Almost everything I know about my father I heard from somebody else. He owned Adler Shoes on Queen Street in Toronto. He was a Holocaust survivor.
Abram Adler was born in Lodz, Poland in 1927, the second of three boys. Lodz had the third-largest Jewish population in the world after New York and Warsaw; one-third of the 600,000 people in Lodz were Jewish. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939 my father and his family were sent to live in the Jewish ghetto. He was 12.
The oldest son escaped; the family last heard from him in 1942. The youngest brother also vanished, though nobody knew how or why till I met a survivor years ago in Toronto who recalled the Adlers. This was his story: in 1942 the Germans swept through the streets grabbing children to be gassed, and they grabbed the littlest brother Nuta. My grandmother Rochel came running, screaming and crying, begging to let the boy go – so they took her, too. Nobody saw either of them again. My father carried this tragedy with him his whole life and never mentioned it to anyone. Even my mother didn’t know.
In 1944 Abram and my grandfather were sent to Auschwitz, the last of the family. Only Abram lived. In 2012 I found his camp entry card at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. – name, date, age, card stamped with a swastika. He survived a death march to Ravensbrück and an SS satellite labour camp that was extremely brutal; museum researchers told me few Jews survived that camp.
My father recounted one anecdote from the day Americans liberated the camp. A dying inmate cried out he wanted to see an American just once before he died. Abram picked him up and carried him over to see the soldiers; “He looked at the Americans, smiled and then passed away,” Abram said.
After the war my father was sent to a Displaced Persons camp. He joined Brichah, an underground organization that smuggled Jews through Austria to Palestine. In 1947 they gave him a medal for his efforts. He never spoke of this work; it is another blank page. All we have is the medal and an old photo.
Abram married my mother May in 1950 in Toronto. They worked and saved. He was a furrier on Spadina Avenue, then started the shoe business. We grew up in a happy home. Our family went to synagogue but we were not observant. My Dad said to me once, “Always remember before whom you stand.” Did faith help him survive the camps? I don’t know.
All our neighbours were Holocaust survivors, yet none said a word to the children. Nothing. As a boy I once asked my father about the concentration camp tattoo on his arm; “That was from the war,” my mother said. That was it. We knew intuitively this was a subject too painful to discuss, and never did. As children we’d see a film about the war and wonder, do you think that’s what happened to the Adlers?
The Holocaust profoundly affected our family. At every birthday, every wedding, every bar mitzvah there were uncles and aunts and cousins from my mother’s family, but nobody from the Adlers.
Abram died in 1982 of leukemia. He was 54. He did not live to meet any of his grandchildren. My father’s silence about the war years left me with a sense of unease, that I am missing an important part of who I am. Today I’m a husband and father, and our twins ask about Grandpa’s family. Now it’s my turn. What should I tell them?
(Editor’s note: the author is former MP for York Centre, Ont. and founder of the Economic Club of Canada)