Malvina Shabes, known to her friends as “Visia”, was only 10 years old when she, her parents and nanny fled her Polish homeland to Siberia. It is 1939, and the Nazis have just invaded. The family returned alive, only to find themselves in labor camps in Siberia. Malvina died in Toronto on November 10, 2020, Coronavirus shining through her retirement home. She is 93 years old.
Despite her youthful horror, “she’s probably one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” her son Jeff Shabes told BuzzFeed News. “She is always worried about everyone, except herself.”
By all accounts, she lived an extraordinary life. A mother of two sons and a friend of many, she never escaped her life story. “She’s a rare person who is willing to talk about life in Siberia and what it was like in war,” Jeff said.
Born in Krakow, Poland, in 1929, she and her family escaped the Nazis “by some miracle,” her son said.
In his stories, Malvina paints a grim picture of the Soviet Union. After a non-aggression pact between Germany and Russia, hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported to Siberia and other parts of the Soviet Union because of its frosty population. Like other Polish men, her father worked in a labor camp as many of his compatriots did not survive.
The family has a small apartment with “minimum temperature,” she tells her son, and often doesn’t have enough food. Malvina had to go to a Russian language school; it’s a language she doesn’t understand, though she eventually learns it and becomes “somewhat adaptable,” Jeff said. When she met Joseph Shabes, she turned him down because he was 8 years older than her. She knew him through her father; both committed against the Soviet regime. “They were kind of prisoners, loosely,” her son recalled. As time passes, Malvina and Joseph fall in love. They were married for 63 years when he passed away.
Siberia has never felt like a place where families can make their home. So, after the war, Malvina and her husband – to whom she was unmarried – traveled between Poland and Germany. Since the couple were Jewish refugees, a cousin in Canada was able to bring them home. Malvina’s husband went ahead, while she, then 18 years old, waited to follow and marry him.
As a newcomer to Canada in the late 1940s, Malvina once again found herself learning a new language in a new place, but this time in her favorite country. Settling in Toronto, Joseph ran a printing company, while Malvina got a job at Simpsons, a department store acquired by the Hudson’s Bay chain in 1978. She worked to become a secretary for manager, a position she’s proud of.
She quit work after her first son, Jeff, was born. Initially, she returned to her part-time job, but quit after suffering a miscarriage. Jeff still remembers that time; He keeps her company while she recovers. “I don’t understand why she’s in bed, but I’ll make bread for her and we’ll watch soap plays,” he said.
Above all, Malvina is remembered for the community she built in Canada, making friends wherever she goes. Over the years, she was a staunch matriarch, even as she looked after her husband and mother before they died.
George Kovac, a family friend of more than 50 years, said Malvina was always kind and welcoming. Her life revolved around friends and family, even as she began to develop dementia. Kovac told BuzzFeed News: “The family has survived tremendous stress and pressure, fleeing Nazisim and the Russian system,” and to me it shows that Canada has benefited greatly from the experience they had ”.
After her first husband passed away, followed by her dog, Pepsi, Malvina’s dementia worsened. Her family decided to look for a retirement home, where she could come into contact with society, music and the arts. In November, She is one of eight residents at her home, who died of COVID-19 during the second outbreak. The last time Jeff saw his mother, he wasn’t able to hug her goodbye.
“I call her ‘mom’, tell her it’s okay, she can let go, that we love her,” said Jeff. “The next morning at 7:30, we talked with the doctor and he said she was having difficulty breathing with 100% of the oxygen supplied ”.
He said it took a lot of time and effort to get her to the hospital and that positive diagnosis was only coming from health center staff, not retirement homes. He wished the house would do more, alert earlier and be more transparent about a situation that he did not fully know at the time.
“The house didn’t call to see her,” he said. “The house didn’t do anything.”
After her death, He told her story to CBC with the goal of humanizing people who have died of coronavirus. His plea was heard by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who a few days later spoke about Malvina in a nationwide address.
“Every person we lose because of this virus has family and friends who love them, who have plans for tomorrow and what they want to do. I think of the woman in Toronto who survived the Holocaust and recently passed away from COVID-19, ”says Trudeau. “To her loved ones, my deepest condolences for your loss. And for thousands of other families who have lost someone due to COVID-19, my thoughts are with you. Every loss is a tragedy, and each story reminds us of what is at stake in this fight against the pandemic.
Malvina is a playful fashionista, a skilled baker and a woman enduring a difficult life that teaches her to build a community around her wherever she goes. Jeff is honored that Trudeau remembers his mother and hopes her story will inspire others to tell stories about loved ones who died from COVID-19.
“My mother was the kind of person who said, ‘I don’t want attention, don’t bother me.’ She always said, ‘Jeff, put yourself first,’ he said.
But, to explain the pandemic quantity, he did not heed her advice.
“My goal,” he said, “is to tell my mother’s story.”