She Escaped The Holocaust However Not The Pandemic
Malvina Shabes, known to friends as “Visia”, was only 10 years old when she, her parents and her nanny fled their home country Poland to Siberia. It was 1939 and the Nazis had just invaded. The family made it alive, only to be in labor camps in Siberia. Malvina died on November 10, 2020 in Toronto when the coronavirus flared through her retirement home. She was 93 years old.
Despite the terror of her youth, “she was probably one of the nicest people you would ever meet,” her son Jeff Shabes told BuzzFeed News. “She was always concerned about everyone but herself.”
By all accounts, she lived an extraordinary life. As the mother of two sons and the friend of many, she never shied away from her life story. “She was a rarity in the sense that she was ready to talk about life in Siberia and life during the war,” Jeff said.
She was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1929, and escaped the Nazis with her family “by miracle,” her son said.
In her stories, Malvina painted a somber picture of the Soviet Union. After the non-aggression pact between Germany and Russia, hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported to Siberia and other regions of the USSR, which were as sparsely populated as they were cold. Like other Polish men, her father had to work in a labor camp in conditions under which 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 to eat. Malvina had to attend a Russian-language school; It was a language she didn’t understand, although she eventually learned it and “acclimatized a little,” Jeff said. When she met Joseph Shabes, she rejected him because he was eight years older than her. She got to know him through her father; Both men were determined to oppose the Soviet regime. “They were prisoners in a way,” her son recalled. Over time, Malvina and Joseph fell in love. They were married for 63 years when he died.
Courtesy Jeff Shabes
Malvina and Joseph Shabes
Siberia never felt like a place where the family could find their home. After the war, Malvina and her husband, whom she had not yet married, traveled between Poland and Germany. Since the lovers were Jewish refugees, a cousin in Canada was able to bring them into the country. Malvina’s husband left first while she, then 18, waited to follow him and marry him.
A new immigrant to Canada in the late 1940s, Malvina again learned a new language in a new place, but this time in a country she loved more and more. Joseph settled in Toronto and 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 her way up to the manager’s secretary, a position she was proud of.
She took a break from work after her first son Jeff was born. She initially returned to her job part-time, but quit completely after a miscarriage. Jeff still remembers that time; He kept her company while 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 known for the community she built in Canada and where she made friends. Over the years, she was a determined matriarch, despite taking care of her husband and mother before she died.
George Kovac, a family friend of over 50, said Malvina was always friendly and welcoming. Her life revolved around her friends and family when she started developing dementia. “The family survived tremendous stress and pressure and fled the Nazis and the Russian system,” Kovac told BuzzFeed News. “To me, this shows how much Canada has benefited from the experience they have had.”
After her husband’s death, followed by her dog Pepsi, Malvina’s dementia worsened. Her family chose a retirement home where they could experience social interactions, music, and art. In November, she was one of eight residents of her home who died of COVID-19 during a second wave outbreak. The last time Jeff saw his mother, he couldn’t hug her goodbye.
“I called her ‘mom’ and told her it was okay to let go of the fact that we loved 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.”
He said it took time and effort to get his mother to the hospital and the positive diagnosis came only from the medical center staff, not the nursing home staff. He wished the House had done more, raised the alarm earlier, and been more transparent about the situation, which he did not know the full extent of at the time.
“The house didn’t call to find out how she was doing,” he said. “The house did nothing.”
After her death, he told the CBC her story with the aim of humanizing people who had died from the coronavirus. His plea was heard by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who days later spoke about Malvina in a nationwide address.
“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 woman in Toronto who survived the Holocaust and recently passed away from COVID-19, ”Trudeau said. “To your loved 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 what fighting this pandemic is about. “
Malvina was a playful fashion fanatic, a seasoned baker, and a persistent woman whose difficult life had taught her to build a community around her wherever she was. Jeff is honored that Trudeau raised a memorial to his mother and hopes her story will inspire other people to tell stories of loved ones who have died of COVID-19.
“My mom is the kind of person who said, ‘I don’t want attention, don’t make a fuss about me.’ She always said, “Jeff, put yourself first,” he said.
But to explain the toll of the pandemic, he is not following her advice.
“My goal,” he said, “was to tell my mother’s story.”