Milton Berger, an avuncular figure on Toronto’s municipal political scene for nearly 25 years, died May 19. He was 94.
Believed to be the first Holocaust survivor elected to public office in Canada, Berger won a seat on North York’s municipal council in 1976 as an alderman, as councillors were then known, and went on to serve seven terms. He chaired virtually every standing committee of the former city’s council, and also served on the council of Metro Toronto from 1978 to 1988.
In the first mega-city election in 1997, when two councillors were elected from each ward, Berger and Joanne Flint were victors in Ward 9 (North York Centre South).
But in the elections of 2000, Berger lost in Ward 16 (Eglinton-Lawrence) to Anne Johnston, who was also an incumbent. The two were pitted against each other because of the redistricting of wards. Berger claimed that with the redrawing of boundaries, he lost many of his Jewish constituents.
After 24 years in politics, Berger, then 75, seemed resigned to his defeat. “Win or lose, what can do you?” he told The CJN at the time.
After his loss, he sat on the Committee of Adjustment as a lay person.
Berger was “a trusted colleague on North York and Toronto Council who represented his constituents with a passion for integrity and for doing things in a proper manner,” former fellow councillor Norm Gardner said in an online condolence. “He brought a great deal of humour and a wealth of knowledge to proceedings both political and social. He was Uncle Miltie to most of us. He has left many with good memories of knowing him.”
CJN files show Berger had a hand in several initiatives of note in the Jewish community: The naming of Raoul Wallenberg Road in Earl Bales Park in 1982; the building and unveiling of the Holocaust monument at Earl Bales; and the rezoning of Associated Hebrew Schools’ Neptune campus in 1992 to allow for seniors’ housing.
“He had a good heart. You could always count on Milton,” recalled former North York and Toronto councillor Howard Moscoe. “He was reliable. He loved his job and he was there for the people of his ward.”
Berger was born in 1925 into an Orthodox family in Mukachewo, Czechoslovakia, a town that was later ceded to Hungary and called Munkacs, and is now in Ukraine. His father died when he was a young boy. In 1944, Berger was shipped to Auschwitz, then to a slave labour camp in the same region. He was liberated by U.S. troops on April 8, 1945.
Berger’s mother, sister-in-law and niece were murdered in the death camps. His oldest brother, Eugene, died near the Russian front while serving with the Hungarian army.
Berger met his wife, Anna, in Esslingen, Germany after the war, and the two were married in 1948. They immigrated to Canada in 1949, sponsored by Canadian Jewish Congress.
His first job was at Goodyear Tire. The couple opened a convenience store at College and Shaw streets, and a few years later, moved the business to Avenue Road just south of Wilson Avenue. They ran the store for about 20 years. Meantime, Berger earned a real estate broker’s license and sold investment properties.
He was a member of Temple Sinai Congregation for over 50 years.
In 1997, he was honoured by then Premier Mike Harris and the Canadian Society of Yad Vashem for his contributions to Ontario.
Berger “set a transformative example and was a shining light in the Jewish and wider community,” Toronto Ward 6 Coun. James Pasternak told The CJN. “He was a great example of a Canadian success story we admire and cherish.”
Berger is survived by two daughters, Cindy Osheroff and Marilyn Lazarus, four granddaughters, and four great-grandchildren.