This June marks 35 years in Muskoka for Holocaust survivor and speaker Eva Olsson, and there’s no place she’d rather be.
“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” Olsson said. “I travel a lot across Canada…But this is home. I love Muskoka.”
Olsson’s first home was in Szatsmar, Hungary where she lived in a small house with her parents and five siblings. They were still mourning the death of her oldest sister in 1944 when Nazis invaded her hometown and took her family in boxcars to Auschwitz. Angel of death Josef Mengele sorted the family members upon their arrival, sending Olsson and her youngest sister Fradel to the work camps and sending the rest of the family to the gas chambers. The two sisters were the only members of the family to survive the Holocaust before being freed by British and Canadian troops in 1945. She moved to Sweden after the war, where she met and married her husband, Rude. Though she loved Sweden, the fear of another war loomed over her.
“I came away from Sweden not because it wasn’t good, but because I was afraid of another war,” Olsson said. “At this time, the Korean war was on, and my husband said, ‘Why don’t we go to Canada for six months and see how we like it?’”
They went to Montreal in 1951 and loved Canada so much that they decided to stay. As the Korean War ended in 1954, thousands of people were laid off, including Olsson’s husband. He then got a job with an engineering company that led them to Toronto, but when Olsson was 39, Rude was killed unexpectedly in a car accident, leaving her to raise their 10-year-old son Jan alone. She made a living by renting out two rooms in her home in Richmond Hill and her son eventually went to Queen’s University before moving to Muskoka for his first teaching gig.
“He moved up here and one day he says, ‘Mom, what are you doing down there?’” she said laughing, adding that she already loved Muskoka thanks to her time at a cottage they had for a while in Huntsville. “I moved up and it was good because I babysat three grandchildren while their parents were teaching.”
Along with being her home for the last 35 years, Muskoka is also the place where she started her illustrious speaking career 25 years ago when her oldest granddaughter was asked to do a project on World War II. For the first time in her life, Olsson broke her silence while speaking to students at Monck Public School about her experiences in Auschwitz during the war. She’s grateful that she’s healthy and has a desire to speak because it can be too painful for some Holocaust survivors, and there aren’t many survivors left at her age.
“I need to speak for one and a half million children that were murdered because five of those children were my own nieces. Five,” she said, listing their ages, which ranged from two months to 3 and half years. “Somebody has to do it. Children today need to understand that hate isn’t some kind of a joke, it’s a killer. I was there, I’ve seen it.”
Even though she’s told her story thousands of times to audiences across the world, it can still be difficult for Olsson to talk about her childhood and time in the war. Seeing parents and their children at her events reminds her of the family that she lost to World War II, especially her mother.
Though it can be hard at times, Olsson said she’s grateful to live in a country like Canada where she can speak freely against hate. To her, there’s no other country like Canada, and her speaking career has taken her both across the country and across the world.
“At least half a dozen times in a year I’m in Alberta and different areas speaking, so that’s amazing,” she said. “I’ve been to the Arctic, I’ve been to the United Nations twice and I do a lot of work with the Provincial Police in that area.”
Along with bringing her to new places, her career has also brought her in contact with thousands of listeners that have been touched by her message. She’s received over 17,000 letters, and from time to time she still talks about one letter that she received from a 13-year-old student in Ottawa.
“She wrote to me: ‘Today you came to my school but not just for my English project. You unlocked the door to my heart. You opened the window so I can see the world. I cannot save the one that has been lost, but I’m going to make a commitment to save the one that is about to be lost by standing up to bullies and not being a bystander.’ Now that hit me,” Olsson said.
Olsson said she plans to keep speaking as long as she’s able, as long as people want her and as long as she has a message to leave behind. Her son jokes that she’ll be speaking until she’s 110, and while she’s not sure about that, she said she certainly plans to keep speaking for the next five years as long as her health allows it.
It takes courage to continue travelling and speaking at the age of 95 and courage is something that Olsson learned from her mother. When her parents got married, despite being very poor, her father told her mother she could no longer be a seamstress; she was to stay at home and have children. They lived in a one room shed with three children when Olsson’s mother became pregnant with her. She was sick and doctors ordered her to have an abortion, but she refused, instead staying in bed for eight months with three small children, no hydro and no indoor plumbing.
“In those days, women didn’t have much to say. They were under the thumb, as the saying is,” Olsson said. “Thank God that has changed. We can stand up for ourselves and be the people we need to be, not to be controlled by a male person, because we have a lot to offer other than just bearing children.”
When Olsson was about 12 years old, she went to see where she was born and was shocked. The family had since moved to another street into a house with two rooms to accommodate her two younger siblings, but upon seeing the place where her mother carried her to term, she understood the courage it took to reject the abortion. In that instance and many others, her mother taught her to have courage and to not give up hope. Those lessons are what she took with her to Auschwitz and what she lives by everyday, and it’s also the message she has for other women.
“Be the person you are destined to be because you have a lot to offer. It’s inside you, don’t be afraid to have a look,” she said. “You’re going to find it and build on it. That’s what I did.”