Read The Old Brown Suitcase Online

Authors: Lillian Boraks-Nemetz

The Old Brown Suitcase

BOOK: The Old Brown Suitcase


The Sunflower Diary
(Roussan, 1999)
The Lenski File
(Roussan, 2000)

(French translation of
The Old Brown Suitcase
by Michelle Marineau, Les éditions Héritages, 1996)

Garden of Steel
(Ekstasis, 1998)
Ghost Children
(Ronsdale, 2000)

Tapestry of Hope
(co-edited with Irene N. Watts, Tundra, 2003)


Dark Times: Poetry of Waclaw Ivaniuk
(Hounslow Press, 1979)

Astrologer in the Underground: Poems of Andrzej Busza
(with Michael Bullock, Ohio University Press, 1970)

The Old Brown Suitcase

A teenager’s story of war and peace


Copyright © 1994 Lillian Boraks-Nemetz — Ben-Simon Publications
New edition 2008 — Ronsdale Press
Reprinted 2012

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without prior written permission of the publisher, or, in Canada, in the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from Access Copyright (the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency).

3350 West 21st Avenue, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6S 1G7

Typesetting: Julie Cochrane, in Minion 12 pt on 16
Cover Image & Design: Julie Cochrane

Paper: Ancient Forest Friendly “Silva” — 100% post-consumer waste,
   totally chlorine-free and acid-free

Ronsdale Press wishes to thank the Canada Council for the Arts, the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program (BPIDP), and the Province of British Columbia through the British Columbia Arts Council for their support of its publishing program.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Boraks-Nemetz, Lillian, date

The old brown suitcase / Lillian Boraks-Nemetz. — 2nd ed.

print ISBN 978-1-55380-057-6

ebook ISBN 978-1-55380-173-3

pdf ISBN 978-1-55380-176-4

  I. Title.

PS8553.O732O4 2008      jC813’.54      C2008-900958-4

In memory
of my father


I wish to thank Andrew Wilson for his original editorial advice and Dr. Robert Krell for his encouraging words. I am also grateful to Ronald Hatch for undertaking the revised second edition.


written book by a child survivor of the Holocaust reveals glimpses of the horrors of loss, abandonment and fear no child should ever have experienced. It is a true account of the systematic deprivation to which Jewish children were subjected, with the final deprivation being that of life itself. Life in the Warsaw Ghetto was such that the author and others her age witnessed cold-blooded murders, the deaths of friends and family from tuberculosis and typhus, and desperation resulting in suicide.

By age ten, eleven or twelve, these children of the Ghetto had literally “seen it all.” And yet, our author was lucky enough to survive as a chronicler, a witness to the events. Nearly one and one-half million Jewish children did not survive. They were not able to bear witness, to make a new beginning, to enjoy what life can offer.

The description of the re-emergence from a world of death to a world of life in Canada is one which should resonate in the being of every Canadian child of a refugee background. It is one thing to be an immigrant moving from one relatively secure place to another. It is quite different to escape a tragic past of torment and persecution and carry the enormous psychological burden of memories too terrible to remember but which nonetheless becomes a part of memory.

The author succeeds admirably in conveying the weight of the past while struggling towards a more hopeful future, all the while demonstrating clearly the complexities of transition.

How does one express oneself in a new language? How does one explain oneself? Will anyone understand? Will anyone care?

I too survived the Holocaust as a child. In the period of transition from Europe to Canada, I too was sustained by having several dear friends in childhood and adolescence. In
The Old Brown Suitcase
, the main character’s friendships and her capacity to make friends and keep them offer a key to the puzzle of how to overcome adversity. A child needs a friend.

Perhaps this compelling story will influence its readers, young and old, to be more compassionate to newcomers, to those with uprooted lives — whether from overseas or from another school or neighbourhood.

Everyone suffer losses. No one lives life free of personal tragedies. A little kindness saved and salvaged a life which still enriches us today — fifty years after the destruction.

