In university, I took a writing course and one of the assignments was to interview someone and write their story. I immediately thought to interview my grandfather, my Zaidie, Berek Gertner.
My Zaidie was a wonderful man and a loving grandfather. He and my Bubbie, Regina, were both Holocaust survivors. Zaidie was gentle and sweet. Bubbie was a bit on the tougher side but equally lovable. I have special memories of meals and visits at Bubbie and Zaidie’s house, with Bubbie in her famous long and colourful mumu-like dresses and wedge slippers/shoes (not sure which?) and Zaidie always well-dressed in a low V-neck cardigan sweater with a white T-shirt underneath, with his slippers making that distinctive slipper noise as he made his way through their bungalow on Bryant Street, cooking, baking, and puttering around.
Baking sponge cakes (and licking the bowl of course), “bread, butter, and jam,” toasted rye bread with melted chocolate chips, sleepovers with cousins on the pull-out couch, and Shabbat dinners with a healthy dose of Icy Chocolate Squares for dessert, are some of my most vivid childhood memories. And when my husband and I were married, our first house on Hove Street in the Bathurst Manor, was just around the corner from Bubbie and Zaidie, allowing for new traditions to take shape, including weekend breakfasts of eggs and toast, watching TV together on their aqua-coloured leather couch, and hanging out on the “veranda” – that is, when I could coax them to come outside for some fresh air.
When I sat down to conduct the interview, I assumed Zaidie would share a story from the Holocaust. I was surprised when he didn’t. But as I look back now, knowing his nature, it’s quite fitting that he chose to share a bittersweet story, with a simple message – one of kindness, caring, and generosity. For many years, it’s been a tradition for me to read this at our family’s Passover Seder table – first with my grandparents here with us, and now around the table at my aunt Marlene’s house, where our family on my dad’s side gathers for the Seder (and many other celebrations and traditions) each year.
With Passover waiting in the wings, and with the message of Unity ringing loudly during a recent lecture I attended at the Village Shul last Shabbat, now’s the perfect time to share my Zaidie’s story with the world, written in 1996. You can see Bubbie and Zaidie here – me and my Zaidie at my Bat Mitzvah, and the three of us on my wedding day.
“I was nine years old and the year was 1934. I was living in Poland with my mother, my father, my two sisters, and my two brothers. My oldest brother, Shulim, who was twenty-one at the time, was sent to the Polish army. Five weeks after he left, my father became ill with pneumonia. He was sick for eight days and died in our home. My brother was allowed to come home for the funeral and to sit Shiva for seven days. This was a difficult time for my family as we were poor, and now we were without a father, and Passover was only four weeks away. Shulim was not allowed to celebrate Passover at home with his family.
On the first night of Passover, my brother, Hershl, and I, attended Synagogue to pray. Afterwards, as we were walking out of the sanctuary, we noticed several homeless people. It was often a custom for many of the wealthy families to share their Passover Seder with those who were less fortunate. We were poor and did not think to take anyone home for we barely had enough for ourselves. When we left, there was only one man who had not been chosen by the wealthy families. I do not remember what he looked like. I only remember that he looked sad and poor.
When we returned home, we told our mother about the man, and she insisted that we return to the Synagogue immediately and invite him to our Seder. My brother and I did not hesitate to follow our mother’s request.
I do not recall much of what happened during that Passover Seder, but I will never forget my mother’s words. She said that this man was like an angel sent from God. She had no husband and we had no father, and she believed that God had sent this man to ease our pain during a sad time. That night was a depressing one for my family for it was the first Jewish holiday without our father. But at the same time we felt happy for having shared this holiday with someone less fortunate than us. Although we were not rich, we did have more than this man.
Today, as I sit at the head of the table during Passover Seders with my wife, my three children, and my seven grandchildren, I am reminded of of that night, sixty-two years ago, when my family and I helped a man who, unlike us, did not have a family to love him and care for him. From time to time, I think about how my family may have changed this man’s life in hopes that he remembers that night as well as I do and thinks of us occasionally. Today, I am fortunate to have such a wonderful and loving family, a nice home, and a comfortable lifestyle. But I will never forget how it feels to be poor. I know how poor people suffer.”
While the significance and story of Passover is about the Jewish people celebrating their freedom from slavery, my Zaidie’s family’s small gesture eight-two years ago, helped this one man feel “free,” if only just for that night. Today, I do my best to live by the same values my Zaidie did, and hope my actions and words have a positive impact on those around me.
To my friends and family celebrating, wishing you a very Happy Passover filled with kindness, warmth, and unity.