Malvina Shabes, known to friends as “Visia”, was only ten years old when she, her parents and her nanny escaped from her native Poland to Siberia. It was 1939 and the Nazis had just invaded. The family came out alive, only to find themselves in labor camps in Siberia. Malvina died in Toronto on November 10, 2020 as a coronavirus burned by his retirement home. He was 93 years old.
Despite the terror of her youth, “she was probably one of the kindest people I would ever meet,” her son Jeff Shabes told BuzzFeed News. “She was always worried about everyone except herself.”
By all accounts, he lived an extraordinary life. Mother of two children and friend of many, she never shied away from her life story. “It was a rarity in the sense that she 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,” her son said.
In her stories, Malvina painted a desolate image 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, as sparsely populated as refrigerators. Like other Polish men, his 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,” he told his son, and there was often not enough food. Malvina had to go to a Russian language school; it was a language he didn’t understand, though he eventually learned it and it became “a little bit set,” Jeff said. When she met Joseph Shabes, she rejected him because he was eight years older than her. She met him through his father; both men pledged to resist the Soviet regime. “They were kind of prisoners, in a loose way,” his son recalled. Over time, Malvina and Joseph fell in love. They were married for 63 years when he died.
Siberia never felt like a place where family could live. Thus, after the war, Malvina and her husband – with whom she had not yet married – traveled between Poland and Germany. Because the lovers were Jewish refugees, a cousin in Canada was able to take them to the country. Malvina’s husband went first, while she, who was then 18, was waiting to follow her 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 came to love. Based in Toronto, Joseph ran a printing press, 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 manager, a position she was proud of.
He took a break from work after his first child, Jeff, was born. Initially, she returned to work part-time, but stopped smoking completely after having an miscarriage. Jeff still remembers that time; he kept her company while she recovered. “I didn’t understand why he was in bed, but I made him sandwiches and we 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 when she cared for her husband and mother before they died.
George Kovac, a family friend of over 50, said Malvina was always kind and welcoming. His life focused on his friends and family, even when he began to develop dementia. “The family survived a huge strain and pressure, fleeing Nazism and the Russian system,” Kovac told BuzzFeed News, “and for me it shows that Canada has benefited a lot from the experiences they have had.”
After her husband died first, followed by her dog, Pepsi, Malvina’s dementia got worse. His family decided to look for a retirement home where he could have social interactions, music and art. In November, she was one of eight residents at home who died of COVID-19 during a second-wave outbreak. The last time Jeff saw his mother, he couldn’t hug her.
“I called her‘ mama ’and told her she was fine, that she could let go, that we loved her,” Jeff said. “The next morning, at 7:30, we talked to the doctor and he said he was barely breathing with the 100% oxygen supply.”
He said it took time and effort to take his mother to the hospital, and the positive diagnosis only came from the medical center staff, rather than from the residence. He wished the house had done more things, sounded an alarm earlier, and been more transparent about the situation, something he didn’t know completely at the time.
“The house didn’t call to find out how he was,” he said. “The house did nothing.”
After his death, he told his story on CBC with the goal of humanizing people who have died of coronavirus. His request was heard by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who days later spoke of Falklands in a national speech.
“Everyone 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 your loved ones, the deepest condolences for your loss. And to the thousands of other families. “I lost someone because of 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, an expert baker and an enduring woman whose difficult 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 others to tell stories of loved ones who died of COVID-19.
“My mom is the kind of person who said,‘ I don’t want attention, don’t make noise at me. “He always said,‘ Jeff, put yourself first, ’” he said.
But to explain the toll of the pandemic, he does not heed his advice.
“My goal,” he said, “was to tell my mother’s story.”