Aug. 22, 2005. 11:26 AM
'Nobody's daughter' spoke up
Ann Szedlecki's Holocaust tale
Survivor told her story until the end
Ann Szedlecki was a powerful and popular speaker for Toronto's Holocaust Centre.
"I think you are brave for standing up in front of a bunch of students to tell your story; it must have been hard to tell us some of those awful memories from your past," wrote one student from King City Secondary School.
"I don't think I would last as long as you did. Unlike me, you never gave up," wrote another.
"It opened my eyes and informed me about something I knew little about," a third student commented.
And a fourth wrote: "I believe that people like yourself, who struggled during the war, should speak out and share their stories."
But Szedlecki, who died of cancer May 7 at 79 and was buried on Mother's Day, had to be talked into telling her story. At 14 she was alone in Siberia, sentenced to six months of hard labour, her brother imprisoned for supposed political crimes, but she always said she was never in a concentration camp and therefore really wasn't a Holocaust survivor.
"At first she was a bit reluctant to talk, especially with an Auschwitz survivor like me," recalled Judy Cohen, who as co-chair of the Holocaust Centre's speaker bureau interviewed all potential speakers four or five years ago when Szedlecki was approached to tell her story.
"I said `Ann, you lost your family. The end result is you are a Holocaust survivor of a different sort. It's good for people to know there are varied experiences.'"
That accomplished, Cohen had to then talk Szedlecki out of telling her story the way she was accustomed to: as an adventure story of a spirited young girl.
"I think she missed the point of her own suffering," said Cohen. "I told her to tell them the absolute truth and put it in an historical context, otherwise it is just a sad story. As I said to her `You didn't enjoy the adventure.'"
Szedlecki listened and became a fine speaker, someone who understood that this kind of storytelling is more educational than cathartic.
"Her story became what it should be," said Cohen.
But first she wrote it down over the 10 years in which she attended Toronto author Sylvia Warsh's creative writing classes at the Bernard Betel Centre for Creative Living.
"My mother became a whole other person once she muttered the words `I am a writer,'" said her daughter, Lynda Kraar.
"She was a natural storyteller," said Warsh, who helped Szedlecki produce a 200-page autobiographical manuscript. "Look at page three, starting `I am nobody's daughter.' It is great stuff."
Her manuscript begins as Ann Frajlich is leaving the Soviet Union after six years, leaving behind the unmarked grave of her brother Shoel — dead at 23 from tuberculosis contracted as a result of being arrested for cooked-up political crimes, tortured and imprisoned — and leaving with only a bag of dried bread, a jar of melted butter, a few clothes and size 12 shoes on her feet.
She is returning to her hometown of Lodz, Poland, even though her entire family had died in the Warsaw Ghetto.
"I am nobody's daughter, nobody's sister, nobody's granddaughter, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt or cousin," she wrote. "My past is all gone, it disappeared."
In 1940, her worried parents had sent her off with her brother to the Soviet Union where they would work for one year to "wait out, hopefully, the short war," as she wrote. They were transported to Ridder (later renamed Leninogorsk) in western Kazakhstan, in Siberia, about 500 kilometres from the Chinese border.
And it was true, she was a bit giddy over what she considered to be a great adventure, excited to be going to a new place and to be out on her own. She didn't even mind when she was put to work painting bathhouses and enrolled in school. But after her brother was arrested, she was thrown out of the school and ended up hauling bricks, then later peeling potatoes and washing dishes in a mining cafeteria.
When she took three days off work without permission to bury her brother in the frozen spring of 1943, she was sentenced to six months of hard labour in appalling conditions at a labour camp. She lugged railway ties to build a new line, shovelled snow to clear roads, cut down trees and freed logs from a frozen river, but she was also carrying the grief of her brother's death and her guilt that she wasn't with him when he died.
After being released she volunteered to work underground in the mines, loading the ore into wagons. She hated it but, typically, wrote instead about "the miracle of my survival" in which she left the pile of ore she was sitting on to boldly ask the foreman for a cigarette — and just as he handed her a smoke, the pile collapsed. "I could've been buried under tons of ore," she cheerfully concluded.
"I can even go so far as claiming that smoking saved my life."
(The children and students to whom she later told that story just loved it.)
"Since she was 14, my mother has been invincible," said Kraar.
She married soon after the war, a man who was 11 years her senior, a concentration camp survivor with the numbers forever burned into his forearm. Abraham Szedlecki was "a wounded, traumatized and sad guy," according to his daughter and the marriage was never a happy one, although it lasted until her death.
The couple moved to Canada in 1953 after three years living in Israel and both went to work in the garment district. He pressed coats, she sewed on buttons. But it wasn't long before the boss promoted her to bookkeeping duties in the office and even though she'd had no experience doing books, she learned fast.
Although Abraham stayed in the factory, she left her job in 1965 when a store out on Albion Rd. became available.
"She took out a loan for $5,000 — this little Holocaust lady with Grade 7 education — when all her friends were saying don't do it," her daughter recalled.
For years, her women's clothing store was the most successful business in the Shoppers World Mall on Albion Rd. Kraar — Szedlecki's only child and travel companion on holidays — had married and moved to New Jersey by the time Szedlecki retired in 1990.
"They were close, closer than I could imagine," said Masha Ami, Kraar's best friend since they met at camp when they were 11.
"I could see they were not only mother and daughter but friends."
The friendship was always volatile, however, as both were strong, talented and stubborn women who liked to do things their way.
As Szedlecki and her husband had long been leading separate lives although continuing to share their Bathurst Manor area bungalow, she threw herself into volunteer work.
She had always been involved with her Masada chapter of Hadassah-WIZO, but she began driving for the Kosher Meals on Wheels program and serving on a committee managing funds provided to survivors through the Jewish Material Claims Against Germany Inc.
She kept up her writing and her talks until the last year of her life.
Her husband, suffering from Alzheimer's, moved into a care facility, but she stayed where she was determined to be, in her own home. Kraar said she kicked into overdrive, often staying for weeks to care for her weakening mother in her home.
Szedlecki died in her home listening to show tunes and singer Theodore Bikel.
And as far as Kraar is concerned, her mother's story isn't over. She's writing a show about her mother's life. One song is finished, which Kraar, a musician and publicist, performed in a small club in New York City recently. It was part of Mamapalooza, a celebration of mothers.