We knew her as The General, and we made fun of her. But we didn't know, we didn't know. She was a tough, humorless old woman; small and funny-looking to us kids frolicking free on Prince Charles Street. Children can be cruel, but it wasn't just us who made fun of her. Behind her back, our parents called her The General too.
No one knew.
Batia Schmidt was my best friend Philip's grandmother. Growing up in Canadian suburbia in the 60s, we could not imagine life as anything but carefree and wholesome. Philip and I were a new kind of Jew, flourishing in a tolerant, benign society unknown to our ancestors for centuries. We were blessedly naive, unafraid of our neighboring Gentiles, unaware even that we were different.
They were different, for our environment was strongly Jewish. Philip's Bubbie saw all this, but she never expressed satisfaction, never said much, which is why we never knew.
We now know, because a few years ago, Philip's mother Faigie broke her silence. The full story is so shocking, so beyond belief, that Faigie now devotes her life to revealing what happened, honoring her mother's superhuman deeds by recounting them to an incredulous generation. For the many young people who have heard her speak, it is only the survivor's eyewitness account that makes the Holocaust imaginable.
The story ends "and they lived happily ever after," for Batia's only child Faigie gave her four grandchildren who have borne a small multitude of great-grandchildren. Philip Libman now lives in Sha'arei Tikva, with four sons.
That the extended Libman family exists at all is a tribute to the ferocious will of The General. That is how she was known ever as far back as 1941, in Kaunas, Lithuania, when the Germans invaded. She was a high-ranking nurse in the Jewish hospital, renowned for her fierce dedication to discipline, efficiency and high standards. She was tireless, driven, unyielding, a one-woman force to her colleagues - and to the Nazis, who could not overwhelm her.
The Germans had no trouble exterminating Lithuanian Jewry, for the virulently antisemitic Lithuanians were overjoyed at the chance to do it themselves. Kaunas (Kovno) was a city of 100,000 - 35,000 of whom were Jewish. Nearly a third of the Jews were murdered in a single day in 1941.
By the end of the war, 78 were still alive.
The incredible tale of Batia's and Faigie's is told in a recent book, The Light After the Dark by Alvin Abram (Key Porter Books, Toronto, 1998).
Time and again, Batia eluded massacres, surviving pogroms, flouted mortal danger and cheated death, year after year after year. She possessed fantastic intuition: where to go, what to do, how to make it through another day, and every step of the way, she was encumbered by a young daughter, Faigie who was barely 11 years old when the Holocaust ended.
Often, Batia was mere seconds ahead of the murderers, snatching Faigie to safety. "We were always hungry," Faigie says in the book. "My mother was never one to allow circumstances to control her life, so one day she covered her Jewish star and took some of my expensive clothes and smuggled herself out of the ghetto. Later she returned with food.
"I don't know where she got it, only that whenever circumstances warranted, she would disappear with my clothes and return with food. Years later, I learned that my mother would brazenly walk the streets and knock on doors of people she knew from the hospital, non-Jews she had helped.
"To be caught outside the ghetto meant death. To live without food meant death. To my mother it was not a matter of bravery, but necessity, and when hunger could no longer be ignored, my mother did what had to be done. Her initiative was repeatedly the deciding factor between living and dying. I lost track of how many times she saved my life."
It wasn't just the Germans and Lithuanians Batia faced: Mortal illness almost claimed Faigie - at the age of seven and again three years later. She contracted scarlet fever, a deadly, contagious disease - but her mother had forbidden her to die.
In the unrelenting blitzkrieg of annihilation - first in the city, then in the abysmal ghetto established for the Jews, later in the Stutthof concentration camp, in a cattle-car transport, a brutal labor camp and finally on a death march - Batia and her young daughter stayed alive.
But more than that, Batia - The General, the devoted nurse - saved countless Jewish lives. Working in the most impossible, inhuman conditions, she depended on her determination, guile and ingenuity to help the helpless victims of cruel sadism, unspeakable torture, devastating illness.
And we mocked her.
Another neighbor was a survivor, and she too declined to relieve her memories. She never really survived the Holocaust: It stayed with her, tormented her, until sometime in the late 60s, when she killed herself.
How many of the Second Generation do not understood their parents who would not, could not put into words the terrible things done to them. How many survivors suffer still; how little of it we, of the freeborn generation, can comprehend.
What a tragedy - for Batia Schmidt, for us - that we could not bestow upon her the respect and honor she had earned, even until the day she died, on Yom Kippur, aged 86.
This old woman, the butt of indignity on Prince Charles Street, was the greatest hero we ever met.
And we never knew.