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BELLEORAM, N.L. – It wasn’t until after her death that Sophia May’s children learned their mother had kept a secret from them all their lives – she was Jewish.
After years of research into her history and Jewish culture, they can still only speculate as to why their mother didn’t tell them.
Their father certainly knew.
Leo May hailed originally from Point Rosie, a settlement across Fortune Bay that boasted a population of about 60. He served in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and met Sophia Vanleuis in England. The couple married in a Jewish ceremony on July 31, 1945, heading back to Canada on the Queen Mary, then catching a coastal boat and settling down.
“Can you imagine my mom left England, left London and moved to Belleoram? That was in 1945. There was no electricity. There was no water, sewer. There was no roads. Nothing,” says son Dennis May, the third-eldest of their seven children.
Sophia had a lot of adjusting to do right from the start. Postwar London had a population of more than eight million and modern amenities that were unavailable in a coastal town with a population nearer to 600.
“The funniest story we tell about my mom is her cooking, because until she got there she never cooked a day in her life,” recalls her daughter Cindy. “She just took the flour and yeast and put it together and whatever happened, happened.”
Hard breads and overly chewy cookies aside, Sophia would go on to have a happy life despite being so far removed from her family in England. She had the opportunity to go back, and indeed Leo was willing to stay there from the start, but Sophia preferred to stay in Belleoram.
“I think maybe away from England. I mean she loved her family dearly, but I think maybe away from being – not running away from being Jewish – but the stigma that went with that at that particular time,” speculates Cindy.
It was Cindy who first learned of the family’s Jewish heritage. She was going to university in England and reached out to her mother’s family, including Sophia’s sister Yetta, who is still going strong at 91. Finding out her mother was Jewish came as a bit of a shock.
“We grew up in a very, very, extremely, extremely staunch Anglican community and we always thought my mom was Church of England.”
In hindsight, there were a few clues that suggested otherwise.
Sophia’s father sent Jewish books to a couple of the boys every Christmas. Sophia told them it was because her father owned a bookshop.
“He did own a bookshop, but it was a Jewish bookshop,” says Dennis. “We never put it together.”
And then there was the photo of their grandfather holding a Jewish scroll, but Cindy admits they didn’t know what it was.
One of Sophia’s other sons, Steward, has been mayor of Belleoram for more than two decades and has served on council for about 35 years.
During his studies in ministry and theology, an instructor told him Sophia had asked if it would be a problem for her to be buried in the Anglican cemetery with her husband because she was Jewish.
“He told her as long as she lived he would make sure that she would be buried in the Anglican cemetery in Belleoram, and she was, and we didn’t know it and it was never an issue,” recounts Steward, who like Dennis, believed their mother was a Presbyterian.
While Sophia only attended church rarely and on special occasions, she ensured her children grew up sharing their father’s faith.
“One thing about growing up – she made us go to church. She made us attend the church every Sunday and go to Sunday school,” recalls Steward.
“I think because at that time Jews weren’t looked at favourably. Whether they were from Germany or Poland or Amsterdam or England, they were still like snubbed upon as being the lower of the caste system.” – Cindy May
When it comes to their mother’s reasons for keeping her own Jewish faith so secret, the children have all delved into the history of the Second World War extensively to try to understand.
“I think because at that time Jews weren’t looked at favourably. Whether they were from Germany or Poland or Amsterdam or England, they were still like snubbed upon as being the lower of the caste system,” says Cindy.
And while Newfoundland was free and welcoming, there were still religious divides at play.
“In my small town, if you were a Catholic you were looked upon unfavourably at the time,” says Cindy. “Some people at that time disowned their children if they married a Catholic, so if you were of any religion but the Anglican it was just frowned upon.”
But Cindy believes her mother’s motives likely stemmed from fear as well.
During the war, 40 of Sophia’s relatives were lost, including her younger sister Esther, and her four-year-old nephew, Barney, who were sent to the gas chambers immediately after arriving at Birkenau. Leon Greenman, Esther’s husband, would go on to write a novel, “An Englishman sent to Auschwitz.”
The Holocaust gallery at the Jewish Museum in London is dedicated to his story, and when Sophia’s children visited the museum they were surprised to find their mother on display there, posing in a photo with Esther and Leon on their wedding day.
“She left England after the war was over, right, and that time they knew that the whole family was gone,” says Cindy. “They knew that the whole family was in the concentration camp. I’m not sure if she knew they were all dead when she left or not.”
When she did speak about her lost sister, Sophia used to tell the children a different story.
“She always said she had a sister, Aunt Esther, who was killed during the Nazi bombing in London,” recalls Dennis. “She never told us about Auschwitz.”
One of Steward’s goals is to visit Auschwitz. Cindy and her daughter, Jillian, visited last summer.
“It was very emotional. Extremely emotional,” admits Cindy.
They stood on the spot where Esther and Barney would have been separated before being led away to the gas chamber, and where Leon would have last seen them.
“This is where the train came in, and this is where they separated the women and children from the men. And we were just like literally standing there. And it was. It was pretty powerful. Pretty powerful.”
The children believe their mother likely saw Newfoundland as a safe haven and a fresh start.
“I think you have to walk the walk to understand why she did what she did, and by going there and going to the Jewish museum and seeing how they were treated, and going to Auschwitz, I sort of have an understanding of her leaving and how she wanted to make it safe,” says Cindy.
“She was probably scared,” speculates Dennis. “We’ll never know.”
If nothing else, learning about Sophia’s past has given her children a strong appreciation for what she overcame to start over in Canada. Not everyone managed it.
“A lot of people kept that a secret. I know a number of families in Newfoundland that came, that were Jewish, that their parents also kept that a secret,” says Cindy.
Steward says for their mother to keep a secret for so long from her own children is no small feat.
“There was a lot of willpower in her.”
Around 15 years ago, when she was a teacher in Gander, Cindy told her fifth-grade class about it. Later that day she went shopping with her daughter.
“Me and her were walking up through the mall – she was about 14 at the time – I heard this chant, ‘Jew! Jew! Jew! Jew!’ and I’m thinking, ‘You have to be kidding.’ So, I said to my daughter I will never mention the word again, and then I sort of felt like my Mom may have felt.”
Sophia May died from cancer in 1982. She was 64.