Today, July 28, we celebrate Herta Getzler’s 100 extraordinary years of life. Our grandmother is so fortunate that her steadfast memory focuses on her beautiful family and school life before the Holocaust and the loving, meaningful and successful life she built in Canada after the war with her husband of 62 years, Philip Getzler.
Herta was born in Berlin in 1921 to Zigmunt and Dora Nussbaum and had two sisters, Rita and Hela. Her happy and loving childhood was cut off with Hitler’s rise to power.
As the war escalated in Germany, Herta’s father, who was from Krakow, was forced to leave their home in Berlin to return to Krakow. His family soon followed him to rural Poland, outside Krakow, and eventually all were placed in the Krakow Ghetto.
In her early days in the Krakow Ghetto, Herta worked for Philip’s mother, who always hoped he would marry someone like her. Subsequently, she found work at a nearby enamel factory, run by Oskar Schindler. Our grandmother was part of the first cohort working in Schindler’s factory, while she lived in the Krakow Ghetto.
She lived in the ghetto until it was liquidated, while she was at work in the factory. Every member of her family was deported and killed, except for one sister who had been sent to the U.K. before the family moved to the ghetto.
Our grandmother had a personal relationship with Schindler and was favoured by him due to her German descent and the fact that she had a striking command of the German language as a Jew in his factory.
When the Krakow Ghetto was destroyed, Herta was moved to Placzow and eventually to Schindler’s Brunnlitz factory. The train was routed through Auschwitz for a number of weeks. Herta narrowly avoided certain death, leaving Auschwitz with scarlet fever (her fever and redness were disguised with the help of her fellow inmates).
Upon her arrival in Brunnlitz, it was Schindler who did not send her back to Auschwitz due to being sickly, but instead separated her from the others and personally nursed her back to health. Many would sneak a peak at the woman in the cellar who Schindler was caring for.
Herta was liberated at the factory in Brunnlitz and returned to Krakow where our grandfather, Philip, came to find her. They married right away and spent time in a displaced persons camp in Linz, Austria, where their son George was born. They subsequently traveled to Sweden to explore the option of living with family there, ultimately deciding not to stay.
After entertaining the idea of moving to Australia, Israel or New York, Philip decided he had lost too much of his life to commute daily from outside New York City to the city. Our grandparents were able to move to Toronto when Rita, my grandmother’s older sister, could sponsor them.
Philip was offered a business opportunity in North Bay, Ont., in a wholesale automotive business and eventually was able to open his own business. Ever a trailblazer, our grandmother opened her own women’s clothing store called Herta’s Fashion Fare on Main Street and ran her business until the mid-1970s. It was in North Bay that their daughter Debbie was born
In 1986, Philip sold his business and our grandparents moved to Toronto to be closer to their children and grandchildren. No matter the loss or hardship, every story our grandmother shares begins with, “we had a good life.”
Herta now enjoys frequent visits from her grandchildren and her seven great-grandchildren.
Holding tight to her German roots, she is the quintessential balabusta. Her rich, delicious cakes and cookies were served with love to her family, friends, and neighbours for any and all occasions, or no occasions at all!
Her holiday and Shabbat dinners were legendary and always included her signature cucumber salad and potato salad, followed by ‘goodie bowls’ for the kids, chosen from cupboards full of candy. Now it’s our turn to visit her and bring some of her favourites including kishka, tongue, matzah ball soup and other nostalgic delights.
At 100 years old, our grandmother’s memory is as sharp as ever. She recalls her happy childhood in Berlin and her life in Canada with our grandfather. Life was not easy for our grandparents who lost their families. They made sacrifices and worked tirelessly to save and give their children the best opportunities. They eventually enjoyed the fruits of their labour with world travel and celebrating milestones with family and friends.
Sadly, our grandfather passed away in 2008. Living without him has caused tremendous pain for our grandmother who recalls daily their great and enduring love. But, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, she always says that “God was good to me.”
Alana Saxe is Herta Getzler’s granddaughter.