My life was borne into a legacy of adversity, fractured psyches and
tormented parentage. Emerging from the womb to be welcomed by the
overjoyed residents of a displaced persons' camp two years after my
parents were released from the shackles of the Holocaust, was a
transcendent moment. Having bore witness to so much death for so many
years and enslaved in a gated community of barbaric horrors not knowing
when death would beckon, my new little life reinvigorated both my
parents’ and the camp's residents' shared belief that good could exist
in the world. When we parted ways with our newly cobbled together
transient family four years later to start over in the New World, hearts
ached, but they were also filled with hope at the prospect of a
renaissance for my family.
Immigrating to Canada created a
huge sigh of relief and the weight of the past was lifted from our
beleaguered shoulders. Only speaking a smattering of Polish and Yiddish,
we were excited at the prospect of learning English and becoming
ensconced in our new identities as Canadians. While the war was over, my
parents past lives were not quite lost, as the memories of their
pre-war existences lingered and reminded them daily who they had been,
and commanded them to remember where they came from.
arrived in Toronto as a family of five, my aunt and uncle and my parents
and I. We moved into a small house in a working class community
inhabited by immigrants at Dufferin and St. Clair. To supplement our
meager financial worth, my parents took in borders. Thus, we lived
cramped in two rooms on the top floor of the house.
the cruel beginnings we were very happy as immigrants generally are in a
land of opportunity. As days passed and we became more Canadian, our
lives were lifted with the humour of being aliens treading water in our
new homeland. Colourful is one way to describe a family. Comical is the
word to encapsulate mine. Acclimatizing to Canadian life provided much
needed comic relief from the daily doldrums of being poor immigrants. My
parents attempted to mold us into being a perfect ‘Canadian’ family
predicated upon the wealthy families they heard about on the radio.
Determined that I be a well-mannered child who only spoke when spoken
to, my mother, who worked as a housekeeper for a Rosedale family, was
driven to teach me how to act based on her observations at her
employer’s home. Much was lost in translation.
"Today you learn to answer phone," my mother instructed. "Now we pretend I call you. What you say when you answer?"
"Yellow, this is our house. Want to talk to me?" I replied.
“Goodt mienne kint!” my mother exclaimed.
“In the English,” I reminded her.
“Good, good,” she said.
My presence at school was always a welcome distraction for the other
students. If my two cherished hand-sewn patchwork dresses, which made me
resemble Raggedy Ann, did not set me apart sufficiently from the other
girls in their pleated skirts and sweaters, my breakfast surely did.
“What is that smell?” one boy asked.
“Is herring,” I replied.
“What is herring?” a girl asked.
“Fish. What you eat for breakfast?” I asked.
“White toast with butter and milk,” the chorus of children replied.
“Is there alcohol in here?” the teacher asked me sniffing around my
breakfast. “Your breakfast reeks! Did you bring alcohol to school?”
“No alcohol!” I exclaimed.
“What is that liquid around your herring?” the teacher asked hesitantly pointing at my fish.
“Vodka!” I said.
Of course my teacher did not realize that vodka was a staple in my
clan’s cooking, nor could she understand that it was more readily
available in our homeland than clean water. That day I was sent home
with a note from my teacher instructing my parents never to send me to
school with drunk fish for breakfast. Needless to say, the teacher’s
witticism was lost on my parents who continually repeated to me that
they never sent me to school drunk. From then on, when grocery shopping
with my mother, I would always make sure we bought a package of white
Wonder Bread and I took that to school, throwing out the inebriated
herring en route.
Like all doting parents who wish to improve
their child’s lot in life by providing them with the best education
possible, my mother and father took an active role in assisting me with
my homework. Their favourite pastime was ‘helping’ to ready me to
conquer my weekly spelling bee, as they were ardent believers that
through me they would speak English as well as they spoke Yiddish.
“Will you please spell the word ‘liquid’,” the teacher instructed me.
“L, I, K, W, O, O, D,” I replied. The class roared with laughter.
“Did you hear me correctly?” the teacher asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Please spell that one more time,” the teacher requested.
