Edith Kimelman: A Story of Struggle and Resilience
The Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada regularly participate in the student internship program at the Gray Academy of Jewish Education. These student-led internships give participants an opportunity to learn about local Jewish history and to gain experience working in the heritage sector. Past students have created exhibits on various aspects of Jewish history and culture. In 2019-20 Grade Eleven student Elizabeth Smolyaninov interviewed Holocaust survivor Edith Kimelman and created this exhibit based on her interview, records provided by Edith’s family and the holdings of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada archives.
Edith Kimelman, (nee Yehudit Klingel), was born in Rowne, Wolyn, Poland on December 24, 1934. Edith was born an only child to father Henoch Klingel, and mother Leah Klingel (nee Gorenstein). The Klingel family moved to a town Rasnik, 30 kilometres from the Soviet border, shortly after Edith was born. There, her parents owned a store located in their house, where they sold rye and potatoes from the land they owned along with cigarettes, sugar, and other items. Her father would often be inspected for his store permit without reason. Edith’s parents maintained a traditional Jewish household, while her mother’s family religious practice was more orthodox. Her great grandfather was even the Rabbi for the town of Krippe, where her family would go for the High Holy Days.
In 1940, at the age of six, Edith remembers first hearing her parents expressing worry about their store, their status, and the possibility that their country would be invaded. This was the year that Edith began grade one. Her classmates would torment Edith with anti-Jewish ditties, but she did not understand why being Jewish would be looked on negatively. At this time, Edith’s parents thought of leaving their town along with the retreating Russian army but her grandmother thought the danger would pass, and so the family decided to stay.
In 1941, tensions rose in the Klingel household as bombs could be heard in the distance. One night, the women of the household went to hide in the rye fields overnight and when they came back in the morning, the town was occupied by Germans. The situation and the antisemitism kept getting worse. One day, Edith discovered her best friend wearing Edith’s dress. When Edith protested, her friend informed her that Jews no longer owned anything.
The horrors had just begun when Edith’s father was taken away in a motorcycle sidecar and later found shot and dead on the side of the road. Edith was so young at this time, that she did not fully understand death and would not accept her father’s passing, begging for him to come back to life. He was buried in a makeshift grave in their backyard because it was too dangerous at the time to go to the Jewish cemetery. Eventually, Edith’s uncles Sender and Avraham Gorenstein risked their lives to bury Henoch in the Jewish cemetery. Edith also witnessed the murder of her neighbours Motel and Yankel.
The Klingel house was turned into the headquarters for Ukrainian militia; neighbours were being shot and killed. One night, Edith’s mother heard plans to drown the women of the household the next day along with five captured Russian soldiers. Edith and her mother escaped that night, unfortunately leaving her grandmother behind because she refused to go with them. On their 24-kilometre journey to Rowne, a town of 30,000 Jews, Edith and her mother were caught by two youths. One of them put a rifle in her mother’s mouth and told them they could not escape. Fortunately the other one talked him out of killing her because he felt it might cause them trouble. Edith and her mother managed to escape, and were hidden by family members, eventually reuniting with her maternal grandparents. At that time, the Jews in the surrounding towns were being forced into ghettos. By November of 1941, some 20, 000 Jews from the town of Rowne had been murdered. Edith does not remember much about the time between 1941 and 1942. One horrific event does stands out; after spending the day with her uncle she returned home to find her mother badly beaten and suffering from internal and external injuries. Tragically, she would later succumb to her injuries.
One winter day, Edith almost froze to death in the barn in which she and her family were hiding. She wondered why she was still alive and why she had to suffer so much; her uncles warmed her up and saved her life. At that point, it had become too dangerous to remain in the barn, so she and her family went into the forest where they joined a group of Jews hiding in pits they had dug in the ground. At one point, a group of Ukrainians discovered the group in the forest and insisted they come live in houses in the town. This was an attempt to lure them into the houses so that they could murder Edith and the others during the night. Edith and the rest of the group fled back into the woods, hoping to find safety and food.
In 1944, the group of 60-85 Jews hiding together made the fateful decision to cross the river to look for the Russian partisans. They attempted twice until they were successful. With great relief, they realized that a man on a horse with a red Russian star was not the enemy. This was the first man in uniform they saw who was not trying to kill them. Since Edith and her family were considered to be Polish citizens, they were allowed to leave Rowne and move deeper into Poland, where they were placed in a transition camp in Lodz. It was there that Edith’s mother passed away, leaving her inconsolable and with little motivation to go on. From Poland, Edith, who was being cared for by her maternal grandmother and an uncle, moved to Waldenburg, in Germany and from there to Displaced Person’s camps in Austria., There, thanks to the help provided by funding from UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association and possibly JIAS, Edith was able to attend a Jewish school
Some orphans in the camp were planning to go live in Israel and Edith wanted to join them, but her family took her with them to Winnipeg, Canada in 1949, where other family members had settled in the 1920s. Living in the North end, knowing little English, but being able to converse in German, Ukrainian, Polish, Russian and Yiddish was helpful, but these first years in Canada were very difficult. The kind of settlement supports that we take for granted today were not available at the time. Edith got a job at a sweater factory to help support her family. Education was also important to Edith as it had been so important to her parents that she get a good education. Edith attended night school at St. John’s High School to learn English. Her proficiency in Hebrew was such that when tested, she was advised to apply to teacher’s college in Montreal, but Edith could not leave her grandmother and uncle, whose health had begun to fail.
Edith met her late husband Solomon (Sam) Kimelman, a fellow survivor, when she was 18 years old. Edith eventually graduated University with a Bachelor of Arts in 1980 and began her teaching career. She shared her experiences during the Holocaust with her students. Edith also took advanced courses in Israel, the United States and the UK, studying at Bar-Ilan and the Hebrew University, Columbia, and Oxford. Edith served on the Board of the Jewish Federation for three years. From a religious perspective, Edith considers herself to be Modern Orthodox and she considers it very important to pass down religious practices to her three sons and her grandchildren. Over the years, Edith has educated thousands of students about the Holocaust and she transmits an important message to them: “the value of freedom and the consequences of war and hatred; and second—to inspire the resilience of surviving impossible conditions while finding the courage to strive and achieve a better life.”