My mother and I arrived in Montreal, Canada in September 1941 following a death-defying escape that took us from bombed-out German-occupied Warsaw in the winter of 1940 to surviving a Nazi firing squad, to Lithuania’s Vilno (which in June 1940 was occupied by the Soviets). Then a 12-14-day Trans-Siberian train ride to Vladivostok and the Japanese ship “Asakura Maru,” arriving in Tsuruga, Japan in February 1941 (thanks to a Chiune Sugihara visa). We left Japan aboard the “Heian Maru” on what was its last civilian crossing before Pearl Harbor, and docked at Seattle on August 1, 1941. After transferring to a Canadian vessel, we landed in Vancouver then traversed Canada on a spectacular train ride to Montreal.
We settled in Outremont where my mother enrolled me at Alfred Joyce — a Protestant [Anglican] school — where all the teachers were Scots [McLaughlin, McPherson, Longmoore and Darling], while 96% of the all-girls student body was Jewish and wore British school style uniforms. I was its first WWII “refugee child” — and outsider.
A few weeks into the school year, I was invited to join my classmates in a nighttime escapade — “Halloween.”
”What’s Halloween?” I asked.
“You dress up in a scary costume. You knock on someone’s door and yell ‘trick or treat!’ and if they don’t open or give you candy — you throw paint or mess things up.” I was appalled! To me the trauma of knocking on a door and demanding something of a resident who might then be punished sounded terrifying.
“What kind of costume?”
They informed me “anything scary” would do. To me, scary meant German soldiers uniforms so I had no idea what a scary costume was.
“You can’t go without a costume,” I was told. Suggestions ranged from going like a witch, to maybe a ghost — “Cut out eyes from a sheet.” (“You mean ruin a perfectly good sheet?!”)
My mother and I lived at 5236 Hutchison Street in a furnished room, as did other boarders, in an apartment building owned by the Romanian-born Mrs. Rabinovitch, who used to char eggplants [a vegetable I had never seen or heard of] on the stove’s burner. The result: a nasal imprinting that has turned me against that vegetable for life.
A few kind-hearted fellow tenants tried to help. I was given an outgrown pink taffeta party dress, boys’ clothing — nothing worked, nothing fit.
“I’ll make you a Polish costume” my mother insisted. She had always sewn my dresses and coats — including the bulky coat I wore during our escape from Warsaw, which she had made from a rug she found in our bombed-out apartment — a feat I compare to the gown that Scarlett O’Hara had made from green velvet curtains in “Gone With The Wind.”
I don’t know where my mother found the cloth, the ribbons, the sequins, and the fabric flower wreath for my head, but by the time she was finished, I could have passed as a native Krakovianka (Krakow) girl. I did not look scary but when we marched up and down those Montreal-style front steps and knocked on doors — “Trick or Treat!” — my entourage ended up coming home with bulging bags of goodies and — if I remember correctly — never had to “trick” anyone.
It was thanks to that Halloween escapade that I stopped being “the little refugee girl” and was invited to become “one of the girls” — with some of whom I maintained decades’ long friendships.
This story "My First Halloween After Escaping the Nazis" was written by Masha Leon.