By Councillor Mike Cohen. With additional editing by Councillor Glenn J. Nashen and Dr. Judy Hagshi
As the expression goes, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. This concept was reinforced to me again when I attended the funeral of the mother of Councillor Ruth Kovac. I have served on council with Ruth for almost three decades and at various public and private events met her mother Ilse Zilversmit. I have always known Ruth as a tenacious and resourceful community leader and after hearing several eulogies about her mother, I see that those values run deep in the family.
Ilse passed away on June 23 just shy of her 90th birthday. She was a remarkable woman and right up until her final days, before a short hospitalization, she lived on her own and remained very self-sufficient. She routinely completed the New York Times crossword puzzle in record time and would often shout out correct Jeopardy questions before the contestants. Indeed, she was fiercely independent and proudly purchased her own car at 80 years old.
Ilse was a Holocaust survivor. Her family home in Amsterdam became a refuge for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, as early as 1934. As a teenager in 1943, she and her family were deported to the Westerbork transit camp. In February 1944, she was again deported – along with her family- to the Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany. It was in Westerbork that she met Gus and a romance, against all odds, would be set in motion.
Approximately 100,000 Dutch Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis. Ilse, her sister and her mother survived and returned home following the war. No other members of their family were as fortunate as them. As they began to rebuild their broken lives a chance encounter brought Ilse back to Gus and the two remained together for many decades. They chose to start anew in Canada.
Ilse lived in the same Amsterdam neighbourhood as the iconic Jewish Dutch girl Anne Frank. Their parents knew each other and Ilse and her sister were around the same age as Anne and her older sister, Margot. Ilse and her family have another thing in common with the Franks – they were also sent to Bergen-Belsen. Ilse’s father was killed there, but she survived along with her mother and sister. “I’m the lucky one, I have six great grand-children,” she said in an interview just two years ago.
In an interview with the Canadian Jewish News in 2010, Ilse elaborated upon her connection to Anne Frank. “Anne was a nice girl, but a little, I wouldn’t say wild, let’s say energetic,” she said “while her older sister was very serious. We spoke to them at Bergen-Belsen, but couldn’t see them because there were two rows of barbed wire with straw in between. Anne asked if there was anyone from Holland, and then when we answered, if we had any food. We found some bread and threw it over, but someone else grabbed it first. Those were the last words we had with them.”
Regardless of the trauma and turmoil that dotted her early life, Ilse refused to be embittered by it. Rather, she made every effort to look at the positive side of things and enforced in her children not to complain. Several grandchildren eulogized her with fond memories of hockey events attended and vacations enjoyed. She did not complain of being cold or tired, but rather told them how proud she was to have spent time with them.
Conversations with Ilse was always enjoyable and informative. She followed current events very closely and was naturally very proud of her daughter the politician. It was just over a month ago that Ilse came to City Hall with Ruth, her granddaughter and great-grandchildren for our annual VE (Victory in Europe) Day, where the three generations laid a wreath. A few days later she joined Ruth at the Yom Hashoah ceremony.
Ilse was also proud of her Dutch heritage, as is her daughter Ruth. They would attend the annual King’s Birthday, hosted by another Cote Saint-Lucer, Honourary Counsel General of the Netherlands Michael Polak. Always outfitted with a splash of orange, muttering away in Dutch, they would hobnob with old friends and perfect strangers with patrimonial pride.
“Before we took her to the hospital for the final time I came to her condo and she had the TV on her favourite channel, CNN,” said Ruth. “She told me to take care of her plants. My dad passed away 29 years ago. So mom lived nearly one-third of her life as a widow. She lived a good life.”
Here is a video Ilse recorded for the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre a number of years ago. It is a stunning story, one that will live on for many generations to learn. The legacy of Ilse Zilversmit.