When Rush singer-bassist Geddy Lee walked out on stage at a concert at Maple Leaf Gardens one night in the late 1970s, he was surprised to see a certain middle-aged woman in the front row. It was his mother, Mary Weinrib, a survivor of Auschwitz, a Yiddish-speaking variety store owner and a spirited suburban mom of three.
The prog rock band’s new stage manager had given prime seats to Ms. Weinrib directly in front of Mr. Lee. “She was hard not to notice,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I was distracted by her presence.”
At one point, Ms. Weinrib was handed a lit marijuana joint, which she politely accepted and turned to her daughter next to her and said with a smile, “I think this is for you!”
If Ms. Weinrib stood out in this sea of dope-toking teens in jean jackets, she also sat head and shoulders above the others as the band’s most ardent supporter.
In the beginning, when the trio was relatively unknown, Ms. Weinrib would insistently distribute their debut album to confused customers at her variety store in Newmarket, Ont., and plaster the windows with Rush concert posters.
Mary Weinrib died July 2 at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. She had suffered from multiple internal infections, according to her family. She was 95. Her perseverance in the face of heartbreak and hardship was inspiring to those who knew her.
She loved the attention that came with being the mother of a celebrity. This year she was the charismatic star of an episode of Cradle to Stage, a television documentary series about mothers of musicians, created by rocker Dave Grohl and his mother, Virginia Hanlon Grohl.
But if her own matriarchal fame came by the association with her musically gifted offspring (born Gary Lee Weinrib), it is made clear in Cradle to Stage that she shared her devotion equally.
“My mother is very proud of all her kids, not just me,” said Mr. Lee, who got his name “Geddy,” because of the way his mom pronounced his given name. “And I think she’s most proud of how close we are.”
Ms. Weinrib lost her husband, Morris Weinrib, in 1965. His death came suddenly at age 45. His family said his heart problems were caused by years of overwork, stress and starvation in labour camps during the Second World War.
Devastated at the loss, Ms. Weinrib cried for two weeks. “I didn’t know what to do with my life,” she said in Cradle to Stage.
Eventually she pulled herself together to take over the family convenience store, even though she had little in the way of business experience and no idea how to work a cash register.
The couple had met as teenagers during incarceration at the wartime work camps in Starachowice, Poland. Mary and Morris got married right after the war and soon immigrated to Toronto. According to her children, Mr. Weinrib was the love or her life. In the 1970s, she did remarry to a widower who passed away from an illness some years later, but the death of her first husband left her so heartbroken she never quite recovered from it.
“With our father lost, it was one less person to help keep that unit together,” said Allan Weinrib, a film producer.
Ms. Weinrib had seen loved ones separated and lost to each other in the war and the Holocaust. According to her children, she believed her greatest achievement was keeping the family intact. “That’s her pinch-me moment,” her daughter, Susan Gitajn, said.
Mary (Manya, Malka) Weinrib (née Rubinstein) was born in Warsaw on July 16, 1925. Her mother was Rose Rubinstein, a dressmaker. Her father, Gershon Rubinstein, was a butcher. The family, which included a younger sister (Ida) and a younger brother (Harold), lived in Warsaw until Mary was about five years old. They moved to the father’s hometown of Wierzbnik, the Jewish section of the larger industrial city of Starachowice.
On Sept. 1, 1939, German forces invaded Poland, effectively starting the Second World War. In the beginning of 1940, the Jews of German-occupied Starachowice were required to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David. On April 2, 1940, they were put into what became known as the Wierzbnik Ghetto, where they lived under armed guard.
According to the family, Mary’s father was one of many men taken from their homes in the middle of the night, shipped out by train and murdered en masse.
Ms. Weinrib (along with her mother, siblings and cousins) ended up in an area labour camp, where she met her future husband. ”They would chit-chat and flirt on their way to the work camps, as kids would, no matter the circumstances,” Mr. Lee said in Cradle to Stage. “They sort of had a crush on each other.”
They would be separated when Mr. Weinrib was sent away, eventually ending up at Dachau concentration camp in the German state of Bavaria. Mary was held at Auschwitz, where her mother hid her from guards and saved her from being selected for possible extermination by sneaking her between barracks and sick bays or hiding her under blankets.
In October of 1944, Mary and other family members were transferred by train to the German concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, where some 52,000 prisoners (including the diarist Anne Frank) died.
While Ms. Weinrib would later describe her days in the concentration camps as “terrifying,” she was able to adapt. “You get used to the life,” she said in Cradle to Stage. “You think it’s the way you’re supposed to live.”
