Libby Znaimer Reflects on Her Parent’s Refugee History as War in Ukraine Brings Their Experience Into Sharp Focus

Libby Znaimer says the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought back stories from her parents, Aron and Chaya — pictured here during wartime — who both fled Nazi occupation in their respective homelands of Latvia and Poland. Photo: Courtesy of the author

I finally got some buy-in from one of my brothers. For several years, I have been keen to take a trip to the places our parents came from, and the places where they met and made a life together as they ran away from Hitler. 

We don’t know much — they did not pass on many memories, fond or otherwise. They were lucky to escape Poland and Latvia with their lives. 

It’s definitely a journey to take with siblings.  Sam, Moses (the founder and CEO of ZoomerMedia) and I agreed that Tajikistan, where my parents married and Moses was born, was too dangerous to visit because crime is rampant. As for Dubienka and Lodz in Poland, where my mother grew up, and my dad’s hometown of Kuldiga in Latvia, we know we are unlikely to discover anything about their lives there and that’s always been a reason to postpone this trip. In early February, Sam suggested this summer was the right time to go — just weeks before Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. 

I’ve thought a lot about our parents while watching this horrific, brutal and unjustifiable war. It gives me insight into what their lives must have been like — the constant fear, and moving from place to place in search of an elusive safety. I was around 14 when my mother, Chaya, told me some of their story as we sat in the kitchen of our Montreal home. It was the only time. I don’t have the sequence straight and I am missing parts. 

Chaya said she was working in a munitions factory in Russian-occupied Poland; it would have been 1940 or 1941. A supervisor who liked Chaya advised her to learn as much Russian as possible and to forget her “bourgeois” upbringing. The shop was evacuated to the Soviet Union in the middle of the night, ahead of the advancing Nazis. She had acquired a Komsomol (Communist League of Youth) card that enabled her to get work and food. 

She and a girlfriend — they were both around 20 — were sent to a kolkhoz (collective farm), where they were terrified of sexual assault by Russian men; I have no idea if they were there for a week or a month or a season. Enter another, older guy, who also liked Chaya; he managed to get her and her friend off the farm, and then she said she had to get away from him. 

I don’t recall the friend’s name or how they got separated in Kharkiv, Ukraine, which was in the USSR back then, but I remember how Chaya teared up when she told me about that parting — maybe because her friend did not survive? Chaya got on a boat heading south, and that’s where she spotted our father, Aron, humming a Jewish song, and the rest — as they say — is history. 

I don’t know how long that trip lasted or how many stops there were, until they settled in Kulob, Tajikistan. She told me about being in cafeterias for Communist party members, grabbing an apron and pretending to work there so she could feed their friends. Did that happen once or 10 times? 

There were close calls in Kulob. Aron was arrested by the fearsome Soviet NKVD security service when a co-worker tried to frame him for stealing wheat. Then they were going to escape to Afghanistan with some friends, but the organizers remembered Chaya couldn’t swim and didn’t wake them up. The others were caught and shot. Our dad did tell us about that several times. 

The war on Ukraine has brought many comparisons with the Second World War — the tanks, bombs and slaughter of civilians. Putin’s disinformation and suppression of dissent is reminiscent of Stalin’s terror. 

The millions of refugees in neighbouring countries also conjure the post-war period. Dad had the foresight to adopt Chaya’s last name, Epelzweig, when they married, although he later changed it back to Znaimer. He assumed, correctly, that Poles would be allowed to leave, but Latvians would not. They spent 100 rubles — a fortune — on chocolate to give Moses as they crossed the border to prevent him from speaking Russian. 

At one point, they had decided to separate and go back to their respective homes in Poland and Latvia, but soon found there was nothing to go back to. Today, displaced Ukrainians still hope to return home.

I have often wondered why I didn’t ask more questions and probe further to get the story right. Was I trying to protect my mother or was she protecting me? A few days before her death, I realized what I was missing. I rushed to her bedside with a tape recorder, but she said it was too late. That is one of my greatest regrets.

I know that seeing the places she and Aron inhabited won’t fill in the blanks. I still want to go, but with the war on in Ukraine, the new plan is to skip Poland and go to Latvia. 

Libby Znaimer ([email protected]) is VP of news on AM740 and Classical 96.3 FM (ZoomerMedia properties).


The Rhapsody: Leo Spellman’s Incredible Second World War Survival and Musical Legacy Explored in New Documentary