Montreal·First Person

My grandmother survived the Holocaust. Now it's up to me to keep her story alive

My grandmother's story of surviving the Holocaust is such an integral part of who I am that I feel she's still with me even after her death, writes Leah Schwalb.

I've realized her story is an integral part of who I am and that I'll never really lose her

Georgina Schwalb is seen at the Pam-Pam, a former café in downtown Montreal where she worked for decades. (Submitted by Leah Schwalb)

This First Person article is the experience of Leah Schwalb, a Montrealer whose grandmother, Georgina, was a Holocaust survivor. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I have fond memories of cuddling up with my brother and our parents for story time as we read from classic children's books. But we also grew up on a very different type of story: what happened to our paternal grandparents who were both Holocaust survivors.

My grandfather passed away over 20 years ago, so it is my grandmother's narrative that is embedded in my mind. She spent many hours, seated by my side, infusing me with her life stories. With her passing, it is now my duty to ensure her stories — like those of others who experienced the Holocaust — are never forgotten.

Georgina Schwalb lived to the age of 101, six months and one day. She was born on Oct. 5, 1919, in Budapest. She was an only child and had a happy upbringing. In her early 20s, she met her first husband, Imre Wegner. 

They married at a time when the persecution of Jewish people was becoming more prevalent in Hungary. Their small wedding ceremony took place within the locked doors of a synagogue. Not long after, Imre was taken, along with many Jewish men, into forced labour by the Hungarian government. 

Georgina and her first husband, Imre Wegner, are seen on their wedding day. (Submitted by Leah Schwalb)

As long as he remained in Hungary, my grandmother would try and see him when the opportunity presented itself. On one occasion, with the help of a farmer, my grandmother hid under hay in a carriage to visit him when he was in a nearby town for a weekend.  Another time, she convinced a sympathetic railroad worker to allow her onto the platform as Imre's train passed through. Imre had just enough time to disembark from the train and kiss her one last time, before continuing on. From that point, she lost all contact with him. 

My grandmother ran Imre's book business until she, too, was rounded up at age 25. 

I have often compared my life at any given time to what my grandmother was living at the same age. I have been fortunate to have experienced so many privileges in life and the realities of my 20s were the polar opposite of what she had to endure. I experienced luxuries like travelling abroad and going to university, all while living in safety with my loved ones and not worrying about where my next meal would come from.

Sitting and waiting

When Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, she and other young women were deported. The last thing she saw was her mother fainting, as she was pulled out of the apartment in the ghetto they had been recently forced to live in. My grandmother's journey to the camp was long, involved days and days of walking, sleeping on the floor of a water-laden boat and being pulled aside at one point by someone who was trying to help her. This man was caught and my grandmother sent to the local jail. She was released and sent on with another group of Jewish people some time later; she was now without anyone she recognized from home. She and this new group of people were brought to a camp near the Austrian city of Wiener Neustadt. 

While my grandmother was proud to tell her life story, the details of life in the camp were difficult for her to talk about. Those months became a blurry, dark collection of images mixed with the will to survive. She estimates that over 1,000 Jews were crowded into the camp while she was there, an old factory where they slept on the floor and were fed water with potato skins for soup.

Georgina Schwalb is seen attending her first ball in Hungary, before the Second World War. (Submitted by Leah Schwalb)

They spent their days demoralized, with no activity but sitting and waiting for what would come next. For weeks, cannon fire echoed in the distance as Russian soldiers advanced; she hoped desperately that liberation would come before they were shipped off to a death camp. Eventually, the Russians bombed the railroad, which came as an enormous relief to her and the others, as this meant they could not be taken off to gas chambers. 

When their camp was liberated, the Jewish people were told to walk home if they could. 

My grandmother only weighed about 70 pounds and was sick with typhus. She recalled fainting repeatedly as she followed the train tracks back to Budapest, waking only when her forehead hit the sharp, pointy stones of the track. The thought of being reunited with family, of having her life back, kept her going on that cold, perilous journey.

When she arrived weeks later, her parents were overwhelmed with joy to see her — wearing the same purple dress, now in tatters, and with a rag for a handkerchief (a detail she always liked to point out).

It took her several months to heal physically, but she experienced a devastating heartbreak when she learned that Imre had died in a bombing in Ukraine while on labour deployment.

