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Courage, Compassion and Hope - Honouring a family legacy

Article by Meghan Smith / Photography by Andy Zeltkalns

The lessons we learn as children can alter the decisions we make throughout our lives. Who we choose to be as individuals is impacted by our childhood. Courage, compassion for human life and never to give up hope are three lessons Eva Olsson learned from her mother and still lives by today.

“I live by the legacy my Mom passed on,” shares Olsson, a Holocaust survivor, public speaker and Muskoka resident. “If she’d given up hope, I wouldn’t be sitting here.”

Every morning, when she arrives in her kitchen, Olsson is reminded by the note on her refrigerator to “live one day at a time and make it a masterpiece.” As she approaches her 95th birthday, this October, Olsson lives her mantra by speaking at schools, seniors’ centres, community centres and other institutions.

Her goal? Eliminate hate by sharing her path to forgiveness.

“It’s been a journey of 75 years,” says Olsson. “You have to deal with it every day and make the best of it. Be grateful for living in a country like Canada. People complain because they don’t know any different. But I do.”

The guidance Olsson took from her mother was tragically tested in 1944. The family was still recovering from the loss of Olsson’s oldest sister that January. The Nazis arrived in Olsson’s hometown and her entire family was taken by boxcar to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Her mother and father, her sister’s three children, her brother, his wife and child, her other sister, her husband and child and more extended family only lived until May 1944.

“As we got out of the train, I was holding my sister’s oldest daughter’s hand and my mom had the other two girls,” recalls Olsson. “A prisoner came over and in the language we spoke, Yiddish, he said ‘give the child to an older woman.’ He didn’t tell me why.”

The prisoner repeated his message twice more and Olsson took heed, realizing that he knew something they did not. At 19, unmarried, not pregnant and with no child holding her hand, Olsson was sent to the right, to the work camp. The rest of her family was sent to the left, to the gas chambers.

“Had I not let go of her hand, I would have been sent to the left,” says Olsson. “Just like my sister and sister-in-law, all of the young mothers went to the left. How do you say ‘thank you’ to someone when you’ve never seen their face before or after?”

Olsson and her youngest sister were the only members of her family to survive the Holocaust, freed by British and Canadian troops in 1945. She relocated to Sweden and there she met and married her husband, Rude Olsson.

“Once in a while, we make good choices,” laughs Olsson. “I was blessed that I had a very caring, compassionate husband, who suggested we come here as tourists for six months, 68 years ago, to see if we’d like it. We both really loved Canada. That’s why we stayed.”

Olsson and her husband moved from Sweden to Montreal in 1951 with $20 in their pocket. Rude was an engineer and found work at Canadair making 85 cents an hour. As the Korean War came to an end in 1954, thousands of people were laid off, Rude included.

“We were just about to go back to Sweden because there was no way we could live,” says Olsson. “I was pregnant with twins. Rude applied for a job at the suggestion of a friend and three days later, the engineering company hired him. They made him sign a contract that he was willing to be transferred and we moved to Toronto.”

Unexpectedly, Rude died when Olsson was 39, with a 10-year-old son, Jan. There was no widow’s pension and Olsson, with no formal education or job prospects, had to find a way to survive and look after her son. She rented two rooms in her home to create an income.

There will always be challenges to face and a new location does not preclude the old challenges from surfacing. Olsson crossed an ocean and hoped to forget her experiences during the war. Instead, she continued to have nightmares and flashbacks for years until she broke her silence.

“Wherever you go, you’re going to take yourself with you,” says Olsson. “I brought myself with me – my brain, my thoughts, my being. So, how can you forget? You’re going to face challenges no matter where you are, so work them out.”

Olsson moved to Muskoka in 1985 to stay close to her family, shortly after her son had moved to the area for his teaching career. She enjoyed 15 years of babysitting her grandchildren and watching them grow. Her grandchildren are responsible for opening the door for Olsson to break her silence.

Her grandson, at age six, came home from school and as he came up the driveway, asked Olsson how her mom had died. She quickly told him he was too young and to ask again when he was older. A few weeks later, he turned seven and when he arrived home from school, he professed that he was older now and could be told. Unsure how to talk about the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau and what was too much to share, Olsson explained that a lot of people were put into a room and poison was put in.

“We were in the family room. He came over and sat down beside me and said ‘I’m sorry you’re so sad’,” remembers Olsson.

A few years later, Olsson’s oldest grand-daughter came home from school at twelve with an assignment on the war. She interviewed her grandmother and after submitting the project, Olsson was asked to visit her granddaughter’s class to speak about her experiences.

