'A hero to me': Family honours 100-year-old WW II vet who died of COVID-19 in Toronto

Second World War veteran Zaima Rozenberg is being remembered as a sharp, positive man who always thought about others. He died of COVID-19 in North York General Hospital on March 24 at the age of 100.

The family of Zaima Rozenberg said he was sharp, thoughtful, positive and always smiling

Second World War veteran Zaima Rozenberg, 100, died on Tuesday of COVID-19. His family said he was thoughtful, sharp and humble. (Submitted/Gregory Olshansky)

When Second World War veteran Zaima Rozenberg first immigrated to Toronto nearly 30 years ago, the first job he had was looking after an elderly man.

It was a fitting role for Rozenberg, with his thoughtful and caring personality, but ironic too.

He was 70 years old himself. 

Still, Rozenberg walked an hour to and from work and got paid $5 an hour.

"He was so proud that he could support his family," his eldest daughter Galina Svechinsky told CBC Toronto.

Family was extremely important to Rozenberg, as he was to them. That's why not being by his bedside when he died of COVID-19 on Tuesday was one of the most difficult aspects of his death, his family said. Many hospitals have enacted a no visitor policy to keep patients, staff and others safe during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Zaima Rozenberg with his two daughters Inessa Olshansky, left, and Galina Svechinsky, right. (Submitted/Gregory Olshansky)

"It was heartbreaking," his youngest daughter, Inessa Olshansky, said. "Nobody could at least hold his hand and tell him, 'We are around you, we love you so much, keep fighting.'"

Olshansky's son and Rozenberg's grandson, Gregory Olshansky, said Rozenberg was feeling fine before developing shortness of breath on Friday. His family took him to North York General Hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19.

Four days later he died of the illness.

"It's so hard," Svechinsky said. "We cannot accept that he's not with us anymore."

Rozenberg's family believes he got the virus through community transmission; he didn't go out much and wasn't around anyone who recently travelled, but he did come in contact with caregivers who would visit him at his seniors' living complex near Bathurst Street and Sheppard Avenue

'Odd' but 'comforting': funeral held over video chat 

Practising the rules of social distancing, his family held his funeral through an online video chat on Thursday. A rabbi performed a traditional service through video and Rozenberg was buried next to his wife, who died 14 years prior. 

Had social distancing rules not applied, the family said the service would have been much bigger than the dozen family members online.

Gregory Olshansky and his grandfather Zaima Rozenberg, who Olshansky said taught him to be humble and honourable. (Submitted/Gregory Olshansky)

"It was definitely odd, but it was also kind of comforting that the whole family was on the call and we got to talk and share stories," Gregory said.

Serving in the Second World War

Rozenberg was born in May of 1919 in a small Ukrainian village. His exact birthdate is an estimate, but his daughters believe he would have turned 101 on May 20. 

Zaima Rozenberg enlisted in the Soviet Red Army as a young adult and fought against Nazi Germany serving in the anti-air unit in Azerbijian, according to his family. (Submitted/Gregory Olshansky)

He enlisted in the Soviet Red Army as a young adult and fought against Nazi Germany in the anti-air unit in Azerbaijan, according to his family.

After the war ended, he moved around the Soviet Union looking for work as a general labourer. He eventually settled in Latvia, married his love, Fania, and had two daughters.

Months before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the family immigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto and grew to include four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Svechinsky said her father had very little education and would study her math lessons, beginning in Grade 1, so he could learn along with her. 

"Life was so hard for him. But he raised us two daughters with all his love." 

Positive, humble, honourable

Even at 100 years old, Rozenberg's mind stayed sharp, his family said. He remained inquisitive and liked to discuss politics and global events. They say he could speak with anybody about any topic, but always reminded his family to be diplomatic and respectful.

WATCH | 100-year-old veteran dies of COVID-19; family unable to say goodbye:

WWII veteran dies from COVID-19, family unable to say goodbye

2 years ago
Duration 1:48
The family of a Second World War veteran who died from COVID-19 was unable to visit him in the hospital to prevent further spread.

"He has always been a hero to me and he showed me how to be a real honourable man and champion in life, and to also be humble," Gregory said. "[He would say] 'you have to have a strong opinion, but always respect others' opinion and listen with open ears.'"

His family said they'll remember Rozenberg as positive, always smiling, humble and honourable.

He was popular in his seniors' home and the larger community. He carried candy and treats in his pocket in case he ran into children and dogs in the neighbourhood.

"The small things that make our world very special," Olshansky said.

Zaima Rozenberg and his wife, Fania, immigrated to Toronto with their two daughters in 1991. (Submitted/Gregory Olshansky)

Olshansky said Rozenberg always thought about others and wanted to help. Although he used a wheelchair, he liked to keep busy and saw his family weekly. In his last few weeks of life he mentioned wanting to visit his grandson again, needing to congratulate his granddaughter on her new home and talked about getting his apartment repainted.

"[He had] this willingness to fight for life and to be well and to be around the dearest people in his life," she said.

"It's a great example for all of us."


Angelina King is a reporter with CBC Toronto where she covers a wide range of topics. She has a particular interest in crime, justice issues and human interest stories. Angelina started her career in her home city of Saskatoon where she spent much of her time covering the courts. You can contact her at or @angelinaaking


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