Jennie Lifschitz: A Canadian-Born Holocaust Survivor
By Rachel Mines
Outlook Magazine (Vancouver, B.C.), Sept./Oct. 2010
In his 1996 article “From Montreal to Auschwitz: Harry Cohen was the only Canadian to die in the Holocaust,” journalist Gil Kezwer describes the life and fate of Harry Cohen, “believed to be the only Canadian citizen to die in the Nazi genocide of the Jews” (Montreal Gazette, April 16, 1996). Born in Poland, Mr. Cohen emigrated to Montreal in 1919. On his return to Poland on business in 1939, he was trapped by the outbreak of war. He was hidden by a Christian family but discovered in 1942 by the Nazis and deported, most likely to Auschwitz, where he died.
The tragic story of Harry Cohen provides a small but important link between Canada and the events of the Holocaust. But Harry Cohen was not, in fact, the only Canadian victim. Another is my mother, Jennie Lifschitz, who may have been the only Canadian-born survivor of the Holocaust. Jennie did not like to speak much about her tragic past, and it was only after her death in 2005 that my family and I began to piece together her remarkable story.
Jennie Lifschitz was born in Montreal on July 8, 1924. Her birth certificate records her parents as “Abraham Lifschitz, merchant … and … Paola Bloomberg, housewife.” Jennie’s parents and their first child, Rubin, had immigrated in the early 1920s from Libau, now Liepaja, Latvia. Their second child, Dora, was born in Montreal in 1922.
Abraham and Paola’s marriage did not last long. A few months after Jennie’s birth, her parents separated, and Paola returned to Libau, taking the three children with her. Six years later, in January 1931, the two older children returned to their father in Montreal. For some reason, perhaps because Abraham wanted a caretaker for his elderly widowed mother in Libau, Jennie remained and grew up there.
On June 17, 1940, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the USSR annexed Libau. Although the takeover had a great impact on the Jewish community— a year later, 550 Libau citizens, including 200 Jews, were deported to Siberia – it did not seem to have affected Jennie much. A lively 16-year-old, she welcomed the chance to sneak out of her grandmother Malka’s house, where she lived after her mother’s remarriage, and go dancing with the Red Army soldiers.
But the Nazi occupation of June 29, 1941, was clearly a disaster of a very different order. Anti-Jewish measures were put into place immediately. On July 5, Jews were ordered to wear yellow stars. Jewish men were assigned to work details, curfews were imposed, property confiscated, and beatings and mass arrests became the norm. On July 24, Jennie’s uncle Hessel was arrested on the street, taken with a group of other men to the fish factory near the canal, and shot. On the night of December 13, Jennie’s remaining family in Libau—all but she and her 14-year-old cousin, Bella—were arrested and taken to the beach at Skede, north of Libau, where they were shot and buried in mass graves.
On July 1, 1942, Jennie and Bella, among a total of 832 Jews—the sole remnants of a pre-war population of over 7200—were moved into nine houses surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Jennie was lucky in that the labour she was compelled to do—keeping house for SS officers—was relatively light and allowed her access to scraps of food, which she stole and, risking death if caught, smuggled back into the ghetto. The Libau Ghetto was liquidated on October 8, 1943, and residents transported to Kaiserwald concentration camp in nearby Riga, Latvia’s capital.
In Kaiserwald, inmates worked a 12-hour day, often at hard labour, with minimal, poor-quality food. Beatings and various forms of maltreatment were routine. Hunger and lice were endemic.
Jennie spent about six months in Kaiserwald before being transferred on March 17, 1944, to a satellite camp to work on the German railway. At 18, she became a crane operator, moving heavy equipment, under constant threat of beatings or death for the smallest infraction of the rules. Somehow, she maintained her sense of humour. She once told me that she and some other women were ordered to strip the interior of a railway car. They smuggled out seat fabric with which they made themselves red plush underwear.
By the summer of 1944, the German army was in retreat, and Soviet forces were approaching. Nazi authorities began planning the evacuation of Kaiserwald and the transfer of prisoners to other camps. On August 6, 1944, Kaiserwald and its satellite camps were evacuated, and Jennie was transferred by ship to Stutthof camp near Danzig (now Gdansk), where she arrived on August 9.
Stutthof was a barracks camp surrounded by watchtowers and a double row of electrified barbed wire. According to the Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team, new arrivals through the main gate, or “Death Gate,” would be told, “From now on, you are no longer a person, just a number. All your rights have been left outside the gate—you are left with only one, and that you are free to do: leave through that chimney.” Jennie became prisoner 56-164.
Two weeks later, it looked as though Jennie’s luck had finally run out. Along with other prisoners, she was selected to be killed. She was in a line-up for the gas chamber when an SS officer called out that railway workers were needed. Jennie was spared, and on August 26, 1944, was transferred to Stolp-Pomerania, where she did slave labour until the camp’s liquidation in the face of the advancing Soviets.
On March 6, 1945, Jennie and other prisoners were loaded into a railway car —perhaps one she herself had maintained—and transferred to Burgraben camp. She arrived amidst chaos. She later recalled, “On arrival in Burgraben, we found one barrack with dead and dying Jewish people. There were no guards and we had no food. … The Soviet front was very close, and when the SS came to return us to Stutthof, they were in such a hurry that they left some prisoners in the fields. I was later told by someone who had been left behind that the Red Army liberated the camp about fifteen minutes after our departure.”
Jennie was returned to Stutthof on March 22, but, with the camp’s liquidation underway, was evacuated to the Hela Peninsula a month later. She recalled, “We stayed for two days. … On arrival … we were left in a field guarded by the SS. No food was provided. There was much confusion and panic … and there were many wounded and dead people.”
