Growing up surrounded by Holocaust survivors

Ella Burakowski, left, with her mother. Shoshana, and sister, Sarah, in front of their first home in Toronto, which they shared with her grandmother and her uncle's family.

On the first day of Grade 1, Vivienne opened her lunch pail and pulled out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I opened my paper bag and pulled out my wet sardine and tomato sandwich. I knew I was different. I knew not to complain.

Growing up in a home with Holocaust survivors made my life unique compared to my friends born to Canadian parents.

My mom and her family spent most of the Holocaust on the run and in hiding, while my dad went from a ghetto into forced labour and then to Dachau concentration camp.

After the war, my parents met in a displaced persons camp, then were smuggled on an Aliyah Bet ship to Israel, where my sister Sarah and I were born. The fighting between Arabs and Jews further traumatized Mom, so Dad relented and left his only surviving relative, his brother, to move to Canada.


In Toronto, Mom was reunited with her mother and her younger brother, David, and we all lived together for many years. Mom felt she could handle life now that she was with the only people she trusted.

Looking back, I realize it was the little things that made us different. We could never have enough bread, even though our freezer was stuffed. I was forbidden to leave the table until my entire meal was eaten. I remember being on a swing and Mom shovelling food into my mouth every time I swung toward her. We didn’t look or act like the other kids. Our clothes were homemade, our hairstyles old-fashioned and our rules stricter and more secretive.

No one could steal our education,  so next to food, it was the focus in our home. My parents qualified for a subsidy, and by Grade 2, I moved from public to private Hebrew school. It was imperative to develop friendships with Jewish children, and when the community moved north, we followed. My parents were careful about who they let into their lives and developed friendships with other survivors. Every Saturday night was reserved for the kutin shpilers, the card players.


Most of the kids at my new school came from more affluent families. I didn’t fit in, so I gravitated to the kids whose parents were also survivors. Their parents were “Greeners” too, and we had an unspoken understanding.

We struggled financially. There were no extras – no car, no toys, no cookies. But there was never a shortage of affection and love.

Our Jewish faith was an essential part of my upbringing. My parents joined Shaarei Tefillah Synagogue, our home was kosher, and I was encouraged to join NCSY, a Jewish youth group, but I didn’t fit in with those kids either.

Getting sick had nothing to do with contagion, it was all about the evil-eye. My mom trusted no one outside our family. There were no sleepovers. My leash was short and Mom had to know my whereabouts at all times. My parents were overprotective and worriers, always imagining the worst.

Life was finally getting comfortable and routine, until a Shabbat in January, 1972. Mom and I waited for Grammy and Uncle David to arrive from shul. Abba was in Israel visiting his brother. Through the window, Mom saw our tenant coming in the side door. She was waiting for him on the landing when I heard her call out to me. I reached her just in time to catch her as she fell toward me and collapsed onto the floor. She died that morning, and all of our lives changed forever. I was 14 years old and she was 52.


None of us recovered from that horrible day. Dad never remarried. My grandmother left our home and my sister took on the role of caregiver for Dad. I sank into a deep, dangerous abyss and transformed overnight into an angry teen who hated everyone, especially Mom for leaving me. It was a dark few years following her death. We all dealt with it separately in our own way.

The older I got, the more I thought about my upbringing and why I was so afraid to take risks, even small ones. There had to be others like me. I joined a second generation group and met others with similar stories. However, while most 2G survivors knew a little about what their parents lived through, and they at least had a reason why their parents were broken, I did not. I had no explanation for why my parents cried out in the night, why Mom was depressed and suffered two breakdowns before she died, why Dad chose to work in a factory all his life.

It was only a few years ago that I learned my mother’s story from my Uncle David who was in hiding with her. Through his memories, I wrote a book, Hidden Gold, the story of my mother and her family during the war. Decades after her death I was finally able to really know my mom. I was able to walk in her shoes through the darkest time in her life. I felt her strength, her courage and her fear.


When I was doing research for my book at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, the researcher handed me a card with a chronological account of my father’s whereabouts through the Holocaust. But it was too late. Dad died in 1995 and took his story with him.

Once I put pen to paper I had a much better understanding of my roots. My parents taught me the value of faith, family, perseverance, loyalty and a deep appreciation for the State of Israel. They instilled in me an honest work ethic and an appreciation of what I have.   

As a child, I always tried to please my parents. Its odd how even though they’ve been gone for many years, it’s still a core need in me to make them proud.