Finding identity between the past and present.
Our identity is often shaped not only by our own experiences, but also those of the people who raised us. After surviving the Holocaust, Simone Fried’s Jewish grandparents immigrated from Eastern Europe to Canada and put down roots in Montreal. Less than a generation later, a wave of anti-Semitism forced the family to uproot again. Simone moved with her parents to Toronto, where she spent much of her growing years. As she has revisited family stories and worked to reconcile her present with the past, Simone shares how a deeper understanding of where she comes from, and an openness to change, continues to enrich her self-identity and family today.
The Enduring Power of Stories
Much of Simone’s relationship with her roots today can be traced back to the influence of family stories that have been passed down between generations. Parts of some stories could be seen, like the number on her Romanian great-aunt’s arm, while others remained hidden until they were spoken. One memory that stands out strongly for Simone is when she first heard her maternal grandmother, Bubbie Dora, tell her story after years of silence.
Born in Poland, Dora was one of only three children in her family to survive the Holocaust. She lost six of her siblings. It wasn’t until later in life, when she was approached for a Spielberg documentary in the 90s, that Dora was willing and ready to put her past into words. After filming, Dora shared more with her daughter. Simone’s mother documented what she could — recollections integral to the family tree, like lost names and hometowns; but also details that were Dora’s alone, like her memory of a favourite childhood doll she had lost.
“Listening to her retelling had a bigger impact on my sister and I than my mother. My mother had stood with her mother at Tribunals as a child, witnessing some of the retelling in a court of law. So she'd heard some of the details already. Us ‘kids’ had always heard about it in passing, or that Bubbie Dora was part of that ‘Big Event,’ type of thing. It filled in a lot of gaps that we didn't know were there.”
Rooted in Resilience
Looking back, Simone can see how her family’s past — with so much loss spread across two generations alone — shaped her parents’ approach to Judaism and the world around them. “They have always held a view of protection around their religious ways, with some understanding of the cultural affects … I grew up with the outlook that I should always be ‘with my own people.’”
But as she formed relationships outside of her community during her teenage years, Simone found it difficult to reconcile with certain aspects of her upbringing. ”I didn't like being forced to be with whatever my ‘own people’ meant.” After hearing her grandmother’s story, Simone's consciousness of her Jewish identity was also heightened. “It made me more aware of the historic views other cultures had of us, and how our cultural bubble was small and fragile.”
As she got older and was able to further explore the complexities of her roots and others’, Simone realized that the deep religious awareness her parents had instilled in her was one piece of a larger picture. “They had their view based on the survival mode their parents had — I had to teach myself that there was more to it than that.” And over time, her grandmother’s story also helped Simone see her “cultural bubble” as a source of inspiration.
“It empowered me to be proud of it, how much strength it took to keep that bubble intact after so much damage.”
Reconciling Roots Old and New
When Simone met her husband Stephen and they moved in together, her perspective continued to evolve. Together, the couple worked to honour both of their family backgrounds; he went to shul for the High Holidays, and Simone went to Christian church services for Christmas and Easter.
“That year was the first time I ever had a Christmas tree in my own place — I cried after we finished decorating it, fearing I had gone too far into the Christian life, never to return to my roots. Stephen spent a lot of time reassuring me that I had the power to tell him if it was too much. He loved the fun and happiness of the holiday and wanted to ensure I still felt welcome in our home. It was then that I knew if we were going to work I would have to dig more into what I wanted my Judaism to be.”
Now raising a family of her own, Simone is conscious about exposing her two children, Sam and Mary, to as much Judaism as she can alongside their father’s Anglican influences. And while her idea of “culture” was once tied to tangible items like a kiddush cup, menorah, or heirloom necklace, today Simone feels most connected through experiences.
“It's the low rumble of the shul congregation during Yom Kippur services. It's laughing at myself when I show how proud I am that most of our holidays never start on the same calendar date — only lunar cycles. It's about being persistent with my belief in community, education for all, and that charity doesn't always have to mean money.”
Just as Simone’s own relationship with the past has shifted over the years, she hopes to see her children and future generations welcome influences from the past, but also be open to change.
“Ask why you have a hate on for what you hate. Is it someone else's hate that you have adopted, and for the right reasons? … It’s healthy to be constructive. I’m still figuring out things.” When it comes to her children getting older and reaching milestones in their lives, Simone plans to embrace a similar approach. They will talk about what they want as a family, and grow together from there.
What family stories have helped you feel more connected with your roots? Are there any traditions you hope to shift or preserve going forward?