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facts & arguments

Eta Birnbaum Chaim

Wife, mother, Holocaust survivor, mentor. Born on Oct. 15, 1918, in Radom, Poland; died on April 30, 2015, in Toronto, of a colon tumour, aged 96.

Watching Eta Chaim make Shabbat chicken soup was hypnotic, a work of art, as she calmly skimmed the fat, unhurried, infusing love and care into the resulting delicious broth. It was with the same elegance, mindfulness and quiet determination that she lived and approached each task in her life.

Eta and her younger sister, Ruth, were interned in 13 concentration and work camps during the Second World War. At Auschwitz, in the selection process, Eta was separated from Ruth by the infamous Josef Mengele and assigned to a separate line. She approached him saying, "Herr Mengele, I must have my sister with me. I promised my mother to always take care of her." He threatened her with his dogs if she didn't return to her line, but she stood her ground. When a distraction arose, she pulled Ruth back to safety.

All of their family, except an older brother who was studying in Russia, perished in the Holocaust. Despite the atrocities and losses Eta experienced, she was quick to say that there were both good guards and bad guards at the camps, just as there were good internees and selfish ones, and that no people should be subject to prejudice and generalization.

After liberation, the two sisters married two brothers, Harry and Jacob Chaim, in Hanover, Germany, outside the Bergen-Belsen death camp, and set about rebuilding their family. In 1948, the two couples made their way to Canada. Although Eta was a Torah scholar and had been a teacher before the war (under the renowned Sarah Schenirer, a pioneer of girls' Jewish education), she chose to work with her Harry, a tailor, in Montreal.

Eta's intellect and dedication to tradition led her to help organize a Yiddish leyenkrayz (reading circle) in Montreal, as well as to become Montreal president of the diaspora association of her Polish home town, Radom. She and Harry had two sons, Barry and Sam, and lived in Montreal until they retired and moved to Toronto.

Eta was deeply devoted to her religion and family, which included six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. She was a mentor and inspiration to rabbis and members of her congregation, leading by example with her devout prayer and study. Well into her 90s, she walked two kilometres each way to attend shul every Saturday. For five years, she walked the same distance, twice a day, to see Harry in Baycrest Hospital after he suffered a stroke. In 2007, the hospital honoured her with a 15-year volunteer award for her work in several programs.

In the mid-1990s, Eta was interviewed by Steven Spielberg for his Yad Vashem filmed testimonies about the Holocaust. In 2011, at 92, she returned to Poland with family members to retrace her wartime experiences and revisit her home town.

Last February, she chose to forego surgery when told she had an incurable tumour. Over the next two months she welcomed a stream of visitors in afternoons and evenings, mornings being reserved for prayer. Friends and family came to pay tribute to this gracious woman who had touched their lives in some special way. She continued to prepare and host Shabbat suppers and made her best batches of gefilte fish and egg noodles for 35 guests at Passover, her favourite holiday. Eta took to her bed the following week and slipped gently away, whispering her Shema prayer with her family at her side, leaving a legacy of common values, uncommonly lived.

Ann Soden is a friend of Eta's.