For two years, Rachel Shtibel hid in a shallow pit about a half-metre deep and three metres in length, along with 10 other family members in Nazi-occupied Poland. She couldn’t sit up straight or even speak, for fear of getting caught.
“We were like sardines, with five people lying down in one direction, and the other five in the other direction,” said Rachel. “At night, my father and his brother would go out to get food, but during the day, we had to stay as still as possible – and when someone turned over, everybody also had to turn because there was no room.”
Rachel, whose legal name is Rosa, was born in 1935 on a family farm in Turka, a small city in Poland that later became part of the Ukraine. She lived there with her parents, her father’s parents and his two brothers, Joshua and Velvel, a violinist. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1941, Rachel and her family were forced into the nearby town of Kolomyia, which was later turned into a ghetto.
“It was very tragic in the ghetto from the very beginning,” said Rachel. “My great aunt died from a heart attack, my uncle Velvel died, and my grandfather witnessed his wife – my grandmother – being buried alive.”
Rachel was able to escape from the ghetto after her father asked a Polish farmer he had known before the war to smuggle the family out on his horse and carriage. Rachel’s family eventually sought refuge in a barn where they dug a small bunker, and remained there for two years.
In the spring of 1944, Rachel’s father sensed the war was coming to an end and decided it was time for the family to crawl out of the bunker. Rachel and her family, starving and too weak to stand or walk, were eventually rescued by Soviet troops.
Shortly after the war Rachel’s father returned to the family home to retrieve Velvel’s violin, which had been buried beneath a walnut tree. “This is what’s left of my brother,” he said when he returned to his family with Velvel’s violin. He gave the violin to Rachel and insisted that she learn to play.
“I compare myself to the violin, because when I was as a child, I was buried in a barn, in a hole, for close to two years – just like the violin was buried. When I played it, I became very emotional. It means everything to me,” said Rachel.
In 1968, Rachel immigrated to Toronto with her husband and two daughters. “I always say that of all the countries I’ve been to, this is the best one. When we arrived here, I didn’t know a word of English, but everyone was so nice, and I was able to get a job as a microbiologist almost right away,” said Rachel. “I met wonderful people at my job – people from all over the world, including Jamaica, India and Scotland. It was a beautiful experience from the beginning, and it was peaceful.”
Rachel’s story is one of several memoirs of Canadian Holocaust survivors, published by the Azrieli Foundation – a charitable organization supporting a variety of programs including Holocaust commemoration and education.
“Grasping such a difficult piece of history can be daunting, but multimedia storytelling makes the stories more accessible to a new generation of students,” said Tim MacKay, digital media manager of the Azrieli Foundation. “Telling these stories is so important – Canada was founded by immigrants, and in all these stories, we present a story of rebirth after the Holocaust.”
The organization recently launched Re:Collection, a digital platform engaging audiences with Holocaust history, through rare interview footage, memoir excerpts, photographs and artifacts.
“I always keep saying – I survived for a purpose, and that is to share my story,” said Rachel. “I had a very hard childhood, but I ended up in a great country. We are peaceful now and we have our family – that’s that most important thing in life.”
Rachel at her wedding in 1956 / Rachel à son mariage en 1956. (Re:Collection/Azrieli Foundation)
Rachel, 1955. (Re:Collection/Azrieli Foundation)
Rachel playing with her violin troupe in Wroctaw,1948. (Re:Collection/Azrieli Foundation)
Rachel and her husband Adam in 1956 / Rachel et son mari Adam en 1956.(Re:Collection/Azrieli Foundation)
Rachel, Adam. (Re:Collection/Azrieli Foundation)
Rachel, 1949. (Re:Collection/Azrieli Foundation)
Uncle Velvel's violin / Le violon de l'oncle Velvel. (Re:Collection/Azrieli Foundation)
Rachel, 1951. (Re:Collection/Azrieli Foundation)
Rachel and her grandmother in Turka/ Rachel et sa grand-mère à Tourka.(Re:Collection/Azrieli Foundation)
Rachel and family members / Rachel et des membres de sa famille. (Re:Collection/Azrieli Foundation)
Rachel's uncle Velvel / Velvel, l'oncle de Rachel. (Re:Collection/Azrieli Foundation)
Rachel and her mother in 1935 / Rachel et sa mère en 1935. (Re:Collection/Azrieli Foundation)