Anci Nissenbaum

A Community of Six

Inge Banat, Anci Nissenbaum, Eva Fabian, Olga Perlmutter, Edith Katz, and Hedy Landau have not only rebuilt their individual lives, they have rebuilt a community— reminding us that not only were individuals murdered, the Holocaust also razed to the ground communities that sustained a rich social, cultural, and religious life.

A group of women, all now in their late eighties or early nineties, are bound together by a shared history, a shared language, and shared struggles. All come from the same corner of northeast Hungary. All are survivors of Auschwitz. That this group of women, all now widows, can come together and create out of the ashes a vibrant, life-affirming community is a testimony to indomitable spirits and the deep wellsprings of communities that may be uprooted and decimated but will not be destroyed.

The women in the group all live within a small radius in Côte St Luc in Montreal. They meet three or four times a week to play cards, kibitz, and share stories, joys, and sorrows.

Eavesdropping on their card sessions, one would not know of their terrible suffering but for the occasional flash of the blue tattoos on their forearms. There is Inge, small and precise, who lost everyone who was precious to her in the camps.

Edith, soft-spoken, always elegant, who walked into the gas chambers with her mother and then turned around and walked out in brazen defiance. Anci, betrayed by an acquaintance in Hungary, was imprisoned and shipped to Auschwitz with her eldest sister and niece, never to see them again. Hedy sometimes must bustle about with a small oxygen tank, but it doesn’t stop her. Torn from her family, she managed to survive in hell. Eva goes in for dialysis three times a week, but, when she is out, she loves nothing more than to go joyriding in her car. The Nazis could not crush her joie de vivre.

The doyenne of the group is Olga, who turned 94 in March. She is fierce, determined, and implacable. Her endless sumptuous creations, and particularly the patisseries and tortes, are evidence of her ongoing resistance to the haunting memories of death— the favored little brother shot in front of her eyes; her beautiful sister, only a year younger, who refused to leave her mother’s side and marched into the gas chamber; her father debased and humiliated. But she would not be bowed. Again and again in the camps she fought, at great personal risk, to better the lives of her fellow inmates in whatever small ways she could.

It began in March 1944, when Olga and the small community of about 1000 Jews of Sarospatak were herded into a ghetto then onto the staging ground at Satoraljaujhely, Hungary. From there, it was in the cattle cars to Auschwitz to face Mengele and darkness. In the bitter winter of 1945, the Russians liberated the camp. Olga weighed next to nothing and was deathly ill with typhus. Sick and exhausted, she made her way home.

Had anyone survived? Small miracles. Two brothers survived: one in the labour camps; one who had lived in hiding in Budapest armed with false papers and a pistol, always ready to shoot his way out of danger.

There was a cousin who had been in another of the labour brigades. His wife and two children had been deported and murdered. He and Olga fell in love and started a family, but within months of the birth of their second son, Olga’s husband died. She had to start again. Loss piled upon loss. Communist oppression replaced Nazi oppression. But Olga was not going to rest at being a survivor. That was not enough.

Her fierce determination was to live and give life—a widow with two babes in arms. After all that devastation, Olga decided to set off again into the unknown. Once again, a small group took their lives into their hands and crossed borders at night to escape to freedom, embarking on a long trek that eventually brought them to Canada.

It is as important to honour the vast and courageous effort of rebuilding selves and communities as the losses themselves. Olga and her friends are paragons of this effort. Olga, Inge, Edith, Hedy, Eva, and Anci have enabled their families to build new lives—collectively giving rise to 8 children, 13 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren—as well as new communities, rooted in that past but contributing in immeasurable ways to the country of Canada today.