My Zaidy lived a very long life. And though he lived through personal horrors and tragedies, for the most part his life was healthy and, I think, happy. When a man has lived this kind of life, we cannot feel sad for him at his death. We are sad because of what we have lost with Zaidy’s death and because we will miss him terribly. However no man who has lived as good a life as Zaidy did is ever totally lost to those who knew or who were influenced by him. And that is especially true if we stop and think for a moment about what kind of man he was, what he meant to us, and how we can learn from the kind of life he lived.
Born in the fall of 1914 in a now lost world, the town of Chmeilnik in Poland, Chaim Szjtenberg was born to Icek Majer and Mala. Like most Eastern European Jews, he inhabited a poor yet joyful Jewish world in his childhood, observing the Holidays and Shabboses in the warm hearth of his parents and seven siblings. I was always amazed how much of his childhood knowledge Zaidy seemed to maintain. He spoke happily about carefree playing in the dirt with his siblings and travelling with his father to see Yiddish theatre in the surrounding villages.
The dark cloud of the Holocaust soon spread over Eastern Europe and Zaidy and his family were tragically close to ground zero. Zaidy and his brother Moishe joined the Polish Army – a period that he would only recently confide in my mother to be the happiest time of his life because he had “food and camaraderie”. When Poland fell to the Nazis after only a few weeks, Zaidie and his brother fled back to their home in Lodz to persuade their family to follow them to Russia. Tragically, his parents and remaining siblings fatefully decided to stick it out and hope for the darkness to pass. He would later learn that all of them would be murdered inside the gates of Auschwitz.
Moishe and Zaidy headed into Russia and found low paying work in several labour camps – including one in Siberia. It was here that Zaidy became afflicted with frostbite while manually hoisting huge logs onto wagons, causing him to have all the toes on his right foot amputated. Of course, this wasn’t the antiseptic amputation we see now – and I won’t horrify you with the details – it included only simple scissors and shots of vodka as anaesthesia. It was also around this period that Moishe contracted tuberculosis, and he begged my grandfather to return to Chmeilnik to see their parents. They set out on the long trek back home from Russia, but the endless walking and horrible conditions weakened Moishe severely and he died painfully on a roadside in my Zaidy’s arms at the age of 22. With his dying breath, he whispered to Zaidy “Chaim, why did you take me away from our mother? Why?”. Zaidy was heartbroken, and proceeded to bury his brother at the side of the road somewhere between Siberia and Lodz, using only his bare hands as a shovel. His brother’s words haunted him, and he would speak of his guilt often. He didn’t seem to realize that, in the end, he had actually saved him from the gas chambers.
Time and recordkeeping are tragically non-existent for Jews in Eastern Europe in the 40s, and it is incredibly difficult to establish timelines for any of Zaidy’s life during this period. Even Zaidy himself had many different versions as to when things happened. We do know that at some time between 1942 and 43 he met my Bubby somewhere on the Polish/Ukraine border, and ended up fleeing via the underground to Uzbekistan, where they were married on March 8, 1943. Life had become a blur of camps, hiding places, and jails as they fled the continuing spread of Nazism. Through all of this, they developed a deep bond that would carry them through – for better and for worse – for the next 50 years.
Somehow, Bubby and Zaidy survived the war, and ended up in a Displaced Persons camp in Berlin, Germany. It was here that my Mom was born in 1946, and my uncle was born soon after in 1948. Life in the camp was tenuous but bearable, but they yearned to start anew in Canada where my Zaidy’s Aunt Bleema had emigrated years before. With her sponsorship, the four of them made their way by boat to Halifax, where they arrived at the tail end of 1948 while my Uncle Al was still an infant.
In Toronto, the struggle for life continued. Zaidy worked a myriad of jobs – anything he could get really – to feed his family. He used to go down to the wherever they were assigning employment and wait for them to call out work opportunities. The foreman would yell out “Can anyone do this?” or “Can anyone do that?” and Zaidy would always say he could – even if he couldn’t. This led him to be, among other things, a fish monger, dry cleaner, tailor, variety store owner, and custodian over his working life. All this, while raising two children in a strange country where he was neither familiar with the language nor the customs. This, to me, was the epitome of bravery – a bravery most of us here will never understand.
As I was growing up, my Zaidy played a very active part in our lives. Raising one child is not easy, and my Mom had four of us by the time she was 28. Bubby and Zaidy became part of the blur of activities that included baseball, soccer, Hebrew school, theatre classes, music lessons, and doctor’s appointments. He was generous with advice and tried to be accepting when we ignored it. He tried for years to get me to shave off my beard. He laughed when I told him that my mother liked me better with a beard, but I am not sure he ever believed me.
It’s not always easy growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors, but my Mother Marilyn and my Uncle Al have been devoted and loving children who have always spoken with affection of their father’s whimsical nature, and his utter determination, which surely counts for his survival against impossible odds. And indeed, Zaidy often accomplished the impossible. The last few years of his life, we were told several times that we were going to lose him – that the end was imminent. Each time he came back to us, somehow stronger, even if it was only in his own mind.
The thing I personally will remember most about Zaidy was his irascible sense of humour – often in the most inopportune moments. As a little boy I remember him popping his false teeth out in the middle of a conversation, or suddenly ripping off his sock and chasing me and my brothers around our basement with his toeless foot. But he could be much gentler than that too – he was easily amused and rarely seen without a smile. The profound joy he took in the simple sight of his great-grandchildren playing around him was always a reminder to me to enjoy the uncomplicated things in this life, the carefree, the lack of pretension.
But it is the singing that everyone remembers. Whether it was in the various choirs in which he participated, or at the Pesach Seder, or really anywhere, his beautiful tenor could stop you in your tracks. Ask anybody who knew him and they will have a story on hand that would have him singing. Indeed, even as his speaking voice waned in the recent past, the minute he started singing, it was like no time had passed at all. I will hold very close my memory of an impromptu version of Hatikva, with just the two of us in a room, Zaidy singing softly as I played piano.
This is much longer than most eulogies, but how can we sum up the essence of Chaim Steinberg in anything less? Besides, let’s face it, he would have liked a long eulogy! But truly, Zaidy leaves a legacy here, through his children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. He brought us to Canada from amidst the bowels of human suffering under the worst possible circumstances and raised us to be healthy, intelligent, contributing members of a free society. He was a part of what is now a nearly vanished breed – the Holocaust survivor. He had a rare insight into the value of life that we will never know. My mother believes that Zaidy fought to stay alive so long and so desperately because he felt an other-wordly level of responsibility to his murdered family to glean as much living as he could out of his one tiny life. He is a wake-up call to our easy everyday existence. May we keep learning from him and keep being the best we can be, and doing the best we can do, because this is the truest way to honour him and to ensure that his legacy and sacrifices will never be forgotten