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She escaped the Holocaust but not the pandemic


Malvina Shabes, nicknamed “Visia” by friends, was only 10 years old when her parents and nanny fled their native Poland to Siberia. It was 1939, and the Nazis had just invaded. The family made it out alive, to end up in work camps in Siberia. Malvina passed away in Toronto on November 10, 2020, while coronavirus blazed in his retirement home. She was 93 years old.

Despite the terror of her youth, “she was probably one of the nicest people you’ve ever met,” her son Jeff Shabes told BuzzFeed News. “She was always worried about everyone except herself.

Obviously, she has lived an extraordinary life. Mother of two sons and friend for many, she has never hesitated to tell her story. “She was rare in the sense that she was ready 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 a miracle,” her son said.

In her stories, Malvina painted a grim picture of the Soviet Union. As a result of the non-aggression pact between Germany and Russia, hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported to Siberia and other areas of the USSR as sparsely populated as they were freezing. Like other Polish men, his father had to work in a labor camp in conditions where many of his compatriots did not survive.

The family had a small apartment with “minimal heat,” she told her son, and there was often not 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 “got used to it somewhat,” Jeff said. When she met Joseph Shabes, she rejected him because he was eight years her senior. She got to know him through her father; both men were determined to resist the Soviet regime. “They were sort of prisoners, in a cowardly way,” her son recalls. Over time, Malvina and Joseph fell in love. They were married for 63 years when he died.

Courtesy of Jeff Shabes

Malvina and Joseph Shabes

Siberia never felt like a place for the family to settle. So, after the war, Malvina and her husband – whom she had not yet married – traveled between Poland and Germany. Because the lovers were Jewish refugees, a cousin in Canada was able to bring them to the country. Malvina’s husband went first, as she, then 18, waited to follow him and marry him.

As a new immigrant to Canada in the late 1940s, Malvina once again found herself learning a new language in a new place, but this time in a country she has come to love. Moving to Toronto, Joseph ran a printing company, while Malvina worked at Simpsons, a department store bought by the Hudson’s Bay chain in 1978. She rose through the ranks to become the manager’s secretary, post of which she was proud.

She took a break from her job after the birth of her first son, Jeff. Initially, she returned to her part-time job, but quit completely after having a miscarriage. Jeff still remembers that time; he kept her company as she recovered. “I didn’t understand why she was in bed, but I made her sandwiches and we watched soap operas,” he said.

Most of 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 they died.

George Kovac, a family friend for over 50 years, said Malvina was always kind and welcoming. Her life was centered around her friends and family, even as she began to develop dementia. “The family survived tremendous stress and pressure, fleeing the Nazis and the Russian system,” Kovac told BuzzFeed News, “and to me, it shows how much Canada has benefited from their experiences.

Following the death of her husband, followed by her dog, Pepsi, Malvina’s dementia worsened. Her family decided to look for a retirement home where she could have social interactions, music and art. In November, she was one of the eight residents at her home, died of COVID-19 during a second wave epidemic. The last time Jeff saw his mother, he couldn’t say goodbye to her.

“I called her ‘mom’, I told her she was okay, that she could let go, that we love her,” Jeff said. “The next morning at 7:30 am, we spoke to the doctor, and he said she was barely breathing with 100% oxygen provided.

He said it takes time and effort to get his mother to the hospital, and the positive diagnosis came only from the staff at the medical center, rather than from the nursing home. He hoped the house would have done more, sounded the alarm sooner, and been more transparent about the situation, the full extent of which he didn’t know at the time.

“The house didn’t call to find out how she was doing,” he said. “The house did nothing.”

After his death, he told his story to the CBC with the aim of humanizing those who have died of the coronavirus. His plea was heard by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who a few days later spoke about Malvina in a national address.

“Each 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 recently died of COVID-19, ”Trudeau said. “To his loved ones, my deepest condolences on your loss. And to 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 the stakes in the fight against this pandemic. “

Malvina was a playful fashionista, talented baker and enduring woman whose difficult life had taught her to build a community around her wherever she went. Jeff is honored that Trudeau has commemorated his mother and hopes her story inspires others to tell stories of loved ones who have died from COVID-19.

“My mom is the type of person who said, ‘I don’t want attention, don’t fuss about me.’ She always said, ‘Jeff, put yourself first,’ ”he said.

But, to explain the results of the pandemic, he ignores his advice.

“My goal,” he says, “was to tell my mother’s story.



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