“It’s for my mom.”
Eva Olsson’s voice cracks slightly when speaking about a special birthday celebration coming up. It’s not a round number—Olsson turns 97 on Oct. 28—but Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum and memorial, will help her mark the occasion in a Zoom event that day at 10 a.m.
Scheduled to pay tribute to Olsson is Haim Gertner, director of Yad Vashem’s international relations division.
Olsson’s family felt that “based on the very large number of people with whom Eva has shared her testimony, it would be nice, especially since her birthday was coming up, if they could surprise her with something special, so they reached out directly to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem,” said Fran Sonshine, national chair of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, who will also address the program.
Joining Olsson will be her son, Jan, and, it’s hoped, her three grandchildren, Brenna, Rudy, and Alexandra.
A good reason for the attention from the world’s premier Holocaust authority is that Olsson, who lives in Bracebridge, Ont., is one of Canada’s most prolific speakers about the Holocaust she survived, and its lessons for today.
She has the numbers at hand: Since 1996, she has given more than 4,300 presentations in schools, churches and meeting halls across Canada, to First Nations and the United Nations, reaching, by her estimation, more than two million people. She’s received 15,000 letters from students.
Her message is straightforward: Young people in particular must speak out and act against hatred, discrimination and bullying because the consequences could be deadly.
Conversely, the importance of compassion and respect cannot be overstated.
Olsson ought to know. Of 13 close family members who were shipped to death camps, including her mother, father, six siblings, and five little nieces, only she and her sister survived.
She’s dedicating the Yad Vashem zoom event to her mother, Leah Malek.
Leah and Eva’s father, Haim Yizhog Malek, a teacher at a Hasidic yeshiva, got married in 1918, six months before the end of the First World War. They lived in a shed with no electricity or running water, in the Transylvanian town of Satu Mare, then in Hungary, later part of Romania.
“My mother was unwell,” Olsson, who was born in Satu Mare in 1924, recalled in a CJN interview. “She already had two children and the doctor ordered her to have an abortion. My mom refused to have an abortion. She stayed in bed for eight months so you could see my face.”
The Yad Vashem event “is for my mom. The courage she passed down to me, the unconditional love for a human life… And she never gave up hope.”
Of Leah’s six children, born in seven years, Olsson said she is “the only one that’s alive to carry (her mother’s) legacy and pass it down—never to give up hope. Never.”
It was the message Olsson took with her to the concentration camps.
Following the Nazi invasion of Hungary in March 1944, Jews were herded into ghettos, then shipped to Auschwitz. Olsson and her sisters were selected for slave labour in the camp but a few weeks later, were sent to Germany to work in the Krupp factory system.
After the factories were bombed, Olsson was sent to Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated in April 1945. With help from the Red Cross, she made her way to Sweden, where she met her husband, Rudi. The couple came to Canada in the early 1950s.
Like many survivors, Olsson did not speak about what she’d gone through.
“For 50 years, I was silent,” she said. “I was silent out of fear.”
That changed in 1995 when her granddaughter, Brenna, came to her for help with a school project. Olsson was asked to speak to the class.
The following year, her grandson, then six and-a-half years old, asked Olsson, “how did your mom die?”
Olsson replied: “Rudy, you’re too young. When you’re older, I will tell you. This was in April. In October, he came back. He said, ‘I’m older now.’
“So I told him ‘they took a big room (and) put in a lot of poison. And that’s how my mom died.’ He wouldn’t know what a gas chamber is.”
But that exchange opened the floodgates for Olsson to spread her message of tolerance. Speaking to so many students “helps me to keep my family spirit alive.”
Where do children learn hate? “A child isn’t born with it,” she said.
Her talks weren’t all easy going. One time, an 18-year-old student in Oshawa, Ont., told Olsson: “You suffered because you killed Christ.”
Olsson recalls her reaction: “I stood up—I had a beautiful black suit and white shirt on—and I said, ‘well, I look pretty good to be 2,000 years old.’ The kids applauded. I said, ‘you live in (old) beliefs that have been passed down for generations. Your responsibility is to find out who killed Christ and then you will be free. The only time you can love is when you’re free.’”
There were other ugly incidents. Once, a student showed up with a swastika on his arm.
“He didn’t take many steps,” Olsson recalled. “He was taken care of immediately.”
On another occasion, some students were caught plotting to storm the stage and salute Olsson with “Heil Hitler!”
“Those students were dismissed from that high school,” Olsson said. “They never, ever entered that school again. The principal acted.”
She is heartened by how these incidents were handled. She’s not a fan of giving media exposure to antisemitic acts. Publicity “just creates more of those (who say), ‘oh, I can do the same thing.’”
She’s asked whether kids do this sort of thing out of deep-seated racism or for attention on social media.
“That’s a good question,” Olsson responds. “When I ask my audience in person, ‘how do you feel when somebody tells you I hate you? What does it feel like?’ Some kids have a big smile on their face. I know what it feels like because I was hated. Hate is not something that you can resolve issues with. Or be a bystander. Bystanders are those who give power to the bully.”
She finds there is more bullying now than in decades past, especially online. What form does it take? “I find there’s less acceptance, (those who say), ‘I am better than you are. I’m different.’”
That leads her to the motto by which she has been guided. It came via “my beautiful husband,” who died in 1962, after Olsson had told him in that post-war era to date a Swedish girl “because I’m different. His response was, ‘it’s okay to be different. What’s not okay is when you are indifferent.’”