Malvina Shabes, known as “Visia” to friends, was only 10 years old when she, her parents, and her father fled their native Poland to Siberia. It was 1939, and the Nazis had just invaded. The family kept her alive, only to find herself in labor camps in Siberia. Malvina died in Toronto on November 10, 2020, as the coronavirus blazed through his pension home. He was 93 years old.
Despite the terror of her youth, “she was probably one of the kindest people you would ever meet,” her son Jeff Shabes told BuzzFeed News. “She was always worried about everyone but her.”
According to all accounts, he lived an extraordinary life. Mother of two children and friend of several, she never escaped from her life story. “It was a rarity in the sense that he was willing to talk about life in Siberia and what life was like during the war,” Jeff said.
Born in Krakow, Poland, in 1929, she and her family escaped the Nazis “by some miracle,” the son said.
In her stories, Malvina painted a thin picture of the Soviet Union. Following the non-aggression pact between Germany and Russia, hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported to Siberia and other regions of the USSR, in a sparsely populated and refrigerated manner. Like the other Polish men, the father had to work in a labor camp in conditions that many of his compatriots did not survive.
The family had a small apartment with “minimal heat,” she told her son, and often there wasn’t enough food. Malvina had to go to a Russian language school; it was a language she didn’t understand, even though she eventually learned it and it became “a little acclimatized,” Jeff said. When she met Joseph Shabes, she rejected him because she was eight years her senior. He knew her through her father; the two men were committed to resisting the Soviet regime. “They were a kind of prisoner, freely,” the son recalled. As time went on, Malvina and Joseph fell in love. They had been married for 63 years when he died.
Siberia has never felt like a place where family could make their home. So, after the war, Malvina and her husband – who was not even married – traveled between Poland and Germany. Because the lovers were Jewish refugees, a cousin in Canada was able to bring them into the country. Malvina’s husband went first, while she, then 18, waited to follow and marry him.
As a new immigrant to Canada in the late 1940s, Malvina also found herself learning a new language in a new place, but this time in a country she loved. Established in Toronto, Joseph ran a printing company, while Malvina had a job at Simpsons, a department store bought by the Hudson’s Bay chain in 1978. She worked until she became secretary to the director, a position she held. fair.
She took a break from work after her first child, Jeff, was born. Initially, she returned to her part-time job, but quit everything after having a miscarriage. Jeff still remembers that time; he accompanied her as she recovered. “I didn’t understand why he was in bed, but I made him sandwiches and watched soap operas,” he said.
Above all, Malvina is remembered for the community she built in Canada, making friends wherever she went. Over the years, she was a determined matriarch, even as she cared for her husband and mother before she died.
George Kovac, a family friend of more than 50 years, said Malvina was always kind and welcoming. Her life was surrounded by her friends and family, even as she began to develop dementia. “The family has survived tremendous stress and pressure, fleeing Nazism and the Russian system,” Kovac told BuzzFeed News, “and for me it shows how Canada has greatly benefited from the experiences they have had.” .
After the first death of her husband, followed by her dog, Pepsi, Malvina’s dementia became worse. Her family decided to look for a retirement home where she could enjoy social interaction, music and art. In November, he was one of eight inhabitants in her home that died of COVID-19 during a second-wave fire. The last time Jeff saw his mother, he couldn’t hug her.
“I called her ‘mom,’ she told him she was fine, I could let her go, that we loved her,” Jeff said. “The next morning after 7:30, we talked to the doctor, and she said she wasn’t breathing at all with the 100% oxygen provided.”
He said it took time and effort to get his mother to the hospital, and the positive diagnosis came only from the staff of the medical center, rather than that of the retirement home. He wished the house had done more, launched an alarm earlier, and had been more transparent about the situation, not knowing the full extent of the era.
“The house didn’t call to find out what it was like,” he said. “The house didn’t do anything.”
After his death, he told his story to the CBC with the goal of humanizing people who have died of the coronavirus. His statement was heard by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who days later spoke of Malvina in an address across the country.
“Every person we lose to this virus has family and friends who love them, who had plans for tomorrow and things they wanted to do. I think of the Toronto woman who survived the Holocaust and who died recently. COVID-19, ”Trudeau said. “My dear ones, my deepest condolences for your loss. And for the thousands of other families who have lost someone to COVID-19, my thoughts are with you. Every loss is a tragedy, and every story reminds us of what is at stake in the fight against this pandemic. ”
Malvina was a playful fashionista, a skilled baker, and a durable woman whose hard life had taught her to build a community around her wherever she went. Jeff is honored that Trudeau remembered his mother and hopes his story will inspire other people to tell stories of his loved ones who died of COVID-19.
“My mom is the kind of person who said,‘ I don’t want attention, don’t be stupid to me. “She always said,‘ Jeff, put yourself first, ’she said.
But, to explain the extent of the pandemic, he is not listening to his advice.
“My goal,” she said, “was to tell my mother’s story.”