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Fenna Kordan.

Courtesy of family

Fenna Kordan: Wife. Mother. Grandmother. Survivor. Born April 6, 1918, in Galicia, Austro-Hungarian Empire; died Dec. 13, 2020, in Toronto, of natural causes; aged 102.

Fenna Kapeluch was born in the Carpathian mountain village of Vyslik Velykyj during the 1918 flu pandemic, the end of the Great War and dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was one of 11 children. Because of poverty, Fenna at a tender age became an itinerant worker. She was left unschooled, but was not without a book or pen in life, having learned, unaided, to read and write through strength of will and purpose.

Fenna married before the onset of the Second World War. She would lose her husband during the German invasion of Poland, who was seized by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. Fenna was transported to Germany as forced labour and then taken to Austria. She spent four years labouring on a farm; abuse and torment were commonplace.

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Free at the end of the war, she returned to her mountain home on the Polish-Soviet frontier. There she found chaos, the result of conflict between the anti-communist Ukrainian insurgency and Polish government forces. In the cycle of violence that ensued, Fenna’s mother would die of starvation in her arms. She would take refuge in the mountain wilderness, making her way eventually to Czechoslovakia and onto Western Germany. In 1948, Fenna migrated to Canada, settling in Toronto.

The memory of conflict shaped her worldview, state of mind and personality. She chafed at authority and was disdainful of politics. She eschewed any talk of war or her painful past. Her eyes would light up only when she spoke of her cherished family and distant youth – a time when history stood still. But there was always the loss, reminders of which were constant.

Despite the cruelty of war, Fenna sought normalcy. She remarried and raised a family. Andrij Kordan was from the same small Toronto community. Their shared experience of war and exile brought them together. Fenna devotedly cared for her children – Olga and Bohdan – and as a grandmother of three – Nicholas, Olena and Christian – spoke affectionately and admiringly of their achievements and future.

Fenna managed her home while dutifully going to work, initially and briefly as a nursing assistant at St. Joseph’s Hospital and then, craving autonomy, as a domestic worker for some 35 years. That she provided for the security of her family and herself gave Fenna solace and tremendous satisfaction.

She was nimble and spry. Well into her golden years, spring, summer and fall, she walked many kilometres to Toronto’s Humber River or High Park. There, she would rest on a bench in quiet reflection and bask in the sun.

Cultural identity was dear to Fenna. She kept her faith close by. She celebrated holy days and family gatherings with the dinner table groaning under an abundance of Ukrainian food – borscht, cabbage rolls, perogies, patychky. She loved carols and engaged in folk practices with an air of seriousness that bemused the assembled lot, but who also respected the importance that tradition played in her life.

Widowed for 34 years, Fenna knew loneliness. However, she found strength in her perseverance and accomplishments. She valued her garden, delighting in dahlias and going gaga over geraniums. The munificence of her vegetable harvest served as a reminder of the bounty and richness of life. She maintained the garden until 98 and lived alone in her home until 99. At 102, she survived an operation on her broken hip, but not the isolation of the pandemic – the second in her lifetime.

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Fenna believed that no matter how simple, her life was deserving of respect. When she received restitution from the government of Austria for her mistreatment during the war, she gave the money away. Fenna simply wanted there to be a record and an acknowledgment of what happened to her; to have others know that she mattered – that, in fact, we all mattered.

Bohdan Kordan is Fenna’s son.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide

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