After the Nazis murdered his family, it was poetry that freed Simcha (Sam) Simchovitch from darkness and reaffirmed his faith.
Although his work echoes Dante's Divine Comedy, chronicling a descent into the inferno and subsequent rise back into the light, Mr. Simchovitch's verse was not a fantastical depiction of hell's deepest circles, but instead offered real-life observations of the diabolical Nazi nightmare that robbed him of everything he cherished.
The writer, who died on July 12 in Toronto at the age of 96, once told the Canadian Jewish News that his primary goal in writing, "is to commemorate my parents who were killed in the Shoah – my little brother, my three sisters, my friends. … I'm glad I was able to write about them … to immortalize them."
In total, Mr. Simchovitch penned 19 books of verse, prose and literary criticism in four languages: Yiddish, Hebrew, English and Polish. His work earned him critical praise and numerous honours including a pair of J.I. Segal Awards for Yiddish literature.
Poet and publisher James Deahl, who wrote the introduction to Mr. Simchovitch's Selected Poems, described him as a people's poet. "His Selected Poems is squarely written within the grand tradition of Dorothy Livesay and Milton Acorn, Raymond Souster and A.M. Klein. As such, it is a work that relates directly to the central strand of modern Canadian poetry."
His only novel, Stepchild On The Vistula, was autobiographical fiction, written originally in Yiddish and published in 1990. An English translation came out in 1994. The late American author Elie Wiesel, who wrote its introduction, said that Mr. Simchovitch's book, "stole me away to Otwock, a Jewish city devoured in the fire-storm of the war-abyss brought about by the enemy."
Following the book's publication and translation into Polish, Mr. Simchovitch received an invitation from the Polish government 10 years ago to return to Otwock for a ceremony that honoured both him and his novel. It was his only time back in Poland since the war.
His daughter Miriam noted, "To his everlasting credit, despite everything everything everything he experienced, he never resorted to prejudice, even as a 'temporary' solution. He didn't preach, well, not as often as some. Instead, he modestly practised quiet acts of tolerance, kindness and generosity, as part of the daily fabric of his life."
The son of Itte (née Hopfeld) and Moishe Simchovitch, Simcha Simchovitch was born on Jan. 15, 1921, in the Polish town of Otwock. As a teenager, he was deeply affected by the growing wave of anti-Semitism that infected his town, as he described in Stepchild on the Vistula. "I am a second-class citizen in my homeland which I love and whose culture I admire. … I am insulted and reviled on the streets by Polish hooligans … treated unjustly both as a Jew and a child of poor parents."
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, the young Jewish men of Otwock were advised to flee, according to Mr. Simchovitch's daughter, Itta Mandarano. Mr. Simchovitch went to the Russian border with two close friends, but the authorities were swamped by the exodus and unable to process everyone attempting to cross. The border guards ordered everyone to turn around and return home, assuring those who feared persecution that they would be safe from harm.
"My father's friends perished because they returned, but my dad slept in the woods for a few days before he successfully crossed into Russia," Ms. Mandarano said.
He found work at a leather factory in Spassk that manufactured boots for the Russian Army. It was during this time that he discovered the whereabouts of his sweetheart and muse from primary school, Frieda Felmer.
After the invasion, Frieda and her sister had escaped from the Nazi-occupied part of Poland to the Russian-controlled part of the country. But the Soviet authorities, suspicious of the sisters, shipped them to a Siberian detention centre. Throughout the war, Simcha sent Frieda care packages.
They were finally reunited in 1945, but the joy that they felt at the war's end was tempered by a cruel truth. When the couple returned to Otwock, they discovered that the Jewish ghetto had been liquidated in the summer of 1942, when three-quarters of the approximately 12,000 to 15,000 Jews in the city were shipped to extermination camps in Treblinka and Auschwitz. Those who remained behind were systematically shot.
"We survived the Holocaust, but lost our entire families, and were forced to rebuild our lives anew."
Mr. Simchovitch described the shock of losing both his parents and his sisters, Tema, Rachel and Malka, as well as his brother, Godel, in a testament featured with the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto. "I chose to translate that experience into much of my writing – so as to document what happened – but also, as a cathartic method of releasing some of my anguish."
The husband and wife and their daughter Miriam arrived in Montreal in 1949. Initially, Mr. Simchovitch supported his family working in a leather factory while simultaneously studying at the Montreal Jewish Teachers Seminary. He graduated as a teacher in 1954 and later completed a master's degree in Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
His pedagogical career included stints at the Peretz School, in Montreal, and the Hillel Academy, in Ottawa. In the mid-1960s he moved his family to Toronto, where he became the principal of the Borochov Cultural Centre. He was then hired as the curator of the Judaica Museum of Beth Tzedec Congregation, where he worked until he retired in 1989.
Mr. Simchovtch's first collection of poems, Thus a Youth Perished, was published in Yiddish in 1950. It placed the poet at the forefront of a wave of Yiddish writers, including Melech Ravitch and Rochel Korn, who immigrated to Canada following the Second World War.
Although he wrote in English as well, Yiddish was the language he favoured in his attempt to repair "the tattered remnants" he left behind in Otwock.
"Despite its relatively small vocabulary, and, to me, its ironic phonetic debt to German, it best allowed him to give voice to his fierce lament, and to his efforts to commemorate those lost," his daughter Miriam Rand said.
His son-in-law, Vincent Mandarano, told the Canadian Jewish News that Mr. Simchovitch was in reasonably sound health and mind until four years ago, when a bad fall put him in a coma. "He awoke after a month, but his health went into steady decline."
Mr. Simchovitch was predeceased by his wife, Frieda, and leaves his two daughters, Miriam and Itta, and his grandson, Michael.