Sisters' scholarship celebrates mother's survival of Holocaust

March 3, 2020 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

Sisters Anya Sorkin and Tanya Vasiliauskas have an unusual picture of their mother that’s worth far more than a thousand words.

In it, her brilliant smile suggests kindness while the rifle slung across her shoulders and the grenades attached to her belt reflect a toughness, bravery and resilience that were essential to her survival.

The iconic photo is a perfect portrait of Sara Ginaite, a Jewish Lithuanian partisan who fought against Nazi occupation during the Second World War, and later became a celebrated professor and author. She passed away in 2018 at age 94.

“Whatever she did, she did with passion,” says Vasiliauskas. “I think it comes from survival.  Those of her generation that survived were fighters. They enjoyed and embraced life because they were alive.”

To honour Ginaite’s memory as well as her love of teaching, and to support the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies, Sorkin and Vasiliauskas created the Sara Ginaite Scholarship in Holocaust Studies.

“Especially in today’s political climate, we have to remind, remind, remind — that’s the goal of this award,” says Vasiliauskas, referring to her mother’s heroics and the atrocities of the Holocaust.

The sisters’ gift is made even more poignant by the fact that 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the killing centre of Auschwitz.

Open to students in any program, the scholarship will be awarded to two students each year based on academic performance in a course in Holocaust history.

Ginaite’s story is the stuff of books and movies. Born in 1924 in Kovno, Lithuania, she was about to graduate high school when Nazi Germany invaded the country in 1941.

Many of her relatives were killed in massacres of Jewish people that the Nazis encouraged the Lithuanian population to carry out. More than 9,200 people were killed, almost half of them children. Another 40,000 Jews – including Ginaite – were incarcerated in the guarded Kovno Ghetto.

There, Ginaite joined a resistance group called the Anti-Fascist Fighting Organization. She also met her husband, Misha Rubinson, and the pair married in 1943. The couple broke out of the Kovno Ghetto that winter, escaping to a nearby forest where they established a partisan military unit.

Ginaite returned to the ghetto to help others escape. She once disguised herself as a nurse, claiming she needed to escort sick workers. In 1944, Ginaite and Rubinson took part in the liberation of Vilna. By this time only approximately 10 per cent of the Jewish population of Lithuania remained. Ginaite lost all her relatives, save for her sister, brother-in-law, and young niece.

After the war, Ginaite remained in Lithuania and became a professor of economics at Vilnius University, where she published numerous books and articles in her field. Following her husband’s death, she emigrated to Canada in 1983 to live with her two daughters.

She taught social and political science at York University and authored a prize-winning book on the Holocaust, and numerous articles published in English, German, Russian, Yiddish and Lithuanian.
Sorkin and Vasiliauskas describe her as fearless, energetic, fiercely independent and self-sufficient, and not one to shy away from being brutally honest.

“She wasn’t a typical grandmother,” says Sorkin, recalling times when Ginaite took her young grandchildren not to a playground, but to York University to plant the seed of higher education in their minds.

“I first met Sara through her photograph,” says Professor Doris Bergen, the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at U of T.

Bergen was writing a book called War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust and came across Ginaite’s photo in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

After giving a talk to promote her book, a man from the audience excitedly approached her. The woman in the photo was alive and well and living in Toronto, he said. Astonished, Bergen connected with Ginaite soon after she began teaching at U of T in 2007.

“She spoke to my class many times and we cooperated in a number of other public events,” says Bergen. “She always began her presentation in a different way, often with a joke. But we didn’t just talk about the Holocaust. We became friends.”

That friendship continues with Ginaite’s daughters.

Bergen is grateful to Ginaite for their time together and equally grateful to Sorkin and Vasiliauskas for their generosity, stressing the enormous impact a scholarship can have on a student’s outlook and attitude.

“Prizes for students can be transformative,” says Bergen. “I’ve had students who get a prize and solely on the basis of that prize decide, ‘Maybe I can go on with my studies. Maybe I have something to contribute as a scholar.’

“It also makes them see that our courses are connected with the community and that there are interested people outside the university who care about what we’re doing and what we’re studying. That is enormously significant.”

We’re celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8 by highlighting the groundbreaking contributions and unique stories of A&S women. All week, we’ll shine a spotlight on the vibrant women of our community.