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Life Holocaust survivor Jonathan Geller became a hipster ahead of his time

Jonathan Geller

Courtesy of the Family

Jonathan Geller: Poet. Businessman. Holocaust survivor. Iconoclast. Born April 8, 1927 in Lodz, Poland; died Nov. 18, 2018, in New York of cancer; age of 91.

Making yogurt from scratch, practicing yoga in the living room and meeting his business clients by bike. That was my father in the 1960s, a hipster ahead of his time, raising his young family in the colourful Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood of Montreal.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Lodz, Poland, Jonathan was just nine years old when the Nazis occupied the city and began the systematic extermination of Jewish Poles. He miraculously survived Auschwitz and Dachau, thanks to his skills with electrical circuits, which the Nazis exploited to repair the fences.

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After the liberation of the camps, Jonathan came to Canada via Italy, where he sold fruit, and Israel, where he hid out in the Arab Quarter to avoid conscription. Speaking Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, German and Italian, he landed in Winnipeg, where he quickly learned English and, while completing his philosophy degree, wrote English-language poetry for University of Manitoba publications.

He maintained a strong bond with his only surviving family member, his half-sister Luba, who joined him in Winnipeg after studying medicine in Germany.

Following graduation, Jonathan began a successful career as a management consultant in the textile business, first in Toronto and then Montreal, and remained stubbornly self-employed for the rest of his working life.

He met his wife on a bus while working in Toronto. She was a beautiful, smart social worker from Ottawa with a graduate degree from McGill University, and they quickly bonded over their shared intellectual and cultural curiosity. They settled in Montreal, where they had three children, although, sadly, the marriage did not last.

Jonathan spent the past four decades of his life living and working in Manhattan, all the while maintaining his Canadian citizenship. He continued his devotion to yoga, attributing his agility and longevity to the practice. He also loved getting around by bike and would often go to Central Park to practise weaving through traffic cones no-handed or performing what he liked to call “bicycle ballet.”

He was a regular fixture at art openings and lectures, taking advantage of any freebies handed out to add to his collection.

In his later years, Jonathan got around the city using his cool collapsible kick-scooter, often travelling to his beloved Chinatown to buy super-healthy Asian greens, tofu and salmon bellies. He stayed in touch with his three children and six grandchildren in Canada, visiting occasionally, and earned the playful nickname Mr. Bok Choy.

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Twelve years ago, my father met a young law student named Anna through a program matching Jewish volunteers with Holocaust survivors. They became fast friends and, when his health quickly deteriorated, she and her parents helped make sure he got the very best care possible in New York, where he died peacefully.

Night came

And earth which for a while

Stood under pleasant beams of streaming sun

Now, deprived of light and warmth stood dark

Under the spread blanket of black and secret skies.

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By Jonathan Geller, published in 1952 in the United College (University of Manitoba) yearbook

Leah Geller is Jonathan’s daughter.

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 online to tgam.ca/livesguide

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