It reminds us of what might have been, had greater kindness and compassion existed in those dark days. Read and learn and remember.

— Robert Krell, MD
Professor of Psychiatry, University
of British Columbia, & President,
Vancouver Holocaust Centre
Society for Education and


Far from Home

(MONTREAL, 1947)

cried out in her sleep.

It was evening in Montreal, and darkness had descended upon the sweltering city. A white Cadillac carried my family and me towards an uncertain destination. The car was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg, who had just met us at the train station and recognized our faces only through photographs sent them by my uncle from New York. We were to stay with them until we found our own apartment.

Mr. Rosenberg was pudgy, jolly and perspiring on this hot July night as he drove the big white car. Back at the train station, he had put his arm around me and said, “My you’re a pretty little girl.”

Hogwash. I knew I wasn’t pretty, at least not at this moment, after the long trip. I felt like crying, that’s what I really felt like doing. I wanted Father to hug me and tell me everything could be all right again. Instead, I smiled like a puppet.

My sister cried out again. Poor little Pyza was wide awake looking uncomfortable in the crowded car with only my mother’s lap for a seat. Her face, chubby and round, was the reason we had named her Pyza — Polish for a dumpling. But now her blue eyes were all teary.

I sat wedged between Mrs. Rosenberg and my mother, who were trying to keep up a conversation in Polish. Their words travelled over my head and were drowned by my sister’s cries. I felt that it was definitely up to me to pacify her.

“Shh, little one,” I whispered and patted her fat little hand. Pyza looked at me with big sad eyes. Sometimes, when she looked at me that way, she reminded me of our other sister, Basia, who was lost somewhere in Poland.

“Once upon a time …” I began making up a story about three sisters who got lost in a storm but miraculously found each other again. Pyza stopped her sobbing, and before I had finished my story she was fast asleep.

Mother and Mrs. Rosenberg were still conversing over my head. I leaned back and looked at Mrs. Rosenberg, who sat tall, straight and thin in a grey dress. Mother’s eyes were attentively focused on Mrs. Rosenberg’s face, but there was a look of weariness in them.

“What is your older daughter’s name?” asked Mrs. Rosenberg. She must have forgotten, because we’d been introduced at the station.

“Slava,” answered Mother.

Mrs. Rosenberg delicately clasped her hands.

“Slava may be a lovely name in Poland, my dear Lucy,” she said to Mother, “but it won’t work here when she goes to school. Hasn’t she another name, something more familiar to Canadians?”

“Elzbieta is her first name,” offered Father, from the front seat.

“Elzbieta is better because it can be Elizabeth,” said Mrs. Rosenberg.

Elizabeth? It felt like some other person. Just like “Irena” had felt when I saw it written in my false documents, back in Poland during the war.

“El-i-za-beth!” I repeated silently. With the pronunciation of “th,” my tongue curled like a worm and my cheeks felt hot. What right did this lady have to dismiss my Polish name?

Father sat in front with Mr. Rosenberg. Their conversation sounded a lot more interesting.

“You know of course that Quebec is primarily a French province,” Mr. Rosenberg was saying. “But the English minority has the upper hand. The French are treated as if they were a minority, and they resent it.”

“And how do we Jews fit into all this?” asked Father.

“Have no fear,” said Mr. Rosenberg with a smile. “Of course there is anti-Semitism. There is always that. But Jewish people are fairly safe here on most fronts, and we do well professionally. You’re a lawyer, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I had a good practice in Poland before the war.” Father looked pensive. “Now I must find work. European law is much different from Canadian, so I will have to relearn everything in English.”

Father’s back was very straight and his head erect, while Mr. Rosenberg’s balding head was round, set so deeply between his shoulders that you could barely see it. Although Mr. Rosenberg’s hands were on the steering wheel, I had the curious feeling that it was really my father who was steering us towards our new destination. Just as he had always done.

I closed my eyes and wished that we were back in Warsaw, even in all its ruin.

