Preserving the past to live meaningfully in the present.
Knowing where we come can also help guide us to where we’re going. Alexandra (Ala) Tulchinsky Gamulka has lived a full life, one shaped deeply by her early life experiences, her roots, and a family legacy of resilience and leadership. After escaping the Holocaust as an infant, Ala spent much of her growing years in Israel. She then immigrated to Canada, where she met her husband and pursued a career in education that spanned over 30 years. As an avid genealogist and translator, Ala is passionate about uncovering roots and passing down knowledge to future generations. She reflects on the impact that her own survival story has had on her life.
Ala was born at a time of turmoil in 1939, right at the brink of the Second World War. When Germany’s reach extended to her birth country of Romania, the Tulchinskys fled Bucharest. Ala was only two years old at the time of her family’s escape, but the memory of it has been well-documented and recounted to Ala many times. This is part of her story.
Survival at Sea
In 1942, Ala’s father, with friends, bought an old fishing boat named Mircea and procured forged papers for his family. He organized their escape to include forty people including his wife, daughter Ala (the youngest of the group), and her babushka (maternal grandmother). They departed Romania’s shores on April 10, 1942, with Israel as their destination.
Floating slowly across the Adriatic Sea, the odds seemed stacked against them — Mircea had an inexperienced crew at the helm, a creaky, unreliable motor, and a limited fuel supply. A trip that should have taken only four days stretched on. Forty days, forty passengers with only each other to rely on for survival. “The number forty has significance to us.” (The passengers of this boat trip forged deep bonds through their experience, and survivors would affectionately call themselves “The Bagel Club.”)
Ala vaguely recalls asking her parents throughout the trip, “When are we getting there?” She was assured they would see her aunt soon. German allies once even mistook the tiny vessel for a Russian submarine. Ona Greek island, occupied by the Italian navy, the boat was noticed. At gunpoint, Ala’s father thought quickly. He raised up a white sheet in one hand, and his infant daughter in the other, for them to see. The group was allowed ashore, given water, and Ala even received milk and chocolate.
Just before Mircea could make it to its destination, it was captured by occupying British forces in Palestinian waters - at Rosh Hanikra. Considered illegal immigrants, the passengers were placed in a detention camp in Atlit. Ala was separated from her father, and the family would spend 100 days in the camp before finally being liberated.
A Legacy of Resilience
The Tulchinskys finally united with Ala’s aunt in Tel Aviv. Starting out in a single room with only small remnants of their more comfortable life in Romania still with them — a few carpets and dishes they had taken on the boat — the family soon began to settle. “At least we knew someone. We transitioned into the general population and began our lives all over again … so we were lucky.”
Ala’s father eventually became the co-owner of a factory, and her mother opened up her own salon where she made wedding trousseau lingerie for brides. Looking back, Ala recalls that her family has an even longer history of hard work and resiliency. Both of her grandfathers had been businessmen and community leaders, and her beloved babushka had survived widowhood and war. Her mother’s work and entrepreneurship is a point of pride for Ala. Women with careers weren’t common at the time.
The family eventually got an apartment. Although her parents spoke only Russian at home and weren’t observant, her grandmother spoke several languages and could read her prayer book. Ala began learning Hebrew at school and connecting even more with her Jewish roots. She recalls being surrounded by loved ones during these formative years — aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends lived close by, and they all now had a shared language as well.
Setting Down Roots in Canada
When her mother fell ill, the Tulchinskys uprooted once again for a new home. They immigrated to Canada, where Ala’s paternal uncles had settled in the 1920s. She went to high school in Montreal and met her late husband, Larry, just after graduating from McGill University. Her mother had passed away, so it was her babushka who took her to the chuppah.
“Our family is special because both my husband and I were Holocaust survivors… My husband remembered every detail of his miraculous survival.” As a child in Ukraine, Larry had narrowly escaped by hiding in the woods with his mother. He eventually made his way to Montreal at fourteen. Although he didn’t know English when he arrived, he went on to get his Masters in English (Holocaust literature) and to become a beloved English teacher.
“My husband told me he fell in love with me because I spoke so many languages … Everything that formed me, I would always use. Especially languages.” By the time of their meeting, Ala was fluent in English, French, Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish. Like Ala, Larry was also a teacher and gravitated towards learning and leadership roles. He eventually began sharing his story of survival in school settings and community gatherings.
Why Preserving Stories Matter
Today, Ala is a proud mother of three and grandmother of eight. The existence of these continuing threads in her family tree speak to Ala and Larry’s story. “He always said his children and grandchildren are his triumph over Hitler.” Reflections of the past can also be found in the way that the couple chose to raise their children, with intention. Despite having not grown up in a home that observed many traditions, Ala wanted to keep a Kosher home when she married, and give her children a good Jewish education. Her children are now bringing up their own children with that same sense of purpose.
Alongside her genealogical work, Ala has made preservation a cornerstone of her family’s legacy. “My older grandchildren, as well as my children, know our survival stories.” To remember, “you must speak to your children, and they need to pose questions.”
What family stories impacted you as you were growing up? Are there any you uncovered later in life that changed your perspective on the past?
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