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Misha Wajsman

A Constructive Anger

Gazette/Suburban/Globe & Mail

7 January 2009


Survivor of a community erased by Nazis built monuments to the Jews of Wolyn

Forced to flee Poland in 1939, he joined the Red Army and
returned home at war's end to be shown a mass grave of
17,000 townspeople. In Canada, he spent a lifetime redirecting his rage

Special to the Globe and Mail
January 7, 2009

“Misha Wajsman had born witness to the atrocities of
the past and therefore could advocate for the present and
the future. He was not somebody who just archived
experiences but acted upon the lessons of those

~ Hon. Irwin Cotler, MP

MONTREAL -- There is anger that destroys monuments, and  
there is anger that builds them. Misha Wajsman's was the
construction kind.

One of the few survivors from an area of Poland that was
marked by death and destruction during the Second World War,
he spent most of his life working as a sales manager in a
Montreal meat business but felt forever compelled to help
build memorials for the thousands of Jews who died in his
hometown. He also became a front-line advocate for the
Soviet Jewry movement in Canada in the 1970s.

Moses Wajsman was born to a life of privilege in Lutsk, a
city of 100,000 in the province of Wolyn, which was then
located in Poland but is now part of western Ukraine. His
father owned a large beet plantation and the family home was
comparatively grand. He had one sister and three brothers
and his parents, Pinchas and Bluma Wajsman, called him by
the diminutive, Misha.

Almost half the population of Lutzk was Jewish. There were
three Yiddish newspapers and four Yiddish theatres. His
neighbourhood was filled with intellectuals and politically
minded Jews. While his sister, Frieda, joined a socialist
youth movement because she was a labour organizer, Misha was
attracted to it because it had a good soccer team.

By 1938, the rumblings of imminent war rolled across Poland
but the Wajsman family felt untroubled. After all, Pinchas
Wajsman was the main supplier to a wealthy Catholic family,
one that had been part of the royal house of Poland when the
monarchy existed and whose refinery took care of the
region's sugar needs. "What can happen to me?" he would ask.
"I work with the Radziwills."

A year later, the German army rolled into Poland and the
Radziwills were all killed. By that time, Misha Wajsman was
studying pre-law in Warsaw. By that time, his mother had
died and his three brothers had left for France, but his
father and his sister remained in Lutsk. Prevented from
joining them by the chaos and destruction of war, his only
hope of escaping the Nazis was to head east.

He hitchhiked, slept in forests and walked through the
war-torn countryside to the Soviet Union, and spent the
Second World War as a junior transportation officer in the
Red Army.

When the war ended, he headed straight back to Lutsk. What
greeted him would mark him for the rest of his life. He
found no Jews left in the city and his old house occupied by
Ukrainians. Some neighbours led him to a ravine 10
kilometres outside town. There, he saw an open pit more than
500 metres long that was filled with bodies. The Nazis, with
help from the local population, had murdered more than
17,000 Jews.

Meanwhile, he also learned what had happened his father and
sister. Forced into hiding, they had found a cellar occupied
by some other Jews. One day, a couple with a baby showed up.
Some of the people sharing the space said the new family
should find some other hideout; a baby wouldn't be able to
control its crying if the Germans were close by. His father
disagreed, and felt they should not turn these people away.

As feared, the baby's cries did alert the Germans and
everyone was marched out of the cellar and put aboard
trains. While being transported, Pinchas, knowing that their
fates were sealed, convinced Frieda that the two of them
should kill themselves.

Learning of the suicides and the discovery of the ravine
forever changed Mr. Wajsman's life and his path. With other
Polish veterans of the Red Army, he erected a monument on
the site of the ravine. It was just the beginning.

In the meantime, he returned to Moscow, where his immediate
postwar years were marked less by anti-Semitism than by
athletics. There, he became enamoured with the sport that
had become all the rage in the Soviet Union: table tennis.
Interestingly, the sport had been prohibited there from 1930
to 1950 because officials believed it was harmful to
people's eyes, but took off once the ban was lifted. (It had
also been outlawed in China during the Cultural Revolution
and the authorities persecuted top players, some of whom
committed suicide.) In any event, Mr. Wajsman became very
good at table tennis and twice won Moscow titles.

In the early 1950s, through a common friend, he met Dora
Alperin, a university graduate with a penchant for the music
of Chopin. They married, and in 1956 were able to emigrate
from the Soviet Union, thanks to a pact that let Eastern
European nationals leave. But other Jews could not leave, an
injustice he would later try to rectify. The couple went
first to France and three years later, with son Beryl in
tow, they immigrated to Canada.

It was in Montreal that he began to channel the tragedy of
his wartime years into acts of commemoration, charity and
protest. As a man who spoke English, French, Polish,
Yiddish, Hebrew and German, he used his linguistic skills to
work as a political organizer in Cartier, which was then a
largely Jewish riding. In 1962, he received word that a
Warsaw family, a member of which was suffering from cancer,
was trying to immigrate to Canada but could not obtain a
visa. Determined to get results, he drove to Ottawa with his
wife and eight-year-old son to see the minister of
immigration. He was able to track down two prominent
lawyers, one of whom was able to talk to the minister. Not
long afterward, the family was granted a visa on
compassionate grounds.

Beryl Wajsman said it was just one example of a knack his
father had for finding the right person with access to

Also that year, Mr. Majsman encountered two women at a
Jewish cemetery in Montreal who happened to be from Wolyn.
They informed him that there was no monument to the
thousands of Jews from the area who had perished during the
war. The meeting propelled him to raise funds for a memorial
in Montreal that still stands today. Not long after, he
founded the Federation of Wolynian Jews of Montreal.

In the early 1970s, there was a growing consciousness about
how badly Jews were being treated in the Soviet Union. Mr.
Wajsman immediately committed himself to a new cause.
According to Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, who was very active in
the movement, Mr. Wajsman was soon advocating for a Jewish
movement inside the Soviet Union and for the freedom of Jews
to emigrate.

Mr. Wajsman, he said, had born witness to the atrocities of
the past and therefore could advocate for the present and
the future. "He was not somebody who just archived
experiences but acted upon the lessons of those

Other charity work followed, from funding a museum in Tel
Aviv dedicated to the Wolynian Jews and underwriting books
that delved into the Holocaust to working for Israeli bonds
and getting the country more ambulances.

"My father was driven by constructive anger, by a redemptive
rage," said his son, Beryl. "He channelled that anger into

For the rest of his life, he continued to both fight and
raise money, working well beyond his retirement years.

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