Nearly 1,300 high school students, from 15 schools in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board were bused to Algonquin College last month to hear the personal story of Romanian Holocaust survivor Felicia Carmelly.
For the second year, the Jewish Federation of Ottawa collaborated with the Azrieli Foundation to bring a survivor’s story to local youths who may otherwise never have an opportunity to learn first-hand the horrors of the Holocaust.
The Azrieli Foundation’s Memoirs Program publishes memoirs of Holocaust survivors as a way of teaching these lessons to the broader community.
The students who heard Carmelly speak on April 12 and 13 were each given a copy of her memoir, published by the foundation.
“My claim to fame is basically that I survived the darkest time in history, which is the Holocaust,” said Carmelly who was a young girl of 10 years old when her war story began.
She set the scene for her family’s struggles with the aid of a map, showing the geographic area from which they were deported – the small, resort town of Dorn in Romania – and the route they travelled once they were deported.
Carmelly’s family (the Steigmans) lived a life of comfort in the resort town, in one of the only homes to have hot and cold running water. They enjoyed “cordial relationships” with their Romanian neighbours and did not anticipate the troubles that lay ahead for them.
“In 1940, when it became known that Poland was already occupied and atrocities had started…we couldn’t believe what was happening,” she said. “We thought it could not happen to us, because Romanians were different. Afterward, we found out that Jews in other countries had thought the same thing.”
Eventually, the Jews of Dorn were deported, sent on trains and barges where many died along the way.
Carmelly and her parents found refuge in a small shack owned by a Jewish family. Eighteen refugees took shelter in a space that had previously housed only five. Their plan to stay only a few days stretched into 3-1/2 years, until they were eventually liberated by the Russians.
“In the spring of 1944, we left and arrived in May 1945 back to our home. Because our home had hot and cold running water it had been a German hospital, then a Soviet hospital, then a fire station. They allowed us to occupy one room in our own home,” she said.
Although Carmelly and her parents survived the war, 34 members of their family perished.
After the war, her family spent a few years in Romania, then immigrated to Israel and eventually settled in Canada.
Along the way, Carmelly – who chose that surname while visiting Mount Carmel in Israel – taught herself English and earned a master’s of social work and eventually a doctorate.
“On behalf of those who can no longer speak, I will end by saying that it is not what we stand for, but what we stand up for,” Carmelly said to the students.
“If people like me can survive and get an education and get a profession, so can you.”