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Ricki Segal


By Ricki Segal, March 23, 2011

As a writer, I sometimes feel that I am like a photographer, taking a picture of a person’s soul. I was reminded of this when I interviewed an elderly woman about her life story. We agreed to meet in the coffee shop of one of Winnipeg’s hotels. It was between meals on a cold Tuesday morning in January, so the restaurant was deserted, except for a few stragglers who were having a late breakfast.

As I walked into the coffee shop, I was struck by the elegance of the woman I was to interview. Her name was Goldie. Although she was in her late 70s, she could have passed for someone 10 years younger. She was wearing a black pantsuit of good quality, although not a new style, with a crisp white blouse. The blouse had a white lace collar that showed off a creamy pearl necklace and she wore matching earrings. On her ring finger, Goldie wore a sizable diamond that shone with some clarity, indicating the stone’s high calibre. Her hair was dyed a dark brown with streaks of blond. Her face was still very pretty, though it showed the marks of time, and her figure seemed to be intact. Her brown eyes shone and, immediately upon noticing me, her lips broke into a smile.

Arriving at the table, I introduced myself and sat down. We ordered coffee and began to chat. It soon seemed to me as if we had known each other all our lives, even though this was our first meeting. She began telling me her life story.

She was born in Opole, Poland, in 1933. Her younger brother, Victor, was born three years later. Goldie’s father, Abraham Samuels, worked in his father’s flourmill and her mother, Sarah, was a homemaker.

The first few years of Goldie’s life were pleasant but, when the Nazi party began to influence attitudes increasingly towards antisemitism, her parents decided to go to Palestine. Extended family members were upset at Abraham for taking his young family away to British Mandate Palestine and there was danger in having to be smuggled in past the British guards. Considerable amounts of money were paid to carry out this miracle. Goldie was later told that she and her brother were drugged at the family’s stopover in Cairo to ensure they did not make noise to arouse the attention of the guards.

Despite the difficulties and dangers, Goldie and her family arrived safely in Israel on March 3, 1938. Goldie said she would never forget the smell of herring that permeated their damp, cramped quarters on that journey. Herring and hard pumpernickel bread was their most common meal and, from that point on in her life, Goldie refused to eat herring.

Life in Palestine was difficult. The land was mostly barren and it took resourcefulness and hard work to make a living. Goldie’s family joined a kibbutz, and the children went to school and became fluent in Hebrew. Abraham and Sarah picked oranges in the orchards and took care of the chickens for the kibbutz.

After the war ended in 1945, Goldie’s parents were devastated to learn that their entire family had been rounded up by the SS and sent to concentration camps. They perished at Hitler’s hands, except for a few cousins who managed, somehow, to survive. Goldie heard about the many other European Jewish refugees who wanted to go to Palestine at this time, but were barred from entering by the British authorities and their ships were turned away. Rather than return to Germany and other countries in Europe that had become a grave for the six million Jews who had perished in the Holocaust, many jumped ship, committing suicide. Goldie heard her parents and other adults talking about these tragic events. It was a painful lesson that Goldie would never forget.

In 1948, Israel became a state. There was dancing in the streets on that day and people began to sing “Hatikvah,” which was to become the Israeli national anthem. Two years later, Goldie’s father began to search for family who had survived the war and found his cousin Hershel, who had gone to Canada from South Africa and was willing to sponsor the Samuels family to Canada. They learned that Hershel lived in a city called Winnipeg in the province of Manitoba, which was very cold in the winter and had terrible mosquitoes in the summer. Despite this news, Abraham decided to take his family to Winnipeg, and he began the application process. On Sept. 1, 1954, the Samuels family again boarded a ship, this time to go to Canada, another promised land.

Although 21-year-old Goldie had been interested in boys, she had never had a serious relationship until that point. On the ship to Canada, she met Joseph, the oldest of three sons born to Charna and Morrie, whose family was also traveling to Winnipeg to be sponsored. Joseph was four years older than Goldie, and he immediately took a shine to her. The two quickly became inseparable, taking long walks around the ship and talking about anything and everything on that journey across the ocean.