In April of 1945, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British Army. Learning that Mary and her family had survived, Mr. Weinrib, who was recovering in Munich, made it by foot and by thumb to reunite with her. In 1946, they were married in the camp, which by that time had been converted into a displaced persons base. Shortly thereafter, they immigrated to Canada.
Though Mr. Weinrib rarely discussed the wartime horror, Ms. Weinrib was open about it with her children. “I think she had the need to talk about it, because she was frightened all the time,” her daughter said in Cradle to Stage. “She really wanted us to know that the world was evil out there, and this was her experience.”
Arriving in Toronto, Ms. Weinrib and her husband found work in the shmata (clothing) business in the Spadina Avenue garment district. Raising a family in the suburbs outside Toronto, Mr. Weinrib would later purchase a variety store north of the city in Newmarket, Ont. He operated Times Square Discount for a few years until he died.
Her husband’s death devastated Ms. Weinrib, and cast a gloom over the family. “There was life before my dad passed away, and there was life after my dad passed away, and they were very different,” Mr. Lee explained in Cradle to Stage. “Imagine what they survived together. It took her a really long time to find some kind of happiness. Our household was not a supremely happy one after he passed away.”
Running the family store while raising three teenagers in the late 1960s wasn’t easy. Her own mother moved into the family home to help, but the old-world elder was mortified by the loud music Geddy made while practising with his friends.
Ms. Weinrib herself was upset that her oldest son would not be a lawyer or a doctor. Dedicating himself to a career as a rock ‘n’ roll musician, Mr. Lee quit high school and grew out his hair. A flowing mane was de rigueur for the early hard-rock era and he was determined to look the part.
The extravagant length concerned his mother so much, however, that she decided to trim it herself. “I went into his room and he was sleeping,” Ms. Weinrib recalled in Martin Popoff’s book Anthem: Rush in the 1970s. “And as I was holding the scissors, he turned his head, and I said to myself, ‘I might hurt him. Am I crazy, standing here to cut his hair?’”
She never made the stealth chop. Eventually she accepted his career choice and acquired a taste for Rush’s loud, complicated music, even though her favourite artists were crooner Frankie Laine, Elvis Presley and the sweater-wearing Perry Como.
“She turned herself into an authority on Canadian rock bands of that time, and soon Q107 would be the only radio station she would listen to,” Mr. Lee told The Globe, referring to the popular Toronto classic rock station.
In 2013, when Rush was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ms. Weinrib was speaking backstage with Donna Halper, who is often credited with discovering Rush while she worked as a disc jockey at Cleveland’s WMMS in 1974. When Ms. Weinrib spotted her son nearby, she called him over.
“Geddy, have you thanked Donna for all she’s done to the band?” she asked. To which he replied with a sigh, “Ma, I’ve thanked her hundreds of times.”
Ms. Halper, now a professor and author, told The Globe the moment was typical of Ms. Weinrib. “In a moment of great joy and celebration, she wanted to make sure Geddy was doing the right thing.”
Ms. Weinrib, who was among the country’s oldest Holocaust survivors before her death two weeks short of her 96th birthday, was an active member of the Wierzbniker Friendly Mutual Benefit Society, a community-based Jewish philanthropic foundation.
She loved playing cards, enjoyed fine gossip and never missed an opportunity to raise an eyebrow when she witnessed questionable fashion choices. “One time my brother and I took our girls to visit her in Florida and she came to our hotel and met us in the lobby,” Mr. Lee recalled. “When a well-endowed woman walked by in a bikini that was clearly too small for her, my mother turned to me and commented in Yiddish, ‘Look, she’s dressed for her divorce.’”
In retirement, Ms. Weinrib enjoyed time with family. On Saturdays, Mr. Lee would pick her up for walks with his dogs in a Toronto ravine, followed by breakfast. Between visits he would collect Yiddish jokes, which he would relay to her in that language.
Preparing overwhelming family dinners at Rosh Hashanah and Passover was one of Ms. Weinrib’s passions. While well-versed in typical Eastern European fare, she would on occasion thrill her grandchildren with something called “mishmash,” an invention of hot dogs, pasta, peppers and ground beef.
According to the family, Ms. Weinrib considered her presentations of schmaltz, chicken salad, chopped liver, matzoh ball soup and trays of roast potatoes and overcooked brisket to be a bounty. “It was as if she were celebrating her good fortune,” Mr. Lee said, “while remembering how her family starved during the war.”
Ms. Weinrib leaves her daughter, Susan Weinrib Gitajn; sons, Geddy Lee Weinrib and Allan Weinrib; grandchildren and great grandchildren.