When my parents arrived in Montreal as refugees, they knew they had to register me for school. But which one?
My father was intent on sending me to a religious school. The first place he tried was a place called Mesifta which was not much more than a rabbit warren of little rooms on the second floor of a dilapidated commercial building on Park Avenue. The rabbis there however were not too enthusiastic about welcoming little Tomika into the school ranks. It was clear to them that as a refugee my father would not be able to afford tuition.
Dad and I apparently had much better luck at the Yeshiva Merkaz Hatorah on Waverley corner Fairmount where they based tuition on ability to pay.
So is that where I started Grade 1? Nope. Mom was having none of that. Yes, she did come from a religious family in Debrecen. Yes, she did agree with Dad that I should have a Jewish education, but not right away. First she wanted to make sure that her son learned how to read, write and speak English. She figured that would take a year.
Mom declared that I would attend Bancroft public school for one year and then I could switch to the Yeshiva for the rest of my elementary school education.
When you are six years old, speak fluent Hungarian but not a word of English, elementary school does have its ups and downs.
It was not easy sitting in a class where I could not understand a single word of what the teacher was saying. I did notice the teacher talked a great deal but most of the other kids did not seem remotely interested in whatever she was saying. They would just slump forward holding head in hand and stare out the window.
Not wanting to be embarrassed, I did exactly what they did but never could figure out what they were looking at.
On my very first day of school, I watched as Miss Wadman started to hand out notebooks and thick brown pencils.
I became anxious. Would there be enough to go around? Would I be lucky enough to get both a notebook and a pencil? I need not have worried. Mom and Dad were right when they said that we had come to a very rich country.
It was so rich that there were enough pencils and notebooks for everybody. There were even a few left over that the teacher put in a cupboard which she did not even bother to lock. I was astonished. This country was so wealthy the people here did not seem remotely worried about everything being stolen.
Miss Wadman kept talking. Now I noticed that all the other kids were picking up their pencils and writing something on the first page of the notebook.
What were we supposed to write? I had no idea so I looked over to the desk of the girl sitting next to me. I would just copy her work and write whatever she wrote. That should work.
She wrote a big letter M. I wrote a big letter M. Then she wrote an A and then I wrote an A.
So that is why when Miss Wadman collected all the notebooks, there were two with the word MARIE neatly written in the upper right hand corner of the first page.
Miss Wadman was a very beautiful and kind lady. If your pencil started to smudge, she would sharpen it for you. All you had to do was line up and she would put your pencil into a special device. After she would turn a handle, your pencil would come out very sharp and be as good as new.
One morning, when it was my turn to get my pencil sharpened, she took it and put it into the grey metal pencil sharpener attached to the wooden window sill. As she turned the handle, I heard a sudden cracking noise.
I knew that my pencil had broken and I started to cry. In Communist Hungary when you broke something, too bad. You would never get a new one. I was convinced that I would not have a pencil for the rest of the year, but I need not have worried. Miss Wadman smiled and gave me a brand new pencil!
Miss Wadman also saved the day when I forgot to bring my lunch to school.
By this time, I was speaking English well enough to understand that she was offering to take me to lunch at the Bancroft snack bar on the corner of the street. She asked me if I wanted a hot dog.
A hot dog? That could not be what it sounded like. I was sure that people in Canada didn’t cook dogs. Hot dog must be a funny name for some kind of candy.
So Miss Wadman ordered me a hot dog. When it arrived and I saw what it was, I was beside myself. There was something that looked like bread but inside there was meat!
I was not allowed to eat meat anywhere but at my house or at my cousin’s house, Maybe this was pork which was not kosher. Maybe it really was a dog that had been cooked!
I did not know what to do. I certainly had no intention of eating it but I did not want to insult Miss Wadman who was such a nice lady
I had to think fast. I pointed up to the list of specials on the wall and asked her what they meant. As she looked up and explained, I quickly tossed the hot dog onto to the floor.
“My goodness, Tommy, you polished that off very quickly. You must have been very hungry. Would you like another one?”
“No thank you. I am very full.”
That was a close call and I never again left my lunch at home.
Candy was a big issue during my early childhood. In Hungary, you rarely got candy. When you did, you would take it out of the colorful paper wrapper and suck on it until you got to the soft gooey part in the centre which was very sweet.
This entire operation would only take a minute or two at the most.
Not here in Canada. I discovered that kids in this country seemed to favor a special soft pink candy that they would be able to chew for hours. I did not know what these special candies were called and I certainly had no idea of where to get one.
Until one day when I was standing outside during recess being ignored by the other kids who were all running around and playing games that looked incomprehensible. I noticed a flattened piece of the special candy laying right there on the ground.
Wow. Mom and Dad were always saying Canada was a great place. They were so right. Here in Canada, you did not have to be a good boy and wait for an adult to give you a candy. Here candy grew wild on the ground. All you had to do was look around until you found one, scrape it off the ground et voila – Canadian candy that you could chew for hours.
One day, Mom was walking me to school and was horrified to see me pick up something from the ground and pop into my mouth.
“What are you doing?”
“I am picking Canadian candy. It grows on the ground.”
“Are you crazy? Spit it out this instant!”
Mom then took me to the corner store where I had my first piece of gum that had not been previously chewed.
Mom told me to never again pick up gum off the floor as she handed me the pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum which came individually wrapped.
As usual, Mom was right and I told her as much. The Wrigley’s gun was much sweeter than the gum you would pick off the ground.
I was impressed with Mom and so apparently was Prince Philip. But that’s another story.