Matriarch, aunt, saleswoman. Born Nov. 7, 1921, in Wedel, Germany, died July 29, 2012, in Brampton, Ont., of old age, at 90.
Wilhelmina Kleinwort was born three years after the First World War ended, at a time when her family and other Germans were beginning to rebuild their lives.
Always known as Helene, she had fair hair, blue eyes and a sparkling smile that made her the apple of her father’s eye. Her four elder siblings were born 10 to 20 years earlier, and as they left home to go their separate ways, Helene grew up as an only, somewhat pampered child.
With the Second World War looming in 1939, 17-year-old Helene was sent to Canada on a sojourn that was to have lasted six months. Her family, who did not support Hitler’s raging an-tics, were reluctant to let their “baby” go, though Helene’s brother had departed for Canada 10 years earlier.
Helene knew no English, but somehow made her way by train and bus from New York to Toronto, where she was met by her very relieved brother. He was happy not just that his sister had arrived safely, but that his one-year-old daughter Margarete would be well looked after in Trenton, Ont., while he and his wife awaited the birth of another baby.
Helene was classified as an enemy alien during the war. But thanks to a regional member of Parliament and some flexible government policy, she was allowed to remain in the Trenton community, working as a domestic, rather than in an internment camp. She combined her work with business classes, in which she excelled.
In November, 1943, she was the subject of a life-changing letter from the federal Department of Mines and Resources to the local Anglican minister and the Trenton police chief.
It noted that “the young woman is still employed as a domestic, but has recently taken a business course. … It has been decided to grant Miss Kleinwort permission to change her employment provided she does not displace a Canadian, and on the understanding that the Registrar of Enemy Aliens also has no objections.”
Helene married Kenneth James in 1948, and they lived in Toronto. They had three children, born in the 1950s.
Shortly after her marriage, her first trip back to Germany in 1949 was filled with sadness. Her parents had passed away within months of each other. Fortunately, as the years passed, Helene was able to enjoy much happier vacations in her homeland.
She continually upgraded her accounting and sales skills, and became the main family breadwinner. When her children were young, much of her sales work was done from home or while the children were at school.
In part because the Canadian branch of the Kleinwort family was small, keeping connected to her brother and his family was important. I remember Sunday morning breakfasts or lunches accompanied by recorded Johann Strauss waltzes.
As she aged toward what she described as the “not so golden years,” Helene retained her stunning good looks. She often wore a treasured necklace and ring, each holding a large, sparkling aquamarine, gifts from her parents on her departure to Canada.
With the arrival of her own grandson along with six great-nieces and a great-nephew, family gatherings expanded over the years. Thanks to Helene’s efforts, in 1997 a number of family members travelled to Germany for a reunion.
Helene had become the elder stateswoman of an extended family that, thanks to her, has an enhanced appreciation of its heritage.
Margarete (Kleinwort) Gillies is Helene’s niece.