Renia: A Holocaust Memoir

Table of Contents

In the backyard of our Toronto townhouse.

In the backyard of our Toronto townhouse. Standing from left: Leon, myself, Joe and Karen Lieberman. Sitting from left: Judy Powell, dear friends Annette and Johnny Kushmier, and Frank Powell.

In early 1969, while I started to liquidate things in Chicago, Leon moved to Toronto and lived with Peter and Alina for several months. He wanted to rent an apartment, but Peter wouldn’t allow it. Instead, Peter put a five-hundred-dollar down payment on a townhouse for us in the Bathurst and Steeles area. The Smuszkowicz were still getting established themselves at that time, which makes their generosity all the more special. Eva and I moved into the Toronto townhouse in August 1969. Before leaving Chicago, our friends and family had given us wonderful going-away parties. Rick wasn’t with us; he stayed behind to study engineering. He was twenty-one; Eva was seventeen.

We borrowed money from family, friends and the bank to put into our new business. We too were going to be builders, but on a very small scale. Peter and Alina signed for us at the bank, using their own home as collateral so that Leon could buy his first lot. While he began building his first house in Janus Court, near Leslie and Steeles, I took a job as a manicurist in a beauty salon, The Terrace, at the corner of Bathurst Street and Steeles Avenue, working four days a week for twenty-five dollars a day, plus tips.

Leon in Toronto, not long before his final illness.

Leon in Toronto, not long before his final illness.

Leon had an architect design the first houses and those that followed but it helped that he himself was quite knowledgeable about the building trades. Before the war, as I have already written, his family had owned a large electrical and building supply store. As we had done with the photography business in Chicago, we ran the new business out of our basement. I did some of the paperwork.

We started small. Once Leon had built that first house, he sold it, which allowed him to buy two lots and build two more houses. He was working very hard, supervising the construction, looking after details, but he loved it. He was happier than he had been in years. Rick came home that summer and helped on the site. Things seemed to be working out for us.

Then in early 1972, Leon started getting severe stomach pains and began losing weight. We went from doctor to doctor trying to find out what was wrong. Exploratory surgery found nothing and we were becoming increasingly desperate. Finally, in early September 1972, I took a leave of absence from work and took my husband to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota. Our cousin Lida, who is a doctor, told us it was the best place in the U.S. to go. Even though it was Rosh Hashanah, Alina Smuszkowicz dropped everything and came with us.

Lida and myself at a family gathering.

Lida and myself at a family gathering.

Two days after we got there, the doctors discovered that Leon had cancer of the pancreas. They told me they could do nothing for him. I begged them not to tell my husband and they promised they wouldn’t. All that day, Alina and I sat with him. We left him only to go out for a bite to eat. When we came back, there were four or five doctors around his bed, telling him the truth, that he was dying. I began screaming at them. I screamed, “Murderers!” I was hysterical.

Leon died the very next day of a heart attack, September 10, 1972. But for the doctors, he might have lived a little longer. Alina and I were with him at the end. When a rabbi came to see me, I sent him away, screaming, “Where is your God?” At least, that’s what they told me the next day. I don’t remember. They had to give me a shot. My husband was only forty-eight, two years younger than my father was when he died in Russia during the war.

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