Holocaust Survivor Reva Monczak
Story by Michael Seguin / Photography by John Liviero
Reva Rozwaski grew up in a small town in Poland called Diatlova, which is now located in Belarus. “I grew up in an old, traditional family,” Reva states. “My father was the third eldest of eight. My grandfather was wounded by the Germans during the First World War with a bayonet, and became deaf. So, my father took the reins of the family business.”
The Rozwaski’s came from a long line of traders, who often served as the intermediaries between farmers and consumers. “Growing up, I had a normal life,” Reva states. “I’m the oldest of three. I have a younger brother, Chaim, and sister, Miriam. I played with my friends. Saturday, we went to synagogue. We had half a hectare around the house. We had horses, chickens, a goat. Our house was on a big highway, near the village. We didn’t know anything else. Until the war came.”
On September 30st, 1939, the Russians attacked Germany, dividing Poland down the middle. “When the Red Army came in, they advanced down the highway,” Reva states. “We stood outside watching the soldiers on their horses with their black capes. The sun was already setting. It was a nice autumn day. And one soldier bent down and gave my little brother a ride on his shoulders. He spoke to my father. Then, he put my brother down and marched on.”
Life changed under the Russian government. Private grocery stores were outlawed. Business owners were shipped to Siberia for hard labour. A noxious cloud of paranoia fell over Diatlova.
However, life under Russian rule was just the first dark cloud in the raging storm that would eventually consume their lives. “I can still see it now,” Reva states. “It was a gorgeous day. The whole family was in the backyard at my grandfather’s. Somebody came running. He told us that Germany had attacked Russia.”
Five days later, on June 27th, 1941, a German plane landed near the Rozwaski household. The Germans began their reign of terror with a purge. “All Jews were told to come to the market with shovels, because they were going to go to work,” Reva states. “There was a table with the S.S. and barking German Shepherds around. One man started calling names from a list. They called out 120 names. The lawyers, the doctors, the businessmen, the rabbi.”
Reva’s father and his older brother were two of the names called. That morning, one hundred and twenty Jews were shot and killed not far from town. “They told them to dig the grave, then they shot them,” Reva states. “We found out after the war.”
Life under the German heel continued for several months. No one was allowed on the sidewalks or the streets. The schools shut down. Before long, the Jews were commanded to wear the Star of David on their chests to identify themselves.
And, unbeknownst to the Rozwaski family, Reva’s mother was expecting. “Mother had good days and bad days,” Reva recalls. “She was getting heavier. She didn’t talk much. She just knitted. I still remember her with a brown ball of wool, just knitting.”
Then, in January 1942, Reva’s younger brother was born. “He was beautiful,” Reva states. “Cherry-black eyes and a sweet smile. He understood that he had to be good. He never cried.”
That February, the German noose tightened. The Rozwaski’s were ordered to abandon their home and relocate to the newly-formed ghetto. And by April, tragedy struck again. “We woke up one morning to commotion,” Reva recalls. “Dogs were barking. People were stamping their boots. We were summoned to the marketplace and lined up. A man stood at the front of the line. He would look at you and say ‘right’ or ‘left.’”
Sent right, the Rozwaski family was marched out of town, to the highway. There, the community was again sorted—right and left.
Reva, her siblings, her aunt, her Uncle Shlomo and her cousin were sent right—back to town. Her mother and infant brother were sent left. Into the forest. “By the time we got back to the highway, we heard the shots,” Reva states.
1,100 people were killed that morning. After that day, the Germans shrunk the ghetto. The Rozwaski’s were forced into a house that was still under construction that they had to share with another family.
On August 6th, 1942, Reva’s family woke to more commotion. Fearing what was to come, they went into hiding. Two days later, they fled into the forest, only to learn that the Germans had undertaken the Final Liquidation—exterminating the entire ghetto.
Reva and her family spent over two years hiding in the forest, taking shelter with the Partisans—the Jewish resistance movement. “There were hundreds of us in the forest,” Reva explains. “But, we couldn’t have other people with us. You had to look after yourself. You didn’t tell anyone else where you were going to hide. If they got caught, they might give you up. Trust was hard to come by.”
Reva credits her Uncle Shlomo, her father’s younger brother, for keeping her and her siblings alive. “My uncle kept us safe,” Reva states. “How he did it, why he did it, I’ll never know. It was a time when parents looked after themselves. Some abandoned their children. He got saddled with the three of us. But he never abandoned us.”
Then, in 1944, the storm finally subsided. The war ended. “When we were liberated, the farmers came and yelled for us to leave the woods,” Reva recalls. “We were afraid to stay there, because at that point, the Germans were running into the woods to hide from the Red Army.”
Returning home brought the Rozwaski family little joy. “Going home, we didn’t feel anything,” Reva states. “We knew what we were coming home to. Nothing.”
Reva and her family did not stay in Diatlova long. They smuggled themselves into Berlin, hoping to secure passage to Israel. However, once there, Reva and her brother Chaim discovered that Canada was admitting thousands of orphaned Jews. “My brother and I went together,” Reva states. “My sister stayed with our uncle. He adopted her as his daughter.”
Reva and Chaim came to Canada on October 4th, 1948. After arriving in Halifax, they eventually settled in Winnipeg, where Reva found work in a factory making jackets for $15.40 a week.
Even after coming to Canada, Reva was uneasy. “We were a generation accustomed to hiding things,” Reva admits. “Even when I had a house, I couldn’t share with anyone how much I was paying. They might take it away from me. How do you trust another person after all that?”
However, Reva was eventually able to trust again when she met Kalman Monczak, another Holocaust survivor, at night school. “My girlfriend introduced me to him,” Reva recalls. “He invited me out during the holidays. Later, we went to a New Years party, where he asked me to go steady.”
Uncertain, Reva turned to her brother for advice. “I asked my brother if he’d ever met Kalman,” Reva states. “He said, ‘Yeah, I met him at a party. He’s a good dancer.’”
Reva and Kalman were married on December 30th, 1950. They had two children: Beverly and Mel.
Ten years later, at her cousin’s suggestion, the family moved to Windsor. Reva returned to the workforce after her children entered high school, serving as the Head Cashier at Cole’s Bookstore. “When my granddaughter Jenna was at Riverside High School, she asked me to give a talk,” Reva states. “She made an appointment for me. I couldn’t say no!”
Reva’s talk had—and continues to have—a profound impact on everyone involved. “A girl came up to me afterwards,” Reva recalls. “Her grandfather was in the Canadian Army. He liberated some of the camps. She said, ‘Now, I know how I have to treat my grandfather.’”
Reva Monczak turned 89 this January. Her husband passed away in 2015. She currently lives independently, with a personal support worker visiting her every day. Aside from her own children, she has five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her brother Chaim, with whom she was inseparable, is a rabbi in Berlin. Her sister Miriam passed away in 2017.
But some scars require more than a single lifetime to fade. “Even now, when I hear my neighbor stomping around upstairs, I jump,” Reva states. “The way he walks reminds me of German boots.”
However, Reva understands the importance of moving forward. “I feel very happy with my life,” Reva states. “For years, I thought any day could be my last. But, by refusing to drown in the pain of my past, I was able to build a beautiful future. What I’ve learned is this: life is unpredictable. Never take anything for granted. Take care of those around you. Support those in need. Be a good person.”