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Giving birth, cheating death

Jeff Heinrich

The Gazette (Montreal)

April 22, 2006

First, she bore a baby girl. Then, for years, she bore the burden of the past. Now, she is bearing witness.

Her name is Maria Leibrock Epsztein.

A former teacher and librarian, she lived with books all her life, 92 years and counting.

It never occurred to her to commit her own story to paper, let alone publish it. But when history haunts and the need to testify compels, the pen follows.

Epsztein may very well be the oldest new author to have broached the subject of the Holocaust. She's certainly one of the most reluctant. Both explain why her book is as tiny and rail-thin as she is, a mere 150 pages, and half of those are in Polish. But in her case, less is more.

As Jews across the world mark Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) on Tuesday, the little illustrated volume called Motherhood Behind Barbed Wire could serve as a lesson in humility.

Epsztein began writing her memoirs in 1980, just before retiring from McGill University's library. But she kept the manuscript secret, ashamed to reveal to anyone beyond her immediate family just what happened to her so long ago in war-torn Europe.

Her tale is made special by one remarkable fact: On a late winter day in 1942, in a Nazi labour camp deep in occupied Byelorussia, Epsztein gave birth to a baby girl. Against all odds, mother and daughter survived.

Last year, with her daughter's help and a push from the Montreal chapter of the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada, Epsztein finally decided to publish. She figured that, as an amateur, she had nothing to lose. She'd have her say and be done with it.

In the camp, after all, she and her daughter had cheated death. Who's to say they couldn't now cheat the death of memory, too?

Before the details die with her, Epsztein decided to give them life on the page.

- - -

"I am not a writer and that's why I do not know how to start my memoirs," Epsztein begins her book, disarmingly.

"In my lifetime, I accumulated so many experiences, and I need to find a proper channel to express myself. I wish I could paint or play music, but I never had those talents. So what's left of me? Awkward and inept writing."

She recalls first taking up her pen at McGill, as a kind of therapy.

"I started writing during lunch hours when I didn't know what to do with myself, sitting alone in the library courtyard, slowly and randomly remembering the hardest period of my life, when my youth was stolen from me forever, when I forgot what it was to be happy, carefree, and how to laugh and enjoy life."

She concludes her introduction with a paradox drawn from the 19th-century German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer.

"Very often I go back to Schopenhauer's pessimistic philosophy," she writes. "It describes our world as the most terrible place you can imagine, its driving force a blind will to live and to fight; it is a place full of pain, poverty and unending disappointments, and yet the whole goal of existence is to preserve life."

- - -

To preserve life. That is what Epsztein did in March 1942, and it is that act - the birth of her first daughter, Kristina, in the barracks of a labour camp in what is now known as Belarus - that forms the heart of her memoirs, as indeed, it became her very reason for living.

Epsztein was born on Jan. 13, 1914, in the village of Rudniki in eastern Galicia, an area of Poland that was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now within Ukraine's borders. The youngest of five daughters, at birth she was given a Hebrew name, Rivka, but came to be called Rysia, the Polish diminutive. The Leibrocks were the

only Jewish family in the village.

Raised by her German-speaking grandparents, as a young woman Rysia studied philosophy and literature in Krakow. After the Nazi invasion of 1939, she moved to Lithuania to teach pedagogy and child psychology at a teachers' college in the capital, Wilno (now called Vilnius, but in those days still part of Poland). There, she met the man who would become her husband.

Adam Epsztein was a chemist working as an engineer in the

local Elektrit radio factory, owned by Telefunken. In 1940, when Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union, the factory got a new name - Molotov - and was relocated east to Minsk in Soviet Byelorussia, along with its staff. A year later, Rysia joined Adam there, they were wed, and she found work at a law school as a librarian and then as a teacher.

On June 20, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and, within three days, Minsk was under full-scale attack. Like thousands of others, Adam was arrested and held for a month in a detention camp. He got out thanks to his job: The Germans wanted to keep the radio factory open, and ordered all staff to report for duty. Adam was among the recruits who ended up working and living at the newly renamed Rundfunk-Betrieb. Rysia, for her part, went to live with the Jews the Germans forced into a few overcrowded blocks of housing they'd set aside as a Jewish ghetto.

It was then she discovered something that, in different circumstances, would have brought her great joy. She was pregnant.

"A new disaster," she writes in her memoir. "The so-called 'blessed event' had already become a nightmare for me."

