End of era: Oldest Holocaust survivors to have died in last year: Canadian Chana Szpilman Wallace, 106, Austrian Leopold Engleitner, 107, England’s Alice Herz-Sommer, 110.
One of North America’s Oldest Auschwitz-Holocaust Survivors Dies at Nearly 107
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TORONTO - Chana Szpilman Wallace, nearly 107-years-old, a Holocaust survivor, a subject of Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah documentary and member of the Jewish musical dynasty Szpilman family, has died in Toronto.
Wallace is one of North America’s oldest Auschwitz-Holocaust survivors of Jewish descent, quite possibly the oldest. She survived the infamous death camp Auschwitz and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she was a forced labourer alongside Anne Frank.
The Survivors of the Shoah documentary in which Wallace was featured is a Steven Spielberg project whose mandate was to videotape eyewitness Holocaust survivor testimony for historical preservation and education. The Szpilman family of Poland is known for acclaimed pianist Leo Szpilman (Spellman), honoured in Toronto by the Ashkenaz Festival and in Washington by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for Rhapsody 1939-1945, and Wladyslaw Szpilman, on whom the book and movie The Pianist was based. The family has been recognized in many Jewish music and history texts.
Like many others in the Holocaust, Wallace lost almost everything including countless family members. After living in Munich for several years after the war, Wallace was sponsored by her brother-in-law to come to Canada. She came to Toronto in 1948 along with over 500 people. She was given $10 for food and taken by boat to Halifax, Nova Scotia. She spent only five dollars and saved the rest. She once explained, “I was afraid to come off the ship from Germany. Only God knew what kind of life I would have alone here and how people would treat me. I didn’t even speak any English, but I had some family here and my brother, Leo and his wife Mania and son Les came later on. And then, in 1950, I married my second husband, David Wallace, who I lived with until his death from cancer in 1966. We owned two successful North York businesses and created a beautiful family in a beautiful country - Canada.”
Wallace was a marvel at her advanced age. In her later years, she survived breast cancer, heart disease, severely degenerative vision and pacemaker surgery at 105 years old. In spite of her health issues, she continued to live on her own in her North York apartment even while her vision began to fail her. Only after a fall that required major hip surgery at 104 did she move to her final home, Kensington Place Retirement Residence on Sheppard Avenue West. After undergoing the hip surgery, not only did she survive, she willed herself to rehabilitate in a matter of weeks to the amazement of doctors and nurses.
She had an inspirational impact on everyone with whom she came into contact. Wallace admitted that it was a challenging and arduous journey but one in which she always chose to see the positives. After passing the threshold of 100 years of age, she commented: “During the first part of my life, if someone would have said I would live a long life, I would have said they were lying. I have to pinch myself that I’m alive. It’s impossible. God is good to me. I’m proud that I have a wonderful family that I can live for.”
In a letter to Wallace commemorating her 100th birthday, then Governor General Michelle Jean said, “As you take stock, you can reflect on the fact that your generation has seen tremendous and unprecedented changes, be they technological, scientific, political or social. The success you have enjoyed, contributions you have made to those around you and the knowledge you have gained are treasured gifts.” At her celebration, 150 family and friends gathered in Toronto from all over the world to be tribute to her. Many said, “her optimism and strength of spirit is the reason she’s now a century old.”
By example, she taught her Canadian family and all who came into contact with her the meaning of living life rich in integrity and respect, while being grateful for even the smallest kindnesses. She also taught the value of devotion to the Jewish faith, the importance of unconditional loving family relationships, the ability to overcome the most horrific adversity and to persevere. She illuminated the lives of others through a quick wit, evident until the day she died.
Born in 1907 in Ostrowiec, Poland to Reuven Szpilman and Chaya Rosen Szpilman, Wallace was the second youngest of eight children. She lived for many years in what she described as a very happy home. “Every Saturday night, my father brought out his violin and all eight children would sing and dance around him as he played,” she said. Her father was a renowned violinist and teacher. He taught the violin to the father of Wladyslaw Szpilman, on whom the book and movie The Pianist was based, and who is Wallace’s first cousin. By the age of 18, as was common then in Poland, Wallace was engaged through an arranged marriage to Jankiel Lustig. By 20, she had her first son, Liebela, and by 22, she had a second son named Uris, who died of pneumonia at two and a half weeks old.
By 1940, the Nazis were beginning to take over Poland, and Wallace was soon forced to leave her home for the ghetto, and then placed in a labour camp. She would never see most of her siblings or her father again. From 1942-1944, she worked in the Yegev camp. “One time they made us all line up and they shot every 10th person. I was ninth,” she recalled. Along with over 1000 people, she suffered without food, while painting and making cement blocks and iron, until she was transported by train to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
When she disembarked there, Josef Mengele himself, the brutal Nazi doctor who tortured prisoners through scientific experimentation, was directing the newly arrived to the right for work and to the left to enter the gas chamber. Wallace was sent to the right. She had her left arm branded with a blue indelible number, her head shaved, and was forced to work in Auschwitz from September 1944 until she was transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in January 1945.
After Canadian soldiers liberated Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, only five days after her 38th birthday, Wallace began to search for her family. Within a year, she was reunited with her husband but learned that her son, Liebela, though he managed to survive the Nazi concentration camps, was killed by Polish hoodlums at the age of 17 and a half just after the war. One night a few months later, her husband, having said that he could not go on without his son, died of a heart attack in his sleep later that same night. Wallace refused to give up on life; her faith remained unbroken.
Wallace consistently cited her spirituality as one reason for her survival through the Holocaust. “Every morning I would wake up and another friend next to me would be dead. We were starving, we were freezing. The only reason I survived is because I had dreams every night that my mother brought me food. And when I woke up, I wasn’t full, but I wasn’t hungry,” she said.
In 1997, Wallace shared her astounding life story with the world. She was interviewed by Survivors of the Shoah documentary, a Steven Spielberg initiative that videotaped eyewitness Holocaust survivor testimony for educational use. “I wanted to be a part of the documentary because people must never forget what happened during the Holocaust,” she said.
True to her morals, Wallace insisted on putting others before herself. At the youthful age of 100, she refused to turn on the air conditioner in her apartment, where she had lived independently since April 1966, due to the existence of a bird’s nest resting underneath the unit outside her window. “Why should I turn it on? I have a fan. Besides, I like to see the robins flying in and flying out. And they sing to me.”
Also at the age of 100, Wallace explained her own secrets to long life. “From childhood, I always said that you should never give up in your life. Have faith in God and don’t give in. Never say ‘I can’t’ and don’t look for trouble. Most importantly, don’t say ‘I had a bad day yesterday.’ Think positive. Be grateful. Live for today and tomorrow, live for others before yourself, and be kind to people. Then you’ll be happy,” she said.
Wallace’s legacy lives on through her niece, Helene Shifman; two nephews, Shelley Shifman and Les Spellman; five great nephews, Brian, Jordan and Robbie Shifman, Jeffrey and Kyle Spellman; great niece, Suzanne Spellman; and countless other extended family and friends whose lives she touched.
Shifman, who was like a daughter to her, expressed how Wallace will continue to inspire the family. “We rejoice with gratitude for the life that my aunt lived. She will always be a part of us all. She leaves us rich with the blessing and special gift of her life, her influence and treasured memories. As the matriarch to five generations and our source of wisdom, love and pure goodness, we will live by her example.”
Shifman continued, “Her profound dignity and unshakable faith is reflected in our family living life rich in values with love, joy and appreciation for what truly matters: a cherished life with unconditional loving family relationships and the ability to overcome anything through the power of love.”