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Landau: The miracle of survival against the odds

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The writer, left, with Clara Imregh in the fall of 2017.

How wonderful it is to share our family’s miracle! Her name is Clara Imregh. She is not Jewish, not born in Canada and not related by blood, but all generations in our family agree that Clara is our treasured miracle.

I have chosen Clara as my miracle because, for me, Hanukkah suggests wonderful messages of survival against odds and respect for religious pluralism.

Clara Imregh in her younger days.

Clara, now 91, is a Hungarian refugee from the Second World War. On Christmas Eve, 1944, Clara, then an 18-year-old Catholic teenager, fled from her home during the Siege of Budapest, as Soviet and German troops exchanged deafening gunfire over her small village. Thinking she would be away from home for a few days, she left in haste with no extra clothes, boots or a winter coat – and no food or water.

The reality was a 50-day-long encirclement by Soviet forces that cut off her ability to return home. A few days became a twisted, chaotic journey, that covered over 800 kilometres of freezing country roads, with no food, surviving on snow and raw potatoes dislodged from frozen fields. As enemy planes strafed the frightened, freezing and starving escapees, Clara somehow had the will to survive.

The siege claimed the lives of about 38,000 civilians through starvation or enemy fire. Eventually Clara arrived at the American air base in Berlin, where she volunteered to work as a cleaner.

The soldiers kindly taught her a “version” of English – not a vocabulary that I can share in this respectable newspaper. Clara applied as a refugee to the U.S., Australia and Canada and made a promise to take the first offer. Luckily Canada responded first – and Clara headed to Canada.

In Canada, Clara worked for a year with no pay. Why, you ask? Russian soldiers broke into her family’s home, forcing her parents and siblings to live in a damp basement. Her sister contracted tuberculosis and without funds, the family had no access to medicine after the war. Clara exchanged her paycheque for medicine to send home. Sadly, she never learned if the medicine was delivered, and her sister died.   

READ: HANUKKAH CANDLE-LIGHTING CEREMONY HELD OUTSIDE TREE OF LIFE SYNAGOGUE BUILDING

Clara, who had completed several years of university and was almost qualified as a Hungarian school teacher, became a nanny for neighbours living next door to my cousins. Her contract had ended, and my cousins, recognizing what an incredible woman Clara was, sang her praises to my parents, Cecille and Alex Fisher. Although Clara had accepted another job, my mother was instantly taken by how special Clara was, and moved mountains to persuade her to choose our family – just as my sister was born. It was ‘bashert!

Clara lived with our family for 36 years as the nanny for myself, Roy, Joan and Frank Fisher.  She was an awesome cook (combining Jewish and Hungarian delights), our “in-house psychologist,” most trusted confidante, mediator, most loved friend, and centre of our family life. She is a “woman of valour” – warm, loving, wise, compassionate, full of intellectual and spiritual curiosity, welcoming to everyone, even-tempered, optimistic, and more. When she retired our relationship was enriched.

It is a Jewish tradition to name newborns after a blood relative, someone Jewish, and someone who is no longer alive. But Clara is so special that our family broke the traditional rules and most female grandchildren bear some version of her name – Clara, Kiera. – and she is now everyone’s first choice as a companion for cultural, political, religious, or social events.

Of course, we have to find a space in her incredibly full calendar of events. Clara regularly attends lectures at Temple Emanu-El, weekly courses at Glendon campus (comparative world religions, neuroscience and the brain, astronomy, etc.) – and did I mention a Toronto Symphony Orchestra series, her beloved Metropolitan Operas, and world-class theatre. Not to forget that Clara is the long serving chair of her apartment building’s senior’s club – and a devoted bingo and card player.

Why is Clara our miracle? Because she is an inspirational role model. Clara embraces life with kindness and enthusiasm. She always chooses the path of optimism and constructive action in the face of adversity.

Her interpersonal skills, warmth, deep friendship and caring applies to everyone, regardless of social status, religion, colour or culture. Everyone feels like her most important and cherished companion.

Despite many life challenges that would justify defeat or depression, Clara wastes no energy on regret or self-pity. Her attitude is infectious and she has had the deepest influence on my life. When my husband, Sy died, Clara filled an important void and provided a road map for dealing with adversity.

As she heads for her 92nd year (and counting!) Clara’s survival and exemplary life, is our Hanukkah Miracle – she is a blessing for our family that cannot be measured or extinguished!