This Canadian Holocaust survivor’s ‘ordinary’ life included blowing up Nazi trains and fighting a wolf

Bernard Rubin Holocaust survival book
A new book by Bernard Pinsky tells the incredible Holocaust survival story of his late father, partisan Rubin Pinsky. (Supplied photo)

Vancouver Holocaust speaker Rubin Pinsky fled a Nazi work camp in May 1942 and survived for more than two years in the forests of Poland, serving as a teenage Jewish partisan.

Pinsky, a former yeshivah student, blew up trains, sabotaged telephone wires and killed Nazis and collaborators. One time, he even finished off a timber wolf attempting to hunt a wild rabbit the starving partisans had called dibs on, so to speak—they needed the game for their own next meal.

Pinsky’s story of survival, including how he pretended to be a tailor with bad eyesight to enter Canada after the war, is now captured in a gripping new biography. Written by his son Bernard Pinsky, a lawyer and community leader in Vancouver, the book is called Ordinary, Extraordinary: My Father’s Life. The sweeping tale spans nearly a century, beginning and ending in the Pinsky family’s small bakery in modern-day Belarus, with stops in Germany, Montreal, Winnipeg, Regina and finally Vancouver, where Rubin died in 2001.

For Yom HaShoah, The CJN Daily is joined by Bernard Pinsky, who explains why he took so long to publish his father’s story—and what he hopes readers will learn.

What we talked about:

  • Watch the Yom HaShoah National Memorial Ceremony from Ottawa on Monday, May 6, 2024, beginning at 11 a.m. EST
  • Buy the book about Rubin Pinsky, and watch his video testimony done in 1983 through the Vancouver Holocaust Centre
  • Read how one man is restoring Holocaust-era rural cemeteries in Hungary, one at a time, in The CJN

Transcript:

Rubin Pinsky: Actually we knew, the Jewish partisans knew that we will never survive. So the only thing was while we are alive to take revenge.

Interviewer: That was your feeling all the time.

Rubin Pinsky: That was the feeling to take revenge for the innocent people they killed.

Ellin Bessner: That’s the voice of the late Rubin Pinsky, a Holocaust survivor who came to Canada after the war. He was speaking to an interviewer filming his testimony for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre where Pinsky was one of the founders and an educator at local high schools. The stories he told the public and his own three children helped Rubin’s son, Bernard Pinsky, write the new gripping story of his father’s remarkable life. It’s called “Ordinary, Extraordinary.”

And it covers nearly 100 years and focuses on Rubin’s time hiding in the forests of Poland for two years together with his older sister, and serving as a fierce teenaged partisan hunting Nazis.

It includes what happened after the Holocaust when in 1948 Canada finally accepted Jewish refugees from Displaced Persons camps but only 2500 of them and only if they were tailors.

So Rubin boldly faked his way onto a ship full of qualified tailors bound for Canada, even though he couldn’t sew for beans. Bernard Pinsky actually wrote most of his manuscript 25 years ago.

It sat basically untouched for years until his wife bugged him and made him realize it was high time the book saw the light of day. Pinsky launched the book just a few months ago in Vancouver after October 7th, the worst mass killing of Jews since the Holocaust, always mindful of his father’s lifelong optimism, despite what the older Pinsky had lived through.

Bernard Pinsky: I think he’d be disappointed like all of us. But I think he would say to us all we have to keep fighting. We’ll get through this. We always have.

Ellin Bessner: I’m Ellin Besner and this is what Jewish Canada sounds like for Monday, May the 6th 2024. Yom HaShoah. The day when we remember the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis and the martyrs and resistance fighters like Rubin Pinsky.

The biography about him introduces us to a young Rubin who was born into an Orthodox family in Djelotvo, Poland in 1924 (although that area now is part of Belarus.) Before the Second World War, the Pinskys ran a produce business and a home bakery. Rubin left home to attend yeshivah. When the Russians came and occupied the town, his oldest brother, Herzl was conscripted into the Russian army.

Two years later, the Germans invaded. They built a ghetto, rounded up all the able-bodied Jews, including Rubin who was home by then: 16 years old and fit. He was forced to build roads.

But after work and after dark, Rubin used to sneak back into the family’s old abandoned house which was outside the ghetto to dig up the crop of potatoes they’d planted. That helped sustain his parents and two sisters for quite a while.

Rubin Pinsky: From time to time, the Germans used to check every bundle of wood and every person. Anybody who was found with something was shot right away.

