CHAR­AC­TERS OF STRENGTH

Shar­ing the sto­ries of At­lantic Cana­di­ans who sur­vived the Holo­caust.

Truro Daily News - - Front Page - BY ROS­ALYN ROY

“She never told us about Auschwitz.”

BELLEORAM, N.L. – It wasn’t un­til af­ter her death that Sophia May’s chil­dren learned their mother had kept a se­cret from them all their lives – she was Jewish.

Af­ter years of re­search into her his­tory and Jewish cul­ture, they can still only spec­u­late as to why their mother didn’t tell them.

Their fa­ther cer­tainly knew. Leo May hailed orig­i­nally from Point Rosie, a set­tle­ment across For­tune Bay that boasted a pop­u­la­tion of about 60. He served in the Royal New­found­land Reg­i­ment and met Sophia Van­leuis in Eng­land. The cou­ple mar­ried in a Jewish cer­e­mony on July 31, 1945, head­ing back to Canada on the Queen Mary, then catch­ing a coastal boat and set­tling down.

“Can you imag­ine my Mom left Eng­land, left Lon­don and moved to Belleoram? That was in 1945. There was no elec­tric­ity. There was no wa­ter, sewer. There was no roads. Noth­ing,” says son Den­nis May, the third-el­dest of their seven chil­dren.

Sophia had a lot of ad­just­ing to do right from the start. Post­war Lon­don had a pop­u­la­tion of more than eight mil­lion and mod­ern ameni­ties that were un­avail­able in a coastal town with a pop­u­la­tion nearer to 600.

“The fun­ni­est story we tell about my Mom is her cook­ing, be­cause un­til she got there she never cooked a day in her life,” re­calls her daugh­ter Cindy. “She just took the flour and yeast and put it to­gether and what­ever hap­pened, hap­pened.”

Hard breads and overly chewy cook­ies aside, Sophia would go on to have a happy life de­spite be­ing so far re­moved from her fam­ily in Eng­land. She had the op­por­tu­nity to go back, and in­deed Leo was will­ing to stay there from the start, but Sophia pre­ferred to stay in Belleoram.

“I think maybe away from Eng­land. I mean she loved her fam­ily dearly, but I think maybe away from be­ing – not run­ning away from be­ing Jewish – but the stigma that went with that at that par­tic­u­lar time,” spec­u­lates Cindy.

It was Cindy who first learned of the fam­ily’s Jewish her­itage. She was go­ing to uni­ver­sity in Eng­land and reached out to her mother’s fam­ily, in­clud­ing Sophia’s sis­ter Yetta, who is still go­ing strong at 91. Find­ing out her mother was Jewish came as a bit of a shock.

“We grew up in a very, very, ex­tremely, ex­tremely staunch Angli­can com­mu­nity and we al­ways thought my Mom was Church of Eng­land.”

In hind­sight, there were a few clues that sug­gested other­wise.

Sophia’s fa­ther sent Jewish books to a cou­ple of the boys ev­ery Christ­mas. Sophia told them it was be­cause her fa­ther owned a book­shop.

“He did own a book­shop, but it was a Jewish book­shop,” says Den­nis. “We never put it to­gether.”

And then there was the photo of their grand­fa­ther hold­ing a Jewish scroll, but Cindy ad­mits they didn’t know what it was.

One of Sophia’s other sons, Ste­ward, has been mayor of Belleoram for more than two decades and has served on coun­cil for about 35 years.

Dur­ing his stud­ies in min­istry and the­ol­ogy, an in­struc­tor told him Sophia had asked if it would be a prob­lem for her to be buried in the 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.

“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

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

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.

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.

Left: Auschwitz.

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