From Mir to Montreal: A memoir by Simcha Itzkowitz
A New Life
Tzodek had been released from the hospital in 1947, and we left the camp and rented a room together in a private apartment, living with the family who owned the apartment. At the end of 1947, our brother Chaim emigrated to Canada to begin a new life. I applied for an immigrant's visa to Australia, hoping that my diploma as an auto mechanic would facilitate my being accepted. Chaim meanwhile, applied for permission for me to join him in Canada, and as a result, I was accepted by both Canada and Australia. I chose to join Chaim in Canada, and my employers in the AJDC helped me obtain the proper documents for emigration. After living in Vienna for three years, I left for Montreal in 1949.
Getting out of Austria was not so simple. After the war, Austria was occupied by the four powers, America, England, France and Russia. Even though all my papers were in order, I was afraid that being born in Poland, I might be detained at a Russian check-point, were I to try to leave by land. So I flew to Munich, and from there to Saltzburg, where I waited to board the "Scythia" of the Cunard-White Star Line at Bremen. I finally embarked in the afternoon, on the eve of Rosh Hashanna (the Jewish New Year). The ship landed at Quebec on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), October 3, 1949. Before the fast of Yom Kippur began, our boat was approached by a small sailboat bringing special kosher meals provided by the Jewish community of Quebec. After our boat landed, the Jewish passengers were allowed to stay on board until evening, when the fast was over. The next morning, I officially entered Canada, and boarded a train to Montreal to join Chaim, who was waiting for me at the Windsor Station. After a joyful reunion, we spent the day with friends of Chaim, the Baskin and Schwartz families, who had just moved in to new apartments at Van Horne and Victoria Avenues. I moved in with Chaim who rented a room from a very nice family, the Levos. My most urgent projects were to learn English, and to get a job. I began an evening course in English at Baron Byng High School, and soon got my first job at a record player company, making boxes for the phonographs. My salary was 45 cents an hour. After a few months, I found a job in a delicatessen, making $25 a week. I wanted to work cutting the smoked meat, since this job paid $55 a week, but the owner refused to raise my salary.
One day, a friend of Chaim offered me a job as a cashier at a restaurant in the Board of Trade building on St. Peter Street. It offered a small raise in salary, and three free meals a day. However, the main advantage was that I finished work at 5 PM every day, and thus I was able to register for evening school at Sir George Williams High School to continue my studies. I tried as best I could to do a good job, but no matter how hard I tried, I was not able to balance the day's receipts at the end of the day. I stayed in the restaurant until late in the evening, but could find no solution to the problem. Mr. Kreisman, the owner of the restaurant, advised me to be patient; I would learn slowly, but this didn't satisfy me. This Mr. Kreisman also owned a cigar and cigarette stand in the same building, and I became friendly with Sam, the fellow who managed the stand. At the end of each day, I would bring the day's receipts and cash to the cigar stand, and often complained to Sam about my failure to balance the day's accounts. Sam revealed that Kreisman was continually testing my honesty. Every day, he would add or detract cash from the register, and sometimes remove packs of cigarettes from the shelves, to see if I would report the inconsistencies. This news bothered me very much, and I approached Mr. Kreisman and told him directly that I was an honest person, and that I was unable to continue working for him under such conditions. But best of all, I finally solved the mystery of the unbalanced accounts. The system at the restaurant was that each customer took a small ticket as he entered, with sums from 5 cents to a dollar printed on the ticket. The waitress would punch the customer's ticket to the sum of his order, and he would pay on the way out. However, some customers ate for more than a dollar, and thus needed two tickets. There was nothing to prevent such a customer from destroying the first ticket, and paying only for the second. Thus we were missing 20 – 25 tickets every day. Of course, it was also possible for a dishonest cashier to destroy a few tickets each day, and pocket the money. I suggested to Mr. Kreisman that the customers not take the tickets themselves, but that I give them out after marking each one. This would enable me to keep track of the tickets, and balance the register. I told him that I would continue working for him only if he accepted my system of control. He consented, and I worked for him for over two years. The accounts were balanced, and no tickets were missing.
