Dr. Zofia Pakula
December 13, 1919 – October 10, 2010
How much adversity can a person survive and still triumph? From the beginning, my Mother’s life was full of tragedy and challenge. Born on December 13, 1919 in Płock, Poland she lost her mother, Chaja (Helenka) Graubart née Landau at birth. Given the enormous tragedy of a twenty nine year old woman dying in childbirth and leaving two young daughters behind, Mom’s birth was reported three days late and her official birthday was the 16th. Perhaps it was because of her great loss, from an early age she had wanted to become a physician and to heal people. While other little girls played with their dolls, Mom put bandages on them and performed surgeries.
Although brought up in a relatively assimilated home, she had among her ancestors some great rabbis and thinkers in Jewish history, including Ciechanover Rebbe, Strykover Rebbe, and Mom's uncle, the American Yiddish poet and humanist Zisha Landau
While blessed in having a deep faith in God, she wasn’t much for the ritual aspects of religion. Outside of special occasions, she usually went to the synagogue only once a year for the Yizkor service honoring the dead. Still, until her diabetes prevented it she fasted on Yom Kippur and ate only unleavened bread during Passover.
In 1939, she met Roman Pakula and they fell in love. A beautiful woman she had many suitors, but she chose him - bald, shorter than she was and older by nearly ten years. She loved him because he knew so much and he made her laugh. Also, he was very bright and ambitious. Born to poverty, and having lost his father at a young age, Father dreamed of becoming a scientist. Against all odds, he succeeded. At the time, only one Jew was admitted to each faculty at the University of Warsaw and to win the coveted spot Dad had to score the highest grade on an exam in competition with over a hundred other candidates.
On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and, like many others, Mom, Dad, Mom’s father Natan Graubart, stepmother Cesia née Bruzda and two step brothers, Stefek and Alek, went east. They settled in Lwow in the Soviet Union. Fortunately, Mom’s sister Jadzia (Yochewed) was safe in what was to become the state of Israel. Mom and Dad married on January 10, 1940. After Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, Lwow was no longer safe. Sadly, Mom’s father and his family chose to stay behind and were murdered in a concentration camp. Dad, already in graduate school, was conscripted into the Soviet army and fought in many battles including the decisive one in Stalingrad. Mom, armed with the fluent knowledge of German and false papers in the name of Zofia Pakulska, chose to take her chances and return to Warsaw. What great irony it was that the language she loved, the language of Heine, Goethe, and Schiller, became the language of the murderers, but, it also greatly helped her to survive the war.
After Hitler invaded Poland, the businesses belonging to Jews and later Poles were confiscated and given to Polish citizens of German background. With her fluent German, Mom found a job as an administrator in a hosiery factory. It is impossible to imagine the nightmare that was Mom’s life in Warsaw. She saw Jews being captured and killed. She fainted when she saw a young Jewish boy killed by a Nazi who repeatedly smashed his head against a wall. She was always hungry and sometimes she looked in the windows of bakeries and imagined eating the bread she could not afford to buy. In possession of a life-giving P patch (for Pole) rather than the deadly Star of David J (for Jude, Jew), she spent every waking moment in fear of discovery. How incredibly brave she was. Things were very difficult and then, unbelievably, in the fall of 1943, they got worse.
Someone from Płock - she never found out who he was - someone evil and driven solely by unreasoned hate saw her on the street with her P and, after deciding that she did not deserve to live, informed the Gestapo. That person tried to murder me before I was born. Luck intervened as Mom was at work when the Gestapo came. She was staying with two women whose husbands, former Polish army officers, were in Auschwitz. They gave the Nazis a completely wrong description of Mom’s appearance. Thankfully unaware that her life was in peril, she came home passing by the two Nazis waiting nearby. Once inside, her two friends advised her to leave Warsaw, to hide out in a nearby forest, and, once there, to find the place where she could contact the Resistance. She spent a couple of weeks in the forest, a young woman all alone, fearful, starving, her husband and family gone, likely forever. She prayed the prayers her grandfather Mendel Landau had taught her and prayed for help from her dead mother. How incredibly brave she was.
The man from the Resistance told Mom that her best bet was to go to the railroad station and to volunteer for the German war effort. As the Nazis were great record keepers, Mom was advised to change the destination she would be assigned and provided with an eraser and a pencil to do so. She erased Munich and put Vienna instead.
In Vienna, she did back breaking work and, together with a group of women, mostly Greek, she did her best to sabotage the German war effort. She continued to starve. When the Soviet Army liberated Vienna in the spring of 1945 women tried to look and dress old so as not to be raped. Although finally safe, she suffered a nearly fatal case of typhus. She remembered a Red Cross medic waving his hand to indicate that she wouldn’t make it.
She did make it.
