My Opa’s Memoir Starts A New Chapter

Arthur Schaller, 1946. Picture of my Opa recently sent to us by newly discovered distant relatives.

When my grandmother died two years ago, my mother declared herself an orphan: a woman with no living family, save for an estranged sister and me, her only child.

Then something miraculous happened. (Well, something logical but still pretty incredible happened.) My mother received a message on Facebook from a distant relative she never knew she had.

This story is made all the more dramatic by the fact that my mother only saw Roberto’s message by chance. He messaged her in August 2014, but since they weren’t Facebook friends, the message went to an unchecked folder. She happened to click on it and saw the message in February 2015.

How did Roberto and his wife Betty find my mother? They saw her (and my) name in the acknowledgements of my grandfather Arthur Schaller’s memoir about his escape from the Warsaw Ghetto, 100 Cigarettes and a Bottle of Vodka, saw that she had an online profile, and contacted her. (My mother would later stay with Roberto and Betty, her second cousin, and hear their family’s stories in person during her first visit to LA in August 2015. More on that later.)

Initial hardcover release, featuring an old Mac font, 1998
Paperback release, 2002

My grandfather’s memoir is another story entirely, one that could fill many many blog posts, but I’ll summarize it by saying that he was the only surviving member of his family during The Holocaust, and it took him his entire life to publish his epic story. The hardcover book was finally published while he was on his deathbed, posthumously won awards, was later published in paperback, and is now available online. As you can see on Google Books, Goodreads, Amazon Canada and Amazon US, people are still reading it. (I am happy to see that the Toronto Public Library has eight copies.)

Here are a couple select passages from the book, which best summarize the kind of person my grandfather was:

One of my first books was Hans Christian Andersen’s collection of fairy tales about kings, princesses, giants, and gentle old wizards who gave advice filled with wisdom and kindness. People were good, kind, and noble, and they could be trusted. That was the lesson of these fables. If they failed, it was because of their errors and limitations. Evil was something unknown, far beyond this world, and one felt sorry for it, as though it were a thing that was forever lost and unhappy. (p. 4–5)

Hunger and misery and death affected me only to the extent that I had to adapt myself to meet them. Within the depths of my mind, little had changed. I still believed, as before, in the ultimate goodness of the human race. Evil hadn’t stopped being something one felt sorry for, because people who were evil didn’t know any better. True, the suffering of the victim was more profound than that of the oppressor, but what did the oppressor do to himself by doing those things? Can one have a peace of mind while hating? Can one have trust in oneself when distrusting humanity? Can one live with oneself while inflicting death on others? I never doubted that the answers to these questions were all in the negative. Absolute good is here all the time, and lucky are the ones who can see it and rise above their misery. It could not be said that I consciously thought about these things. I just knew this deep inside, and knowing it was as normal to me as breathing. (p. 31)

My grandfather was a kind man. Here are my two strongest memories of him:

  1. Musicals

My grandfather’s mother was a famous concert pianist in Poland. He played accordion, fiddle and keyboard. My mother is a harpist. I was well acquainted with her repertoire of classical songs and modern pop and jazz fare while still in the womb. It’s safe to say that I would be a musical person no matter what, but spending a lot of time with my grandfather in my formative years greatly influenced me. My grandfather encouraged my obsession with music, and might have sparked my love of musicals. When I was very little (though at this time I would have told you: “I’m not little, I’m just the right size”), my mom would drop me off at my grandparents’ home (or Oma and Opa’s, as we called them), just off Roncesvalles in Toronto’s Little Poland. I would roller skate around the house, eat a lot of red peppers and bologna, listen to my grandfather play accordion, play around on the keyboard, and sit in the living room and watch countless hours of musicals that my grandfather meticulously taped and labelled for me on VHS. My favourites were The Wizard of Oz, Annie (1982), Oliver! (1968), The Labyrinth, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1995 TV movie version of Cinderella, and Back to the Beanstalk, a 1990 TV movie starring Canadian competitive figure skater and Olympic silver medalist Elizabeth Manley as Jack. The Sound of Music will always hold a special place in my heart because not only is it an unforgettable musical, but it’s set in Austria, where my grandmother came from (and always pointed out).

2. Manitoulin

Arthur Schaller’s Momento of Manitoulin, 1972

My grandfather, in addition to being an accomplished musician, was also an accomplished songwriter. Perhaps his greatest musical accomplishment (that I was aware of) was publishing an entire album dedicated to Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world, where my family had a small cottage (which was sold after my grandfather’s death). This lovely folk album, sang by Mike Graham, is so positive and sincere, and represents the peaceful safe haven that Canada was for him. I remember singing on Manitoulin… (from Manitoulin March) with my grandfather on his deathbed at Mount Sinai Hospital in June 1998. His mind was pretty far gone, but he remembered me and the music. I was 11, smiling and couldn’t stop myself from crying.

Here is an emo poem I wrote for an underground student newspaper in university, the last narrative I wrote about my grandfather’s memoir. Oh hey, World’s Biggest Bookstore has been torn down since then to make way for condos! Impending generations probably won’t know what bookstores are! How fast things change.

Getting to know the LA fam

This brings me to the point of this story: the fact that we newly discovered we have living family. My grandfather’s first cousin Genya, who he refers to in the book as Gita, escaped The Holocaust with her sister Freda. Together they went to Bolivia, and eventually got to Argentina. Genya married and had two children, Beatriz (Betty) and Imre. The whole family made Aliyah and moved to Israel in the ’90s. Imre is an engineer in Israel with four kids (three of whom live in Israel, while the fourth works for Google in Silicon Valley). Betty and her husband Roberto eventually settled in Los Angeles. They have two children: a copywriter who makes music in his spare time in LA, and a student who lives in Boston. This is the family we are familiar with. There is apparently more distant family who live in Tel Aviv. Betty told my mother about our family when they met last summer in LA.

My grandfather and his father Chaim, sent to us by Imre’s wife Rosita

My mother tells me all of this, and recounts all of our relatives who were killed during The Holocaust. “Holy shit. We would have had such a big family,” I hear myself saying aloud. “The Nazis stole our family,” my mom says. “Don’t let it make you feel sad, because then they win.”

If there’s anything my grandfather taught me, it’s the positivity that life requires. Life goes on, the story’s just more intricate.

I am embarking on my first trip to LA in two weeks, and hope to continue this story.

L’chaim.