Our Zaidy Berek: A Kind and Gentle Survivor

On the heels of Holocaust Education Week, I’m proud to share the eulogy my uncle Eric, my dad’s brother, wrote about my late Zaidy Berek Gertner. Zaidy, you were always so kind and gentle. It was so special for Asher and I to live just a block away from you and Bubbie when we first got married. We have such fond memories coming over for our eggs and toast breakfasts, chatting and reading the paper at your white glossy kitchen table.

The image of you and Bubbie, sitting on your Bryant Street veranda, you in your white v-neck t-shirt and brown leather tattered slippers, and Bubbie in her mumu-like colourful dress, is like a crisp photo in my mind.

Thank you for sharing your Passover story which has now been shared with the world. And for always being so sweet and loving. You are greatly missed by all.

And thank you to my uncle Eric for allowing me to publish his meaningful words below.

Pictured here: Zaidy Berek and Bubbie Regina at their kitchen table on Bryant Street.

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By: Eric Gertner, July 8, 2005

My father had a number of different names. Dov was his birth name, but he was also known as Berek, Berl, Dave, Abba, Daddy and Zaidy or Zidy. However, no matter what people called him, he was the same. He was firm but gentle, fair and kind.

He was born in 1924 in Olkusz, Poland. He was the youngest of 5 children of a family that was not well-to-do. He lost his father when he was 10, but he had older siblings who no doubt helped to take care of him. He went to work in a factory at the age of 14 and about one year later the war started. His mother and his brother, Herschel, died during the war, but his other siblings – Szulim, Tova, and Sara – fortunately survived.

He and his brother Szulim were taken by the Nazis and were together for a few years in labour camps. My father owed his life to his brother Szulim, who somehow took care of my father when he had typhus. Understandably, my father always had a special relationship with his brother Szulim, despite the years that they were apart after our family left Israel and moved to Canada.

On February 22, 1945, at the insistence of his good friend Oscar Wenger, they and some other “boys” escaped from a death march. They ended up hiding under the floor boards of a nearby building for a number of days, as the area was being shelled by the advancing Russian army. They were eventually discovered by the Russian troops. The commander of the troops kept asking my father and his friends who they were until they finally told him that they were Jewish, at which point he pulled out his Magen David and told them the direction in which to run to avoid the battle that was soon to follow.

My father returned home to find what most survivors found – a broken and lost world. He then traveled to Sosnowicz, a large town in southwest Poland, where he met my mother. That meeting turned into a relationship of 60 years and a marriage of 59 years.

They eventually traveled to Straubing, Germany, where my brother was born. They made lifelong friends there, but Germany was not a place in which Jews wanted to put down roots. So after Israel’s War of Independence they moved to Israel, where I was born. They lived there until the end of 1952 or the beginning of 1953. They returned to Germany because they believed it was easier to immigrate to Canada or the U.S. from Germany than from Israel.

In Germany and in Israel, my father did what was necessary to provide for his young family. That included trading on the black market in Germany and selling eggs on the black market in Israel. He did construction work in Israel and anyone who visits Israel can see the efforts of his labour in the Dan Hotel, in Herzliya.

Within 6 months of their return to Germany, they were given visas to come to Canada. The story of their acceptance as Canadian immigrants tells a lot about my father. As you can imagine, many of their friends in Straubing were also applying to immigrate. Of their circle of friends, my parents were the first to be given visas to Canada. When they asked the immigration officer why they had been accepted when many others had been refused, he told them that he believed that they were telling him the truth.

That episode accurately describes one characteristic of my father – he was a straight shooter, not a schwitzer. This was true in his personal life and in his business life. He was straight with his partners, his employees, his customers and his suppliers. My brother witnessed an example of the way that he did business. Henry was accompanying my father when he was picking up something from a supplier. He didn’t know how much the materials cost; he just put his wallet on the table and told the supplied to take the necessary amount.

Shortly after my parents, my brother, and I arrived in Canada, my father became a partner in a business that made kitchen tables and chairs. He remained a partner in Stylerite Furniture Manufacturing Co Ltd for about 30 years. These are a few of my recollections of my father in that context. He and his partner, Henry Neugebauer, worked hard but had a good time together. He was very fair with his employees who, as a result, never saw the need to join a union. I think it’s fair to say some of the office staff adored my father. No doubt a number of you bought your first kitchen table and chairs from my father and you’ll no doubt remember the warm way he greeted you and the friendly way that he dealt with you: always with that famous smile of his. He took pride in his work and if for some strange reason a table or chair he had sold broke down after many years of use, he’d do what was needed to fix it.