Abortion was an immediate option, but Rysia soon rejected the idea after seeing the dirty room where the ghetto doctor would have performed it.

Adam got approval for her to move back to the factory camp. They were assigned a tiny room in a small barrack house near the camp fence, about 200 metres up a small hill from the factory. They shared the house with another man, and the place was crawling with lice and fleas. Rysia managed to register in the camp as a German-speaking Pole, not a Jew, and was employed as a cleaning woman.

Some of the wives and children of other Jewish factory workers were also eventually allowed in, and the factory became a labour camp - of slaves, since no one was paid, just fed meagre rations: a bowl of watery soup and a half pound of bread a day. It was a family camp, where mothers and children were safe as long as the father was employed and his skills were needed.

(The factory was one of several in Minsk that employed Jewish labourers and specialists. But far more Jews stayed in the ghetto - 100,000 in all - and they met a far worse fate. After several waves of roundups and killings, the ghetto was finally liquidated in late-1943.)

For a pregnant woman in the camp, malnutrition was both a curse and a blessing. Rysia was constantly hungry and nauseous, but she didn't gain weight and her condition went unnoticed by the camp's SS commander and the brutal Latvian conscripts who did his bidding.

Then came the day of reckoning, March 4, 1942. Worried she'd be discovered absent from the factory shift, and aided only by an inmate midwife with no access to anesthetic or even antiseptics, Rysia gave birth in her barracks room. Her daughter got a Christian name: Kristina.

"Kristina was not breathing," she recalls in her book. The baby had her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. "The midwife was left with the terrible moral dilemma of whether or not to revive the baby and bring her into this inferno. Finally, she decided to save her. I remember looking at this skinny, purple little body, and falling into a deep sleep."

- - -

For the next four days, Rysia was confined to bed with a high fever. The SS learned of the birth, but decided not to take the baby away; like the mother, they figured nature would take its toll and the baby wouldn't survive. It seemed likely she would simply starve to death.

"We had nothing to give Kristina but our love," Epsztein writes. "I had no milk; she was screaming from hunger. I was too naive to realize that my emaciated body could not produce enough food for her."

For hours every day, the baby was alone in the hilltop barracks. At 6 a.m., the parents left her in her crib and went to work. At lunch, Rysia walked up from the factory, took Kristina in her arms and tried to feed her, and her husband took the baby outside for a bit of fresh air. Then she was left alone again, until the factory siren sounded at

5 p.m. and the workday was over.

For three months, the deprivation was near-total: no human contact for 11 hours a day. No mother, no father, no food.

When the parents were home, fellow workers pitched in to help feed the baby. One suggested that Rysia mix up flour and water and cook it, and Kristina ate it. Another, a non-Jew who lived in town, made it his daily routine to smuggle in a glass of milk. Someone else gave carrots to make juice, but that was a mistake. The baby got diarrhea and almost died, wasting away for three weeks until somebody gave Rysia a cup of rice and blueberries - very difficult to find at the time - to feed Kristina. It did the trick. After several days, 6-month-old Kristina woke at dawn and smiled.

That was the closest the family would ever come to losing her.

A year went by, the camp's management changed from SS to Wehrmacht, and Kristina grew. She got her first tooth and started to walk. She spoke, too, precociously alternating between Polish and Russian. Three other children lived in the camp, but baby Kristina was special. Not only was she her parents' treasure, she became a kind of mascot of hope for the other workers.

One day in the summer of 1943, Kristina surprised everyone by waddling up to the camp fence on her rickety legs. She pointed past the barbed wire to some woods. What was out there?

"Her question left me speechless," Epsztein writes. "I didn't know what to tell her."

Through the Soviet partisan underground, the truth eventually seeped in. There were terrible things happening in the world outside the camp: extermination camps in Poland, a disastrous uprising in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw, nothing but catastrophe for the Jews of Europe.

But in Byelorussia, hope beckoned. Hitler was losing the war on the Eastern Front, and in the summer of 1944 the Soviet army advanced to the gates of Minsk. The radio factory was bombed several times, but work continued as the prisoners planned their escape. The Germans started evacuating the camp, but Rysia and her family waited to make their move. With another couple - old friends who had a young daughter of their own - they eventually talked their way past the guard at the front gate and headed into town. They holed up in a safe house for 10 days as the Red Army approached.

Finally, liberation. On July 3, 1944, Soviet tanks entered the city, and the survivors went out into the streets to cheer and hug the victors.

