Monday, June 7, 2010

Leading From the Grave

To lead from the grave is a remarkable feat. Martin Luther King Jr. still speaks to us with his "I had a dream" speech, and no one can forget John F. Kennedy’s statement “Think not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Christians consider Jesus to be the greatest leader of all time, and his instruction to “Love your neighbour as yourself,” the quintessential directive for mankind. These leaders walked their talk, which gives their teachings credence. They sent out a call to mission and for many, their powerful words and actions will always resonate.

The story that I want to share is about a leader in my life, who died forty years ago—my grandmother. If there is any one person who has influenced me personally from the grave, it would be her. My grandmother never led a large group of people to action, but she led her family to survival. Her courage and determination became an inspiration to all who knew her. I was only eight when she died, but what I remember about her and what I came to learn about her later in life have often spurred me on during tough times.

My grandmother was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1909, into an affluent and highly respected family. During her early years she had a governess and went to the best schools; the family had maids and cooks and they entertained lavishly. Budapest was a beautiful city, a cultural and intellectual hub of Eastern Europe, and there was no shortage of cultural diversions for them to enjoy. Attending the symphony, the opera, the ballet and society balls was part of their regular lifestyle.

In her late teens my grandmother attended university, uncommon for women in Hungary at the time, and obtained a degree in education. Women in her social class did not work in those days (in or out of the house) and despite her university degree and her intelligence, there were few opportunities to develop a career. But she had a strong moral and social conscience; a good and honest person, she treated others with respect, regardless of social status. In her early twenties, she married my grandfather, a professional engineer, and kept busy with social activities and philanthropic work and began a family. Life was good.

Before long everything changed. The Second World War began and by 1944 chaos reigned. Budapest was bombed, food became scarce, businesses shut down, and properties were destroyed. Their own house was bombed but fortunately, no one was hurt. The family scattered and the children went to live in the country with my grandfather's parents.

But the countryside was not much of a haven. When the Russians advanced they had to return to Budapest, where the family was assigned living quarters. Bombing continued and every day brought new fear. Gas and food were scarce and the best hope for survival was to flee to Austria. My grandfather was able to get the family out of the country despite difficult circumstances. After packing a few belongings and as much food as possible, my grandmother said good-bye to her beloved Hungary, not knowing when, or whether, she would ever return.

At age 36, my grandmother became the main caregiver of her children and her in-laws. She was responsible for their safety, shelter and sustenance, while my grandfather separated from them to work. In the beginning they camped out in a boxcar at a railway station and after three months of cramped living, moved into a small apartment nearby. My grandmother had to be resourceful in finding food; to get by she bartered rationed items like sugar cubes and silk stockings for milk, butter and other necessities. She spent her days visiting refugee camps in different parts of Austria, looking for her own parents, who she hoped had managed to leave Hungary as well. For several months, she didn’t know if my grandfather was dead or alive.

In 1948, my grandfather followed his brother-in-law to Sweden and eventually brought the family over from Austria. With no knowledge of Swedish, they all had to find work to survive—my grandmother labored as a seamstress, my grandfather as a draftsman, and my young teenage mother had various summer jobs. My great-grandparents cared for my uncle, who was a young boy at the time. Again my grandmother was left at the helm while my grandfather tried to make arrangements to immigrate to Canada.

In 1951 they came to Toronto and put a down-payment on a small house, using the proceeds from the sale of my grandmother's most expensive piece of jewelery. The family took whatever jobs they could because they could not speak the language. Even my great-grandmother, a woman of gentility, eventually found work as a housekeeper because she didn't want to be a burden. When their English was proficient enough, my grandfather landed a good engineering job in Montreal designing grain elevators, and my grandmother found work teaching sewing in a high school. After a few years of working very hard, they were finally able to enjoy a decent standard of living.

I’ve always been amazed at how my grandmother coped with the hardships—especially when she was on her own in a foreign country and solely responsible for the welfare of her children and in-laws. When I knew her, she was working full-time and loving it. She sewed her own clothes and always looked sensational. I remember a loving and joyful woman who embraced life with passion. I never heard her complain or lament about the privileged life she’d left behind. Not once did I hear her say anything about ‘the good old days.’ She loved everything about Canada—the forests, the countryside, the lakes, and the people. One of the few things she took issue with was sliced white bread, which she considered tasteless and soulless (Hungarians love their food!).

She died at the age of 62 of a brain tumor. The fact that she never had a chance to enjoy her retirement saddens me; her dream was to travel and reconnect with old friends, many of whom had dispersed to various foreign countries. But judging from the attendance at her funeral you’d never know that she was so far away from her homeland. The church was packed with family and friends, students and colleagues—people whom she touched with her love, her courage, her vitality, and her determination.

My grandmother never gave up on happiness and through her positive attitude, strong will and hard work, the obstacles she faced were not insurmountable. She showed that despite setbacks, challenges and hardships, there is always a way forward. Walking her talk, she demonstrated how great legacies are created. As is the case with the illustrious historical leaders, my grandmother’s spirit will undoubtedly live on for generations to come.


  1. So true. Through you she again brings tears to my eyes and hope in my heart.

  2. What a moving tribute to an inspirational person, Carla. You were lucky to have such a wonderful woman as your grandmother in your life! And it seems that she touched the lives of many others as well.

  3. What a wonderful tribute to your grandmother. An amazing story, even more amazing because it is all true. No wonder you admire her so much.

  4. Good to see someone telling the truth about the oppression and hardship Hungary went through as an occupied country in WWII.

    As Hungarians we "Choose to go to the moon and do these other things not because they are easy but because they are hard."

    John F. Kennedy (Launching the race to the moon)