Zoltan Sarosy was just two months shy of his eighth birthday when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting in motion the crisis that led to the First World War. The young Hungarian boy was living on a military base on the Adriatic, where his father was a doctor in the army.
"One morning I came out of my room to see my mother packing. She said war is coming, we have to leave within 12 hours," says Mr. Sarosy. Soon they were on a torpedo boat that took them to a port in Herzegovina and from there to a passenger ship to Trieste and finally to a train to Budapest.
It's safe to say Mr. Sarosy is the only man in Canada who remembers where he was when the First World War started. He's celebrating his 110th birthday on Aug. 23, and while there are no individual Statistics Canada records to point to, that will likely make him the oldest man in Canada. (Wikipedia has a page on Canadian super centenarians, or those 110 and older. It says there are three people in Canada older than Mr. Sarosy, all of them women.)
Today, Mr. Sarosy lives in a seniors' home on Bloor Street West, across from High Park. Though he now uses a wheelchair to get around – at 102, he finally conceded he could use some help and got a mobility scooter – his mind is still sharp, perhaps from a lifetime of chess.
"He remembers the past but what amazes me is his short-term memory," says Elena Yeryomenko, lifestyle program manager at the Chartwell Grenadier Retirement Residence Mr. Sarosy calls home. "It is phenomenal at this age to have such a sharp mind. He remembers his life as a child and he remembers what he had for breakfast."
Mr. Sarosy is still curious about the new. The interview is being recorded on a smartphone, and he wants to know how it works as a recorder. "A marvellous little machine," he calls it.
He has a computer he bought in 1999 to play chess. At the time he played correspondence chess where people from around the world would mail each other the next move. Since games could take four or five years, he felt that at 93 he might not be around to finish a game.
Mr. Sarosy was born in 1906 in Budapest, the second capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He started playing chess in public parks at the age of 10.
"I was with my mother and I saw a boy playing chess and I asked, 'What is that?' The next day I was back at the park. That boy's mother wouldn't let me play with him but I found others," said Mr. Sarosy.
He continued playing in school and at university in Vienna, where he studied international trade. He graduated in 1928 and returned to Budapest where he continued his chess career. He was soon a grandmaster.
"In 1943, I played in the Hungarian championship and gained the Hungarian [chess] master title," he says.
Young Zoltan was fluent in Hungarian and German, a skill that probably saved his life in the Second World War. In 1944, he volunteered as a translator when other Hungarian men his age were drafted and sent to the Eastern Front.
At the end of the war he fled Hungary, worried that Russians might have him imprisoned for being a military translator. He left his wife and daughter behind. He later sent for them when he was in Canada, but his wife refused to leave Hungary so they divorced.
Once over the border in Austria, he managed to find a room in Salzburg, then moved to a refugee camp. He then drifted across Europe, ending up in Alsace, the German-speaking province taken back by France after the war. In 1950, he read that Canada was looking for immigrants and he went to Paris to get papers.
He arrived in Halifax on Dec. 27, 1950, and then took the train to Toronto. He soon found a room on Kendall Avenue and work laying tiles on an upper floor at the new Bank of Nova Scotia building at King and Bay in January, 1951.
"I started my career in Toronto at a high level," he jokes.
He didn't like working for other people. "I wanted to be independent, so I started selling cosmetics. Eventually I thought it was much better if I imported them myself," he says.
After several years, he bought a convenience store in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood, which he ran until the late 1970s. All the while, he still played chess. He won his first championship in Canada in 1955 and was Canadian Correspondence Champion in 1967, 1972 and 1981. He is a member of the Canadian Chess Hall of Fame.
After divorcing his first wife, he married Heino Mallo, an Estonian immigrant, in Canada. His daughter from Hungary came to visit him in Canada at one stage with the intention of living here. "She didn't want to stay, silly girl," says Mr. Sarosy.
He and his wife lived on Royal York Road in Mimico, just west of downtown Toronto, a couple of hundred metres from Lake Ontario. His wife died in 1998 and he sold his house and moved into the Grenadier home in 2000. For the next decade he was completely mobile, did his own shopping and walked everywhere. When he was about 102 he started riding a mobility scooter, and used that until two years ago.
Mr. Sarosy laughs when asked about the secret to his long life.
He has a couple of ideas: He tried smoking when he was a teenager, but he didn't like it so he quit; he was a light drinker, just the occasional brandy. But he still hasn't figured it all out quite yet.
"I'm still working on the formula. However, when I get it, I'll go to the patent office," he says. "I'm like an old used car with rusty body, wobbly wheels but a good engine."