Saturday March 25, 2017

Hearing my grandmother's Holocaust story for the first time

Left: Fay Piasetzki stands outside her home in Montreal. Right: Arielle Piat-Sauvé sits with Fay Piasetzki, her grandmother, and Myra Piat, her mother

Left: Fay Piasetzki stands outside her home in Montreal. Right: Arielle Piat-Sauvé sits with Fay Piasetzki, her grandmother, and Myra Piat, her mother ( Arielle Piat-Sauvé Now or Never)

Listen 17:55

By Arielle Piat-Sauvé

My grandma Fay, is one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors in Canada. She has never shared her story publicly.

A few months ago, when I visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem and listened to the different testimonies about the horrors of the war, I realized I had never really talked to my own grandmother about her story. When I searched through the archives for my grandmother's name, the results came up empty.

Fay Piasetzki

Fay Piasetzki (Arielle Piat-Sauvé/CBC)

It also dawned on me that I would be the last generation to hear, firsthand, what my grandmother lived through during the Holocaust. I knew in that moment that I had to record her and preserve her memory before it was too late.

There was a lot riding on me getting my grandmother's story the way she remembers it because she suffers from dementia. She regularly forgets what she had for lunch and can't always remember the last time we spoke. I was worried she wouldn't remember enough to tell us her story.

When I arrived at my grandmother's house in Montreal, I noticed how her short-term memory was getting worse. She couldn't remember what month it was nor what she did earlier that day. But when I started to ask her about her past, she remembered the smallest details.

My grandmother was born Fani Zimlichman Schechter in 1930 in the small town of Bochdan in what was then Czechoslovakia. Her parents owned a general store and on Friday nights they lit the candles for Shabbat. She had an older sister named Frieda. When the war started in 1939, my grandma was just 9-years-old. By the end of the war, all of her immediate family had been killed.

Fay and Abraham engagement photo

Fay and Abraham Piasetzki's engagement photo. (Myra Piat for Now or Never)

My grandmother spoke about the train ride to Auschwitz and how they were packed in cattle cars for days without food or water. She talked about the Nazis selecting certain people and sending them to the gas chambers to die.

Her voice trembled when she mentioned her mom and sister, both of whom were still with her at that time. She told me her mom used to pinch her cheeks to make her look healthier during the daily roll calls.

Being forced to stand in rows of five twice a day is probably what my grandmother remembers most about her time in Auschwitz. She said the guards were always counting them, afraid they'd run away.

She explained to me how they lived in bunks with beds placed on three levels and how in the middle of the night the top level bed would often collapse. Her mind wandered to a dark place when she mentioned the German Shepherd dogs and the smell of barbecues — to this day these are things she can't tolerate.

I tried to hold back my tears when my grandmother recalled the smell of burning flesh coming from the chimneys of Auschwitz, and how she was told that was the smell of her parents burning. She spent a total of six months in there before being transferred to Ravensbruck, and then Malchow, for the remainder of the war. 

Fay and Myra

Fay and her daughter Myra at home in Montreal. (Myra Piat)

I was shocked at how much she remembers from the war. Despite her diagnosis, these memories are deeply ingrained in her mind. She didn't cry when she spoke about the Holocaust, she stayed stoic and strong.

I can't even begin to imagine what it was like for her, and I can't fathom what it took to create a life for herself in Canada after everything she went through. She met my grandfather, went to business college, worked in a fur factory and raised three children, all the while holding in all of the memories of the war.

I asked her how she felt about letting me record her story. She said she felt proud, and by the end of our conversation, she said that maybe she was meant to survive in order to tell her story.

My grandmother doesn't have to worry about forgetting her story of the Holocaust because she's now passed on those memories to me. Her audio testimony will also live on forever at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum as part of their 'gathering the fragments' project.

Next time I'm in Jerusalem, I'll be able to look up my grandmother's story in the archives — and so will all the generations to come after me.