I said that my father was tough, but only when he needed to be. I remember him coming home one night worried about something that had happened at the shop. He had been approached by someone who told my father that he could provide him with “protection” for a fee. I could see my father debating with himself what to do. He finally decided that he could not give in to such a demand, despite the implicit threat the demand carried, and did didn’t.

For a number of years, my father not only worked from 6am to 6pm in the factory, but he also had a part-time job at Cuba’s Gift Shop on Bloor, a business my mother bought and ran for about 4 years with my father’s help on Thursday and Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons. Somehow during this time, they had the energy to conceive my sister, whose birth kept them young for many years.

As this shows, my parents had a real partnership. She required his help in her business and she helped my father in his business, whether he wanted it or not. When my father retired, my parents’ relationship turned into a different kind of partnership. She told him where she wanted to go and he drove her there and sometimes to distraction as well. When my mother broke her hip a few years ago, my father spent full days first at the hospital and then at the rehabilitation hospital, just as she wanted to remain at home with him when his health started to deteriorate in December. After my mother broke her hip, much to our delight, my father also took over cooking responsibilities. Most importantly, he was responsible for the preparation of Friday night dinner while, of course, my mother supervised. His devotion to my mother is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that the last name we heard him utter was my mother’s.

My father was devoted to his family, his children, his grandchildren, and his siblings. As I mentioned, he had a special relationship with his brother Szulim; he adored his sister Sara and tried to help her and her family as much as he could, including sponsoring them when they wanted to move to Canada from Israel. He had a special relationship with his sister, Tova, the one sibling in Toronto. That special bond became stronger over the last 15 years and especially during the last 10 months. He was always delighted to receive her phone calls and frequent visits from his 91-year-old sister.

His affection for his grandchildren – Terry, Elissa, Jori, Lara, Marc, Zane and Arielle – and theirs for him was something to behold. He was delighted by their visits; he reveled in their accomplishments; and he greatly enjoyed showering them with gifts. One of my most memorable sights is that of my father, like Father Goose, leading his ducklings to the corner variety store to buy them treats after Friday night dinner. You’d see him walking down Bryant Street holding the hands of the youngest, no doubt smiling his wonderful smile, perhaps whistling or humming as he was wont to do, all the way to the store and back. In later years, the visits to the corner variety store were replaced by Zaidy’s cookies, which he no doubt made to see the pleasure they provided to his grandchildren.

His devotion to his grandchildren is evidenced by two events in the last month of his life. His granddaughter, Elissa, was to be married on June 9 and he desperately wanted to be at the wedding. In the weeks before the wedding, he would ask almost every day when the wedding was going to be. Well, not only did he make it to the wedding, he almost stole the show when he, his walker and his caregiver Audrey, and my mother, marched down the aisle to the spontaneous applause of those in attendance, many of whom had not seen him in months.

Later that month, he again gathered his strength to attend Zane’s graduation, in much the same way that he did when his health first deteriorated last December and he steeled himself to attend Zane’s Bar Mitzvah. He undoubtedly knew the importance of these events to Marlene and her children so soon after the death of Marlene’s husband Michael last August. My father was devastated when I told him about Michael’s tragic death. Personally, I think he was never the same after I delivered that news to him.

My father’s generosity extended not only to his family, but to his friends as well. There’s the famous story that my daughter Lara told me. She needed a new chair for her desk, so my father took her to Global, now a huge manufacturing enterprise. The owner of Global personally attended to my father because, as he told Lara, he owed his success in part to my father. My father had ordered material for Global at a time when Global did not have the credit to make the order.

His friends can also attest to his generosity of spirit. If they wanted to buy some furniture wholesale, they’d ask him for a connection, which he gladly provided, and frequently he would accompany them so they could get the best deal possible.

He loved sports. He played in an amateur soccer league in Germany. He enjoyed watching hockey, baseball, football and basketball on TV. He looked forward to Saturday night – card night – with his friends. He enjoyed music, as his frequent humming showed. I remember taking him to the symphony one night and I had to shush him because his humming was a bit loud. He had a keen interest in politics and a deep and abiding love for the State of Israel, whose every triumph and tragedy he felt personally.

Well, that’s a glimpse into the life of a loving husband, devoted father, grandfather, and brother who greeted everyone with a smile, never said a bad word about anyone, whose kindness was a hallmark to everyone who knew him. He lived his life with great dignity and died the same way surrounded by his entire adoring family.


 

PS. When I was about 10, Zaidy taught me a random Yiddish sentence and I STILL remember it: “Mich ben ferta meet ma parashka” – I’m finished with my hot dog 🙂

 

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