“After 50 years of silence, I was scared to speak,” shares Olsson. “I was scared of bullies. I’d never had the words come out before. But you have to get rid of that fear. It gave me the opportunity to heal. Because silence didn’t heal me.”

Since 1996, Olsson has been speaking at schools, military bases and other community spaces, sharing her life story and her compassion. Olsson has given over 3,900 presentations to over one and a half million audience members. She’s been to the United Nations, twice, and was inducted into the Order of Ontario in 2008. She has travelled across Canada and in the United States, delivering her message of peace and under-standing.

“Wherever they call me to go, I go,” laughs Olsson. “I’m healthy. Age should not be in my way.”

Olsson has developed a three-level program to deliver her message based on the audience: modified for elementary school, general for high school and a level for teachers and above. Among her speaking engagements, Olsson makes time to visit seniors’ centres and community groups to share and to meet people.

Eliminating hate is the fundamental lesson in Olsson’s teaching.

“Children take to school what they learn at home,” states Olsson. “We have a responsibility to our children. Send them to school the way you want to see them as adults. The teacher can’t fix it. It’s our responsibility.”

When Olsson presented at Ohio State Prison, over 1,800 people were in attendance. Only 300 people were allowed into the hall and the rest watched a televised version. During her three-hour presentation, Olsson recalls two comments from audience members that stay with her to this day.

“One man said ‘If I would have heard you before, I wouldn’t be in here’,” recalls Olsson. “The choices we make take us to where we are at. The other asked me ‘who’s going to tell us when your generation is gone?’.”

Choice is the hallmark of the human condition. During World War II, millions of people were killed for their religious beliefs, appearance and other attributes, because the Nazis deemed them unworthy. However, Bulgaria and Denmark refused to allow the Nazis to remove Jewish people from their country during the war. “Why?” says Olsson. “Because they had compassion and they were not going to be bystanders.”

Speaking about her own painful memories, the atrocities committed during the Holocaust and connecting to relevant themes in today’s society, Olsson delivers the value of love and acceptance, rather than hate and rejection.

“How will these children ever know the power of hate?” says Olsson. “It’s not just something that happened 75 years ago. Or 80 years ago. It’s still happening, today.”

The connection of the audience to Olsson’s subject matter is evident in over 16,000 letters she has received, to date. Often sharing their newfound understanding or a personal experience they have been silent about; the letters are full of emotion and give a measure of success to Olsson’s endeavour. The comments Olsson receives are a testament to the power of her message.

“The feedback that I get tells me ‘yes, I need to be out there’,” says Olsson. “I’ve said it to my son, many, many times. If I wouldn’t get the kind of feedback that I get, I would take off my running shoes.”

Concerned by the rise of hate and racism around the world, Olsson continues to schedule speaking engagements, well beyond her upcoming 95th birthday. Presenting allows her to keep her family’s spirit alive, years after their death, and gives students a personal understanding of the events of World War II. Textbooks, discussions and general research provide background without actively connecting the implications of choosing hate or indifference.

“It’s not about I or me, it’s about we,” comments Olsson. “Only we, as one people, can achieve peace and have the courage and the strength to eliminate hate.”

Bullying is an epidemic in schools today. When she asks an audience who has been bullied, almost every hand goes up. Olsson believes one of her own greatest achievements is the ability to help even one child be successful – not successful in monetary terms but successful as a human being.

“Being successful doesn’t mean you’re going to live in a big house or you’re going to drive a fancy car,” explains Olsson. “Those kinds of successes you can have and then lose the next minute. But being successful as a human being, how you treat your friends, nobody can take it away from you. Not even the Nazis.”

Olsson boldly returned to Europe in 2007. She visited her hometown of Szatmar, Hungary, among other places, and walked streets filled with devastating memories. However, Olsson couldn’t carry out the Jewish tradition of placing a small stone at the grave of family members after visiting as an act of remembrance.

“I don’t have a grave to visit for the rest of my family,” says Olsson. “I don’t know where the bulldozer put their bones or where the wind blew their ashes.”

Olsson is certain there is a reason why she survived. Her gift and willingness to share her story after years of silence provides her family with an ongoing legacy. Presenting to people of all different backgrounds, across Canada, allows Olsson to advocate the power of love and positive shared values.

“What being Canadian means to me is accepting the values that this country represents,” says Olsson.

“You consider yourself a Canadian?” she asks. “Then you must show people that you are by your behaviour. What does that mean? No hate. No bullying.”

As her birthday draws near, Olsson's only plans are to spend time with family in Muskoka and continue standing for love and acceptance.  Every day counts, even when you've already created a masterpiece.

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