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Irene Csillag.

Courtesy of family

Irene Csillag: Mother. Grandmother. Educator. Holocaust survivor. Born Jan. 23, 1925, in Satu Mare, Romania; died May 27, 2020, in Toronto; aged 95.

When Irene Csillag died, there was no fanfare. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic there were but eight mourners, standing in driving rain at her grave, vainly attempting to sum up a life of unthinkable horrors as she was lowered into the muddy ground next to her beloved husband, Teddy.

There was no shivah – the seven-day period in which Jewish families are comforted with visits, prayer and food. There were no synagogues in which to pray. This was undeserved for a woman who lived through the Holocaust, lost family, started over, fled revolution and arrived in Canada, only to have to start over again.

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Irene Blasz had a quiet start to her life in Romania before she, her sister, their mother and other members of the family were herded onto a train in May, 1944. Three days later, they arrived at Auschwitz.

Most of the family was gassed on arrival, and Irene would recall her steely vow: “Even if everyone dies here, I will survive.” She worked tirelessly to ensure that her weaker sister and mother had food.

About a month later, Irene, her sister and mother were sent by cattle car to Stutthof, a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. It was there Irene’s mother died of starvation in her bunk. Her mother’s body was tossed on a pile of corpses in the mud and snow, but not before Irene took the brown scarf and boots off her body to keep warm. “We became like animals in order to survive,” she said.

Liberated in May, 1945, Irene was placed in a displaced persons camp run by the U.S. Army in the Bavarian Alps. The Army designated her a nurse, and there, she met Teddy Csillag, a fellow Hungarian survivor a decade older who’d been deputized a dental technician. In 1947, the newlyweds decamped to Budapest.

A portrait of Irene Csillag, likely taken sometime between 1945-1947.

Courtesy of family

The couple lived a mitteleuropean life of opera, with ladies wearing white gloves in public and the type of high-minded café society that only Vienna could rival. Happiness returned for Irene, if only for a short while: The couple reconnected with relatives who had survived and welcomed their first child, Judy, in 1951.

Then, more tumult. In 1956, the Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination reinvigorated antisemitism, and Teddy and Irene’s fear of reliving Holocaust experiences meant the family defected.

They arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax on Jan. 10, 1957 and were placed on a train to Montreal. There, with no language and no money, they began to rebuild. First, they found lodging in the Jewish ghetto on Jeanne-Mance Street, then in Outremont. It was hard and heartbreaking for them to endure a second loss of family, but Montreal is also where their son, Ron, was born in 1957.

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They soldiered on and built a life for their children free of fear. Having endured Hitler and Stalin, they instilled in their children a healthy skepticism of all politics.

In the mid-1990s, they moved to Toronto to be close to their grandchildren, Gabriel and Emma. Irene became an obsessive volunteer at Baycrest Health Sciences (she never missed a shift in 28 years), swam, read and gave Holocaust lectures. Irene and Teddy travelled to many places they had only dreamed of: Israel, Paris, Italy, California, and the graves they had established in both Satu Mare and Budapest.

Neither Irene nor Teddy was able to completely shake the trauma of the Holocaust. In their later years, they kept very much to themselves.

Irene should have had a large funeral, with friends telling stories of her during the comfort of shivah. One might have been about the time she and Teddy returned to Budapest and stayed with a widow whose family was murdered in the camps. In 1960, Irene had false papers made claiming this widow was her mother and, via the Red Cross, Elizabeth came to Canada and lived with Irene’s family in Montreal until Elizabeth’s death in the mid-1980s.

Instead, after Irene’s burial, the few family mourners got into cars and drove home, to isolation, unable to console each other. Irene deserved more.

Perhaps the best description of Irene came from a distant cousin: “She was one tough broad.”

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Judy Csillag and Ron Csillag are Irene’s children.

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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