Cel­e­brat­ing Na­tional Se­niors Day with 88-year old author & life­long learner Irene Steiner

Montreal Times - - News -

In 1990, the United Na­tions des­ig­nated Oc­to­ber 1st as the In­ter­na­tional Day of Older Per­sons and many coun­tries of­fi­cially rec­og­nize the con­tri­bu­tions of their own se­nior cit­i­zens. Canada's Na­tional Se­niors Day dove­tails with the UN's com­mem­o­ra­tive day.Ac­cord­ing to the UN, the ac­com­plish­ments of older peo­ple are “of­ten over­looked and un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated”. It should be ob­vi­ous that it is vi­tally im­por­tant for so­ci­ety to mine the repos­i­tory of knowl­edge, mem­ory, and ex­pe­ri­ence of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. How­ever, many times the young lose sight of the fact that their el­ders of­ten pos­sess the wis­dom that is ac­quired only by a long life well-lived.

We can't re­ally move for­ward on our own life jour­neys with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing the im­por­tant roles that se­niors play within our fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties.The an­nual cel­e­bra­tion of re­tirees, se­nior work­ers, vol­un­teers, grand­par­ents, and grand old­sters aims to get peo­ple think­ing about how to tap into the tal­ents of gold­e­nagers. It poses the ques­tion, "This Oc­to­ber 1st, why don’t you cel­e­brate an im­por­tant se­nior in your life?" Think­ing in collective terms the ques­tion might be re­framed as, "Who are the great older peo­ple in our neigh­bor­hoods and cities that we can learn from and what life-lessons do they have to teach us?"

Irene Steiner is an en­er­getic 88-year-old and the old­est univer­sity grad­u­ate in Mon­treal. A re­tired teacher and avowed learner, she writes un­der the name Irene Even. Her re­cent mem­oir A Life of the Twentieth Cen­tury is just that: the grip­ping true story of her own life as an or­phan liv­ing un­der Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion, sur­viv­ing the war, then later the Rus­sian oc­cu­pa­tion. It tells the story of how against all odds she made her way to Pales­tine (now Is­rael) in 1946 with other mi­grant chil­dren be­fore im­mi­grat­ing to Canada in 1952. "We walked through the Alps," she says, mat­ter-of-fact, de­scrib­ing her dar­ing es­cape, a fa­mil­iar im­age to any­one who has ever seen the hit mu­si­cal The Sound of Mu­sic. (The heart­warm­ing movie por­trays the von Trapp fam­ily singers cross­ing over the Alps from Aus­tria to es­cape the Nazi regime, which some com­men­ta­tors have de­scribed as pure fic­tion.)

Steiner was a stu­dent liv­ing in Bu­dapest when the Nazis came and closed the school putting the chil­dren out on the street. "We were a group of young kids. I was one of the chil­dren who was left be­hind," she says, re­call­ing how oth­ers went back to their fam­i­lies. Her grand­par­ents were the only fam­ily she had ever known be­fore leav­ing her "lit­tle vil­lage" in the Carpathian moun­tains to go to school in the big city. "I lost my par­ents a long time ago. I did not know my mother at all," she says with a trace of melan­choly. Study­ing away from home proved to be a life­saver. "The Nazis started to de­port the Jews from the prov­inces first. My whole fam­ily was de­ported." With the help of the Zion­ist move­ment which pro­vided her with false pa­pers, she was able to rent a room at 14 be­fore set­ting out on foot on a long and wind­ing jour­ney that would take the Ro­ma­nian born girl all the way from Hun­gary through Italy to Pales­tine where she would live on a Kib­butz for sev­eral years be­fore com­ing to Canada.

"I didn't have any sup­port, but I must have had an­gels look­ing af­ter me," she muses. Steiner's au­to­bi­og­ra­phy writ­ten in the style of cre­ative non­fic­tion is as much about her jour­ney through lit­er­acy and life-long learn­ing as it is about any voy­age by road or sea.As a 40-year-old di­vor­cée with two kids by this time liv­ing in Mon­treal, she de­cided to go back to school and get an ed­u­ca­tion.This was no easy task. She had only 5 years of ele­men­tary school ed­u­ca­tion. So she did what some in her gen­er­a­tion did to bet­ter them­selves: she went to night school. One day, the prin­ci­pal took her aside and said, "You have to go to univer­sity." Ul­ti­mately, she re­ceived a let­ter of recommendation and en­tered the univer­sity as a ma­ture stu­dent. She would go on to re­ceive her B.A. in History and French Lit­er­a­ture from Con­cor­dia in 1974, ob­tain­ing a Diploma of Ed­u­ca­tion from McGill Univer­sity soon af­ter.

"That was my only good mem­ory of my child­hood, my school," she says. "I loved school when I was young." There is no doubt in Steiner's mind about how ed­u­ca­tion has pro­pelled the tra­jec­tory of her life. "Of course, I was in a learn­ing sit­u­a­tion all the time," she says of her sur­vivor jour­ney. Even­tu­ally, she would re­turn to Is­rael to teach English lit­er­a­ture for 22 "amaz­ing years" be­fore re­tir­ing in 1997 and re­turn­ing to Canada. An­other B.A. would fol­low in English Lit­er­a­ture post-re­tire­ment, then a third B.A. in Phi­los­o­phy, and the Clas­sics. "Noth­ing is more im­por­tant than an ed­u­ca­tion," she says. "It saved my life. It gave it mean­ing."

Per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, Steiner's son is a pro­fes­sor at UQAM. One day some of his col­leagues were ask­ing ques­tions about her life but she couldn't an­swer them. In­stead, she said, "My whole life is com­pli­cated. I wouldn't know where to start. It's full of his­tor­i­cal events." So, one of them said, "Why don't you write a book?" Al­ways learn­ing new things, she took a course. "How to Write the Story of Your Life" was be­ing of­fered through con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion at McGill so back to school she went. She threw her­self into writ­ing the story of her life with a pas­sion. "I got up in the mid­dle of the night and I went to the computer and I started writ­ing and I couldn't stop."

These days Steiner couldn't be hap­pier. "I have two great kids and 3 beau­ti­ful and amaz­ing grand­kids," says the oc­to­ge­nar­ian who swims to stay fit. "I my­self can­not be­lieve it. I don't know what mo­ti­vated me to do all the things I've done." Steiner's story is about a jour­ney through war, bondage, lib­er­a­tion, and ul­ti­mately sur­vival. It's about im­mi­gra­tion. It is a fas­ci­nat­ing tale link­ing the feu­dal era of old Europe to mod­ern times. Ul­ti­mately, it's a story about per­sonal trans­for­ma­tion as told by a great old soul from an­other time and far­away places who chose to plant her wis­dom here. It's her legacy to her off­spring, our city, and coun­try.

Na­tional Se­niors Day (Oct. 1) Author Irene Steiner

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