Wife, mother, nurse, Holocaust survivor. Born on Sept. 25, 1925, in Suchedniow, Poland; died on Jan. 12, 2014, in Montreal, of age-related causes, aged 88.
Bella Herling grew up in a small town in Poland, the youngest member of a boisterous Orthodox Jewish family of seven headstrong daughters and three sons. In September, 1939, their lives changed forever when German troops invaded their homeland. Bella was just about to turn 14; less than two years later, she was making bullets for the German army.
Before massive deportations, Jews in her shtetl and surrounding region were selected to work at an ammunition factory in nearby Skarzysko-Kamienna. Bella's father encouraged her to go – it would not be back-breaking work, he said.
At first she was taken by truck to the factory and walked home after work. Then one day, she and three sisters who had joined her were told they could not go home any more. They were all transferred to surrounding barracks built for the workers.
“You can imagine our despair,” Bella later recalled. “Our cries must have reached the heavens.”
They would never see their parents or five of their siblings again. After the war they learned that most of their family, including two of their siblings’ spouses and three small children, were murdered in the Treblinka gas chambers. Two of their siblings, a brother and a sister, were shot by the Nazis.
The best years of Bella’s youth were squandered in the slave labour camp. But that work also turned out to be her and her three sisters’ salvation, keeping them from being deported to a death camp. Amazingly, Bella did not emerge from the Holocaust full of anger and hatred. She had a passion for living and a sense of humour and humanity that were nothing short of miraculous.
Soon after her liberation by Russian troops, on Jan. 16, 1945, Bella and her sisters travelled to Germany to reunite with a brother who had survived Auschwitz, where his wife and three children perished. Friends reported that he was in a displaced persons camp near Munich, in American-occupied Germany. There, 19-year-old Bella volunteered for nurse’s training offered by a Jewish refugee agency. She wanted to help alleviate suffering, she said, and worked as a nurse in the DP camp from 1946 to 1948.
One of her sisters, Paula, got into Canada as a domestic worker and by the fall of 1948 she arranged for Bella to immigrate to Toronto. There, she quickly found work as a nurse’s aide at Mount Sinai Hospital. Paula also helped sway Bella to marry Mayer Abramovitz, another Holocaust survivor whom the two sisters had met in the DP camp.
Bella had been impressed by Mayer’s generosity, humour and flair as an actor in the camp’s Yiddish theatre. He looked up the two sisters in the spring of 1949, soon after he arrived in Montreal; Bella moved there with him after their December wedding. Their marriage was the start of a loving partnership that lasted nearly 52 years, until Mayer passed away in 2001.
Bella was devoted to nurturing her husband and two children, daughter Toby and son Mark. She encouraged Mayer to start his own business and worked part-time in his fabric store, charming the customers. Otherwise, he joked, he might have driven them away with his impatience.
By contrast, Bella had endless patience – not only to chat with customers, but also to listen to everyone's little problems, to make her garden bloom, and to ensure her home was polished to perfection. After Mayer retired, they spent 20 winters in various rented condos on the beach in North Miami, Fla. Bella loved walking along the shore collecting seashells, which Mayer turned into creative crafts at home. She also had a phenomenal memory, and in the months before her death she could still recite by heart the poems in Polish, Russian and Yiddish that she learned as a child.
Bella saw wonder in every child, every bird, every flower. To her children and six grandchildren, she passed on a sense of justice, compassion for others, and the full understanding that life is a precious gift.
Toby Herscovitch is Bella’s daughter.