A Life's Story
January 09, 2021
Story of survival
Carmela Finkel, 87, hid from Nazis as child, shared experiences as adult
By: Dave Baxter
Sharing her story of surviving the Nazis was a task that always took an emotional toll on Carmela Finkel, because it is the story of a young child surviving horrors many simply could not imagine.
"She felt a responsibility to share what she went through, and it weighed on her," her daughter, Gina Chodirker, said.
Finkel, 87, died Oct. 9, 2020, due to complications from COVID-19, leaving behind older sister Betty, five children, 12 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and numerous other relatives and friends.
When Chodirker, 62, thinks about her and her siblings growing up in Winnipeg and going on to raise their own families, she knows there was a good chance all of it might not have happened. Her mother came very close to being one of the millions of Jews who would perish in Europe during the Second World War.
Born Carmela Shragge in Radziechow, Poland, on March 22, 1933, she had what she often described as a happy early childhood.
Around the time she turned six, however, life began to change, with rumblings of war and targeting of Jews.
In 1941, Nazis invaded the town.
Later, had it not been for the courage and selflessness of non-Jewish neighbours, the Ochotski family, it is an almost certainty the family would have perished. The Ochotskis let Finkel’s family hide in a dugout they had put under their home.
At the time, Nazi soldiers were rounding up Jews in the town, putting them in lines, and executing them with machine guns over open pits.
The family of four lived for 20 months in the pitch-black dugout. Out of fear of being discovered, they were told not to move, talk or make noise.
Chodirker said the family harbouring them would invite guests over, including Nazi soldiers, all while the family sat in complete silence under the house. "To try and convey that he was a Nazi supporter, Mr. Ochotski hung a swastika in the house, and would often welcome guests in the house," she said.
Food and water were delivered, the family was given cushions to cough or sneeze into, and they relieved themselves in a pail on the floor.
Chodirker said, to this day, she can’t imagine how brave it was for the Ochotskis to hide Jews in their home. Had they been caught, they would have paid with their own lives.
"They knew they would have been executed, and they knew the Nazis would tear houses apart looking for Jews," she said. "The personal risk was something that my parents and our family will be forever in debt for.
"They saved their lives, and they are the reason our family is here today."
At many points, Finkel believed there was no chance she would survive, Chodirker said. "It got to a point she didn’t even pray for survival, but just prayed they would all die together so that she wasn’t left without one of her family members."
But they would survive.
One day in 1944, Ochotski came down and told the family Russian soldiers were there to liberate them.
After what the family had been through, they had a difficult time trusting the soldiers were not enemies.
"One soldier came to the opening and said, ‘You can come out now, you’ve been liberated, you’ve been saved,’ and my grandfather said, ‘But I’m Jewish.’ The soldier said: ‘Well, so am I,’" Chodirker said.
"When my grandfather heard that... that was the moment he finally knew they were free."
They emerged from their hiding place and soon learned they were the only Jewish family in the town to survive as a complete family unit. Most had been killed.
The family would spend time at a displaced persons camp in Deggendorf, Germany, before immigrating to Winnipeg in October 1948. Finkel was 15.
Chodirker said for years her mom kept her story to herself, partially because it is what others told her she should do.
"After everything they went through, they were told not to talk about it, and they went to school and were told, ‘That’s in the past, let’s move on,’ so there wasn’t the chance to heal."
At the age of 20, she married Nathan Finkel, who had also grown up in Poland.
It was only later in her life Finkel began to tell her story, as she began visiting schools telling students about what she had been through.
Chodirker said her mom was so emotional after telling her story she often needed a day or more to recover, but felt it was a story that must be told.
"It was an important lesson, and there are people to this day that still deny the Holocaust happened, but you can’t deny it when you hear it first-hand from someone who was there and who lived it," she said.
Finkel’s story is sure to live on, as it is one of many stories of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust featured in a video that can be viewed at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights’ "Examining the Holocaust" gallery.
"You have the worst of humanity and the best of humanity all in that one story," Jeremy Maron, curator of the gallery, said. "What this neighbour did would have meant immediate execution, if there had even been any indication of helping.
"It’s an absolutely incomprehensible situation."
Maron said he was struck by the emotional damage the experience left on Finkel, and how so many other children who lived through similar situations would have carried lifelong trauma.
"She carried this with her," Maron said. "She had this intense fear of enclosed dark spaces, so she always carried that.
"Her survival and ability to raise children is a testament to the Nazis’ failure," he said. "They wanted to eradicate Jews and they failed, and families survived, and they live on."
Chodirker said she hopes her mother is remembered for being a Holocaust survivor, but also for the long and meaningful life she lived after coming out of hiding.
"She leaves a legacy as a survivor, and as a loving mother and grandmother who loved her family," she said.
"She was an amazing woman who lived an amazing life, and she will be missed, but we know her memory will always live on."