One incident in Vienna came to light some time after the war. She had never thought to mention it earlier. My Dad found out when she received a package from Vienna containing a beautiful antique ornament and a letter from a man thanking her for saving his life. He was an elderly janitor at the factory where Mom worked, and as helpful as he could be to the starving workers. After liberation, a Soviet soldier saw a German man and he aimed his rifle. Mom placed herself in front of the man and then a Soviet officer interfered.
How incredibly brave she was.
Back in Poland after the war, the grievous loss of her father’s family came together with the joy of my Father’s survival of an ordeal in which over twenty million died. They lost everything and had to start over again. Father worked as a scientist. Mom, having lost five of the best years of her life, followed her dream to become a physician. When circumstances permitted, Mom entered medical school in Warsaw and graduated in 1959, specializing in rheumatology. I remember the first time a patient of hers died – she cried and cried. There were always flowers and chocolates at home from grateful patients. In 1963 she spent nearly a year in Paris doing research on rheumatic heart disease in children, working and living in French.
In 1964, my Dad, who became a well known microbiologist, was invited for a sabbatical at the University of Toronto and consequently sponsored by the Canadian Government to immigrate to Canada. A few months later, he invited Mom and me to join him for a summer vacation. At fifteen, I wasn’t trusted with the secret that we were never coming back. It was unprecedented that a complete family, including two professionals, was allowed to cross the Iron Curtain. It happened only because in medical school Mom, as was her way, became good friends with several of her fellow students, including one who later married a high ranking official. Once again, my parents left everything behind and had to start over again.
After we arrived in Toronto, Mom, with her limited knowledge of English, took a language course for newcomers and won the first prize for excellence. To get her license to practice she needed to pass a series of strenuous exams in a new language. In her mid-forties, she went through two years of tough medical residencies, sometimes working twenty four hour shifts together with people twenty years younger. At the time, fewer than half of foreign trained physicians completed the stringent requirements. Once again, Mom succeeded. As she wanted to help those living with a great challenge, she changed her specialty to psychiatry and chose work with the developmentally challenged. In addition, she provided psychiatric evaluations for about three hundred Holocaust survivors assessing their loss of earning ability due to Nazi persecution. Her reports were used by the German government to determine the size of pensions to be paid to the victims. There were more chocolates, flowers, phone calls, and letters from grateful patients. Some years after she retired she got a phone call from a family member of one of her patients - “Dr. Pakula - you saved my life, I pray for you every day.”
She was a born healer and she did so much for so many.
My Father died in 1986. In the years of his illness Mom took amazing care of him. After turning sixty five, she continued to work nine months a year for five years, spending the winters in Florida. In her retirement, she was very active enjoying movies, books, concerts, and Scrabble. She took up bridge and became quite good at it. She always walked as far as she could - whether ten kilometer walks in Florida with her friends, or short walks, with frequent rest, with her walker and her caregivers Sally or Sylvia near her house in Toronto. On the day before the final illness struck, she had her last walk. The sun was shining and the leaves were in full autumn glory.
The last ten years of her life were plagued by illness. She suffered from very low vision, severe memory loss, diabetes, asthma and a variety of other ailments. Last year, against all odds, she survived a heart attack, cancer surgery and a severe case of pneumonia. She handled it all like she lived her life - with enormous grace, strength and courage. She was the strongest, the most independent person I know. Even during her last hospital stay, one of the nurses noted how strong she was.
Although the loss is enormous, I am consoled by the fact that in her last years she received the very best care possible, both medical and from the wonderful women who took care of her. Whatever the circumstances, Mom always did her very best. She did so much and she did it all very well, whether her work with patients, or preparing a great dinner party for six, or making fancy cream cakes for my birthday, or just being a friend. People who met her stayed in touch. Many people told me how special she was to them, what a giving and wonderful friend. Fun loving and with a great sense of humor, she was a joy to be around. Always charming, gracious, giving, considerate, and kind she was the kind of friend everyone wanted to have. She faced the worst ordeals with a smile that always touched my soul. She was the best mother anybody could have.
In spite of far too many challenges and tragedies for a single person to face, her life was a triumph of human spirit and will against overwhelming adversity. We are blessed to have had her in our lives. She will be missed by many. And most of all, she will be missed by me. Mama: my sense of terrible loss is balanced by the full and giving life you had lived and by the knowledge that you are now at peace, free of pain and suffering. Till the end your life was the best it could be. In that, your strength and indomitable will were the greatest assets.
Thank you for surviving against all odds and giving me a chance to be. Thank you for loving me so much. Thank you for teaching me how to care deeply about others. I love you Mama.
Eulogy written and read at the funeral by the son Andrew Pakula, 13 October, 2010
Prof. Roman Pakula
Dr. Zofia Pakula Lectureship at the University of Toronto
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Last updated September 30th, 2012