My grandfather, Andy, had been my grandmother's music teacher before the war. After surviving years in a forced labour camp, he returned to Budapest following the Holocaust and reunited with my grandmother. He confessed to her that he had always loved her, and, several years later, they married. 

While my grandmother was still heartbroken over Imre's death, she wanted to start a new life for herself. Peace did not last long, however, with the Soviet occupation of Hungary and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. 

Andy and Georgina Schwalb pose with their son, Tom. (Submitted by Leah Schwalb)

My father has some poignant memories of the revolution, such as the elevator of their apartment building in Budapest crashing into the basement (where they had taken shelter for days) after it was shot at on his birthday. That year, my grandparents decided they could not, with a young child, live through any more tumult. They decided to escape, fleeing with my father through moonlit fields, while Russian soldiers fired around them, into the safety of Austria — the site of my grandmother's near extermination 11 years earlier.

After spending months in a refugee camp, they were ultimately accepted by Canada. They arrived in Halifax with only a few dollars to their name. They eventually made their way to Montreal, unable to afford even a ride on a streetcar. My grandmother was 37 at the time, just one year younger than I am now. 

When they arrived in Montreal, my grandfather did not know how to speak English or French. His saving grace was being a professional musician. He played over 11 instruments and from this, he made a livelihood playing in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, teaching piano and opening his own piano store on Bernard Street, near their apartment in the Mile End neighbourhood. 

Leah's grandfather Andy stands outside his music store in Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood. The shop has since closed. (Submitted by Leah Schwalb)

My grandmother had learned to speak English and French as a child, and was able to find employment at the Pam-Pam café, a well-loved European establishment on Stanley Street, for 25 years. She started off as a cashier and soon became the manager. Even in her later years, she was fondly recognized by former patrons everywhere she went. 

Through years of hard work and sacrifice, my grandparents were able to build a new life, and eventually they brought my grandmother's parents to live with them in Montreal.

My grandmother was a colourful, proud, beautiful, charming, intelligent and, most of all, strong woman. She took pride in how close she was with her family. We spoke daily and visited weekly. She became a great-grandmother twice over — to my brother's son, and then to mine.

Whenever I am facing a challenge, I try to think back on the obstacles my grandmother had to face in her life, and the resilience she had. Just thinking of her gives me strength. She has also been a model for discipline and strong will power — traits she fostered in me.

Her fierce wish was to live out her final years at home. Remarkably, she managed to do so. Her last year, however, was marked by the challenges of the pandemic with COVID-19 taking away many of the remaining pleasures she had left. While her life had so many joys, it was also marked by so much loss and her last year was no exception. 

Last winter, she had a sudden downturn in her health. She was hospitalized for two weeks, and she died on April 6 at the Jewish General Hospital. She was buried two days later, which was coincidentally Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Leah Schwalb as a young girl (left) is at a family gathering with her parents, grandparents and brother. (Submitted by Leah Schwalb)

I miss her terribly, every single day. Her death has been a tremendous loss for me. She was my compass, my inspiration, my foundation, my friend and my confidante.

Writing my grandmother's story has been a step toward healing. Watching hours of video testimonials she and I made of her stories, looking through old photographs and talking about her journey with my family has helped me process her life and my loss. I think that if I can share her story, she will live on in some way. 

Georgina was here; she suffered, she endured, she had an incredible life and most of all, she loved her family deeply. Realizing that her story is such an integral part of who I am helps me feel like I can never really lose her. 

As a mother to a young son, one day it will be my responsibility to ensure that he, too, carries her legacy. Her legacy of will power, hard work, determination, of fighting for one's family and ultimately of our shared humanity. 

Leah and her grandmother raise a glass on Georgina's 95th birthday. (Submitted by Leah Schwalb)

Story time has become a favourite time of day for my husband, my son and me. Just as I did with my own parents, we cuddle up and read books, but we also love making up stories to tell him. We talk often about our favourite memories of his great-grandmother, whom he knew as Gina. And as he ages, I will start telling him the stories of her life that I grew up on. 

I hope that her stories live on with him and contribute to shaping him into a caring, sensitive person who helps make this world a better place in his own way.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Schwalb was born and raised in Montreal where she works as a social worker and lives with her husband and young son.

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