In April, 1944, a courageous 21-year-old Olga Korec pulled off her white arm band emblazoned with the blue Star of David, stuffed it into her pocket and, ignoring a soldier calling out to her, walked out of a Nazi work camp in German-occupied Poland.
She, along with her parents and younger sister, had been on the run from the Nazis for five years, driven from their home in Warsaw. Now they grabbed the chance to save themselves from the death camps by paying to hide in a cramped attic, waiting four months until the Russians liberated Boryslaw.
The Korec family was the only one out of the thousands in their camp to survive intact. Five years later, the four of them immigrated to Canada to rebuild their shattered lives in Montreal.
It is a story that Olga (who was was later known by her married name, Sher) generously and passionately repeated countless times as a volunteer docent at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, while wide-eyed school children or intrigued adults listened intently to history coming alive.
“I’ve rarely met as nice a person as her,” said Audrey Licop, who was an intern at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre Foundation when she met Ms. Sher in 2007. “When she looked at you, you could feel her kindness and when she told her story, you couldn’t help but be pulled in.
“She had a talent for helping you understand what [the Holocaust] meant for humanity and is someone who had a big effect on me.”
Ms. Sher died peacefully on Sept. 14 at the age of 93.
Despite the hardship she experienced as a young woman, she apparently bore no resentment or anger. She fought tirelessly for social justice, ensuring that gentiles who helped Jews during the war were recognized, protesting the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and marching against the war in Vietnam. She worked as a teacher for 36 years in the child psychiatry unit at the Jewish General Hospital, volunteered on a hotline for Holocaust survivors, raised three children without ever owning a car, pushed her husband’s wheelchair when he lost a leg and nurtured her many friendships.
She was the type of woman who would visit a colleague at home on maternity leave or take a batch of cookies to the doorman of her apartment building when he was hospitalized. She wouldn’t just do aqua-fitness by herself, she’d organize a class for everyone to join in. She stubbornly used Crisco instead of butter in her baking. In short, she lived life to the fullest.
“There is always something more to understand, another article to read, another movie to watch, another goal to reach, another walk to take, another hand to hold,” her granddaughter, Myriam Sher, who recently made a documentary about Ms. Sher’s life, said at the funeral. “My grandmother’s undying spirit taught us that.”
Born Aug. 12, 1923, to Joseph Korec and the former Rosalia Muller in Tarnow, Poland, Olga had a charmed existence until the Second World War. She skied, swam and enjoyed family vacations.
But in 1939, all that changed. The family fled Warsaw and for the next five years, they were on the move, trying desperately to evade the Nazis.
They ended up in Boryslaw living in a room with friends, and life seemed almost normal under Russian occupation. But on July 1, 1941, the Germans marched in and the first of many massacres occurred. The family hid in a barn while 350 people were killed. The following year, Olga and her father were hired to help oil production for the German army. During another round-up of Jews, Olga risked her life by taking her mother and sister to stay with Catholic friends. She returned to the protection of the oil company office with her father while her mother and sister hid in the barn’s attic, narrowly escaping the Germans’ probing pitchforks.
In 1943, the family was forced with all Jews in the area into a slave labour camp. Olga, with her blue eyes and light complexion, could have passed for a gentile and lived under a false identity, but her father insisted that the family “either live together or die together,” her sister, Irena Peritz, said. Their mother often sent her eldest daughter outside the barbed wire in search of food for the family.
Finally, in 1944, it was clear that the family had to escape or perish. An attic was found, but the owners demanded money, which Joseph was able to get from a gentile friend in Warsaw. The four of them slept on two cots in the same room where the owners slept in their bed. They were to stay silent or whisper so as not to raise suspicion from the people living downstairs.
They hid in fear for four months. On Aug. 8, 1944, the owner opened the door and told Joseph, “The Russians are here, now you can leave. But your family must stay until it gets dark. I do not want my neighbours to see that I was hiding Jews.”
After the war, Ms. Sher obtained a university student journalism press ID so she could attend some of the Nazi war crimes trials in Krakow, including that of Amon Goeth, the brutal Nazi camp commander depicted in the movie Schindler’s List.
In 1949, the Korec family arrived in Quebec City aboard the ship Samaria, ready to rebuild their lives in Montreal. Ms. Sher, then 26, was armed with knowledge gained at university in Lwow, and her degree from Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
In her memoir, she remembers a professor in Poland asking how she would “manage” in university after the war. “Manage?” she wrote. “I wanted to make sure that I had heard right. After all we had been through, I knew in my heart that, in future, I would be able to manage anything and overcome any obstacle.”
And with that attitude, she hit the Canadian soil running.
Her first job was at a pharmaceutical company, counting pills, for which she earned $18 a week. From there, she was hired as a lab technician at the Allan Memorial Institute. She met Ben Sher in 1951 and within six months they were married – a union that lasted 55 years until his death in 2006.
They had three children, Julian, Ilona and Emil, and Mrs. Sher stayed home until the youngest started school. She worked on her master’s degree part-time while employed as a special education teacher in the Department of Child Psychiatry at the Jewish General Hospital. She retired at 71.
Brenda Yarcag was hired in 1969 to work with Ms. Sher and together they helped preschool children with developmental problems.
“She was amazing,” Ms. Yarcag recalled. “She was devoted and talented and knew instinctively how to deal with children.”
The Shers threw a legendary potluck Christmas party each year at their upper duplex on Clanranald Avenue for the child psychiatry department.
“Everyone looked forward to it,” Ms. Yarcag said. “Her warm welcome and joy at seeing everyone was huge.”
For half a century, Ms. Sher led talks in history, philosophy and the fate of the Earth at the Thomas More Institute, which offered discussion classes in university liberal arts courses. She often served home-baked goodies to those in attendance. And in her 90s, she moved the discussion circles to seniors’ residences.
She was a social justice defender with a great sense of humour and a probing mind, recalled Heather Stephens, who knew Ms. Sher through the institute.
“She would go to Florida in the winter and would want to know what course she’d be leading in the spring,” she said. “She’d call and say ‘It’s Olga. Send me my readings.’
“She was a real keener and very dedicated.”
Ms. Sher never let her groups down and even showed up for discussions the day her husband, Ben, died. The institute presented Ms. Sher with a life-long learning award in 2014.
“She was one of our best, for sure,” Dr. Stephens said.
In cleaning up her Queen Mary Street apartment after her death, her children found hundreds of letters from school children who had written her thank you notes or letters of support after one of her legendary tours at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.
But they also found other hints that their mother’s past was always with her.
“Like many war survivors, you always felt she could never quite shake the dread,” recalls her son Julian Sher. “So she was forever saving flattened sheets of used aluminum foil, plastic wrapping, bags and containers – nothing should be thrown away, all neatly put away, because you never knew when you might need it.”
For her only sibling and her last surviving relative, Irena Peritz, the loss is a deep void.
“I have no one left to speak Polish with or to reminisce about our lives – she was the last one,” Ms. Peritz said. “A part of my life has gone with her.”
Ms. Sher leaves her sister; three children; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.Report Typo/Error
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