Interviewer: So you were lucky. 

Rubin: Yes.

Interviewer:  It must have been frightening.

Rubin:  Each day, risked with my life, all the time.

Ellin Bessner: Eventually, a year later in April 1942 everybody who wasn’t useful was ordered to march or ride to the nearby forests where they were all shot and killed in large pits including Pinsky’s parents and a baby sister.

Days later, Rubin and his older sister Chasia fled to the forests and joined a roving band of Russian and Jewish partisans. For two years, the siblings evaded capture while blowing up train tracks, sabotaging Nazi barracks, even killing some enemy soldiers and collaborators.

All this despite having to scrounge for berries, eat tree bark sometimes to survive.

Rubin nearly died of typhus. He recovered with his sister’s help and a dose of pure alcohol.

He weighed 85 pounds, but was able to fight off a hungry timber wolf who wanted the wild rabbit the siblings needed for their own meal. 

On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, here’s my conversation with the author Bernard Pinsky.

Bernard Pinsky: I’ve never been called an author by anybody before.

This is my first time. So I’m honoured. Thank you for today.

Ellin Bessner: Well, I’m honoured for having read your book. I get the feeling and I’m making this up in my mind, so correct me if I’m wrong, but part of it is your struggle. This book is about the incredible resilience and risk and bravery and courage that your father, his sister, and uncle did [show] in order to survive. But part of it, is it your own struggle to realize what your Dad actually had to do to become the ordinary father you knew. right?

Bernard Pinsky: Look, a lot of people were not going to fight to stay alive. I mean, think of fighting all the time and trying to survive all the time and you get tired. You get awfully tired of anything that feels hopeless. And people will give up. And my father didn’t give up and my aunt didn’t give up. They were in, you know, difficult, difficult circumstances and they never gave up. I mean, it was easier to just get in line and let them shoot you, because the tsuris (troubles), the difficulties the hardships, the starvation, the pain–it’s all over if you do that. And so he didn’t.

Ellin Bessner:  Why did he never want to take what he used to call blood money, Nazi blood money, but other people call war crime reparations from Germany. Because it would have helped your family financially a lot. 

Bernard Pinsky: He just thought that taking their money would be a form of forgiveness and he didn’t want to forgive them. Didn’t want them to feel OK. “I did something bad but I paid for it. So it’s OK.”

It just never was ok.

Ellin Bessner: If I remember he’s one of the people who helped found the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and became a popular speaker in classrooms.

Bernard Pinsky: Well, I wouldn’t say he was a popular speaker. 

He did speak, you know. My memories of it was that he had a very hard time speaking and he got very emotional and and maybe that’s not such a popular thing, but he did speak when he could. And so he did his share, I guess. With other people. But at some point he decided he couldn’t anymore. And that was probably, in the 1980s. eighties.

Ellin Bessner: And you said that he was so gentle in the way he spoke about his stories that it did not give you trauma.

Bernard Pinsky: Yeah. He would sit on our bed and he wouldn’t talk about being hounded or killed. He would just say things that he did.

Ellin Bessner: And did you believe him as a young child?

Bernard Pinsky: Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean these are stories that he almost couldn’t make up. I mean, because there was so many of them. He gave such detail about his life in the forest. It was sort of blazoned in my mind, which is why I had to write it.

Ellin Bessner: Why wait 25 years to publish it though?

Bernard Pinsky: I just felt compelled to write the story of my father mainly because he was just such an ordinary person. And my mother’s family had some very bright people who hadn’t gone through the Holocaust. They were born in Canada and they went to university and they got their PhDs and they became math champions. And my Dad just seemed like very ordinary and plain compared to them.

But as I learned more about my father’s life, I thought, Wow. He is making an incredible life for himself and his family. A good life. Even though it was struggle to make a living.

And he didn’t have the advantages and he came here as an adult and he didn’t know a word of English and he just made a family, a good family. And so I felt that I needed to write something about the stories he had told me so nicely and gently and in a way that didn’t give me any trauma or my sister and brother.

And so I decided to write his story of his life for his birthday. As a birthday present. And I worked on it for about a year and I gave it to him for his 72nd birthday.

He was already at a stage where…He never was into reading English very much anyway. He read Yiddish. And so I don’t really think he read it. Certainly not all of it, but parts of it, probably. And I told him about it and he was excited and he gave me all the wonderful feedback that I would have hoped to get. But I think he felt good about it and the fact that he didn’t read it was OK. So I didn’t expect to do anything further with it.

