Retired Vancouver lawyer Bernard Pinsky recalls three times in his life when he felt absolutely compelled to write. In one of these instances, he needed to tell the story of his father Rubin’s life. This ordinary Jewish man, as Pinsky describes Rubin, somehow survived the Holocaust in Eastern Europe by joining a roving band of partisan resistance fighters.
Pinsky will speak at the launch of his new book—Ordinary, Extraordinary: My Father’s Life—at the Jewish Community Centre on Sunday (January 28) in honour of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“I actually gave him the first manuscript on his birthday in December of 1996,” Pinsky recalls.
In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated January 27 as a day to commemorate the six million Jewish people murdered by the Nazis, as well as millions of other victims of Nazi persecution.
Pinsky dedicated his book to Holocaust survivors.
“Each of them has a special story,” he says. “Being able to retell one of those stories at an important event like that is a great honour for me.”
Another time that Pinsky felt the urge to write came around 2007 when he was visiting Ethiopia. He’ll never forget seeing Ethiopian Jews arriving at an airport in white clothes with their children, where they boarded an airplane for the first time in their lives. It was bound for Israel.
The third instance came in 2012 when Pinsky took a “roots” trip back to his father’s hometown of Djatvolo in Belarus. Prior to the Second World War, the majority Jewish population referred to it by the Yiddish name Gzetl. There, he learned how a history teacher, Zhanna Nagavonskaya, had created a museum in her school. It commemorates the town’s sizeable Jewish community, which was almost entirely massacred by the Nazis.
Pinsky tells harrowing tale of survival
More recently, Pinsky combined much of his original manuscript and his writings about the trip to Eastern Europe in his new book. He emphasizes that amid stories of Holocaust survival, one must never forget that six million Jewish people perished at the hands of the Nazis.
“If there are a million that survived—or a million and a half—the vast majority did not survive,” he states.
Pinsky adds that every story of survival, including his father’s, involved a combination of incredible luck, incredible skill, or circumstances in which something went right for them where it went wrong for most people. Examples of this abound in Ordinary, Extraordinary.
In one riveting section, Pinsky writes about how the Nazis separated able-bodied Jews in Gzetl who could be put to work, like his father, from other Jewish townsfolk. The others, including Rubin’s parents and younger sister Rachel, were subsequently murdered.
Rubin managed to save his sister Chasia’s life by urging an unmarried, working-age Jewish friend to tell the Nazis that she was his wife.
“The two held hands not only in pretence but as a comfort from the fear,” Pinsky states in the book. “When the friend was sent to the right, he had Chasia’s hand in his and played his part perfectly. Chasia was also convincing, and the two went to the side of those who had been of use to the Nazis.”
Rubin survives typhus
Later came Chasia’s turn to save Rubin’s life. He contracted typhus while they were living with other partisans in the forest. As Rubin’s fever reached dangerous levels, he became delirious.
“The leader of the partisans knew that he would die anyway and could no longer delay the movement of their camp,” Pinsky relates in the book. “The decision was made to move on and leave Rubin there to die. There were no spare hands to carry him, and even if they could carry him, it would slow their progress to the point that the whole group would be in danger.”
Chasia couldn’t convince the leader to remain in the area in case Rubin recuperated. So, she stayed with her brother on her own, nursing him back to health with the help of some alcohol that she had secured. This, along with food and water, broke the fever. Pinsky writes that within a couple of weeks, they reconnected with their partisan colleagues.
Miraculously, Rubin and Chasia also found their brother, Herzl, after the Second World War. Herzl, later known as Harry, had escaped the family’s hometown and joined the Soviet Red Army that fought the Nazis. Rubin and Harry later operated a real-estate business in Winnipeg, where Pinsky was born.
Rubin met his wife Jenny in the same city.
“My mother’s family came in the ’20s before the Holocaust,” Pinsky states. “They got the opportunity to go to university. A couple of them became math professors and two of them became top 10 chess champions in Canada.”
Another became one of Kodak’s chief design engineers.
Father helped translate Yiddish letters
In his childhood, Pinsky looked upon his own family as the poorer relatives because his father didn’t know English very well and struggled to earn a living. Hence, Pinsky thought of his father as an “ordinary guy”.
But over time, Pinsky came to realize that Rubin, who had trained to become a rabbi, was exceptionally intelligent.
“It was sort of a religious education and yet he used that in his life to make a living for his family.”
His father was most at ease when he was speaking Yiddish, which was central to the Jewish culture of Eastern Europe prior to the Second World War.
“He stayed involved with Yiddish in Vancouver,” Pinsky says. “He would go to Yiddish-speaking clubs. He would help people translate. It was amazing to me.”
After Rubin died in 2001, people would approach Pinsky at various events and tell him how helpful his father had been. Some commented on the significance of Rubin translating Yiddish letters. Others shared stories about other acts of kindness.
Pinsky didn’t learn Yiddish because his parents spoke English to their children. But they instilled the importance of learning. As a result, Pinsky and his brother and sister all became lawyers.
“Our parents are the ones who gave us that opportunity to become well educated,” he says.
The Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre will present Bernard Pinsky in conversation with Marsha Lederman to launch Ordinary, Extraordinary: My Father’s Life. Registration is free for this event, which will take place at 1 p.m. Sunday (January 28) in the JCC’s Wosk Auditorium. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.