Son of Holocaust survivor who died of COVID-19 praises Trudeau for telling his mother's story

·3 min read

When Jeff Shabes heard Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the country about his mother, he was humbled and encouraged.

Malvina Shabes died earlier this month in a specialized care home in Toronto at the age of 93.

"She survived the Holocaust, but she couldn't survive COVID," said her son, who lives north of Toronto in Thornhill. Shabes said he welcomed Trudeau's effort to put a human face on the suffering of thousands by telling his mom's story.

"If COVID is personalized, I strongly believe that we can beat this battle even quicker," he told CBC News over the phone.

In his news conference Friday afternoon, Trudeau took the time to honour Malvina Shabes's life and express his condolences to her family. His words come as the second wave of COVID-19 has led to more infections and more deaths in Ontario's long-term care homes. During the first wave of the pandemic, residents in long-term care accounted for more than 62 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in the province.

Speaking outside his residence in Ottawa, the prime minister told reporters he hoped Shabes's death would serve as a reminder of "what is at stake in this fight against the pandemic."

John Lesavage, CBC
John Lesavage, CBC

"Forced to flee her home during the war. She and her family ended up in a labour camp in Siberia. She made it through and started a new life in Canada," Trudeau said.

"She got married, had kids who loved her dearly. To her loved ones, my deepest condolences for your loss. And to the thousands of other families who have lost someone because of COVID-19, my thoughts are with you."

Born in Krakow in 1929, Malvina Shabes was forced to flee Poland at the age of 10 along with her two-year-old brother, grandparents and nanny. Their journey ended in Siberia at a labour camp where food was scarce and they often had to hide to survive.

CBC News
CBC News

"They were stamped with an ID number," her son said of her family's horrific experience in the camp, and he likened it to the suffering of thousands of patients infected with the novel coronavirus.

"These are casualties of this horrible pandemic, and each one of them should be recognized as an individual."

Shabes hopes the attention will highlight the struggles faced in long-term care homes, not just in Ontario but across the country.

"There are not enough people advocating for the elderly in these homes," he said. " And frankly, there needs to be accountability."

Last week, seven people died at a Scarborough long-term care home in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, while 136 other residents and 66 staff members have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to the company that owns and operates the facility. And since mid-September, there have been more than 200 deaths in long-term care homes provincewide.

Submitted by Jeff Shabes
Submitted by Jeff Shabes

Meantime, in their final moments together, Jeff Shabes says he sat across the room in full protective gear, repeating to his mother the stories she so loved to tell him. He says he told her story of how he made her sandwiches as a little boy when she was unwell after suffering a miscarriage.

"I hadn't called my mother 'Mummy' in, I don't know, 45 years," he said.

"So I referred to her as, you know, 'I love you, Mummy. You'll always be a part of our lives and memories.'"

His mother, says Shabes, would question why everyone was making "such a fuss" about her.

That "wasn't necessary," he imagines her saying. But he says it is necessary.

"And I'm so glad that I was able to do it for her and for all the other elderly people that have passed due to COVID."