“L, I, K, W, O, O, D,” I replied.
The teacher simply sat there dumbfounded. After class, she told me that
I would have extra tutoring sessions with her until my spelling
improved. I was sent home with another teacher’s note suggesting that my
parents enroll in ESL classes and dispense with assisting me with my
homework. While my English improved slowly as I attended school, my
parents’, aunt’s and uncle’s mastery of it was frozen in time like that
of a Neanderthal cryogenically preserved in Arctic ice.
food and spelling foibles illustrated how my family and I stuck out like
drunk fish out of our former eastern European waters. Although we were
different from our Canadian counterparts, we slowly realized that we
shared a similar migratory experience with other ethnic families. Our
cultural and religious differences aside, everyone shared the same
desire to provide their families with greater opportunities than the
non-existent ones afforded to them in their former homelands. My other
immigrant peers would understand that my spelling of these new foreign
English words made sense and while they did not eat vodka infused fish
at home, their traditional dishes were equally normal to them and
bizarre to the other children in our class. At least I was able to
laugh with my classmates about my alcoholic fish rather than be laughed
at for eating “moose-caca” like my Greek friends.
limited means, everything we owned was precious, from our underwear to
our food, water and our electricity. Nothing was to be lost, wasted or
overused. Only when I was a grown woman did I understand that material
items could be replaced and that apart from art and one’s health, not
everything was priceless. With our home being old and operated as a
rooming house, the plumbing suffered from its own unique arthritic
condition, disabling us from flushing the toilets more than twice in an
hour. I recall one dinner in particular where the kugel and brisket were
plentiful and the Stolichnya was free-flowing when suddenly my aunt had
to run to the washroom to relieve her poor stomach from the effects of
imbibing one shot of vodka too many.
“Oy vey kill me now!” my aunt shrieked at the top of her lungs.
“What is the matter?” my uncle yelled running to the bathroom still grasping the vodka bottle with my mother and father in tow.
“Gone! I’ve lost them,” my aunt replied looking up at my uncle with a toothless mouth.
“What is gone?” my mother asked.
“My TEETH!” she screamed.
“Where did they go?” my father asked.
“In there,” my aunt cried pointing at her dentures submerged in a
toilet layered with an hour’s worth of bowel excretions and my aunt’s
“Oh shit!” my uncle yelled. “No one flush!”
“Get them out of there!” my aunt cried.
“Who left shit in toilet and did not flush?” my father inquired rhetorically.
I watched as my parents, aunt and uncle devised a search and rescue
plan to retrieve the dentures bogged down in the floating swamp. Armed
with rubber gloves and a spatula, the dentures were excavated without
the benefit of modern-day GPS. To celebrate the victory of unearthing
these priceless teeth, everyone partook in a shot of vodka, myself
“Give me the bottle,” my aunt commanded.
“You want a drink?” my uncle asked.
“No! To pour on teeth to clean them,” she replied.
“I’m not wasting good vodka on your teeth,” my uncle stated stumbling back towards the kitchen. “Rinse them in the sink!”
Not one to take direction from any man, my aunt grabbed the bottle from
my uncle’s hand and emptied its precious contents over her dentures. I
stood in awe, watching my aunt place her dentures back into her mouth
unsure if I should throw up, or confess that I was the one who had
forgotten to flush the toilet before my aunt inadvertently sent her
teeth on a marshy cruise.
Notwithstanding the broken
‘Yid-lish’ my family spoke or their imbibing vodka like water, they
believed that nothing would make them more Canadian than obtaining a
driver’s licence. Green horns like them knew nothing of cars, as roads
in the Old Country were built for walking, whether by human foot or
horse hoof. Licences in hand, their collective jubilation over being
somewhat emancipated from their émigré past, motivated them to never
ride the bus again. Scrimping and saving allowed the four of them to
cobble enough savings to buy the oldest, most worn out car. Had it been a
horse it would have been shot to put it out of its misery. Like a
newborn baby, this car was more precious than anything else in their
lives. Whenever anyone took it out for a spin, my father demanded a
detailed oral report on the distance traveled, weather conditions during
the duration of the excursion, number of passengers in the car and tire
pressure, including confirmation that both hands were on the wheel at
all times in ‘clockwise’ position. The fear of god was struck into the
hearts of my mother, aunt and uncle that should anything untoward happen
to this car, hell would have no fury like that of my Partisan father
scorned. Although an adolescent, I was not allowed to drive. I sat on
the sidelines entertained by the spectacle that this car created on a
“I did bad thing with car,” my mother sobbed to my aunt and I in a whisper.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The car goes to jail now!” she cried.
