PART TWO: “We sur­vived on lit­tle more than bread.”

Michael Falk es­caped a War­saw ghetto to live with friends will­ing to hide him and his mother

Truro Daily News - - Front Page - BY JOEL JA­COB­SON

By April 1943, Michael Falk and his par­ents had been en­closed in the War­saw Ghetto for close to three years.

Michael was 12, had been de­nied for­mal school­ing, was starv­ing, but tried to live as though the (Sec­ond World) war would end at any time and life would be good again.

By April 19, af­ter see­ing Jew­ish fam­ily mem­bers, neigh­bours and friends herded onto trains to the Nazi death camps, Michael’s fa­ther pushed his wife Leo­nia and his only child to es­cape the ghetto while he re­mained to fight.

They were in hid­ing about 20 miles out­side War­saw, where they could see the burn­ing of Jew­ish res­i­dences, busi­nesses and lives.

“It is un­for­get­table,” re­calls the 87year-old, sit­ting in his Hal­i­fax home with wife Lil­ian, also a sur­vivor of the war. “We were for­tu­nate that friends in the coun­try were will­ing to hide us.”

A year later, they were dis­cov­ered. With as­sis­tance from the Jew­ish Pol­ish un­der­ground, they re­turned to War­saw, hid­den by nonJews who ac­cepted money to stash them, even though aware of their own en­dan­ger­ment.

In Au­gust 1944, as Pol­ish un­der­ground forces bat­tled the Ger­mans in War­saw, “we lived in cel­lars, with bomb­ing and shelling go­ing on above us,” Michael re­calls. “We were so de­pen­dent on peo­ple to bring us food. We couldn’t go out and here were no shops any­way. We sur­vived on lit­tle more than bread.”

The War­saw up­ris­ing ended Oct. 1, 1944. The Rus­sians ar­rived in Jan­uary 1945. Michael and his mother were saved. His fa­ther had been cap­tured in 1943 and taken to work camps but, be­ing phys­i­cally able, was not a can­di­date for ex­ter­mi­na­tion, un­like many of their close rel­a­tives.

“We dis­cov­ered from him later that he was in Auschwitz and other camps, in­clud­ing one headed by (Oskar) Schindler, noted for sav­ing Jews. When the war ended, he came home. It was a happy re­union.”

Af­ter the war, Michael, then 14, was sent to an or­phan­age, “the best thing for me,” he says. “I had in­stant re­cov­ery … teach­ers, psy­chol­o­gists as needed, among other chil­dren from age three to 17. We got over our war­time mem­o­ries very quickly. We talked of our mem­o­ries only once and then wouldn’t talk about it any­more. It was time to move on.”

How­ever, it was soon found he had two liv­ing par­ents in nearby War­saw and Michael was re­turned to them.

A year af­ter the war, his fa­ther, Ig­natz Falk, known as anti-com­mu­nist (the Rus­sian-backed com­mu­nist regime had taken hold), was forced to leave Poland or end up in jail.

“He feigned an ill­ness that could only be treated in Switzer­land and re­ceived a visa for the fam­ily to go there,” says Michael. “From there to France, and then, with spon­sor­ship from friends in Canada, we came to Mon­treal in Septem­ber 1949. I was 17. ”

Michael didn’t at­tend for­mal school un­til high school in Poland af­ter the war, be­ing barred from schools from 1940 to 1945 be­cause he was Jew­ish.

In Mon­treal, mostly flu­ent in Yid­dish, Ger­man and Pol­ish, he quickly mas­tered English and at­tended Mcgill Univer­sity, as a sec­ond-year sci­ence stu­dent. He earned an hon­ours chem­istry de­gree, then re­ceived a PHD in phys­i­cal chem­istry from Laval Univer­sity in Que­bec City, where he learned French.

By then, his par­ents di­vorced. His fa­ther lived to be 92 in Mon­treal. Leo­nia even­tu­ally moved to Hal­i­fax to be with Michael and his fam­ily, and lived to be 107, spend­ing her fi­nal years at North­wood.

In 1972, Michael came to Hal­i­fax as a se­nior re­search of­fi­cer with the Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil’s bio­chem­istry sec­tion. His job dis­ap­peared in 1995 and he re­tired at 64.

His wife Lil­ian, also a War­saw na­tive but liv­ing in Is­rael, met Michael in 1958 when the two were tak­ing sum­mer cour­ses in Lon­don, Eng­land. Housed in the same co-ed res­i­dence, they talked of mu­tual friends and their com­mon past.

Lil­ian says, “My fa­ther left Poland for Pales­tine be­fore the war and wanted my mother, a doc­tor, to go with him, but her med­i­cal de­gree wasn’t ac­knowl­edged there.

“As a beloved doc­tor, her (nonJewish) friends pro­tected her,” says Lil­ian. “Fi­nally, in 1944, she de­cided we’d go to Is­rael. We crossed the bor­der, pro­tected by the un­der­ground, and I re­call be­ing told not to go near win­dows, not to an­swer the door. I still can’t be­lieve all that hap­pened.”

Months af­ter he met Lil­ian in Lon­don, Michael went to Is­rael, pro­posed, was ac­cepted, and they mar­ried in 1959. They are now ap­proach­ing 60 years to­gether.

They have two sons – Jonathan, a Univer­sity of Toronto grad­u­ate and high school teacher in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia, and Dan, a Dal­housie and Ry­er­son grad, work­ing in jour­nal­ism.

To­day, Michael says he lives op­ti­misti­cally, al­ways look­ing for­ward. He doesn’t re­sent the Pol­ish peo­ple for turn­ing against the Jews un­der the Ger­man regime.

“I have great re­spect for the Pol­ish peo­ple, yet de­plore the fact there is still anti-semitism among them and they haven’t learned. I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber Pol­ish Chris­tians saved our lives and oth­ers.”


Michael Falk es­caped the War­saw Ghetto dur­ing the Sec­ond World War in Poland. He and his fam­ily sur­vived by scroung­ing food and be­ing shel­tered by Jew­ish sym­pa­thiz­ers dur­ing the in­va­sion of the Nazis.

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