Wife. Mother. Raconteur. Holocaust survivor. Born May 24, 1929, in Amsterdam; died Jan. 8, 2017, in Montreal, of natural causes; age 88.
Celine Spier Polak never gave a hoot about what other people thought. She was outspoken and free – traits that may have resulted from the nearly three years she spent as a teenager in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic.
When, in the 1980s, Celine returned to Theresienstadt with her husband Maximilien, they stopped at the ticket wicket. "Last time I was here," Celine told the ticket vendor, "I got in for free."
Celine was born in Amsterdam, to Dutch cartoonist Jo Spier and his wife Tieneke. After the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Celine was forced to attend the Joods (Jewish) Lyceum in Amsterdam. There were two grade seven classes. Anne Frank was in the class across the hall.
After the family was liberated from Theresienstadt, Celine returned to school. Asked by the principal why she had top mark in German, Celine replied, "For that, I have to thank the Fuhrer."
In 1950, on her first day at Leiden Law School, Celine met Maximilien. When he bicycled by her rooming house and called out, "Is Celine there?" she opened the shutters and replied, "No, Celine isn't home." The couple married in 1954 and settled in Montreal, where they had three children – and eventually a dozen grandchildren. A fiercely devoted mother, Celine tackled bullies at the park. As a grandmother, she permitted all – encouraging her grandchildren to empty the parmesan cheese container on their plates when the waiter wasn't looking.
Celine worked as a secretary at Northern Electric, supporting Maximilien when he studied law in Montreal. Later, when he became involved in politics – he served two terms as a member of Quebec's National Assembly – she was his best campaigner. When the couple went door-to-door meeting constituents, many promised to vote for Maximilien because they liked his wife so much.
Celine was a gifted raconteur. Her repertoire of stories improved with every telling. But there was one story Celine kept secret – the story of her family's experience in Theresienstadt. In 2007, Celine finally opened up to her eldest daughter, an author who used the material as the basis for a historical novel for young adults. When Celine shared those memories, she never once cried for herself – only for others who had been less fortunate.
After the book's publication, Celine began speaking about the Holocaust to high-school students. A lifelong flirt, Celine always pointed out the boys she considered most handsome. When asked by students for life advice, she told them: "The Nazis took everything away from us – our homes, our food, our families. The one thing they could not take away was our hope. Never give up hope."
Celine spent the last three-and-a-half months of her life in hospital in Montreal. Until nearly the very end, she continued to wink at handsome orderlies and make jokes. One morning, when her youngest daughter said she'd be back to visit that afternoon, Celine looked out from her hospital bed and said, "I'll be here."
Monique Polak is Celine's daughter.