"I was standing with my miracle child in my arms, tears running down my face," Epsztein recalls in her book. "I was crying because we were alive and we had saved our child. It was the happiest moment of my life."

The elation was short-lived. Foreigners who'd survived the Nazi occupation were suspect; the Soviets routed out collaborators and deported others; some were forced back to work, slaves again. Somehow, though, Rysia, Adam and Kristina were spared. Eventually, with forged travel documents, they were repatriated to Poland in April 1945.

There, Rysia was reunited with her sister, Roza, and brother-in-law; the rest of the family had perished in the war.

With anti-Semitism still endemic in Poland, Rysia changed her name to Maria, a Christian name. In 1948, she gave birth to her second daughter, Olga, a Russian name.

"She was big, 10 pounds and healthy ... a normal little child," Epsztein notes in her book. The family settled in Warsaw, the girls enrolled in school, and life went on.

In the mid-1950s, after the death of Stalin, emigration for Soviet Bloc Jews became easier and the Epszteins started making plans to leave. It took more than a decade to get approval, and by then they were practically forced out, as anti-Semitism surged again in 1967 with the Arab-Israeli Six Day War. Kristina left in December for the U.S., joining her aunt, Roza, in New Jersey. Adam, Rysia - now Maria, her documents showed - and Olga followed in 1968, arriving July 10 in Montreal.

Adam got a job at Seagram's. Maria found work at McGill. Olga went to college. Kristina came up from the States, married an American, and went back down to live. Everyone had found a home, the last one they'd need.

They had freedom, they had life, they had a future. The only thing the new Maria lacked was peace of mind.

- - -

Not that you'd know it from meeting her.

In person, Epsztein is a bit of a surprise. Far from a morose survivor burdened by the past, she exudes a gentle, happy strength. She hardly appears 80, let alone 92. Her back is bent with age, and her hearing could be better, but her hands are steady and so is her gaze, and she has no trouble getting around. Her wit is sharp, her manners impeccable. And she even has a sense of humour.

Over tea and Polish doughnuts in her high-rise apartment overlooking Sherbrooke St. W. in Notre Dame de Grace, she sits at her small dining room table to discuss her life. I begin by asking her what prompted her to publish her memoirs.

"When I started to write, I didn't think about publishing," she replies. "But I had a necessity to get rid of it, to throw it out from myself, because it was always, always, always sitting deep in me."

When she'd finished writing, "I had my manuscript and that was enough for me. But my children pushed me. I wasn't happy to publish it."

Why not?

"Because I was ashamed to show myself so weak. When the book was published, my grand-daughter in London asked me: 'Grandma, what kind of feeling do you have?' I thought a moment, and I said, 'You know, Maya, I am ashamed.' To show myself in such a way, always unhappy, it's not a pleasure."

I tell her that the passage that moved me most was where she described leaving the baby behind to go to work every day.

"The child was alone, yes; it was a tragedy for me to leave such a hungry child because she cried always," Epsztein explains. "After the baby was born, for four days, I was unconscious. Normally, after such a birth fever, mothers died. How I revived I don't know. On the fifth day, I got up and went to work.

"I checked my baby, and I tried to put her to sleep, but she cried and cried and cried. I couldn't stay at home, so I closed the door and I ran to my job.

"I heard the baby in my head, the whole day, crying, crying, and my heart was suffering terribly. In the factory, I didn't speak to anybody. I was in such a state, I couldn't think of anything else, in my ears I heard only the crying baby.

"And the time passed, and at 12 o'clock the siren rang and I ran to my baby. I took her, and my husband got a little bit of cornmeal, and I cooked it in water and I fed her. And at 5 o'clock, when I came home, I didn't leave my baby until the morning. And so it went, day by day.

"My thoughts were of the baby, always. I wondered sometimes: What will happen to her, a baby that is not touched all day? But who really knows? Nobody can know what is in the mind of such a baby."

- - -

Not even Kristina.

Now grown up and with children of her own, she can only imagine what happened to her.

A bottle blonde in a body as petite as her mother's, she lives in Belle Mead, N.J., near Princeton, an Ivy League university town. Her husband, Harry Wise, is a civil engineer with a company that makes prefab floors and walls. Their daughter, Lily, is a family physician, and their son, David, a management consultant.

Like her mother, Kristina is interested in psychology - she has a master's degree in it, in fact. She shares another of her mother's contradictions: Agnostic, she, nevertheless, respects Jewish customs. She sent both her children to Hebrew school, and the family celebrates Jewish holidays.