Going into Business
Meanwhile, Chaim had become a peddler, and asked me if I would help him out on Saturday afternoons by collecting money from his customers. These clients often asked me if I had suits, coats, shoes and boots for sale, and I was soon making a nice profit by selling these articles. As business increased, I gave notice to Mr. Kreisman that I was leaving the restaurant, and I became a partner in my brother's business. Soon, we had two salesmen going door to door for us, selling merchandise to new customers. I did the collecting, and usually succeeded in selling additional merchandise to those customers in whom I had trust. I began selling furniture as well, buying from a store, and reselling to my regular customers. One of my salesmen, Harry Novak, told me that the furniture store was making a large profit just by buying from the wholesaler and selling to me. The obvious thing to do was to rent our own store, and sell directly to our customers and to the general public.
It was at about this time, that I met a young woman named Bella Feldstein. She was 18 at the time and I was 27. We began dating, and fell in love. We were married on January 2, 1955, a day before my 28th birthday. I was certain this was the best birthday gift I had ever received. This year, on January 2, 2009, we will celebrate our 54th wedding anniversary.
Chaim and I rented a store at 1412 St. Lawrence Boulevard, above St. Catherine Street for $350 a month. The store was 3000 sq. ft. with a basement half the area, and an option to add another floor. We put up $10,000 of our own money and added a $5,000 loan from the bank, and opened the store in June 1956. This was not a good time to launch a new business, since even the more established furniture stores were going bankrupt. Clearly, we needed a special twist of our own. We found it in the Greek community of Montreal.
The area where our store was located was the center of a local needle trade industry, and female sewing-machine operators were in demand. Jews were moving out of the neighborhood, and Greek immigrants were moving in. Those who had amassed some capital, bought large apartments with many rooms, and rented these to single people or to small families. These rooms had to be furnished, and so I hired a salesman from the Greek community who had previously worked as a dishwasher, and he was an effective go-between with this potential market. In addition, I installed a second-hand sewing machine in the basement of our store, and advertised free sewing lessons on the Greek radio station for all women who wanted to learn to sew. I also offered to find them employment, this too, free of charge. Many Greek girls who worked as house-maids, hoped to improve their salaries by working in garment factories. Every day, especially Thursdays, which was their day off from domestic work, girls would wait in line for their turn at the machine, and our salesman would explain its operation. The store was always full of people, and this drew in customers from the outside. We offered the girls a chance to buy a small portable electric sewing machine for $59, which they could pay in installments, each payment entitling them to a free sewing lesson. This enabled the girls to practice sewing at home. Our salesman visited the factories to find jobs for our seamstresses, and the owners were definitely interested in providing piece work. Within a short time, we sold a few hundred sewing-machines. I had to enlarge our office to accommodate all the girls coming in to pay their bills, so it was natural to build a beautiful glass display case where we sold watches, jewelry and even diamond rings. When our customers got engaged, they would bring their boyfriends in to shop for a diamond engagement ring, and when they married, they would return to buy their furniture. Often, they brought their parents, who decided to upgrade their own furniture. Our business flourished, and our ties with the Greek community of Montreal continued for many years, even though we had customers of many nationalities.
The Hungarian uprising of 1956, provided another opportunity for us to combine good business with a desire to aid newcomers to Canada who needed a helping hand. Canada opened its doors to Hungarian refugees who fled the Russian occupation. Hungarian residents of Montreal formed a committee to help the new immigrants. I approached this committee, and offered to make my warehouse available to store furniture which was collected for the immigrants, as well as provide a truck which would pick it up. When the immigrants would come in to choose which items they wanted, I would deliver it to their new home, free of charge. The committee for Hungarian aid accepted my proposal. Some of the immigrants were very happy to furnish their homes with used furniture, but many others, when they saw the new furniture in our warehouse alongside the tattered donations, preferred to outfit their homes with new purchases from our store. Some customers paid cash, others were given short-term credit, and our business prospered.
