna make it.’

“My mother wouldn’t give me up. She wouldn’t let go. 

“And she never let go of me. That was my mother.”

His parents had wanted to go to Israel – which, at the time, was Palestine – but there were quotas for how many Jews would be allowed in the British-controlled region. Then, Canada opened its borders to Jewish people. The country needed tailors. Jack’s father was a tailor.

 The family sailed the 11-day journey from Naples to Halifax, landing April 26, 1949. They took the train to Montreal and, the next day, Jack’s father started working at a Jewish-owned factory making ladies coats. “And he never stopped working,” says Jack. “My father was a good worker.”   

Soorya’s parents came to Canada via France; she was born in Montreal. “My mother was very depressed by the war,” remembers Soorya. “She had been very strong and capable during it. She kept it together.” However, when Soorya was young, her mother seemed to retire into the trauma of her memories.

 

The 2016 census enumerated only 25 people who identified as having Jewish ethnic origin on Bowen Island. Peter Frinton – who has lived on the island for more than 40 years – estimates that there are closer to at least 100. “It’s quite interesting to me that there are so many who show up on the island here,” he says. “I don’t know why.”

Both of Frinton’s parents escaped the Nazis and lost family during the Holocaust. “They didn’t view themselves as survivors. [They thought] the survivors were the ones who were in camps and miraculously survived,” he says. 

“These wounded people tended to get together with each other. And they were incapable, literally incapable, of doing some of the things that normal parents would do,” said Frinton. 

There’s also always an unease, says Frinton, who grew up in the Lower Mainland. “You don’t want to go around advertising that you’re a Jew in a lot of places. 

“My parents changed their name. [Arnošt and Lilli Frischler became Ernst and Lili Frinton]. There was no religious education. There was no religious observance. But once a year my mother lit a candle for her father and she didn’t smoke that day – on Yom Kippur, on the Day of Atonement.

“She had nothing to say about it,” says Frinton. “She didn’t want to talk about what happened to her family.” Though in later life did write down snippets of her memories about growing up in Nazi Germany, including her first-hand experience of Kristallnacht in 1938.

Peter’s maternal grandfather made the decision to sacrifice his life so his family could survive. They wouldn’t leave Germany without him but he would have been denied an exit visa. Rather than have them all stay, his mother’s father died by suicide. 

A short time later, in July 1939, his mother and remaining family fled Germany. “They’d lived under the Nazis for six years so they saw the noose tightening,” says Frinton. 

“A month later, they wouldn’t have made it.

 “She was heavily traumatized by that.”

But she never spoke of it.

“The only time she brought something up was when I said I was going to be a caddy at the golf course. And she said, ‘No, you’re not. They don’t let Jews be members there. I will not permit you to carry their bags.’”

 

In the wake of the Second World War, a lot of Jews came to Montreal and often settled together in neighbourhoods. 

“There was discrimination,” says Jack. “A lot of Jews came all at the same time.

“It definitely created friction between the Jews and the people who were already settled there.”

Discrimination has not followed Jack throughout his life, but a caution did. 

 “My parents weren’t in camps but they were always escaping. They were always running.

“They always told me, ‘Don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish. Be careful,’” says Jack. “My mother, every time I left the house, her last words to me were ‘Be careful, Jackie.’ 

“In school, my mother didn’t want me to be too good at anything. 

“She didn’t want me to be too good in my marks or too good in sports. They didn’t want me to make too much noise. They wanted me to slip into the shadows and not stand out.

“I was wanting to just have fun and play but they were always putting a damper on my life,” said Jack, “which created a lot of friction.

“Fear was in the air that we breathed in our  house. They didn’t speak about it that much. But it was there all the time. I always knew it.”

For Soorya, the caution was communicated less through words than atmosphere. 

By osmosis and the few stories she had, Soorya had to carve her own way – to find where her peace and stability would be. 