The two families began as friends but become mispochah (family) upon the marriage of Goldie and Joseph exactly one year after they arrived in Winnipeg. Joseph became an apprentice to a jeweler who was a friend of cousin Hershel. Goldie, having learned how to sew on the kibbutz, worked as a cutter in a factory. They lived in two rooms on the second floor of a two-storey house. One room served as a bedroom and the other was used as a kitchen/living room. They had a hot plate, fridge and an old chrome table with a grey Arborite top. It was simple, but it was enough for them.

After a few years, Goldie and Joseph had saved enough to open up a jewelry shop. Goldie quit the factory job and worked beside Joseph, learning the business. Within the next couple of years, Goldie gave birth to two daughters, Hannah Chai and Rachel Rasha, both of whom Goldie named after relatives lost in the Holocaust. Goldie took the babies to work with her and kept them in a basket while she and Joseph waited on customers.

The business did well and Goldie and Joseph made many friends in the neighborhood and at Rosh Pina Synagogue. Goldie joined Hadassah and Joseph joined B’nai B’rith. Their daughters attended Jewish school and Goldie was active with the parent-teacher association and taking the girls to and from music, dance and piano lessons. Goldie and Joseph also had an active social life, spending many a Saturday night playing cards with friends and taking turns hosting get-togethers. Goldie particularly loved making the delicacies that were expected of these Saturday night social outings. Chopped liver, sliced corned beef, potato salad and cake for dessert were always on Goldie’s table. She occasionally put chopped herring on the table as well, but for her guests, not herself.

On Sunday mornings, family and friends sat around the table eating lox and cream cheese on bagels bought at Gunn’s Bakery. The children ran around and played with each other while the adults talked about business, gossiped about an upcoming nuptial or an impending birth. Life began to take on a sort of rhythm.

Their daughters grew up, married and moved away to Montreal. This left Goldie and Joseph to more fully concentrate on their business, synagogue and social outings. They were fortunate that they could travel for two months a year while relatives looked after their store. They went to California every year where they made good friends. Goldie enjoyed this new lifestyle, but mostly enjoyed spending time with her Joseph. He was the love of her life.

That all changed one Sunday morning in 1987. Goldie was getting ready for brunch and noticed that Joseph hadn’t yet gotten out of bed. She decided to let him sleep a little longer, but when she finally did go in to wake him, she discovered that Joseph, at the tender age of 58, had died in his sleep from a heart attack. Goldie’s world fell apart.

They still had the jewelry shop, but it wasn’t the same without him. She tried to focus on making a living and, during the days, she was busy. But the evenings grew very quiet. Her daughters were busy with their own lives and the phone mysteriously stopped ringing. Her friends no longer called and Goldie never got invited to Saturday night card games or Sunday morning brunches. She felt that she was the odd man out now that her friends had stopped calling.

Goldie found a few ladies at her synagogue who had also lost their husbands and she sometimes got together with them, but she still missed her married friends. She felt that it was unfair that her married friends had abandoned her. Hadn’t she been punished already by losing her beloved Joseph? She was the same woman now as she had been when her Joseph was alive. She just wanted to be part of the old group, wanted that sense of family back.

As the years passed, the evenings became longer. Goldie’s health began to deteriorate and she found it necessary to sell the jewelry store. With the help of a relative, she got a fair price for the business, so she was comfortable financially, but she was still unhappy. She found that days ran into nights and all were filled with the sound of silence.

Her daughters called occasionally and she loved going to visit them to see her grandchildren, but both girls were busy working mothers with families who needed their attention. Goldie’s visits became shorter and the calls from her children became even fewer.

As my interview with Goldie ended, I looked into her face. Her eyes were red from crying and I could see in her the incredible loneliness. I was determined to be a friend to this lovely lady who had become an outcast in society – all because she had lost her husband. Before I left the restaurant, Goldie and I made a second date to meet for coffee two weeks from that day. I knew that we would become lifelong friends.

Ricki Segal is the author of My Zayde and Other Memories of Growing Up Jewish. Two dollars of the sale of each book is donated to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.


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