Judith Lavitt

My Story...

Having been born in Shanghai, China on May 7th, 1941, made my early beginnings quite different from most other members of Winnipeg’s Jewish community.

Shanghai became known as the ‘Port of Last Resort’ for many European Jews, and I spent the first seven years of my life there.

My parents, Liselotte (Stein) and Abraham Schaffer were truly fortunate in that they were able to escape Germany in 1940. The fact that they were able to leave was a major miracle.

Liselotte Stein was born in 1916 in Beckum, Germany, a small town where the family had lived for over 350 years. The growing antisemitism in her town sent her to Berlin where she trained as a nurse. Kristellnacht in Berlin shook up many Jewish families and having witnessed the atrocities of November9 and 10, 1938, she was determined to get out.

Abraham Schaffer, a Polish Jew, was born in 1910 in Wiezbowiec, Poland, but living in Germany, he was rounded up and placed in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The only way to get out of the camp was if the person had a ticket to leave the country. Abraham’s passport and a ticket was able to get my dad out of the camp, but my mother had to pretend to be pregnant to be able to leave. My mom and dad quickly got married in Berlin on January 30, 1940, and the plan was to go to Cuba. Their luggage got on the ship, but then they were not allowed to leave and remained in Germany.

My parents then went to Genoa, Italy and boarded the S.S. Conte Verde on March 10, 1940, arriving in Shanghai on June 6th. They were lucky as this was the last boat to be able to leave and get away - shortly afterward Italy joined the war against its allies.

Shanghai was not a Garden of Eden but about 20,000 European Jews found a haven in Shanghai. Most of the Jews had to live in the Hongkou ghetto, which was about one square mile in size. Life was tough but people were not beaten or killed. Many people were not able to make a living and were very poor and the Jewish community set up soup kitchens and housing as best they could to help everyone.

I was born about a year later May 7, 1941. The difficulty was that the hospital was across a bridge and sometimes for no reason you were not allowed to cross – but again my parents got lucky.

My parents had a one-room apartment and my dad being a tailor, designed and made raincoats in our living room during the day. My crib was in a corner behind a curtain. I believe my dad’s friend, Irvin Braun who had a store, might have sold some of the raincoats.

Electricity was rationed so at times my mother used a coal stove, which had to be fanned, to cook meals. Even under these conditions, I had a normal life. I had birthday parties and the toys of the day and did not feel deprived! I remember having Strawberry Shortcake on my birthday.

Over the years the Jewish community had their own schools, hospitals and Shuls. The Ohel Moshe Synagogue is a currently a memorial museum.

In 1948, several years after the war was over, we were finally able to leave and were sponsored by the Hoffer family, cousins of my dad from Hoffer Saskatchewan. We left Shanghai on June 30, 1948,2 on the General Meigs, arriving in San Francisco on July 22. My brother Bert was born the next day. After 6 weeks we left by train for Winnipeg and, after living in a hotel for a few days, we rented an upstairs apartment in a house on the corner of Aberdeen and Salter. We lived there for a year and my dad worked for a company making ceremonial kilts. We then moved into the Machray Apartments. Because of the move, having a baby and the distance to the school, I went to public school and did not get the Hebrew education that my brother received later. I did have a Bat Mitzvah, celebrated the Jewish Holidays, went to Shul and was active in the Jewish community.

During this time, dad found a few partners and opened Service Sportswear making parkas and jackets. About 1953 we purchased a home on Machray Avenue east of Main Street and later my parents moved to a home on Sweetwood Bay in Garden City.

About 1962 my dad decided to try a new venture. He decided to try to improve the design of frost shields that had been used to keep car windows clear of ice - cars did not have defrosters at this time. He used fabric as a gasket instead of rubber and with the help of a friend, Allan Shinfield, developed a glue that was a significant improvement to what was currently being used.

I graduated from St. John’s Technical High School and then took the X-ray Technician course at the Mount Carmel Clinic. Adam Lavitt, a teacher, and I married in 1961. We spent two years in Portage La Prairie and our daughter Helen was born there.  Later the three of us went to Bemidji, Minnesota for a year so that Adam could return to school to get a Master’s degree in education. We returned to Winnipeg and Adam taught physical education and then math until his retirement.

I stayed at home and raised our four daughters: Helen, Cheryl (who sadly died in 2020), Debby and Susan born between 1963 and 1972.Sadly, Adam passed in 2013.

My greatest joy is spending time with my daughters and their families - my nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. This shows how families can multiply! I missed having a larger family, and now I have it. It’s unfortunate that we don’t live closer, but they have their own lives to live and I visit whenever possible.

I have always loved sewing and I help by sewing for the Chesed Shel Emes. Along with this, I wish to give back to the community by contributing my story to the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba.