Immigrant, mother, farm wife, community journalist. Born on March 28, 1923, in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia; died on April 26, 2014, in Alliston, Ont., of natural causes, aged 91.
Susan and her twin sister, Tekla, the only children of doting parents Charles and Maria Sonnenfeld, grew up in Bratislava. Although they were born into a privileged life, their father instilled in them a strong work ethic, respect for others and a love of nature. The girls were up early before school, doing chores and working in the garden.
Susan was studious, fluent in five languages, adventurous and athletic. She excelled at fencing and won a bronze medal in a competition between Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria.
But the German occupation of her homeland in 1938, when she was 15, changed everything. At first the family tried to maintain a normal life but, coming from a Jewish heritage, their parents in 1944 sent their daughters to the country to live with friends who sheltered them from Nazi searches.
A year earlier, Susan had met Peter Stein on a ski outing and fallen in love. They were married in September, 1945, after the war ended. The birth of Michael in 1947 ended her plans for medical school.
When Communism took hold in 1948, Peter’s family brewery was nationalized and their homes were seized. Again, their lives were in jeopardy. With Michael in a stroller, the young couple walked across the border to Hungary, then took troop trains to Switzerland. Canada accepted them as immigrants, on condition that they take up farming.
They arrived in Toronto in November, 1948, and rented a tiny apartment. Susan landed a job at a textile company, where co-workers took an instant liking to the hard-working young woman. Just before Christmas, they took her to Eatons and Simpsons, bought gifts for her family, and treated her to her first turkey dinner.
In early 1949, Susan and Peter purchased a dairy farm near Cookstown, Ont. The community welcomed the young family with open arms and Susan was deeply grateful; she loved the land and the freedom that Canada gave her. She embraced farm life, where the values instilled by her father proved invaluable. She drove a tractor, milked cattle, and maintained a large vegetable garden. In 1955, her second son, Andy, was born.
As the her family prospered, she began to give back to her community. She joined the United Church Women’s Institute and the local agricultural society, supporting every function. For 18 years, she was a playground monitor at Cookstown Public School, watching over students as they took a break from classes.
When a winter storm knocked out the power, Susan, who was still using a wood stove, cooked for all the neighbours. That was the start of a long tradition of treating visitors, family and friends to Slovak dishes, desserts and pastries.
For 20 years she wrote a column for the Scope community newspaper, covering local events, theatre, weddings, births, anniversaries and deaths. Her family named her phone the “community hot line.”
Susan loved life – skiing before the days of the groomed runs, winter camping, snowshoeing, taking family road trips to the mountains and oceans, including visits to Cape Cod with her grandchildren. In her later years she would walk a nearby nature trail and collect fiddleheads and wild mushrooms.
After her beloved Peter died in May, 2004, she continued to live independently, and to travel. She took her sons and their families to what is now Slovakia and toured Canada from coast to coast.
The wealth she left goes beyond anything material. Everyone Susan touched was, and is, enriched by her spirit.
Michael and Andy Stein are Susan’s sons.