Mother, grandmother, dressmaker, tragic hero. Born on Feb. 16, 1913, in Krakow, Poland; died on Oct. 23, 2013, in Toronto, of a heart attack, aged 100.
Gustava Taschner was born in Krakow in 1913 when Poland was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My mother had five sisters and one brother, and left school at 14 to work as a seamstress to help support her family. Two years later she met my father, Ludwig Maultash, also 16, who became the love of her life.
In 1939, a few weeks after German troops invaded Poland, Gustava’s mother died at age 51. Gustava always said she died of fright. Although her death was tragic, it also set her children free: They wouldn’t have left their home if she had been alive and would have fallen into Nazi hands. Instead, there were three quick marriages (including my mother and father) and then four of the sisters, together with three new husbands, fled Krakow.
They hid in the countryside and worked for food by digging potatoes for farmers. Their city clothes identified them as Jews fleeing the Nazis, so they were always in danger. At one point they visited their brother and his wife, who were being hidden by a farmer; they found out later that the couple had been informed upon and were shot.
After two years on the run, the sisters and their husbands got word that the Nazis were looking for volunteers for a slave labour camp north of Krakow. Early one morning, my mother climbed aboard the truck that was waiting for workers. She had discussed it with Ludwig, but he didn’t want to go. When the others saw her on the truck, they tried to call her back but she said there was nowhere left to run. They decided to join her and it turned out to be a good decision. Although the Skarzisko Kamienna camp was brutal, they were young and strong and all but one sister survived the war. And Gustava’s dexterity with her hands was an advantage in working with munitions.
After the war my parents went to Germany, where I was born; then to Israel, and then immigrated to Canada in 1951. Soon after we arrived in Toronto, my father landed a job as a printer and my mother found work sewing in garment factories. She became an accomplished dressmaker and, to save money, made all my clothes. I didn’t appreciate her skill until I started university and she produced a wardrobe for me that could have come from the pages of Vogue.
My mother was badly damaged by her experiences during the war. When I was growing up, she couldn’t stop telling me about the appalling things she had seen. It was a horrifying legacy, but those stories, in one form or another, have found their way into my novels.
After my father died in 1971, at age 58, my husband and I bought a house together with my mother so she wouldn’t be alone. She got a new lease on life when our children, Nathaniel and Jessica, were born. She loved them to pieces and they had the privilege of growing up with their grandmother.
During the war my parents subtracted five years from their ages so the Nazis would think them a better prospect for the work camp. When they applied to come to Canada they kept up the pretense, figuring they would be approved if they were younger. My father eventually used his real age on documents, but my mother was too vain and told me the truth only a few years ago. Her official age was 95 but, when she died, she was really 100. She was one of a kind, and we miss her terribly.
Sylvia Warsh is Gustava’s daughter.