Looking back on 100 years, Holocaust survivor sees a life of 'miracles'

Olga Perlmutter was in her mid-20s when the Nazis captured her family, killed her siblings and forced her into slave labour at Auschwitz, but, looking back over the past century, she sees a life full of miracles.

Olga Perlmutter celebrates 100th birthday in Côte Saint-Luc with friends and family

Olga Perlmutter refuses to forgive the Nazis for what they did to her family in the 1940s, but she doesn't let those sad memories keep her down. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

Olga Perlmutter was in her mid-20s when the Nazi regime captured her family, killed her siblings and forced her into slave labour at Auschwitz. Yet, looking back over the past century, she sees a life full of blessings.

"All my life, I have had miracles," she said, surrounded by her devoted friends who all survived the same concentration camp and now visit her Côte Saint-Luc condo to play cards four times a week.

"First of all, it's a miracle I am here."

Olga Perlmutter's smile was bright in her early 20s, before the Nazi regime killed her siblings and parents. (Submitted by Joseph Perlmutter)

Perlmutter turns 100 on Saturday and, though she still wakes up in the night terrified that the Germans are coming, she says she is grateful for all that she has today — two sons, four grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and friends as close as family.

"My life story is very long and I don't know the beginning or the end," said Perlmutter, her brown eyes twinkling as she smiled warmly.

"It wasn't easy, but I didn't give up. Everything I did, I did for my children."

Perlmutter was born on March 2, 1919, in the Hungarian town of Sárospatak. She and her seven siblings were raised by Jewish parents in a time when anti-Semitism was rampant.

Knowing the Nazis were coming, she had the opportunity to escape — to go underground with her brother, Joseph Taub — but she refused to leave the rest of her family behind.

Deported, tattooed and forced into labour

Those who stayed were deported by train to the Auschwitz concentration camp and Perlmutter was branded as prisoner A21364.

Though the ink of that tattooed Nazi identification has faded with time, the memories have not.

Olga Perlmutter never had the Nazi identification removed from her arm because she wants it serve as a conversation starter for youth, to help them learn more about the Holocaust. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

Her younger brother and sister were executed in front of her and the rest of her family was led off to the gas chambers. Only two of her siblings would survive, one forced into labour and the other on the run.

She can describe in detail her two years in the camp, from catching typhoid fever to the enamoured guard who once secretly passed her a loaf of bread.

She recalls the guard giving her a "piece of the whole bread and said, 'that is for my beautiful girl.'"

Most of Olga Perlmutter's family was killed in the Holocaust. She is in the middle row, wearing a white blouse. (Submitted by Joseph Perlmutter)

Once freed, she returned to her hometown alone. She met and married a fellow survivor, becoming Olga Taub Danczinger.

Illness struck and she was widowed a short time later, leaving her alone with two boys, aged six and two.

Struggling under Hungary's iron-fisted government, she fled to Austria, to Rome and eventually Israel. She cared for her sons by day and worked in an asbestos factory by night.

"We were alone in a shack," said Joseph Perlmutter, now a Californian real-estate investor who still remembers those nights alone.

"It was a dirt shack with rats. She put us near a window in a crib and I would wake up early, looking out the window, waiting for her to bicycle home."

Building a life in Canada

Olga Perlmutter got word that her brother, Joseph, had made it to Montreal. She immigrated to Canada in 1951 and settled in an apartment on Montreal's St-Joseph Boulevard with three other families.

Hedvig Landau, now 93, still remembers how her lifelong friend worked tirelessly for a catering company by day and tended to house chores by night, never stopping and hardly sleeping as she made sure everybody was well taken care of.

"She worked like a horse every day.... She was a very hard working woman all her life," Landau said.

From left, Olga Perlmutter, Edith Katz and Hedvig Landau play cards four times a week in Côte Saint-Luc. Perlmutter hosts, serving homemade lunch every time. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

Olga Taub Danczinger met and married a fellow Hungarian survivor in Montreal, becoming Olga Taub Perlmutter.

Her husband, Max Perlmutter, adopted her boys and, together, they bought a duplex. She opened a hair salon with her cousin on Parc Avenue and her business prospered in the decades that followed.

All these years later, she now keeps herself busy with her friends.

They play cards sometimes five hours a day and Olga Perlmutter always has lunch waiting for them when they arrive in the early afternoon.

She still loves to cook and bake, regularly whipping up a variety of foods and desserts.

Edith Katz (left) managed to escape the gas chamber of Auschwitz because she spoke German to a guard rather than Yiddish and he took pity on her, letting her slip away. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

Olga Perlmutter and her friends have a life mantra: keep busy and enjoy every minute.

"My mother has indomitable will," said her son, Tom Perlmutter, a documentary filmmaker and former chair of the National Film Board of Canada.

"I have never met anyone else with that kind of will. It is iron."

He accompanied his mother on a medical visit years ago and he remembers her asking if she would live to see 100.

It was always her goal to reach her 100th birthday and, though doctors told her it wasn't likely, once her mind is made up, she always achieves her goal, he said.

Olga Perlmutter celebrated her birthday among friends and family on Sunday, March 3. (CBC)

To this day, he said, his mother is a fighter who doesn't back down.

"She has again and again shown that ability to persevere and adapt. They tried to eliminate us, but we go on. We continue."

Auschwitz still haunts his mother's dreams and she tears up as she talks of those she lost.

But her eyes go hard as stone when she thinks back on what the Nazis did to her family.

"I never, never forgave them for what they did to us," the centenarian said. "And I never will."

Olga Perlmutter with her son, Joseph Perlmutter (centre) and her grandson Michael Perlmutter. (Isaac Olson/CBC)


Isaac Olson


Isaac Olson is a journalist with CBC Montreal. He worked largely as a newspaper reporter and photographer for 15 years before joining CBC in the spring of 2018.