Sunday, October 23, 2011

Least Expected Heroes of the Holocaust, by Vera Gara

A friend of mine is about to publish a unique book.

Vera Gara's memoir, Least Expected Heroes of the Holocaust: a personal memoir, (Ottawa, 2011, ISBN 978-0-9877789-0-1, soft cover, $15, will be available by November 2011 from

An Ottawa grandmother, Vera (Pick) Gara has authored an extraordinary memoir about heroic people who showed their humanity in terrible times. Mrs. Gara, R.N., a Canadian citizen and Ottawa resident for almost forty years, had her childhood interrupted by the rise of the Nazis and World War Two.

In her book, Least Expected Heroes of the Holocaust: a personal memoir, Mrs. Gara pays tribute to the everyday people who put themselves at risk to try to help her and her parents, first in 1938 when Hitler annexed Austria, and then in 1944-5, when the Jews of Hungary were rounded up by the Nazis.

Gara, who devotes herself to volunteer work and public education about the Holocaust, was instrumental in the establishment of Raoul Wallenberg Park in Ottawa (Nepean) and, as a result, was awarded membership in the Order of the Polar Star, the highest order that the Swedish government bestows upon foreigners. Wallenberg was a Swedish businessman and diplomat who saved the lives of many Hungarian Jews in 1944-5.

"Thinking about my wartime experiences and Wallenberg's heroic deeds, I became convinced that I must do something to honour the people who were not ambassadors or of other high rank, but who tried to help me and my parents during our awful journey in 1944-5," writes Gara. "People in ordinary walks of life showed themselves to be extraordinary by taking risks and acting like decent human beings during those dark days. I cannot honour them all with parks and monuments, though I would if I could. Instead, I have written about some whose lives touched mine, to convey my gratitude."

One outstanding example of such a fine person was the family chauffeur, who tried, in 1938, to save some family furnishings when the Pick meat packing plant and home were ransacked by the Nazis, forcing Vera's mother to flee with her young daughter to Hungary, while Mr. Pick was imprisoned.

Later, Vera's father was released and joined the family in Hungary, but worse was yet to come. Vera and her parents were among the Jews of Hungary whom the Nazis began rounding up for deportation and death in 1944-5.

The Picks were transported, first, to a forestry work camp in Loitzendorf, an Austrian village, and eventually to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. At the forestry camp, Vera's mother went into the village to buy food, and was befriended by an Austrian farm wife, Frau Lagler. Her twelve year old daughter, Mitzl, provided the prisoners with goats' milk (cows' milk being designated for the army). When Herr Lagler was questioned by the authorities as to whether his family was helping Jews, he replied that he was at work in his fields from sun-up to sun-down and knew nothing.

Unfortunately, the adult prisoners in the forestry camp were unable to do the required work, and the Picks, with the others, were moved again. On their sad journey, which ultimately led to Bergen-Belsen where Vera's father died, they were aided in small but important ways by several other good human beings who went out on a limb to be of help. Under the circumstances, the deeds of these "least expected heroes" were remarkable, says Mrs. Gara.

Mrs. Gara continues her story post-war, showing the longterm impact of the Nazi regime on her own and other families, including that of her husband, George Gara. Life in Hungary under communism brought more oppression. Formerly discriminated against as Jews, Mrs. Pick and Vera were now under suspicion as "capitalists." Finally, mother and daughter were able to return to Vienna. Vera studied nursing in London, England, and later, with George and their children, moved to Canada.

Reading Vera Gara's memoir takes you on an emotional roller-coaster ride. Her entire story is remarkable. Her surprisingly positive attitude shines through in every chapter. Though subjected to the worst oppression inflicted by totalitarian regimes, she has emerged as a vibrant person determined to live her life to the fullest, and to tell about past evil so that people will not repeat it.

The most touching part of Mrs. Gara's book is her recent rekindling of her friendship with Mitzl (Lagler) Reithmayer and her family, and with other Austrians who tried to help during the terrible past.

"People like Mizl and her family think it is normal to be good and helpful, and that is why we [George and I] value our friendship with them," says Vera Gara. "Always bear in mind: what may seem like a small act at the time may be the factor that keeps someone alive."

Least Expected Heroes of the Holocaust: a personal memoir, (ISBN 978-0-9877789-0-1) is available from Vera Gara, for $15.

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