They gathered virtually to raise a glezel tei to Pinchas Blitt on his 90th birthday, but the venerable Montreal Yiddish stage performer confessed that his many well-wishers might be off by a year.
It is uncertain whether he was born in 1931 or 1932 because his small village of Kortelisy in eastern Poland kept vital records in prayer books, and those were destroyed by the Germans along with the community of several dozen Jewish families.
The village, by then in Ukraine, was burned to the ground in September 1942.
Blitt’s family were the sole survivors, and just barely, by hiding in the surrounding marshes and forests until liberation by the Soviet army in July 1944.
The online birthday party held last month also celebrated the publication of Blitt’s memoir A Promise of Sweet Tea, in which he recreates the impoverished, but rich, prewar Jewish life in this backwoods hamlet.
The book is published by the Azrieli Foundation, which co-hosted the event with the Segal Centre for Performing Arts, home of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre (DWYT), with which Blitt acted for many years.
By day, Blitt was a lawyer, who practised for more than a half-century, retiring at age 83.
Maybe 50 Jewish families lived in Kortelisy when Blitt was a child. They had all they needed: a synagogue, a mikvah, a rabbi, a kosher butcher, and a cheder, he said.
It was a rural world untroubled by modernity.
Superstition was as strong as religion. Birthdays were not observed for fear of invoking the Evil Eye.
There was no doctor or hospital. When someone got sick a healer was brought in. Blitt remembered vividly the old woman who came to the home with her bag of remedies.
Once when he had a rash on his face, she took kindling, set fire to both ends, twirled it close to him, mumbled an incantation, and then spit into his face. Sure enough, in time, the rash disappeared, he related.
As Yiddish literature historian David Roskies writes in the preface, these memories are “so full of dialogue, of laughter through tears, that they might easily belong to the Yiddish theatre.”
Just days before his 11th or maybe 10th birthday, Blitt witnessed the first massacre of men, women and children in Kortelisy, as he, his parents and younger brother cowered in a rye field. It would not be his last close call with death; while on the run from gunfire, he was wounded in the leg.
His “heroic” parents managed to get him to the town of Ratno where he worked for Christian farmers as a shepherd, sleeping in the stable. “My father was the eternal optimist… He would say after the war, we are going to America and have all the sweet tea we want.”
Blitt still trembles thinking of the constant fear and narrow escapes. The horror of his murdered fellow Jews, some wailing parents with infants in their arms, has never left him.
Those taking part in the launch spoke of Blitt’s gentle, even playful, nature and lack of bitterness.
The family was reunited after the war at a displaced persons camp in Austria, where young Blitt got his first taste of acting. “On the stage, I am a different person. I lose my shyness and inhibitions; I become the character.”
After settling in Montreal in 1948, Blitt attended teachers’ college and later law school. He found a home with many other Holocaust survivors in the DWYT, founded in 1958.
Over the decades, he had numerous roles as diverse as the dancing Reb Yosef Loksh in the comedic The Sages of Chelm to the mysterious Messenger in the dark The Dybbuk.
His wife Gisele, also a DWYT veteran, said Blitt finally found time after his belated retirement to put his numerous tales down on paper.
“My dad is hilarious,” said son Robert from Knoxville, Tenn. “He always had stories to tell from every aspect of his life.” He has a keen intellect and can converse on everything from books to art to political theory, he added. “I’m in awe of him.”
With characteristic humility, Blitt said, “I am not a historian or a philosopher. My only hope is to make sure evil is not tolerated because even now there is evil in the world.”
As chair Naomi Azrieli noted, Blitt is the 120th Canadian survivor to have their memoirs published by the Azrieli Foundation since the nonprofit publishing program began in 2005.
That was the cue for those near and far to raise their glasses or cups of tea and wish the author Biz hundert un tsvantsig!