Holocaust survivor and author Felicia Carmelly spoke to 1,400 Ottawa-area high school students about her experiences before, during and after the Second World War.
Finding shelter with a Jewish Ukrainian family of five after a long and brutal death march, 10-year-old Felicia Steigman and her parents crammed in with other deportees to make an additional 18 more people living together in two rooms.
To accommodate everyone sleeping in the cramped little hut in the Shargorod ghetto, the men located some old wooden boards and built a makeshift second floor.
Soon they all became infested with bedbugs. “What are you so upset about?” asked the grandmother of the Ukrainian family. “This is a sign that you are alive.”
With her long silver hair piled on her head, Felicia (Steigman) Carmelly sipped from a water bottle and told spellbound high school students that and other stories about how she survived before, during and after the Second World War. That “temporary” shelter lasted three years, she said.
The Toronto resident was addressing 700 Ottawa-area high school students, April 12, at Algonquin College Commons Theatre as part of Holocaust remembrance and education activities organized by the Azrieli Foundation and Shoah (Holocaust) Committee of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.
Carmelly, author of “Across the Rivers of Memory,” published last year as part of the Azrieli Foundation Holocaust Survivors Memoirs Program, spoke to a second group of high school students on April 13. All of the students attending the events received a copy of the book.
“The purpose of this event is to teach the next generation so that we don’t make the mistakes of the past,” said Shoah Committee Chair Debbie Halton-Weiss.
Carmelly was born in Vatra Dornei, Romania, in 1931. Her early life was pleasant until anti-Semitism in Romania began to escalate. She described the anti-Semitic rules that bombarded Jews daily.
“It wasn’t just that we had to wear the yellow star; the rules about wearing it were changed every day, just to harass people,” she said.
She and her parents arrived in Transnistria, a part of occupied Ukraine under Romanian administration, in 1941. She survived, together with her parents, maternal grandmother and a few other relatives, but 36 members of her family, including her paternal grandparents, perished.
In an interview with the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin before her presentation to the high school students gathered at Algonquin College, Carmelly described how hard it was for survivors with little social and psychological support in the years following the Holocaust. The term for post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, had not yet been developed.
“I don’t feel guilty I survived,” she said. “I feel guilty so many passed away.”
In 1959, Carmelly and her family emigrated from communist Romania to Israel. Three years later, they immigrated to Montreal, where she spent 10 years, and earned her master’s degree in social work. She moved to Toronto in 1972.
She founded the Toronto-based Transnistria Survivors’ Association in 1994 and published the anthology “Shattered! 50 Years of Silence: History and Voices of the Tragedy in Romania and Transnistria” in 1997.
During the question and answer period following Carmelly’s talk, a teacher asked what his students should know before visiting Auschwitz next year.
“Building a better world for all people is in your hands,” she said. “You have a responsibility.”
Before her talk, Carmelly said the message she wanted to convey to the students was that “no matter what your difficulties are in life, if you persist, and put your heart and soul into it, you can do it.”
She said she couldn’t even speak English when she first enrolled at McGill University but studied with a pile of dictionaries beside her.
“I also had very good local friends, played Scrabble and watched television.” When her English was a little better, she taught English as a second language to new immigrants. “I had chutzpah.”
Carmelly said she often thinks about what her life would have been like if not for the Holocaust.
“I wouldn’t have been a person with such ambition and drive. I became that because of so many obstacles in my path,” she said.
Elin Beaumont of the Azrieli Foundation thanked the students and teachers for attending the event.
“It’s important that these stories not be forgotten,” she said.
Beaumont showed photos and described events of the Holocaust, telling the students “it may seem difficult to connect with the Holocaust because it is so far away and so long ago.” But then she showed them the front page of a Quebec newspaper from the 1930s with an anti-Semitic headline and asked them to guess where it was from.
“One person can actually make a difference,” said Beaumont. “Reading, hearing and listening to these people … I want you to share these stories and to pass on to others what you have witnessed today.”
“On behalf of those who cannot speak,” Carmelly told the students, “I say it’s not what you stand for; it’s what you stand up for that’s important.”
Visit www.azrielifoundation.org for more information about the Azrieli Foundation and its Holocaust Survivors Memoir Program.