The car stopped in front of a big house with a brightly lit porch. We gathered our things and climbed the steps. I sat down on my scuffed brown suitcase and waited.

The door opened and a young girl came out.

Dobry wieczor
,” she greeted us in Polish with an English accent.

She was a bit taller than I, with brown hair and eyes. Her blue high-heel shoes matched her suit, and her hair was coiffed in perfect waves. She wore a bright red lipstick and matching nail polish. She must be a lot older, I thought.

“This is our daughter, Ina,” said Mr. Rosenberg. Looking at me, he asked, “how old are you?”

“My name is Slava, and I am almost fourteen,” I replied with emphasis on Slava. Once again my cheeks felt on fire.

“Our girls are the same age,” said Mr. Rosenberg enthusiastically. “They must have a great deal in common. Come on, everyone, let’s go in and get comfortable.”

I pulled my suitcase into the hall and looked at Ina. She looked so sophisticated. Compared to her I didn’t feel a day over ten, especially when I saw myself reflected in the large hallway mirror. Was that really me, that small girl with short, mousy-blond, and every-which-way curls, wearing a child’s sailor dress and thick beige stockings with black oxfords, one tied with a piece of string because the shoelace had broken on the train? I looked hideous. If only they had let me keep my long braids. But they hadn’t. It was all the fault of a lady on the boat that had taken us away from Europe. She had told my parents that my braids would look “positively outlandish” in America. So the next day they cut them off. I had saved the braids, still tied with red ribbons, and placed them in my old brown suitcase.

Mrs. Rosenberg said that we should all wash up before dinner.

“Come on, whatever your name is, we’ve got to get ready for dinner,” said Ina in broken Polish. “I am in charge of you now.”

How insulting, I thought. A voice inside me said, “Tell her again that your name is Slava.” But I said nothing and followed her up the stairs.

“Come on. I’ll show you to your room,” said Ina yawning. We went up one more flight of stairs to a large bedroom with an alcove.

“This is your room,” said Ina pointing to the alcove, and this is your door,” she snickered, pulling the curtain across the alcove. With a final “see you at dinner,” over her shoulder, she left me.

So this was my room, with a couch and a dresser. It had a large bay window and below it, a bench with coloured cushions. I sat on the bench and stared out the window at the shimmering city below.

It could be Warsaw risen from the ruins, I imagined, and this could be our apartment, and this window, the window of my own room. But this city was not Warsaw, and my room had been destroyed in the war, and this was the house of strangers.

“Hello, Slava, my little daydreamer.” Father’s voice was warm and familiar. His face appeared from behind the curtain. Although he was smiling, he looked tired. “It’s time for dinner. I want you to be pleasant to the Rosenbergs. They are so very kind to let us stay with them for awhile.”

I jumped up from the bench and hugged him.

“Tomorrow we will explore Montreal together. Would you like that?” Father asked, putting his arm around my shoulders.

I felt better and went slowly down the stairs to dinner. After all, Father was right. It was kind of the Rosenbergs to take us in when they did not even know us.

At dinner, I filled my plate with bread. The aroma of bread, its freshness, made me more than just hungry. It had been six long years, always longing for that extra piece of bread when there was never enough. I remembered the long lineups in the snow waiting for a ration of one loaf of bread per week.

“Why are you taking so much bread?” asked Ina in a disgusted tone. “Don’t you know that it will make you fat?” My mouth was too full to answer. Why did she have to act so superior?

The grownups drank toasts of vodka, and talked about Poland. From their conversation I gathered that the Rosenbergs came to Canada before the war. Early on, Mrs. Rosenberg waved her hand and said that she did not wish to discuss the war.

“It is too tragic a subject, particularly in front of the children,” she said. I knew about the war; they didn’t have to hide it from me.

I guessed that she meant to protect Ina, but why? I felt like escaping to the alcove but knew that this would displease my parents.

