I remember the day that changed everything.
It was Sept. 27, 1989, my 19th birthday. Crisp fall day, three weeks after arriving at the University of Western Ontario. I'm not going to go deeply into it, but life hadn't been very fun for me.
Walking through campus, however, I decided things were going to be different. Three people are responsible for that. This is my thank you.
Moishe YaakovKujawski, Mania Bodner and Eva Bross met in Bergen-Belsen, the Nazi concentration camp liberated by the British in April 1945. They were all Polish and had been through the worst kind of hell.
Eva was born in Warsaw in 1913. Before imprisonment, she got married and had two children. She survived. The rest didn't. Following liberation, she met David Bross. In 1948, they emigrated to Canada, settling in Kitchener, Ont., an hour west of Toronto.
Mania was born in 1920. The town is called Oswiecim, but we know it better as Auschwitz. Depending on what source you believe, between one to three million people died in the largest of the camps. While captive, she married, but her husband did not make it.
Mania never told me the full details, but in January 1945, with the Russian army advancing, she was among a group of prisoners forced to retreat to Bergen-Belsen approximately 700 kilometres away. Some of it was on foot. Some of it was packed like cattle in an exposed train. All she ever said to me was that it was freezing cold, took two days and anyone who couldn't continue was shot to death. (A relative has told me she collapsed at one point and was carried part of the way.) Once, I tried to ask a little more, but it was too difficult for her.
Moishe Yaakov was born in Krosniewice in either 1906 or 1908. Before the Holocaust, he had a wife and a two-year-old daughter. Both were murdered by the Nazis. After the war, he married Mania. The eldest of their two daughters was born in Munich in 1947. They also came here, living briefly in Montreal before joining their friends in Kitchener. (Their names would be Anglicized as John and Mary Kay.)
They arrived in Canada with nothing and would never be wealthy. But they had incredible strength. And they would need it again.
David and Eva Bross had one child, a son named Allon. In 1960, when he was nine, David died of a heart attack. Eva never remarried, devoting the rest of her life to making sure Allon would have a better existence than she did.
Eventually, her efforts would be rewarded. Her son would get married, become a successful businessman and have four children. To Eva, that was worth everything.
Both of Moishe Yaakov and Mania's daughters would fight cancer. The youngest, Shirley, stared it down and beat it. She has two children and two grandchildren.
But Molly, the eldest, who had three children, died in 1982 on her 35th birthday. It took me several years to truly understand the impact of her funeral. No parent should outlive their child. It was bad enough Mania had to do it. It was the second time for Moishe Yaakov.
They ended up with seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren (and counting). The greatest thing about my three heroes, though, was that they fought hard to hide their pain. They loved life -- smiling, laughing, enjoying a good walk, never obsessing about what they didn't have and doing somersaults over any of our accomplishments no matter how minor.
It would have been easy to be bitter, angry and miserable. But around us, that was never the case.
So on my 19th birthday, I came to two realizations:
1. I had no right to be unhappy. If Moishe Yaakov, Mania and Eva could enjoy life, I had no excuse. Time to grow up.
2. It was time to stop blaming anyone else for my failures. If I did fail, it was MY fault. Yes, we all need help from time to time, but 99 per cent of my failings are my own. If you're not accountable to yourself, you don't have a chance. You make your own destiny.
I'm no different than anyone else reading this. I've had wonderful successes and awful disappointments. But over the last 23 years? A lot more of the former than the latter. That's a reversal from where I used to be.
All of that is because of what I gleaned from my great aunt and my grandparents -- their refusal to give up on themselves, their determination to succeed. These remain the greatest lessons I've ever learned.
Eva Bross died in 1988. Moishe Yaakov Kay died in 1991. In May 2011, with cancer spreading through her body, doctors said Mania Kay had two months to live. On July 14, 2012, we were told to get to Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital because she wouldn't make it through the night.
Mania Kay spit in the face of death for 70 years. She made it through that summer night and was eventually discharged to her retirement home apartment. Unable to eat or handle much medication, she fought. Until Wednesday. She is the woman with my son on my Twitter avatar.
On one of my final visits, she said: "Please don't ever forget me."
It's not possible. Not for you and not for the others.
Thank you for everything.
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