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lives lived

Anna Shapiro: Cook. Volunteer. Matriarch. Friend. Born Jan. 21, 1923, in Dniepropetrovsk, Russia; died Sept. 5, 2021, in Edmonton, Alta., of natural causes; aged 98.

As the daughters of a flour mill manager, Anna Gershon and her two sisters led a privileged life in post-Revolutionary Russia. At 15, she entered university, graduating three years later with a degree in pharmacy. But the night when Anna and her friends were out celebrating their graduation, they learned that Russia and Germany were at war.

Anna Shapiro.Courtesy of family

Anna was sent to work at a field hospital in Kazakhstan. One day, a Jewish partisan from Poland was brought in. Being the only one who could communicate with him in Yiddish, Anna took the handsome young man under her wing and nursed him back to health. That was the beginning of a love affair with Max Shapiro that lasted 67 years.

After a short stay in a DP camp in Germany, Max and Anna went to Israel, where they hoped to settle; however, after two years of living in a tent, they decided to try their luck in Canada. Max had cousins in Edmonton who agreed to sponsor them. They arrived in Halifax in 1951 with their two young sons, Ralph and Victor, and $7 in their pockets. After a long cross-country train trip, they finally reached Edmonton where Max’s extended family welcomed them.

Anna hoped to pursue her career in pharmacy, but with little English, no money and two children to take care of, her dream quickly faded. Not one to dwell on the past, she faced the necessity of providing for her family by doing what she did best: baking and cooking traditional Jewish dishes, which she sold to bakeries and delicatessens.

By the time their daughter, Evelyn, was born in 1956, Max and Anna had opened a coffee shop where they worked long hours side by side. It was there that Anna established her reputation not only as an extraordinary cook but also as a deeply caring human being who, at the end of each day, distributed leftovers to the needy.

Later, Anna joined Na’amat, a volunteer organization dedicated to helping women and children in Israel and Canada. Anna soon became president of the Edmonton chapter and went on to sit on the national board. A highlight was meeting then prime minister Golda Meir at a private dinner, where she was able to talk with her at length about Na’amat. In recognition of her work, Anna became a founding honorary board member of the Edmonton Jewish Community Council.

When Max opened a used furniture store in the late 1960s, Anna accompanied him to auctions all over the province. She used her keen eye and astute business sense to purchase fine antiques, many of which graced their home.

Anna’s skill in the kitchen was legendary. At her table, Jewish holidays were celebrated with meals made from scratch, everything from the challah, gefilte fish and horseradish to the apple strudel for dessert. And no matter where she travelled, Anna liked to take her own food. When questioned why anyone would bring tea bags to England, she simply answered, “You never know …”

Well into her 80s, Anna volunteered at the Jewish Seniors Drop-In Centre, where she prepared and served food to people years younger than herself. Even as her health deteriorated, she never went to a medical appointment without a plate of home-baked goods to distribute to the staff.

Life was not always kind to Anna. The loss of her beloved daughter in 2003 was a particularly cruel blow, followed by the sudden passing of Max eight years later. Despite this, Anna carried on, finding purpose and joy in seeing her family grow to include six great-grandchildren. Anna was an inspiration to her family and friends, and a model of how to live life to the fullest with generosity, optimism and strength.

Brigitte Waisberg is Anna’s daughter-in-law.

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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