Jeanette Zimmer

My Story...

“The will to live is a very strong thing.”

This is Jeanette Zimmer’s answer to her son, Alex, when asked how she was able to survive the unspeakable atrocities she witnessed and suffered during the Holocaust as a young woman growing up in in Poland. She believes she was ‘lucky’ to survive when millions perished; in many situations, when faced with mortal danger, she believes it was good luck which intervened to save her and her family.

Jeanette and her late husband, Leo, did not share their war experiences with their young children, Linda and Alex. They did not share anything about the lengthy stays in cramped hiding places behind barns, in basements, in the woods, or life in concentration camps or even the atrocities that continued against Jewish people after liberation. They sought to protect them from the burden of such trauma which provided their children the very freedom they had not enjoyed themselves.

Jeanette, born September 15, 1928, was 11 years when the Nazis invaded Poland. In the span of six weeks in 1939, they had murdered 500 people in her home city of Sambor, in eastern Poland (now Ukraine). The Germans then retreated as they had signed a pact that divided Poland into two territories, with Germany taking the West and Jeanette living under Soviet rule in the East.

Jeanette describes her pre-teen years as ‘normal’ – going to school and being loved and spoiled as the youngest of nine children. However, the Germans attacked again in 1941, occupied the region and then everything changed for the Jews in Sambor.

Within a week, they had murdered 200 Jews.  Jeanette did not live in the Jewish section of the city, but in a suburb which allowed her and her family to avoid the pogrom by hiding in nearby cornfields.

Soon afterward, Jeanette and her family were forced to leave their home and move to the Jewish district where they found an apartment. In the basement of the building, Jeanette and a young boy, at the instruction of one of her sisters, living in western Poland, built a hiding place using old bricks. After completion, the bunker (only accessible by tunnel), could hold 30 people but 60 desperately squeezed in when the Nazis conducted the first ‘round-up’ of Jewish citizens.

Jeanette, along with other family members remained in and out of hiding for several years; she spent months at a time in various bunkers, escaped from a jail with her mother, and lived for one year in the ghetto where she survived numerous roundups before escaping in 1943.

Jeanette’s father, Alexander was very proud to be Jew. He refused to ‘hide’ with the others because he believed strongly that he had committed no crimes. She last saw her father in 1941. He was 54 years old.

After Jeanette and some of her family members left the ghetto, they entered hiding again – this time with eight people in a space barely large enough to accommodate five. There, they remained for 11 months, so long that Jeanette’s muscles atrophied to the point where she could no longer support her weight. At the age of 16, after the region had been liberated, she had to learn to walk all over again. Along with her family, Jeanette was taken to Lviv after liberation. The family stayed only 8 months before leaving for a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. Pogroms and flagrant antisemitism continued to plague their existence in Lviv and her family did not feel safe. In Germany she trained and became proficient as a dental assistant. She learned that out of 7,800 Jews living in Sambor prewar, only 70 had survived.

In 1948, at the age of 20, Jeanette boarded a ship with her mother, Sarah, and sister Carol to begin a new chapter of their lives in Winnipeg, Canada where they would live with her uncle.

While learning English at night at St. John’s High School, Jeanette met her future husband, Leo Zimmer, also a Holocaust survivor, who spotted her on the bus and wanted to meet her. Leo and his brother survived Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. After a chance meeting at a New Year’s Eve party, the two fell in love and were married. In 1952, Jeanette and Leo welcomed their first child Linda and in 1955, their son, Alex was born.

Jeanette and Leo felt optimistic about their future in Canada, and they set a goal of building a decent life for themselves and their children. Because both had suffered such inhumanity, respect and dignity were so important to reclaim. Special bonds were formed with other survivors who came to Winnipeg. They would socialize and share experiences, but not in the presence of their children; they had known of survivors who burdened their children with their personal stories of the Holocaust and observed that it could have significant negative impact on the child’s well-being. Jeanette and Leo spoke only English in their home, embracing the language of their new homeland. Jeanette claims to have not experienced any antisemitism when she arrived in Winnipeg. The Jewish Community of Winnipeg was not as helpful to newcomers as they are today. Self-reliant and hard-working, the family thrived – Leo ran a men’s clothing store and custom tailor shop, North End Tailors with his brother on Main Street at Selkirk Avenue. The store became ‘the’ place to shop for men’s finely tailored clothing for weddings, High Holidays, Bar Mitzvah’s, etc. Jeanette did not work for very long after she was married – she kept a traditional, kosher Jewish home and became a tireless volunteer for many Jewish organizations such as UJA, Talmud Torah and Israel Bonds to name a few. To this day, she continues to support many community organizations.

Jeanette and Leo stressed the importance of education to their children and wanted them to become ’professionals’ – learned and respected. Many of her surviving family members and their children similarly distinguished themselves in various cities and countries around the world.

Sadly, Leo passed away prematurely at 57 years of age. He and Jeanette had made a good life together for their children. They enjoyed travel together and visited Israel just two years before Leo’s death. They never visited Poland again – the revisionist historical posture of the Poles who denied their compliance in the atrocities of the Holocaust, labeling it ‘the Jewish lie’, left them with no interest in returning to their native land. Jeanette participated in Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project, giving testimony of her Holocaust experience. She was very nervous about sharing her story but felt compelled to speak for those millions who could not.

Jeanette has a beautiful family. Linda lives in Toronto. Alex, a dentist, married Harriet Axelrod and has two children:  Joel, who graduated from University of Waterloo with a degree in Computer Engineering is employed as a Software Architect in Brooklyn, New York, and Leanne, who also attended the University of Waterloo, graduated with her Doctor of Optometry degree. She is married to Jared Akman and they live in Winnipeg with their two daughters, Julia and Hannah. Jeanette feels thankful and blessed. Family traditions are observed and celebrated together.

Jeanette, with wisdom born of suffering enjoys her life, but is wary of the current political climate of right-wing demagoguery. As Jews, we must be ever-vigilant as in pre–Holocaust Germany; Jews also enjoyed a very cultured and respected place in society. She declares that the Holocaust only made her ‘more Jewish’ and she has lived her life as proudly as a Jew.

L'Dor Vador – from dark to light – Jeanette’s is a story of resilience and triumph.