One of my mother’s cousins’ husband, he said, “You know, you should submit it. or I’ll submit it for you to Yad VaShem and see if they accept it as a Holocaust history of the town”.  And I said “Sure.” And a few months later, I got a letter from Yad VaShem which said your manuscript has been accepted at Yad VaShem and we will put it into our archives. And I thought, Wow, that’s a great honour. I felt good about that and that was probably 1997 but that was it for about ten years.

And then I got a very strange letter from a person who said that they were a teacher. Very bad English. And, basically it said, I’m a teacher. I’m a history teacher at a high school in a city town called Djatlovo (his father’s home town in now Belarus, formerly Poland.)  She said “I was in Yad VaShem and I found your manuscript and I’d like to translate it into Russian.”

And I’m thinking to myself, Djatlovo? What is Djatlovo? So I Googled it and found that Jatlovo was the Russian name of the town my father called Getzl. I wrote back to her and said, sure, go ahead and keep touch. And my brother Max got excited and he actually decided a year and a half later to do a roots trip with his daughter Rachel to Djatlovo, in February of 2009. The town just received them like royalty. They had a high school event for them, and it made me think that I have to do this too, even though I had never wanted to go there and my dad never wanted to go back. I eventually did go back and it was quite an amazing experience being there. This woman, Jenna who, who contacted me? She’s just a saint that she decided, because of not knowing that there had been a Jewish community there, to really get involved with making the memory of the Jewish community be prevalent in that town.

Ellin Bessner: You wrote that while you were there, you said a lot of Kaddishes.  At all the different places where family members had been murdered. Tell me what you did, how you found all those places. Describe what it was like.

Bernard Pinsky: So Janna and others who had been active for a couple of years already in trying to create memorials for Holocaust victims, they knew where the atrocities happened. So with them, we would go to different places.

The one that was most upsetting for me was walking the two kilometres from the town to where my grandparents and aunt were killed. They would basically walk there.

And there was a street and there was houses on the street and everybody in the houses were told by the Nazis to put pillows on the windows and don’t come out of the house at a certain time and don’t answer if anyone calls you. If anyone’s speaking, don’t answer anything. Just keep quiet in your house.

And you know, the Jews who were marched along that walk pretty much knew what was going to happen and they were calling to their neighbours and they were saying things that I can only imagine. And they were marched about two kilometres from town and near the road there was a big hole.

Maybe they were forced to dig the hole. And they were all shot. And that’s where there’s a memorial that was protected by the town, by different organizations. They get turns and they’re supposed to keep it clean and protect it from vandalism and that’s what they do. They do a good job of that. That was the hardest thing that I did.

Ellin Bessner: Why did you write that you felt redeemed by saying a lot of Kaddishes in Belarus. What did you need to be redeemed from?

Bernard Pinsky: I guess, not so much redeemed, but I was able to pay my respects to those who had perished and to some extent they died and I was given a new life in a new country. So to some extent that’s redeemed, because I don’t know where I would have been, or if I would have been alive at all, had my father not come to Canada.

So I guess I felt I owed them something to honour their memories.

Ellin Bessner: So you’re launching your book 25 years after it was written. What’s different in it than what was in the little manuscriptella, as you call it. What did you add?

Bernard Pinsky: So first of all, I wrote it while my father was still alive. So I added some materials from the rest of his life and his stroke and his difficulties. Then I added the blog from my roots trip. And I added the Tailor Project.

Ellin Bessner: When you started this book, you got a call from a woman who was researching the Tailor Project, which is the scheme in the end of the war to bring garment workers to Canada as a way to sort of get through the blockage of the Canadian government’s racist policies to bring Jewish refugees. Did your dad actually ever learn to sew at all? I know he went to the school in former Bergen Belsen displaced persons camp, after the war, to be a dental mechanic, or dental technician. But he couldn’t sew at all? Not even a button?

Bernard Pinsky:  I never saw him sewing, I never saw.

Ellin Bessner: So he’s not one of the people considered part of the Tailor Project, right? Or is he?

Bernard Pinsky: It’s really a bit of a mystery because he wasn’t a tailor and it seems that he got in on the Tailor Project, but he didn’t go to work as a tailor in a factory (the way his older brother Herzl did in Montreal). And so maybe they decided that he just didn’t want to continue working as a tailor and wanted to be a teacher instead.

Ellin Bessner: He was a Hebrew teacher, right?

