I was born in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1940. European Jews were being decimated by the Nazis; ninety percent of my extended family was killed on the spot as Jews were rounded up and sent to the ghetto in 1941.
My toddler life in the ghetto was a time of great stress and fear, but I also have strong memories of my family's heroics and fortitude. We hid in a bunker with another family; my uncle would protect me by hiding me when necessary between a mattress and a cold wall; my mother would sneak me out of the ghetto through a fence, having made arrangements for my well-being with a Lithuanian woman. I would play and blend in with the Lithuanian children, and was brought back to the ghetto when my safety on the outside was at greater risk than on the inside.
My mother was Rachel Eisenstadt (née Back). She survived the horrors of the Holocaust and passed away in Winnipeg in 1990. My father was Pinchas Burstein, a fighter in the underground. My father was an accountant before the war and he and my mother had started a shirt factory in Europe. My father perished in Dachau, five days before liberation in 1945.
After the war, we stayed in Lithuania for a short time and then lived in Germany from 1945 to 1949. By then, my mother had remarried Dov Eisenstadt, who passed away in Winnipeg in 1985. Dov, my stepfather, went to Israel in 1948 to fight in the War of Independence. In 1949, Dov brought us to Israel where we settled in Bnei Brak. I went to the Mizrachi School there, a religious institution. I got into more than my fair share of trouble at school and was eventually expelled. I transferred to a school in Ramat Gan — a three-kilometre walk each way.
My childhood memories of Israel have faded somewhat, but I remember that life was good and full of friends. One strong memory was a visit to the Elite chocolate factory where my friend's father was a manager.
Just after my Bar Mitzvah, we moved to Canada. My stepfather had some relatives in Winnipeg, so that's where we settled — a house on Forrest Avenue in West Kildonan. My stepfather came from a baking family in Pinsk and continued to bake in Israel. He and my mother eventually bought and ran the Bagel House on Academy Road in Winnipeg.
My teen and young adult years in Winnipeg were rich and memorable. Such great friendships have endured; such wonderful memories still bring me joy. I attended Machray School when I arrived in Winnipeg, then St. John's High School, and then the University of Manitoba, where I played six-man football while earning an engineering degree. As a youth I played soccer and football and was in AZA; at the U of M I was in the in the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity. In our Wolseley frat house, the North End and South End guys developed close friendships.
After earning my engineering degree, I worked for Manitoba Hydro for a couple of years before moving on to Reid Crowther and then starting my own firm, A.E. Burstein and Associates. We specialized in international work and electrical engineering, and had offices across Western Canada.
In the early 1970s, I went into the property development focusing on apartment projects in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Arizona. Then, as Monyx Developments, I started to develop shopping centres and other commercial projects.
Outside of work, I did my best to make a difference in my Jewish community and in my city. I was a canvasser for the Combined Jewish Appeal for a number of years, including a stint heading up the $10,000+ division. I was also active in the Liberal Party on the national finance committee and, in municipal politics, on the board of the Independent Citizens Election Committee.
In 1962, I married Marcia Diamond at the Rosh Pina Synagogue. We have one son, Paul, who has blessed us with six grandchildren. In 1990, Marcia and I moved to Toronto where Paul had recently settled.
In 2013, we decided to make Aliyah: a second time for me; a first time for Marcia. We live on the sea in Tel Aviv where we enjoy the Mediterranean air and going for walks. We also own properties in the Bahamas and in Florida, but for now Israel is home.
I still work and have a number of business interests, including an exciting involvement with a music label — specializing in gospel music — in California.
While Israel is my home, my fondness for Winnipeg and its Jewish community runs deep. It's a community that embraced my family after the World War II; and it's where my deepest, most enduring friendships were formed. I love returning to Winnipeg to visit. The city is very much a part of who I am, and I am very proud to participate in the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba's Endowment Book of Life project.