Kristina's biggest challenge in recent years was helping her mother with the book.

It almost didn't happen.

"For years, we didn't know that she'd written anything," Kristina recalls. "When she wrote it, she was very depressed. The family had just come to Canada and it was very difficult for them to establish themselves. She wrote everything down, put it away, and then 10 years later she was looking for some papers and she found it again.

"She showed it to me and I was fascinated. I started talking about it to friends and people who could read Polish. Then she asked me, 'Why don't you translate it into English?' So that's what I did."

As for her role in the family saga, Kristina is ambivalent.

"I always knew about my history, but I didn't consider it anything special. It was just a part of life," she says. "But people were so mesmerized by the story, we got the idea that maybe we should do something more with it."

The manuscript became a kind of samizdat, just like back home in Poland.

"One of my friends put it on the computer and made many, many copies, at least 100. I started giving it to people, and each time I gave it I asked them to give it to somebody else after they read it. So this underground operation went on for many, many years, until the Polish-Jewish Heritage people in Montreal got interested in it and published it."

Kristina recalls being amazed by things in the manuscript - most all, her parents' courage.

"Before, I just couldn't understand how they survived taking care of me. Now I understand. That was their goal: to save my life. They had to survive because they wanted me to survive. And in case they didn't survive, they gave me a Christian name, so that maybe somebody would take in this little Kristina, the name that comes from Jesus Christ."

With her background in psychology, did she ever get psychoanalyzed to see if she had even a faint memory of being a baby in the camp?

"No. I don't believe in analysis," she replies. "And I know for a fact that I don't remember anything. I was 21/2 when we left the camp, and my first memories are from the time I was maybe 31/2 or 4, when we were already liberated and living back in Poland."

What about being left alone in the barracks while her parents worked? Did it make her suffer?

"I'm sure that it had a residual effect, sure," she answers lightly. "First of all, physically, I'm not a very strong person. I'm very tiny. I always say that if it wasn't for the war, I would have been like a tall Swedish blonde with big boobs."

She laughs.

"But I'm this tiny, little person. I don't even look Jewish, because I have a really tiny nose."

The war affected her body in other ways. Her dentist has told her the signs of early malnutrition are still visible in her teeth. Babies are born with their adult teeth already formed below the surface, and hunger stunts their growth.

"Just from looking at my teeth, my dentist can tell when I stopped being malnourished, after the war," Kristina says.

Her health problems persisted. At age 7 in Warsaw, she got rheumatic fever and it affected her heart, so for two years she had to stay at home and was mostly confined to bed. Unable to go to school, she taught herself to read, her sister Olga keeping constant company.

Emotionally, Kristina is still fragile. "I'm a very needy person, and very insecure, and I'm sure that has something to do with the conditions I was born into in the war." To this day, she feels a profound need to love and to be loved, and isn't shy to show it.

"I'm a hugger," she says. "If it's not children, it's a cat, or my husband. I'm really affectionate."

- - -

In Montreal, I ask Epsztein how Kristina first learned she'd been born in a slave-labour camp.

She begins her reply with a different, perhaps more significant story, about the time her daughter first found out she was Jewish.

Kristina was still very young at the time. A Jewish family had moved into their neighbourhood in Jelenia Gora, southwestern Poland, and one day Kristina and her friends started tormenting the littlest of them, a 3-year-old girl. The children ran after the girl and cornered her. Kristina struck the child. Watching from the window of their house, Epsztein was horrified, and yelled to her daughter to come inside immediately.

"I asked her: 'You were five big girls and you ran after that little child and hit her - how could you do such a thing?' And she told me, 'Because she is Jewish, and they are killers, the Jews.' "

What to do?

"It was a dilemma. I was afraid to tell her that she was Jewish, too, because it could mean trouble. But I told her. 'Look, Krysia," I said, "your mother's Jewish and your father's Jewish. And are we such bad people?'

"And Kristina asked me, 'And who am I?' So I told her, 'You can be whoever you want.' So she told me, 'OK, I will be Jewish.' "

There was no identity crisis. Far from it.

"It was terrible, actually," Epsztein recalls, half-serious. "Because after that, wherever we went, while we were waiting for the bus, for example, Kristina would turn to the nearest person and say: 'Do you know, madam, I am Jewish?' "

For a moment, the memory makes Epsztein giggle. As if on cue, the phone rings - surprise, it's Kristina, long-distance from New Jersey.

"Telepathy!" Epsztein exclaims.

