Six million – the number of Jews estimated to have been murdered in the Holocaust - is a figure. “What makes me feel very frightened,” says Holocaust survivor Edith Kimelman, “is that we look at 6,000,000 as a mathematical figure and if you say this to someone who has not been exposed to the Holocaust, it is like saying half of Winnipeg was killed or half of China. The number negates the enormity of the tragedy.“It is when you put it in terms of losing most of your family or not having an aunt or extended family to be with, that a person understands the loss.
Edith Kimelman was six years old in 1939 when the German army invaded her native Poland. Her home was a small community called Rusnik, which today is part of Ukraine.
There were very few Jewish families in Rusnik and the majority of the population was Ukrainians.“Even as a child, I felt that we were not part of the community,” she recalls. “They were Ukrainians and we were Jewish. They were the majority and we were in the minority. When I played with other children, and I did something wrong or if they were not happy with what I did they called me a dirty Jew. I did not understand that. I felt that being Jewish was less than being Ukrainian.”
Kimelman’s family’s circumstances changed quickly after the Nazis came. Her family had been affluent. Her father was well liked in the community. He was a generous person and helped many poor people. His family had lived there for many generations. Nonetheless, neighbours almost immediately ransacked their home after the Germans came. “Everything was taken from us,” she recalls. “I think that my greatest pain was that the neighbouring children were wearing my clothes. For me, it was very“For me, it was very painful because when I asked them why they were wearing my clothes, the response was that their parents said that Jews are not allowed to own anything. I could not understand why and I found it very painful because I thought they were my friends just a week before.”
Their house was requisitioned by the local Ukrainian militia. The family was restricted to a couple of rooms. Several weeks after the invasion, her father was shot by Nazi soldiers. Edith and her mother found his body in the outskirts of the town and brought him to be buried in their yard. When Edith Kimelman’s mother learned that the Jews were to be drowned in the river the next day, she picked up her little girl and fled in the middle of the night. Edith’s grandmother (her father’s mother) refused to leave. “My grandmother felt very secure with our neighbour and did not believe that such things can happen,” Edith recalls.”
Mother and daughter walked 24 km to a larger city that was primarily Jewish called Rovno (in the Ukraine) where they found shelter for a time. “In 1941, my grandparents (her mother’s parents) found out that we were in Rovno,” she says. Her mother’s parents and brothers were rural people. They took Edith and her mother to safety where Edith’s mother was bitten by Nazi soldiers and suffered severe liver damage. The family was forced to run away and hide in makeshift shelters and barns. Despite three years of constant hiding, hunger, deprivation and constant fear, they survived the Holocaust. Edith’s mother died near the war’s end as a result of the beating she received at the hands of German soldiers.
After the war, Edith, her grandmother (her grandfather died just after the war), her uncles and an aunt were able to immigrate to Winnipeg where she eventually married Sam Kimelman, raised three sons and enjoyed a successful career as a teacher and school principal. “I believe that more people could have helped regardless of the risk they would have to take by putting their own life on the line because there were some people that did help,” she says. If it were not for the people who did help us, we would not have survived because we were, at that time, at the end of our endurance.”
“As child, Edith Kimelman says she felt that there was “something wrong with being Jewish - that we did not have the right to exist or to live or to function as normal people. Coming to Canada allowed me to live a life of freedom. I was able to pursue my love for learning and get a good education. In Canada, you can complain and the authorities will listen to you no matter who you are. But the fears, the panic have not left me. It is rooted in my system. I always carried the fear that history will repeat itself – that all it will take is another charismatic person like Hitler was in his time.” Edith’s trauma has affected all aspects of her life. “I loved my parents with all my heart as an only child and they were taken away. Throughout my life I think I feared total love, not that I did not want to give it but I was afraid that those who I love will be taken away from me, just like my parents were. As a result of that, I was over protective of my sons. When they left the house and were late“to come back, I was sure that something terrible must have happened to them because my father left and never came back alive.”
”I fear for the future and that things will return and that someone else will rise again and my children and grandchildren will have the same experience I had.”