Nathan Godfrey: Sapper. Builder. People person. Family man. Born Nov. 9, 1922, in Bukowiec, Poland; died April, 28, 2020 in Toronto, of heart failure; age 97.
Nathan wasn’t a big man, but his heart was. When anyone near him seemed in need, Nathan bought groceries or TTC passes or lunches out, sometimes he did this for years. When his daughter longed for a visit home but hesitated to make the four-hour drive alone with her three-month-old and toddler, Nathan took the bus to Ottawa, escorted them back and forth by car, and then bused back to Toronto. And when he discovered no one signed up to sponsor mourners' meals at an in-law’s shiva, meals nonetheless appeared daily, thanks to Nathan.
Growing up, when Germany’s invasion of Poland shut down schools, Nathan Gastfreund and his brother Joe ended up in their father’s woodworking shop. There they mastered the skills that would fuel their survival.
In 1941, with German forces advancing on their hometown of Zbaracz, Nathan and his brother gathered with 60 other young Jews and voted to leave for Russia the next morning. When only three others showed up at the departure point, Nathan’s father trailed them for miles, pleading in vain with his sons not to go. Many youth who stayed were later shot by the Nazis.
Working their way eastward, Nathan and Joe became attached to the Soviet army. As carpenters, they were well treated, but all they wanted was to get back home to a liberated Poland. In 1944, the brothers smuggled themselves without papers onto a troop transport bound for the Polish army. Passing Zbaracz on his way to the front, Nathan learned how his parents, with three orphaned children they sheltered, had been shipped out to their deaths. No one could say what had happened to his sister, Peppa.
Nathan’s sapper skills in clearing minefields meant his army duty didn’t end with the war in 1945. After witnessing an act of partisan depravity against fellow Jews while his battalion leader stood by, Nathan took his three medals for bravery and in 1946 deserted the army.
He spent months moving through the Jewish underground railroad and walked one night over the Austrian Alps into a displaced persons' camp in Italy, where he discovered Peppa had taken refuge. In 1948, he and Peppa crossed the Atlantic toward Toronto and Joe, who had landed there months earlier.
Upon arrival in Halifax, an immigration official had him change his name to Gotfriend because it was easier to pronounce. Then, in 1955, when Nathan and Joe founded their first construction company, their lawyer thought “Godfrey Construction” would be better for business – so they both changed their names again.
Deciding to embrace life – despite the unspoken nightmares that haunted him for years – Nathan met Mary Lucatch on a blind date and married her in 1954. They raised four children – Stephen, Arlene, Michael and Barry – in Toronto, while moving from house to house, all built by Nathan.
Nathan and Joe built themselves side-by-side cottages along a river in Washago, Ont., where their children spent summers together growing up. On Friday nights, Nathan’s kids always waited longest for their father to arrive from the city; his penchant for falling into conversations he was loath to end often made him late. When his children had grown and moved on, Nathan cherished the cottage’s solitude, often vanishing there – to Mary’s chagrin – for the afternoon and a satisfying nap.
Nathan helped found Beth El synagogue in Don Mills in Toronto. His love of people kept him leading community fundraising efforts into his early 90s.
Little could sap Nathan’s appetite for living: not major heart surgery at 88 nor Mary’s death in 2018; even her increasing grumpiness had failed to crack his devoted caregiving. When his generous heart finally gave out at 97, Nathan had just renewed his passport. He was planning a trip – the destination unknown.
Michelle Adelman is Nathan’s daughter-in-law.
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