I was born sixty-nine years ago in a place that never officially existed. Here’s how.
Escaping Nazi occupation of Poland and the Holocaust in October 1939, my Jewish parents had fled to the Soviet Union. They continued running from place to place at first together, then separately after June 1941. My brother was born six months after their separation. Having witnessed horrors and endured hardships, they had reunited in 1945 by good fortune and had gone back to Poland with their son, my brother.
In August 1946, because of violence against Jews there, my pregnant mother, her husband and son ran away again, to reach the West by train. I just happened to need to get born as the train reached the refugee camp in Linz, which was officially declared not to be Austrian territory, i.e., nowhere.
PHOTOS Aunt and Mother, Cousin and Brother in the Caucasus near Tbilisi, 1943; husbands in Siberia until November 1945 | Friedman family in Stuttgart DP camp just before coming to Canada – September 1948
In Stuttgart, Germany, we stayed another two years in a refugee camp, until we were given permission to come to Canada as sponsored refugees. We landed in Halifax on October 16, 1948, from the SS General S.D. Sturgis.
We came to Toronto by train, where I went to school, grew up and developed a sense of who I was. Fitting into Toronto was a challenge for all of us.
There were people who still felt hatred towards Jews. My brother and I learned how to fight in order to survive in our immediate surroundings. My brother renamed me “Norm” because “Rubin” sounded too Jewish and could attract those who hated us.
PHOTOS On left, block of our store on Yonge Street, 1949 | Me, with some girls, trying to be tough and fit in – downtown Toronto, 1956
My parents’ English remained heavily accented and error-prone all their lives. They were in their late thirties when they arrived, and did not find adjusting easy. My father, in particular, could not master Canadian business practices.
Looking back on it now, I realize that my father, mother and brother all had forms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with symptoms of depression, survivor guilt, anxiety, hyper-alertness and fear.
But they all also had a belief in ultimate justice, the need to go on, to survive regardless of difficulties, to show the world it had failed to destroy them and to prevail.
I myself only began to understand who I was and where I came from, the day my parents showed me my new Citizenship Certificate with my birthplace and original name. That certificate proved to me that I had just as much right to my already developed Canadian identity as anyone. I was grateful to have what felt like a privilege.
Ever since, I was eager to learn about Canada and its achievements, and to also come to terms with its failures. I had to integrate all of it for it to be my own Canadian heritage.
My parents taught me that one had to judge individuals by their actions not by their origins, religion or colour of their skin. They saw Canada as a country, where all could live with values of mutual acceptance and responsibility, a peaceful, precious country worth fighting for.
That is the country I believe in. My name is Riwen Fridman and Rubin Friedman and I am Canadian.