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Helen Young

Risk-taker, wife, mother, Russian-German translator, survivor. Born Nov. 24, 1924, in Fabrikerwiese, Ukraine. Died Aug. 24, 2011, in Victoria of heart failure, aged 86.

If life is an obstacle course, Helen Young was a gazelle. Spirited, elegant and beautiful, she had a fragility and charm that masked her determination to clear one hurdle after another.

Born in a Russian Mennonite village, Helen was one of three children of Maria Regier and Abraham Friesen. During the Stalinist purges, her father died of a heart attack and her brother Peter, uncles, aunts and grandparents were banished to the Gulag, a fate she and her mother escaped.

In 1943, Helen and her mother journeyed into Germany, where Helen was pressed into service as a Russian/German translator. Earlier, she had been placed in a League of German Girls training camp, the female wing of Hitler Youth. After three days, she balked at the curriculum and fled.

For Helen, the war was a mix of terror, deprivation and all-night dancing with hopeful admirers in European cities she visited while working. When it ended, she and her mother were slated for repatriation to the Soviet Union. But Helen sweet-talked American troops driving them east and the truck turned around.

She connected with Mennonites in British Columbia through a Mennonite newspaper and immigrated with her mother to the Fraser Valley in 1948. One year later, she received a letter from Gerald Priest, a young man working in the B.C. mining industry who had learned of her through a friend. Their correspondence turned to courtship. When Gerald proposed, Helen accepted with one condition – her mother was part of the deal.

Married in 1951, Helen and Gerald moved with her mother to the isolated Yukon mining hamlet of Elsa. The family revelled in music, books, board games and winter walks under northern lights. In 1963, they moved to Vancouver.

Helen adored her daughters, Vona and Alicia. Childbirth, however, revealed that Helen's heart had been scarred by a childhood encounter with rheumatic fever. Doctors predicted she wouldn't see 50.

But Helen lived nearly four decades longer, along the way undergoing six heart operations, the painful unravelling of her first marriage and episodes of humiliating poverty. In 1975, she married Tony Young, with whom she spent 25 happy years until his death in 1990. Five years later, Helen moved to Victoria to be close to family. In 1997, she travelled to Germany to reunite with her long-lost brother Peter.

Helen's last hurdle was a stroke in 2006 that severely damaged her short-term memory. The stroke meant the loss of her driver's licence but not of her greatest joy – entertaining stepchildren, grandchildren and friends with tales of her many European and Northern adventures. Her stories and spirit are greatly missed.

Alicia Priest is Helen's daughter.

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