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Holocaust survivor kept gloriously upbeat and warm despite hardships

Chana Wallace died on Feb. 16 in Toronto. Photo courtesy of her family.

She may not have looked it, but Chana Szpilman Wallace was almost certainly much tougher than you.

After the deaths of both her sons and both husbands, deportations, beatings, deprivation, constant fear, hunger and internment in two places synonymous with the worst horrors humans can imagine, she had every reason to turn her back on the world.

Instead, one of North America's oldest Holocaust survivors, she was gloriously upbeat, radiating optimism and warmth – the archetypal grandmother. Not only did she survive, but in a giant raspberry to Hitler, she lived to nearly 107, and died peacefully, surrounded by family. Greta Garbo might well have been talking about Mrs. Wallace when the screen star quipped: "Anyone who has a continuous smile on his face conceals a toughness that is almost frightening."

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Her passing comes amid a series of deaths of the oldest Holocaust survivors: Mrs. Wallace died on Feb. 16 in Toronto; a week later, Britain's Alice Herz-Sommer, believed to be the oldest Holocaust survivor, died at the age of 110, shortly before a film about her won the Oscar for best documentary short; Austrian Leopold Engleitner, a Jehovah's Witness, died a year ago at 107; and Mrs. Wallace's brother, the composer and concert pianist Leo Spellman (he had anglicized the name), died in late 2012, also in Toronto, at age 99.

Not only did Mrs. Wallace survive the death mills of both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, she also overcame heart disease and breast cancer in her later years. Though visually impaired, she lived alone until a broken hip at 104 necessitated a move to a seniors' residence. She underwent pacemaker surgery at age 105.

"She had an inspirational impact on everyone with whom she came into contact," her large extended family wrote in a detailed tribute. Mrs. Wallace "admitted that it was a challenging and arduous journey, but one in which she always chose to see the positives. After passing the threshold of 100 years, she commented: 'During the first part of my life, if someone would have said I would live a long life, I would have said they were lying. I have to pinch myself that I'm alive.'"

At her 100th birthday celebration, she spoke for 20 minutes, without notes. "From childhood, I always said that you should never give up in your life," she advised. "Have faith in God and don't give in. Never say, 'I can't.' Don't look for trouble. Most importantly, don't say, 'I had a bad day yesterday.'

"I have a lot of bad dreams at night but I put them aside," she said. "I have a family and I have to live for them."

Unlike many other survivors of Nazi concentration camps who turned their backs on a god that could tolerate the gassing and slaughter of human beings, Mrs. Wallace never wavered in her faith. "Two factors drove her," said her niece, Helene Shifman, "her family and her spirituality." Another source of inspiration was music. Her first cousin was the musician and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose life was portrayed in the Academy Award-winning 2002 film The Pianist.

Chana Szpilman was born on April 12, 1907, in the Polish town of Ostrowiec, the second-youngest of eight children in a family that was consumed by music. Her father, Reuven, was a well-known local violinist and music teacher. His four daughters and four sons had happy childhoods. As Mrs. Wallace said in videotaped interviews for Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1997, "We were always dancing, singing and playing. It was a nice life." Even with eight kids of her own, her mother, Chaya Rosen Szpilman, would tend to the children of poor neighbours.

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But anti-Semitism was rife in the city, and its 15,000 Jews were often taunted with cries of "Zyd! [Jew] Go to Palestine!" Jewish children were castigated at school if they complained about beatings. "We were used to it," Mrs. Wallace recalled with a shrug. She described her family as "modern religious." Meantime, she played piano and mandolin with gusto, joining her father and others in living-room concerts of foot-stomping klezmer and soft Yiddish melodies. Music held the family together, she said.

Among her earliest memories was hiding from Russian troops after the First World War, but not from German soldiers, who were seen as friendlier to Jews. She was 18 when an arranged marriage betrothed her to Jankiel Lustig, 13 years her senior and also a musician. By 20, she had her first son, Yisrael Leib, and by 22, a second son named Uris, who died of pneumonia at 2 1/2 weeks. Her mother died in 1930.

She recalled vividly the "chaos" when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, and train stations were bombed from the air, preventing movement. The Nazis marched in as though "everything belonged to them," she said. Jews were soon forced to wear yellow armbands or Star of David badges. The local Judenrat, or Jewish council, an administrative body Jews were forced to form, comprised "the nicest people in the city," but they soon turned on their brethren by stealing valuables and inflicting punishment.

The city's Jews were herded into a teeming ghetto in April, 1941. With pestilence and almost no food and water, "it's a wonder we lived. It was terrible." When the ghetto was liquidated in late 1942, 11,000 Jews were transported to Treblinka, her father and two sisters among them. Mrs. Wallace never saw them again. A forced-labour camp was created for those who remained.

