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Montrealer's moving memoir asks: What makes a family?

"My mother spoke seven languages fluently and nothing was taboo — except for one story. Never was the Holocaust mentioned," says Aviva Ptack, who penned her memoir with Richard King.
"My mother spoke seven languages fluently and nothing was taboo — except for one story. Never was the Holocaust mentioned," says Aviva Ptack, who penned her memoir with Richard King.

On the face of it, it’s the strangest story: Nearly everyone in Montreal’s Lithuanian-Jewish community, it seemed, knew that Aviva Ptack’s mother was not her birth mother — everyone, that is, except Aviva Ptack.

How she found out is only one of many threads in the richly textured fabric of her just-published memoir, The Making of a Family (John Aylen Books), written with Richard King. To call the story of a child who survived the Holocaust a page-turner might sound inappropriate to some — but it’s tough to put this book down.

Leah and Abba Deitch, Aviva Ptack’s birth parents.
Leah and Abba Deitch, Aviva Ptack’s birth parents.

Aviva Ptack was born Leba Deitch, in September of 1940 in the Lithuanian city of Kovno, to Leah and Abba Deitch. “Lovingly they gave me life and lovingly they saved my life,” she writes in the book’s first paragraph. “Yet I have no memories of them.”

In July of 1941, when Leba was not yet a year old, the Nazis ordered the Jews of Kovno to relocate to a nearby ghetto . Her parents, realizing that a baby would never survive there, underwrote the purchase of a farm for a gentile couple of their acquaintance in a community in which no one knew them — on the condition that they take Leba along with their own family.

Leba would be moved four times before her fifth birthday — until, at last, in 1945, in Kovno, “good fortune found me in the person of Luba Schmidt, the only woman I have ever called Mommy … the woman who provided me with a loving and stable home and family,” Ptack writes. Schmidt gave Leba a new name: Aviva, from the Hebrew for springtime.

Aviva never saw her birth parents again, never learned their fate.

“My memories started with my mother in Kovno after the war and I believed with every ounce of my being that we had always been together,” she writes.

The man who would become her father, Pinchas Rosenfeld, entered their lives after the war, in which his family had perished. He and Schmidt, a widow, married in 1948 and the three travelled by ship to Canada to begin a new life as a family.

In Montreal, her parents sought rabbinical advice about whether to tell Aviva the story of her origin. They were advised not to: Knowing meant she would no longer trust them, the rabbis said.

Aviva knew that her parents had survived the Holocaust but little of their past. She describes growing up happy and secure, attending school, spending time in the Laurentians in summer, dating and eventually meeting the man she would marry, Morty Ptack.

She was pleased to learn this piece of her history, if angry that this woman had tried to drive a wedge between her and her parents. Still, years would pass before she would gain access to her earliest memories.

In the late 1960s Ptack, by now the mother of two, entered university as a mature student: She studied psychology and English part-time and, after getting her degree, went on to earn a certificate in family life education in 1983. She worked as a counsellor in schools for some years, before returning to university for a master’s and then training to become a psychotherapist; as part of the training, she underwent therapy herself.

For homework, her therapist told her to see Schindler’s List — a movie, released in 1993, about an industrialist in German-occupied Poland who saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jewish workers during the Second World War. As she watched a scene in which a terrified child hiding from Nazi soldiers finds a spot under the toilet seat of an outdoor privy, a memory “sprang into my consciousness,” Ptack writes: hiding whenever German soldiers appeared at the farm. The farmer’s two daughters were blond; she was dark-haired.

From left: Aviva Rosenfeld with her parents Pinchas and Luba Rosenfeld in Montreal in 1948, the year they arrived from Europe. Aivva was 8.
From left: Aviva Rosenfeld with her parents Pinchas and Luba Rosenfeld in Montreal in 1948, the year they arrived from Europe. Aivva was 8.

“They would hide me and they found a place behind the toilet and, at age 2, I knew that I was not allowed to make a sound,” she said. “These were such horrible memories that I had blocked them completely.”

Her husband and friends had encouraged her to write a book about her experience, and after Morty’s death in 2016, she resolved to get to work. Her story unfolds, as do her parents’, against the backdrop of Lithuania during and after the Second World War, in settings from Kovno to a displaced persons’ camp in Allied-occupied Germany, a hospital in a converted monastery and, later, Montreal.

“I think that it is my responsibility to tell these stories, that not enough people tell them,” Ptack told the crowd gathered at the Atwater Library last week for her book launch.

“My mother spoke seven languages fluently and nothing was taboo — except for one story. Never was the Holocaust mentioned.”

Her parents had made recordings in the 1980s about their experiences, but Ptack had not listened to them before sitting down to work on the book.

Historical references provide commentary and context: King, former owner of the Paragraphe bookstore, is a keen student of history with a graduate degree in the field.

With the memoir, “I have come to realize that it isn’t blood ties, DNA or the branches of a tree that define the word family,” Ptack said. She was connected to Luba Schmidt and Pinchas Rosenfeld by love and kindness and their mutual need for a family, she said — and together, “we made an amazing family.”

sschwartz@postmedia.com

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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