Another opportunity to expand the business came in the 1960's when contractors began furnishing apartments for the upcoming Montreal Expo in 1967. I supplied furniture to many contractors in downtown Montreal, as well as in Lasalle, Lachine, Cote St. Luc, St. Leonard and Montreal North. When the 1976 Olympics were scheduled for Montreal, I was able to repeat these successes.
In 1976, I bought a mattress factory called "Therapedic" in Granby, Quebec. For 10 years I travelled 60 km. to the factory every morning, and in the evening 60 km. back. This became too difficult, and I decided to sell the factory, and concentrate on my retail business in Montreal.
The Final Chapter
Bella and I have three wonderful children and five beautiful grandchildren, of whom we are very proud. Our daughter Miriam is married to Philip Corcos, and their daughter Leah, 20 years old. Our daughter Selina is married to Jairo Sukster; they have two children, Sean, 14, and Zoe, 11. Our son Sheldon married JoAnn Michelin; they have two children, Jordana, 16, and Justin, 13. Our daughters and their families live in Montreal; Sheldon and his family live in Needham, Mass.
In 2003 I retired, after having worked in my store for 46 years. Twenty years ago, my wife and I purchased an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in Natanya, Israel, and I am now able to enjoy the best of both worlds, spending six months of every year in Israel, and six months in Canada. We are fortunate and proud to be citizens of both Canada and Israel, the two countries that we call home.
I think often about my life, and relive much of what I experienced during those terrible years. Much of it I haven't shared with my children; when they were young, they weren't interested, and when they were older, they didn't have time to listen. But eventually, my son Sheldon urged me to register with the Spielberg Foundation project of recording interviews of holocaust survivors, and my daughters supported him. During our stays in Israel, I meet with friends from the old days, but our reminiscences often bore my wife. I often visit Oswald Rufeisen at his monastery on Mt. Carmel. After the liquidation of the Mir ghetto, his true identity was discovered by the Germans. He was caught but managed to escape, and was hidden by nuns until the war ended. He became a Carmelite monk, and has lived in Israel for many years.
Three years ago, we returned to Mir for the fiftieth anniversary of the liquidation of the ghetto, to erect monuments at the four locations where the Jews of the town were murdered. The town itself has not changed much over the years, and it was not easy revisiting the sites and the mass graves where our family and friends were killed. The marketplace has become a park, and the street where we lived is blocked off. The church which was on our street is still standing, and the only trace which remains of our house, is an outhouse which somehow survived the flames which destroyed the main building. The residents of the town received us cordially, and old Kruluta's son cried continually during our visit. The old man died in a Russian prison, apparently because he was persecuted by the regime as a rich peasant. Kruluta's daughter, who wasn't born yet when her father sheltered us at the risk of his own family, lives in Minsk, and we exchange letters, even though today it is difficult for me to write Russian.
I can't say for sure what enabled me to survive. Certainly, a great deal of luck was involved. My brothers protected and guided me throughout the years in the forests. Thoughts of my extended family accompanied me as well. For example, in spite of everything that happened to me, I never forgot the address of our aunt Betty in New York. She had kept in touch regularly with our family before the war, and I wanted very much to tell her our story. As soon as the war was over, I sent her postcards, one during our trip to the Ural Mountains, and a second from the town we lived in during our stay in Russia. She responded immediately, and sent a present of $25, which helped me a great deal, because Russian currency wasn't worth much at that time. Soon after, a Care package arrived. She was also instrumental in helping us reach Canada.
In retrospect, I feel that the lesson to be learned from my experiences, is that we must never again become the victims of the passivity with which my parents, and the other Jews of the ghetto, awaited their fate together with their children. At the time, of course, because I was a so young, I was not aware of the alternatives. My brothers took the initiative by joining the underground, and I followed. The Jews could have fled, or fought – anything, rather than just wait for the end. At first, I did not really believe I would survive, but I never gave up fighting.
Note: Edited by Yehuda Ben Ari, second cousin of Simcha Itzkowitz