Bernard Pinsky: He was, he was a Yiddish Yiddish teacher.

Ellin Bessner: At the Peretz school in Winnipeg.

It struck me that it’s 100 years since your father’s birth. And 1948 was when they came to Canada. He was 20 years old when he got off the ship. 76 years ago. And what a life! For two and a half years in the forest, killing people, blowing up trains, starving, nearly dying of illness, being nursed back to health by his loving sister. So many escapes. It’s a miracle that he made it. But you wrote that survival stories also have lots of elements in common.

Bernard Pinsky: Well, first: tenacity. You have to be absolutely tenacious to want to stay alive and fight to stay alive.

You’ve got to be smart or extraordinarily lucky to escape what was, you know, sure death for most people, even if they were smart and, and in good shape. You had to be physically, very capable. You have to be resourceful, super resourceful. Figure out things. How are you going to get some more food? How are you going to stay out of the way of those who would kill you? Maybe persuade somebody that you talked into doing something that they otherwise might not have done?

There’s so many factors that each person.So, yeah. I recently checked that the Jewish population of Europe in 1938 was approximately between nine and 9.5 million people. 6 million of them died. Two thirds, two out of every three people in Europe who is Jewish died in a six year span, five year span, really? Some people, when they saw the Nazis and what they were doing, some people could afford to leave and immigrate somewhere.

We’ve got some families here (in Vancouver) who emigrated and they typically converted in order to get into Canada, because they wouldn’t get into Canada unless they did. So there’s a family called Bentley’s that did that. They converted and they don’t really want to remember their Jewish roots.

Ellin Bessner: But your father also was impacted because of the trauma that he went through, right? Because he didn’t believe in God anymore. He was still Jewish, but he lost his faith that way.

Bernard Pinsky: Right. But interestingly enough, even though he didn’t believe in God, he was very, very, very Jewish and they’re not incompatible to not believe in God and be very, very Jewish.

Ellin Bessner: What would he have made of the antisemitism that we’re now experiencing today?

Bernard Pinsky: Well, one of the main points I make in the book is that he was an optimist. And I think that he would say, ”Yes, it’s tough, but we’ll get through this and we’ll get to better times.”

Ellin Bessner: I mean, he killed a wolf to get a rabbit to eat! Honestly! He’s a lot braver than some guy with a placard in Vancouver protesting on the street against Jews, right?

Bernard Pinsky: Look, he was a young man and he was a desperate man 

Ellin Bessner: I wish I would have met him, but it’s an honour to hear his story. And there should be literally a movie made about him. With someone short though. Tom Cruise? He’s short.

Bernard Pinsky: Yeah, there’s something there. He’s got too much hair, though!

Ellin Bessner:  Thank you so much for sharing this story. And congratulations on “Ordinary, Extraordinary.”

And that’s what Jewish Canada sounds like for this episode of The CJN Daily sponsored by Metropia. Integrity, community, quality and customer care.

To learn more about Rubin Pinsky or to order the book, just go to the link in our show notes.

I’ve also put the link in the notes to watch the commemorative ceremonies for Yom HaShoah at Canada’s National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa.

It starts at 11 o’clock Eastern time on Monday. And this year it’ll focus on the 80th anniversary of the deportation of over 400,000 Hungarian Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which began in May 1944.

SFX Dara Solomon and Justin Trudeau:

Dara Solomon: So this is the first. Hmm. Meanwhile in Canada, we talk about the Christie Pits riots,..

Ellin Bessner:  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was at a private visit Sunday at the Toronto Holocaust Museum where Director Dara Solomon showed him some of the artifacts and arranged for Trudeau to sit down for an intimate conversation with two survivors.

The event happened ahead of B’nai Brith Canada’s set to release its annual audit of antisemitic incidents later today, which will likely show a massive spike since October 7th.

The CJN Daily is produced by Zachary Judah Kauffman. Our executive producer is Michael Freeman. Our music is by Dov Beck-Levine. If you like this episode, please share it with your community. That’s the best way we know to grow our audience. Thank you all for listening to The CJN Daily.

Credits:

The CJN Daily is written and hosted by Ellin Bessner (@ebessner on Twitter). Zachary Kauffman is the producer. Michael Fraiman is the executive producer. Our theme music is by Dov Beck-Levine. We’re a member of The CJN Podcast Network. To subscribe to this podcast, please watch this video. Donate to The CJN and receive a charitable tax receipt by clicking here. Hear why The CJN is important to me.