From Hela, Jennie was evacuated by barge on April 24. Prisoners, including Jews, Norwegians, and Poles, were at sea ten days: “We were confined to barges, without food or water. … About 32 Jews survived from the barge I was on. … On 3 May, 1945, we arrived in Neustadt, Schlesweig-Holstein, where we were liberated by the British Army.” By this time, Jennie had contracted typhus. She survived with the help of a small tin of vitamin paste, a gift from a Norwegian sailor.
After liberation, Jennie recuperated in Neustadt Holstein, where a DP (Displaced Persons) camp was established in a former submarine training school. Eventually, the question of emigration arose. As Jennie lacked identification and spoke no English, her claim to be Canadian was not believed. Eventually she met a soldier from Montreal who recognized the surname Lifschitz and realized he knew Jennie’s father. As Jennie later recounted, “I was deported … as a Canadian. Yes, it sounds funny, but … they sent me out of Germany and no other country wanted me except Canada so I was sent on a troop ship to Montreal.”
As a passenger on the troop ship Aquitania, Jennie returned to the country of her birth on March 2, 1946. Rejoining her father and siblings in Montreal, she assisted her father in his store and restaurant business, eventually opening a lunch counter of her own. In March 1947, she had her first child, a daughter, whom she named Paula after her mother.
In February 1954, Jennie, her husband Sender, a fellow survivor, and Paula moved to Vancouver. With her earnings from her businesses in Montreal, Jennie bought a house on Nelson Street in the West End: a neighbourhood that at that time bore an uncanny resemblance to Libau, with its park, beaches, and European-flavoured “Robsonstrasse.” Jennie rented rooms and ran the house as a business. Sender found a job in a shoe factory. In 1956, Jennie opened a restaurant, the Ideal Lunch. Sender left the shoe factory, where he had been earning only $52 a week, and joined his wife in the restaurant.
Like Harry Cohen, Jennie was not protected during the Holocaust by her Canadian citizenship. On the contrary, her nationality worked against her efforts to obtain compensation from the German government. According to Jennie, “After the war ended … I made application for indemnification from “BEG” (the German Federal Indemnification Law), but was denied because of my Canadian citizenship,” presumably because Germany and Canada had not signed an agreement to compensate Canadian Holocaust survivors.
In 1955, Jennie applied to the Canada War Claims Commission, established to compensate Canadian soldiers and civilians who had lost property or been maltreated as prisoners of war during WWII in Europe and Asia.
Jennie Mines (nee Lifschitz) is Case No. 2452 in the Report of the War Claims Commission. In his report, Deputy Commissioner H. V. Bird affirms Jennie’s Canadian nationality, quoting a Department of Citizenship and Immigration document: “since there is no indication in our records that she has at any time lost or relinquished her status, she is a natural-born Canadian citizen under the provisions of … the Canadian Citizenship Act.” Furthermore, Bird goes on to confirm that Jennie “possessed Canadian national status … at the time of the act causing the loss or damage complained of.” Jennie’s claims for maltreatment and injury were corroborated by witness affidavits, medical letters, and identity cards supplied by Allied authorities. The Commission awarded her $1,045 for maltreatment (later amended to $1,038) and $1,120 for personal injury. Years later, in her application for benefits under the Claims Conference Article 2 fund, Jennie explained, “To the best of my knowledge, the Canadian government has provided no specific programs whatsoever with respect to indemnifying Holocaust survivors. With respect to the Canada War Claims Commission … it is my understanding that I received indemnification not as a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust per se, but as a Canadian prisoner of war.”
Jennie used the money she received from the Canada War Claims Commission to pay off the mortgage on her house “about three and a half years after it was bought.” Her daughter Rachel was born shortly after. With their young family, the rooming house, and the restaurant, Jennie and Sender seemed successful. Sadly, after the birth of their son Michael in 1959, their marriage became troubled, and after years of difficulties, the strain eventually became too much. In 1967 Jennie left the family home. The restaurant was sold, and the couple lived separately until their divorce in 1981. In August 1982, Sender died. In 1984, Jennie married Jack Phillips, a longtime family friend. Their 20-year marriage was happy.
In 2001, Jennie applied for compensation for her wartime suffering under the Claims Conference Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility, and the Future,” also known as the German Slave Labor Fund. She received two lump-sum payments totalling just over $10,000. In May 2003, she applied for compensation from the Claims Conference Article 2 fund, but here things did not go so smoothly. The problem was Jennie’s Canadian citizenship, as, unlike the United States (the “Princz Agreement”), Canada did not have an agreement with Germany to compensate Holocaust survivors who were Canadian nationals at the time of their persecution. Jennie’s claim had to go to a special arbitration, and it was not until October 29, 2004 that her claim was approved.
Sadly, the compensation, a monthly pension of $270, came too late for Jennie to enjoy it. The same month the claim was approved, Jennie entered the hospital for major surgery. The operation was not a success, and Jennie died on August 9, 2005, aged 81.
Jennie’s wartime suffering left her Canadian family a legacy of guilt and remorse. It is impossible to know if her marriage to Sender would have been a success had they not been survivors, but certainly the Holocaust left its mark on their children, who, like others of the Second Generation, have had to come to terms with their parents’ suffering, dislocations, and losses.
But possibly the hardest-hit was Jennie’s father, Abraham, who, as a result of either decision or negligence, had abandoned his wife and Canadian-born younger daughter to the Nazis. He could not have foreseen the outcome of allowing them to return to Europe in 1924 and remain there, but he was plagued with guilt for the rest of his life. Having lost both legs to diabetes, he viewed his suffering as just retribution for his actions. One of his nieces, who still lives in Montreal, quotes his words: “my mother-in-law, Malka, put a curse on me … and that’s why I’m dying in pieces.”
RACHEL MINES was born and lives in Vancouver, and teaches English at Langara College
Judy Cohen, 2001.