“What you mean jail?” my aunt asked.
“I parked car in front of grocery store yesterday. When I come back, it
has yellow ticket and polizia said it has to go to ‘court.’ What means
this ‘court’?” she inquired.
“You go there before jail,” my aunt replied.
“Oy vey! Now car is going to jail and your father kill me!” she wailed.
“No one is going to jail,” I said grabbing the ticket from my mother’s
clutches. “This is a parking ticket. You either pay a fine or go to
court to fight it.”
Conspiring to hide this ticket from my
father, my mother’s and aunt’s Holocaust mentality spurred their resolve
to fight, not to mention the fact that the fine was equivalent to the
price of making borscht. I was tasked with being their lawyer.
Nervously awaiting our court date, my mother prepared by repeating her
explanation for the judge as to why she should not have to pay the
ticket. Then the fateful day arrived when the time for rehearsals
“Next case, number 505-11. Would counsel for Mrs.
Wyzo…Wzso… um...Ethel come forward?” the clerk asked stumbling to
pronounce our last name.
“If they can no say my name, maybe we
leave, they don’t even know it is me?” my mother suggested in a whisper
as she sat anxiously holding my aunt’s hand.
“I am here for my mother,” I replied as I hoisted up my cowardly mother.
“On August 22nd, did you get a parking ticket?” the judge asked my mother.
“Not guilty!” she said defiantly.
“I did not ask you how do you plead. I asked if you got a parking ticket,” the judge said.
“Not guilty,” my mother repeated.
“Could you please instruct your mother to answer the question,” the judge ordered me.
“Ma, he is not asking if you are guilty. He just wants to know if you
were given a parking ticket. Yes or no is how you answer,” I explained.
“Not guilty,” my mother exclaimed.
“Ma’am, did you park in front of a hydrant?” the judge asked.
“Not guilty!” she cried.
“Your honour, I am prepared to call the parking enforcement officer to
testify that he gave her the ticket. Can we proceed past this?” the
Crown attorney queried.
“I am from Holocaust! I was in a camp
and made guns for Nazis for three years! My husband bombed Nazi trains. I
not afraid of polizia!” my mother screamed at the Crown attorney. “NOT
“Given that this parking ticket carries a fine of two
dollars, I am going to exercise my judicial discretion and dismiss it,”
the judge ordered.
“Thank you your honour,” I said as I ushered my victorious mother beaming with pride out of the courtroom.
When we returned home, my mother’s and aunt’s elation was too great to
contain. Despite the fact that my mother’s survivor instincts for weeks
enabled her to ferret away any specter of evidence of the parking ticket
from my father, her triumph over the judicial system gave way to her
revealing her coveted secret in order to regale my father and uncle with
my brilliance and future career as a lawyer.
Coming to Canada
equipped with nothing and striving to acquire everything opened my eyes
to see to what lofty heights I could soar in a way that my
Canadian-born friends and eventually siblings with their rose-coloured
glasses could not. Never could any of my non-immigrant friends or
siblings comprehend why we ate herring for breakfast or why my aunt
simply did not have new dentures made when hers went diving in fecal
shark infested waters. Despite this lack of understanding, my settler
childhood was idyllic for being an immigrant did not set me apart in a
shameful way, but rather uniquely prepared me to appreciate what I had
and what I would eventually achieve. The immigrant experience enriched
my life with a unique patchwork tapestry of experiences tightly woven
together molding me into a true Canadian.
© 2012. Naomi Elana Zener. All rights reserved.