From 1942 to 1944, she toiled at the camp, painting and turning out cement blocks. "One time, they made us all line up and they shot every 10th person. I was ninth," she recalled. By this time, the family's precious musical instruments were stashed, never to be recovered.

Rumours of further deportations were thick, and Mrs. Wallace and her husband, now separated from their son, hid at a cemetery amid corpses awaiting burial. It was to no avail: Both were transported to Auschwitz in September, 1944, neither knowing the other's fate.

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After a cattle-car ride, she stood before the monstrous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, who determined, with a wag of a finger to the right, who would live, and, leftward, who would be gassed. Mrs. Wallace, 37, was deemed fit to work, and shunted right. She was stripped naked, her head was shaved and her left forearm hastily tattooed in blue ink with the number 16971. First, cold water was thrown on the naked arrivals, then hot. Then came a striped uniform. Then a small piece of bread. Then back-breaking labour: at least 12 hours a day yanking roots and trees from a river several kilometres away. The fire atop the crematorium was always visible.

One day, she spied a rotten potato on the ground. She pounced on it and gobbled it up. A guard saw her. "What are you doing?" he queried. "You shouldn't eat rotten potatoes." Mrs. Wallace casually replied that she liked them that way. The guard said he would be back the next day with fresh potatoes. He came once, and she never saw him again. She was convinced a second guard had witnessed the event, and that the first one had met his end.

Eager to do anything to escape her nightmare, she volunteered to go to Bergen-Belsen on a work detail. "Was I sorry!" she lamented. "At least Auschwitz was clean." Or relatively. "In Bergen-Belsen, the lice were so big, some girls were eating them! Would you believe that? I saw it myself." Every morning, at least 20 young women were carried out dead. Just to feel human again, Mrs. Wallace washed her face with the watery coffee given to inmates. On tape, she choked up at the memories and dabbed away tears. "What kind of life did they make for us?"

She was lucky to recover from a blow to the head that resulted in an 18-centimetre gash. She believed she survived her ordeal thanks to dreams of her mother feeding her.

Bergen-Belsen was liberated by Canadian and British troops on April 15, 1945, and Mrs. Wallace soon discovered that her husband and son had also survived. She was reunited with her husband, but another horror awaited: The couple learned that just after the war had ended, their only remaining son had been murdered in Poland in an attack in which three others were killed and Mrs. Wallace's brother, Leo, had also been wounded. Some accounts attributed the attack to "thieves" and "hoodlums," but Mrs. Wallace believed soldiers of the "AK," the Polish Home Army, shot her son. "They came to kill Jews, that's all," she said. "Too many Jews. … I didn't want to live."

Her husband could not cope. One night, while living at the Furstenfeldbruck camp for displaced persons in Germany (where Leo Spellman finished his musical rendition of his own war experience, Rhapsody 1939-1945), Mr. Lustig went to the window and said he could not live without his boys. The next morning, he was dead of heart failure.

After a brief stint in Munich, Mrs. Wallace moved to Canada in 1948, sponsored by her brother-in-law. No one was interested in hearing her story. A Toronto factory owner, who was impressed by her admission that she could not thread a needle, hired and trained her as a seamstress.

She soon met a man from her hometown who had lost his wife and three children in the Holocaust. The couple married in 1950. In granting them citizenship in 1953, the judge looked at the man's name, Dovid Wloszczowski, and convinced him to change it to Wallace.

The couple opened a stationery store in Toronto, followed by a women's clothing shop. They had plans to retire to Israel, but Mr. Wallace fell ill and died in 1966. After that, Mrs. Wallace took in alterations until her eyesight waned. Her mental sharpness stayed with her, however. When her young grand-nephew asked about the fading numbers on her arm, she explained they were a telephone number she had trouble remembering.

"She was a wise woman," her niece, Helene Shifman, said. "She always had a clever answer. Always grateful, always positive. She lived for her family." In her later years, she devoted herself to her brother's family. Mr. Spellman, eight years younger, would say Mrs. Wallace had been like a mother to him.

"If a Holocaust survivor can embody such an incredible sense of positivity, maintain her faith in God and choose to believe in the goodness in people, then I believe we should all be capable of an optimistic outlook," said Brian Shifman, Mrs. Wallace's grand-nephew.

She leaves Ms. Shifman, two nephews, five grand-nephews and a grand-niece.

Asked once about a message for future generations, Mrs. Wallace squared up and answered: "To have a will to live. To go a straight way. To be gentle with people. To be happy. That's all I have to say."

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