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Martha Gough.Courtesy of family

Martha Gough: Ukrainian. Orphan. Displaced person. Mother. Born June 30, 1927, in Ukraine; died Aug. 1, 2019, in Toronto, of cardio-pulmonary arrest; aged 92.

Marta Ladyka’s early memories are unclear. At 5 or 6, she remembered taking food to her parents in the hospital during the Holodomor, Ukraine’s Stalin-induced famine of 1932-33, when millions died. Her parents starved to death and she went to an orphanage. She can’t remember if she had a brother or what became of him. At the orphanage, she liked school and the abacus but that brief stability ended with the Second World War as Nazi Germany occupied Ukraine. Girls from the orphanage became unpaid domestic labour. Marta, aged 12 or 13, was sent to Berlin to work as a housekeeper for an SS officer, his wife and four children. She didn’t speak of any mistreatment, she kept photos of the family and spoke fondly of the children.

When the war ended, the tanks came and took the SS officer and his family, leaving her alone at 18 in Czechoslovakia, where the family had gone to escape the bombing of Berlin. She loaded her possessions on a wagon and, with friends, made her way to a displaced persons camp. She lived in the camp, learning English and hairdressing, until she left for Canada.

Marta left Germany in 1948 for Canada with her friend Maria, and once landing in Quebec City, she took a train to Aldershot, Ont. For a year, she worked as a housekeeper and nanny, taking night school courses to learn English. After the year, she moved to a room in Hamilton and met Frank Gough, who, in time, became her husband. Three children – Susan, Barbara and Jim – followed. After her second child, she stopped working to be a full-time homemaker. She would pull Barbara on her lap and say, “All I wanted to be was a good little mommy.”

At some point, she anglicized her name to Martha to find a sense of belonging in Canada. Frank’s interests became Martha’s – she learned to love the Toronto Maple Leafs and her cooking betrayed no trace of her heritage, so we endured very well-done roast beef. Christmas meant turkey, fruitcake, mince tarts and shortbread – all of which she became expert at, and taught her son’s partner, Walter, how to take over the shortbread production in later years. In the 1970s, her children persuaded her to make borscht, cabbage rolls and perogies, and she seemed to have a blood memory of the recipes. At 84, after eating cabbage rolls that Barbara made, Martha drew a cabbage leaf, cut it out and showed her daughter how to roll them properly.

Like many people who had lived through hard times, Martha was extremely practical – when her children went to the movies, for example, they had to take their own popcorn in a bag, much to their mortification.

Martha and Frank spent their lives in Hamilton, in a house where the vegetable garden grew progressively larger. Later in life they began to travel more in North America and to Paris and England, and it was on one of these trips that Frank died. Martha was 63.

For the next 19 years she continued to grow lots of produce in her garden, enjoyed aquafit classes and delivered more homemade pies, cookies and apple cake than her grown children could eat. An abundance born of famine.

Martha was amazingly resilient in the face of change and adversity. In her final years, she moved into long-term care and, eventually, her past began to torment her. She would cry about Stalin and starving and becoming an orphan.

One joy, however, remained into her final days – overfeeding the cats at her long-term care home.

Barbara Gough is Martha’s daughter.

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