A Holocaust Survivor’s Search for Freedom Beyond The Iron Curtain
Part of the #StrongAndFree campaign to highlight the plight of refugees, the importance of their stories, the wars and human rights atrocities that force their exile and the xenophobia that keeps them there, through the firsthand accounts of Canadian Holocaust survivor’s journey to escape war torn Europe and rebuild a new life in Canada.
Here we meet Agnes Tomasov as she arrives in Canada for the first time, forced to leave her ailing father behind, because of antisemetic persecution, and put down roots in an unwelcoming new community, in the hopes of ensuring a brighter future for her children. This is a glimpse into that struggle.
While the surviving Czech Jews were grateful to the Soviet Union for liberating them from the Nazis and there were individual Jews in positions of prominence both in the Communist Party and new Communist government, most Jews opposed the 1948 Communist takeover and the end of democracy. As long as Czechoslovakia’s borders with the West remained open, many Jews voted with their feet. Between 1948 and 1950, almost 25,000 Jews left Czechoslovakia, most for the newly declared State of Israel. When Communist authorities closed Czechoslovakia’s borders to further emigration in 1950, there were only about 18,000 Jews left in Czechoslovakia, barely 5 per cent of the pre-war Jewish population. Many of them might have left had the opportunity presented itself.
Among those Jews still in Czechoslovakia were Agnes and her family. Just eighteen when the Communists seized power, Agnes was at first less concerned with the nation’s political life than with her own. While the Communist regime tightened its grip on Czechoslovakia, Agnes was preoccupied with family and friends, with school and career options, and, later, with building a life with her new husband, Joe Tomasov, who was also a Jewish survivor from Slovakia, and with raising their two children, Tomas and Katka. But there was no avoiding the scourge of antisemitism. Hollowed out of the basic freedoms we often take for granted, it was not long before Czechoslovakia turned on its remaining Jews. Antisemitism was rampant both in the Communist Party and among those who covertly despised it. Many closet anti-Communists regarded all Jews as Communists or at least Communist supporters — and, indeed, there were Jews who held senior positions in the Communist Party and government. Among them was the Party’s secretary general, Rudolf Slánsky. At the same time, there were also Party loyalists who mistrusted Jews, convinced that they cared more about their fellow Jews and Israel than about Czechoslovakia and the Party.
Anti-Jewish hostility spilled into the open in 1952 when, following the lead of Joseph Stalin, who initiated a purge of influential Jews in the Soviet Union, the Czechoslovak Communist Party began its own purge of Jews, including Slánský. In a notorious show trial, Slánský and thirteen other high profile Party members, eleven of them Jews, were accused of conspiring with Zionists and other non-Party elements to undermine the state. Slánský and the others were found guilty. Eleven, including Slánský, were executed. And attacks on Jews did not stop there. Many Jews were arrested and jailed. Others were simply fired from their jobs.
The families of imprisoned Jews — as Agnes would discover when Joe was sentenced to six years in prison on trumped-up charges — found life increasingly difficult. Shunned by many of their neighbours and co-workers, and short of money, they learned that efforts to secure their loved ones’ release, no matter how unjust their sentences, were seldom successful. And who might be next? No Jew felt safe in Czechoslovakia and there seemed no way out. On rare occasions, permission to leave Czechoslovakia might be granted to someone so that he or she might join family abroad, but an application for permission to leave for Israel or the West was sure to bring the authorities to the applicant’s door. Much as they might want to, few Jews dared apply to leave. And any Jew caught trying to escape could count on a harsh prison sentence.
“ More and more people were leaving the country and so far the border authorities were letting them through. Ivan didn’t want to leave at first, but his sister persuaded him. We tried to convince my father and his wife to come with us, but my father simply said, “You cannot transplant an old tree.” He had been sick for some time and was suffering from regular high fevers that the doctors couldn’t seem to diagnose. My stepmother also had signs of Parkinson’s disease. Despite all of this, my father heroically encouraged us to leave the country, declaring, “I know that you’re leaving not because you don’t love us, but because you want to secure a better future for your children.”
After a month of waiting, the Canadian consulate gave us our airplane tickets — they were free of charge with our promise to repay them as soon as we were able. Our group arrived at Pearson International airport in Toronto on November 21, 1968, a historic day in the life of our family.
When we landed in Toronto, Joe’s sister, Aranka, her son, Tomy, and Gordon Singer, one of Joe’s colleagues from the University of Prague, met us at the airport and took us to our assigned accommodations at the Ford Hotel. The day we arrived was both snowy and rainy, and the Ford was a very substandard hotel, so our first impression of Toronto was depressing. On top of all this gloom, we learned that Aranka’s husband, Fred, had suffered a massive heart attack just four days earlier and was in the intensive care unit. Aranka had never worked in Canada and was very concerned about their financial future. As new immigrants we didn’t have much money or a permanent place to live, so we weren’t in any position to help her. What was encouraging, however, was that Gordon Singer promised to help Joe find an engineering job.
The immigration authorities recognized Joe’s proficiency in English and asked him to serve as a translator for the hundreds of newly arrived Czechoslovakian immigrants. Canada was very generous to us: we got free accommodations and a daily food allowance. Many of the immigrants in Ontario also received financial support for six months of full-time English-language instruction. After three days of working for them as a translator, the immigration officials sent Joe to the city hall building department to apply for a position as a civil engineer. His interview went well and he was offered a job that started within the week.
although the apartment was much nicer than the place we had had in Košice, the superintendent turned out to be an antisemite. The Veselys had moved into the same building and none of us liked living there. Enrolling Tom and Katka in Leaside High School ended up being another bad decision. In hindsight, we realized that we should have moved to a Jewish area where the children would have been far more understanding of new immigrant children than was the case in the very settled Anglo-Saxon culture of Leaside.
Tom’s experience at Leaside High School had a negative impact on him for many years. He started getting homesick and had trouble finding his place in this new society. Katka’s situation was slightly better since she was able to make friends with two girls from immigrant families — Yuko Watanabe, a Japanese girl, and Jenin, an Arab girl. Although several other Czechoslovakian immigrant children attended the same school, both Tom and Katka still felt isolated and not at all accepted by most of their fellow students. After living in our apartment at 892 Eglinton Avenue East for five months, we decided to move to Thorncliffe Park, where a new Czechoslovakian community was developing. ”