Mother’s Jewish faith comes to light after her death
“I think because at that time Jews weren’t looked at favourably. Whether they were from Germany or Poland or Amsterdam or England, they were still like snubbed upon as being the lower of the caste system.”
– Cindy May
Anglican cemetery with her husband because she was Jewish.
“He told her as long as she lived he would make sure that she would be buried in the Anglican cemetery in Belleoram, and she was, and we didn’t know it and it was never an issue,” recounts Steward, who like Dennis, believed their mother was a Presbyterian.
While Sophia only attended church rarely and on special occasions, she ensured her children grew up sharing their father’s faith.
“One thing about growing up – she made us go to church. She made us attend the church every Sunday and go to Sunday school,” recalls Steward.
When it comes to their mother’s reasons for keeping her own Jewish faith so secret, the children have all delved into the history of the Second World War extensively to try to understand.
“I think because at that time Jews weren’t looked at favourably. Whether they were from Germany or Poland or Amsterdam or England, they were still like snubbed upon as being the lower of the caste system,” says Cindy.
And while Newfoundland was free and welcoming, there were still religious divides at play.
“In my small town, if you were a Catholic you were looked upon unfavourably at the time,” says Cindy. “Some people at that time disowned their children if they married a Catholic, so if you were of any religion but the Anglican it was just frowned upon.”
But Cindy believes her mother’s motives likely stemmed from fear as well.
During the war, 40 of Sophia’s relatives were lost, including her younger sister Esther, and her fouryear-old nephew, Barney, who were sent to the gas chambers immediately after arriving at Birkenau. Leon Greenman, Esther’s husband, would go on to write a novel, “An Englishman sent to Auschwitz.”
The Holocaust gallery at the Jewish Museum in London is dedicated to his story, and when Sophia’s children visited the museum they were surprised to find their mother on display there, posing in a photo with Esther and Leon on their wedding day.
“She left England after the war
was over, right, and that time they knew that the whole family was gone,” says Cindy. “They knew that the whole family was in the concentration camp. I’m not sure if she knew they were all dead when she left or not.”
When she did speak about her lost sister, Sophia used to tell the children a different story.
“She always said she had a sister, Aunt Esther, who was killed during the Nazi bombing in London,” recalls Dennis. “She never told us about Auschwitz.”
One of Steward’s goals is to visit Auschwitz. Cindy and her daughter, Jillian, visited last summer.
“It was very emotional. Extremely emotional,” admits Cindy.
They stood on the spot where Esther and Barney would have been separated before being led away to the gas chamber, and where Leon would have last seen them.
“This is where the train came in, and this is where they separated the women and children from the men. And we were just like literally standing there. And it was. It was pretty powerful. Pretty powerful.”
The children believe their mother likely saw Newfoundland as a safe haven and a fresh start.
“I think you have to walk the walk to understand why she did what she did, and by going there and going to the Jewish museum and seeing how they were treated, and going to Auschwitz, I sort of have an understanding of her leaving and how she wanted to make it safe,” says Cindy.
“She was probably scared,” speculates Dennis. “We’ll never know.”
If nothing else, learning about Sophia’s past has given her children a strong appreciation for what she overcame to start over in Canada. Not everyone managed it.
“A lot of people kept that a secret. I know a number of families in Newfoundland that came, that were Jewish, that their parents also kept that a secret,” says Cindy.
Steward says for their mother to keep a secret for so long from her own children is no small feat.
“There was a lot of willpower in her.”
Around 15 years ago, when she was a teacher in Gander, Cindy told her fifth-grade class about it. Later that day she went shopping with her daughter.
“Me and her were walking up through the mall – she was about 14 at the time – I heard this chant, ‘Jew! Jew! Jew! Jew!’ and I’m thinking, ‘You have to be kidding.’ So, I said to my daughter I will never mention the word again, and then I sort of felt like my Mom may have felt.”
Sophia May died from cancer in 1982. She was 64.
Leo and Sophia May (nee Vanleuis). Above: Women and children were separated at Auschwitz before being led to the gas chamber. Among those executed were Sophia May’s sister and four-year-old nephew, Esther and Barney Greenman.Left: Auschwitz.
Gunner Leo May served in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Royal Artillery 59th Battery.
Cindy May with her 91-year-old aunt, Yetta Jackson, last summer in London, England.