“I didn’t identify myself as Jewish. I did feel the connection culturally but I didn’t feel it through religious avenues” says Soorya. She didn’t enjoy visiting the synagogue – the separation of men and women with their children, the noise and commotion. She liked stillness and meditation.  

“I didn’t really discover what it would be like if I lived out loud about it,” she says. “I can’t really say, if there would have been discrimination or not. I could pass by because of my blue eyes and blonde hair.”

While Soorya came from a culturally Jewish family and Jack grew up going to Jewish school two afternoons a week and Sunday mornings, neither are particularly religious. 

“My inclinations were much more universal,” says Soorya, of her own spirituality. “I just thought bigger – out of the box. There’s got to be something that really unites us, rather than divides us, and religion was always so divisive.”

 

For Frinton, and the Resels, there was no family outside of their home. 

“The family tree is a blasted stump,” said Frinton. “I had one uncle that was it. My dad lost his parents, grandparents and only sister.”

For Jack, everyone was killed except a second cousin in New York. “There’s a big hole. A big emptiness. I feel 100 per cent Canadian but I still feel a part of me is not 100 per cent at home. 

“All my roots for centuries were in Poland. I have no idea where. I have some names of some people and towns, but I was never there. Few stories were ever told. I don’t know anything about it.”

While Soorya didn’t get to know her relatives in Russia and the Ukraine, there are still some living there and in New York. “My family connections are long distance. And so I think that’s partly why we love community.” 

“One of the things that I like about Bowen,” Jack adds, “is that I feel more Jewish on Bowen than just about anywhere.”

There is an element of flying under the radar – of hiding Jewishness, says Soorya. But on Bowen, they’ve found Jewish community. 

“Here we have Jewish functions and I like it,” says Jack. “I like being part of that group.” 

Frinton – who is also not religiously Jewish – too finds comfort in the Jewish Community of Bowen. “In Yiddish they call it a metzia, a blessing,” he says. “I get a warm fuzzy feeling every time I think of or see [them].”

“I feel safe here,” says Jack. “But I still have that training of being cautious, being careful.”

When they heard of an antisemitic encounter with a Holocaust denier on Bowen this past summer, Jack and Soorya were affected. “You don’t think these kinds of things happen on Bowen. It’s hard to believe that somebody would think that the Holocaust is all fake; that it didn’t happen.

“It is very hard for people who have lost everybody and everything to hear this.”

“The tentacles of this big thing [the Holocaust] extend and are found on this little place,” says Frinton. “And it informs the psyche of any of the people involved.”

“Bowen should be known as a place that includes people, rather than brings old prejudices and old ways to divide and exclude people,” says Jack. “Nobody needs to fly under the radar. Everyone can say ‘Hey, I’m here. I breathe the same air that you do and I walk on the same land.’ And we can appreciate each other. We’re may be different, but we can still appreciate each other.”

 

Before the war, Soorya’s mother was in the Viennese ballet. “She was very, very sensitive. And she had a deep connection to her Jewish roots, to the spirituality of Judaism. She was looking across the way from the window of the room where the ballet dancers were dressing. When she looked outside, she could see the Sabbath candles gleaming from a house across the way. 

“It was the connection to the light that just drew her and she felt so close to it, yet here she was dancing, on the Sabbath.”

The connection to the spirituality of Judaism didn’t stay with Soorya but the connection to light did. 

She also carries the tradition of her father. “He was culturally richly in Jewish tradition and humour, but he was universal in his heart. He always said, ‘My heart is as big as a hotel. I have room enough for all of your friends.’

“Luckily, those kind of things are what shaped me.”

 

Just down the road from Jack and Soorya, Matthew van der Giessen is in the Belterra woodshop, affixing driftwood to a plywood menorah. On Nov. 28, the menorah will light up in the Cove for the first day of Hanukkah. That will be the topic of our third and final article in our series about the Jewish community of Bowen Island.

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