She may not have looked it, but Chana Szpilman Wallace was almost certainly much tougher than you.
After the deaths of both her sons and both husbands, deportations, beatings, deprivation, constant fear, hunger and internment in two places synonymous with the worst horrors humans can imagine, she had every reason to turn her back on the world.
Instead, one of North America’s oldest Holocaust survivors, she was gloriously upbeat, radiating optimism and warmth – the archetypal grandmother. Not only did she survive, but in a giant raspberry to Hitler, she lived to nearly 107, and died peacefully, surrounded by family. Greta Garbo might well have been talking about Mrs. Wallace when the screen star quipped: “Anyone who has a continuous smile on his face conceals a toughness that is almost frightening.”
Her passing comes amid a series of deaths of the oldest Holocaust survivors: Mrs. Wallace died on Feb. 16 in Toronto; a week later, Britain’s Alice Herz-Sommer, believed to be the oldest Holocaust survivor, died at the age of 110, shortly before a film about her won the Oscar for best documentary short; Austrian Leopold Engleitner, a Jehovah’s Witness, died a year ago at 107; and Mrs. Wallace’s brother, the composer and concert pianist Leo Spellman (he had anglicized the name), died in late 2012, also in Toronto, at age 99.
Not only did Mrs. Wallace survive the death mills of both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, she also overcame heart disease and breast cancer in her later years. Though visually impaired, she lived alone until a broken hip at 104 necessitated a move to a seniors’ residence. She underwent pacemaker surgery at age 105.
“She had an inspirational impact on everyone with whom she came into contact,” her large extended family wrote in a detailed tribute. Mrs. Wallace “admitted that it was a challenging and arduous journey, but one in which she always chose to see the positives. After passing the threshold of 100 years, she commented: ‘During the first part of my life, if someone would have said I would live a long life, I would have said they were lying. I have to pinch myself that I’m alive.’”
At her 100th birthday celebration, she spoke for 20 minutes, without notes. “From childhood, I always said that you should never give up in your life,” she advised. “Have faith in God and don’t give in. Never say, ‘I can’t.’ Don’t look for trouble. Most importantly, don’t say, ‘I had a bad day yesterday.’
“I have a lot of bad dreams at night but I put them aside,” she said. “I have a family and I have to live for them.”
Unlike many other survivors of Nazi concentration camps who turned their backs on a god that could tolerate the gassing and slaughter of human beings, Mrs. Wallace never wavered in her faith. “Two factors drove her,” said her niece, Helene Shifman, “her family and her spirituality.” Another source of inspiration was music. Her first cousin was the musician and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose life was portrayed in the Academy Award-winning 2002 film The Pianist.
Chana Szpilman was born on April 12, 1907, in the Polish town of Ostrowiec, the second-youngest of eight children in a family that was consumed by music. Her father, Reuven, was a well-known local violinist and music teacher. His four daughters and four sons had happy childhoods. As Mrs. Wallace said in videotaped interviews for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1997, “We were always dancing, singing and playing. It was a nice life.” Even with eight kids of her own, her mother, Chaya Rosen Szpilman, would tend to the children of poor neighbours.
But anti-Semitism was rife in the city, and its 15,000 Jews were often taunted with cries of “Zyd! [Jew] Go to Palestine!” Jewish children were castigated at school if they complained about beatings. “We were used to it,” Mrs. Wallace recalled with a shrug. She described her family as “modern religious.” Meantime, she played piano and mandolin with gusto, joining her father and others in living-room concerts of foot-stomping klezmer and soft Yiddish melodies. Music held the family together, she said.