Mother and Mrs. Rosenberg started to talk about registering me in school as Elizabeth. That name! It sounded so harsh compared with Slava. Surely Mother would agree!

“Slava,” Mother’s voice interrupted, “isn’t it time for bed?”

That was just what I wanted to do. Leave. I had not noticed until now, but Ina had already disappeared. I got up and said good night.

On the way upstairs I saw a light under what I guessed was Ina’s bedroom door but decided not to stop. Suddenly her door opened. She must have heard my footsteps.

“You’re not going to bed already?” she asked quizzically. “Come on in for awhile.”

I remembered Father’s instructions to be nice to the family, so I agreed. Ina’s radio was on. I didn’t feel like talking and would have preferred to listen to music. Ina went over to her night table, picked something out of a bowl and tossed it over to me.

“Here, have one of these,” she said.

An orange! A whole one all to myself! I peeled it quickly, and began to eat. The delicious juice dribbled down my chin and throat, its scent filling my nostrils.

“Why do you eat so fast, so greedily?” asked Ina with a sarcastic grin on her face. “It’s only an orange.”

I stopped eating and stared at her, humiliated by the way she looked at me.

Because I haven’t eaten oranges for six years, I answered inwardly. Because there were no oranges in Poland during the war and none afterwards when peace finally came. Because I was often close to starvation. But I said nothing. She wouldn’t understand.

I finished the orange in silence and excused myself, still clutching the peels in my hand.

I paused in the hall for a moment to listen to the music, then went upstairs. My parents’ room was dimly lit by a pink frilly lamp. I tip-toed past my sister’s crib towards the alcove, but stopped when I saw pictures of Mother and myself on the bedside table. I walked over for a closer look.

On top of the small pile of documents lay an open passport. There was an eagle in the centre of a page, and below it, my mother’s name and description. At the bottom of the page was printed, “Republique Polonaise” and “Rzeczpospolita Polska,” both meaning the Republic of Poland. On the opposite page was a photo of Mother, along with a smaller one of me marked “Daughter.” Beneath it was my description: Elzbieta Slava Lenska, born on September 5, 1933, in Warsaw, Poland. Eyes green. Hair blond. Female. At the bottom there was a round stamp: Canadian Customs and Immigration, Port of Entry — Halifax, July 1947.

I could hardly believe the picture was mine, taken only a few months ago with my braids still intact. It was the only picture left of me. The rest had been burned during the war, along with my birth certificate. I knew it had been done by my parents for my safety, but I resented it. Couldn’t they have just hidden them? Could all traces of a childhood be so completely destroyed? Well, I thought, not completely. I would never forget Poland and my life there even though my parents wanted us to behave as if we were born the day we got off the boat. New people, new lives.

I went into the alcove, undressed and lay down on the couch-bed. But sleep would not come. Words and events milled inside my head like crowds in a park on a Sunday afternoon. Was I suddenly to become an Elizabeth? What about the Slava of the past fourteen years?

I jumped out of bed and went into the corner where my suitcase stood. It seemed so long ago now that my father had given it to me, but its leathery smell and smoothness of skin remained the same. Despite the scuff marks from so much travel, it was as dear to me now as the day I received it. My fingers pressed its rusty catches and sprung them open. Right on top lay my two blond braids still tied at the bottom with red ribbons. The tops were held together by elastic bands. I laid them aside trying not to think of their history. When the ends were roots, I was only a baby.

Next, I took out pieces of a crumpled dance costume, and smoothed them out on the carpet. First, a hat with its golden petals of organdy and black velvet centre. Then a green satin bodice with more golden petals swelling out at the hips. I added the finishing touches by laying out the green satin leggings and green ballet slippers at the bottom, and placed my two braids on either side of the hat. There it was, my sunflower costume suddenly emerging like a phantom dancer.

I continued to rummage through the suitcase and came upon two tattered books: the Canadian novel
Anne of Green Gables
, and the Russian novel
Princess Dzavaha
, both in Polish editions.

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