World War II reunion: Obituary helps war girls reconnect
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In September 1941, three young girls lined up against a marble wall in the grand lobby of the former Star building at 80 King St. West and smiled for the camera. It was the height of the Second World War, and the girls, schoolmates and neighbourhood friends, were being honoured for their collection efforts.
They weren’t surprised they’d been singled out. A resourceful trio from a working-class block of Shaw St., just north of Trinity Bellwoods Park, they were drawn to challenges, and gathering fruit baskets and wire hangers to send overseas was no exception. While Miriam Rumack, 9, and Geraldine Clever, 10, beamed, 8-year-old Charlotte Nowack, the quiet one, offered a subtle, pursed-lipped grin.
A few years later, they went to high school, moved to different neighbourhoods and lost touch. Then, last November, Clever came across Rumack’s husband’s obituary. She sent a letter and some old photos to the shiva house, where the Jewish period of mourning was being observed. Thankful for a happy distraction, Rumack, now 80, responded immediately, and the pair reunited over lunch. It took almost another year, but with the help of Sammy Powell, another member of their Shaw Street posse, they found Nowack.
Last weekend, the group reconnected for the first time in more than 70 years. The spent hours at Clever’s Rosedale home, poring over old photographs and recalling their shared childhood.
“There was no lapse in time,” said Clever, 81. “It was as though you’d pressed a button and it was a reset. You were back where you were before.”
That feeling was certainly palpable on Friday, when the trio returned to Shaw St. Standing in front of the modest brick semis where they grew up, the women reminisced about the place and time that bonded them together.
On this stretch of Shaw, then populated by an eclectic mix of ethnic groups, the adults kept mostly to themselves. But their kids forged tight-knit friendships, connected by proximity and the freedom to roam the block until the street lamps came on.
“There was no such thing as a babysitter,” said Nowack, 79.
A year ahead in school and a few inches taller than the others, Clever, or “Dine” as she was known, was the ringleader. Prone to minor mischief, they would hide in a hayloft in their neighbour’s yard and swipe ice chips from the ice truck.
The war figured prominently. They sang songs at school in support of Great Britain and kept “victory gardens” in their backyards, where they would grow vegetables that could be canned and shipped overseas.
The girls also encountered anti-Semitism. Nowack recalls two “bully sisters” who lived at the end of the block and would call them “dirty Jews” when they passed.
“I came home and asked my mother why they were calling me that. She had to explain it to me,” she said.
Clever remembers vividly May 9, 1945, when her Grade 8 teacher, Mr. Robinson, announced that the war was over.
“I skipped all the way home to tell my mother,” she said.