There's another reason the two are close. When she herself was a 6 months old, Rysia lost her mother to heart disease. She thinks that changed her life as much as being absent from Kristina in the first three months changed her daughter's life.

"A mother is the most important person for the baby. She gives the child self-assurance. But I wasn't self-assured. I never wanted to show myself, not really even now. Kristina, too."

In other ways, she thinks of her daughter as remarkably normal. If anyone, it was Olga - "the strong baby" - who was neglected more in the end.

"We gave Kristina everything, my husband and I, because when Olga was born, she was strong and we didn't need to pay so much attention to her," Epsztein says, half-apologetically.

In the postwar years, the parents favoured Kristina with food, especially. She always got the best they could afford. Eggs, for example.

"I remember, it was so funny," Epsztein says. "It was the first time after the war when we started to get better food. I had prepared eggs, and we were eating them at the table, my husband and I. And Kristina looked at us with such big eyes. Up to then, whenever we got eggs, they were only for Kristina. Now she sees us eating eggs, too, and she says: 'Oh, you have also?' "

One thing the parents didn't share with their young daughter was any description of the labour camp back in Minsk. Nor did they even tell her she'd been born there. For that, they waited.

"My husband and I never spoke about the camp. Why? We were afraid how they'd react. We didn't want to put such a heavy burden on the children. I only told Kristina when she was much older, after she graduated from university. I put it this way: I said, 'On your birth certificate, you don't have an address where you were born, just the city. Do you know why that is?' "

What did Kristina reply?

"She didn't pay any special attention," Epsztein says. "She was caught up in her own young life. How it had started wasn't important to her. Only later, when she read my manuscript - that's when she started to care."

- - -

In the 1980s, after retiring from McGill, Epsztein started taking philosophy courses at Concordia University. Her passion is existentialism, and her favourite writer is Spinoza, the 17th-century Jewish-Dutch rationalist. His famous dictum was one she took to heart as a Holocaust survivor: "Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand."

And help others understand, too.

After her manuscript started circulating, Epsztein was invited to speak at Alexander von Humboldt Schule, a German-language school in Baie d'Urfe. The students wanted to know whether she thought the Germans were guilty for what happened to the Jews.

As individuals, yes, but not as a people, she replied.

"I don't believe in mass responsibility or collective responsibility," she said. "Everybody's responsible for himself alone."

Since 1991, the year her husband died, Epsztein has lived by herself in her apartment tower. She likes to go out for walks alone. When she socializes, it's with people she's familiar with, like her friends at the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation. For Hanukkah last December, they held a party in her honour at Olga's house in Hampstead.

Epsztein put on some earrings and a sober black dress, and listened shyly as her publishers praised her "coming out" in print.

"We have been working with Mrs. Epsztein for a few years, but until recently she always denied our requests to publish her memoirs," Foundation member Lena Atlas, a child survivor herself, told the party guests. "Then a miracle happened. She decided that for the sake of her children and grandchildren, she was willing."

Ilona Gruda, who is on the Foundation's editorial committee, said the book is "extremely important," not just for Epsztein herself, but for Holocaust memory generally. "It was a very, very special period, and everybody who survived it has a lot to say about it. I think that these people should write their memoirs, and we should publish them."

In the preface to Epsztein's book, the editors explain why survivor tales like her's really matter. ourselves."

"They tells us what we might expect from strangers, from those close to us, and from

Might expect - should it happen again.

- - -

As her final testament, Maria Epsztein has written a new segment of her autobiography - about the early years, about her family, her youth. Her grand-daughter, Olga's daughter in London, Maya Wiseman, is editing it for her. Maybe it will be published some day, too, but at her age, Epsztein isn't really counting on it.

"I lived with my daughter day-by-day in the camp, and I live also now, day-by-day. I don't make plans."

She's glad just to still be here.

"What is most important?" she asks. "Money, love and a good existence. I never wanted to be rich, never had the feeling of possession. I wanted to live liberated from everything. And now I'm happy."

And motherhood? What's most important about that?

Epsztein's gaze softens, her head tilts to one side, a smile drifts to her lips.

"Love," she repeats. "Is there any other answer?"

Motherhood Behind Barbed Wire is available by mail from the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada. For information, call Ilona Gruda at 514-529-4491. The website is http://polish-jewish-heritage.org. For more on Yom Hashoah, consult the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre's website at www.mhmc.ca/

jheinrich@thegazette.canwest.com

C The Gazette (Montreal) 2006