Celebrating National Seniors Day with 88-year old author & lifelong learner Irene Steiner
National Seniors Day – 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 golden-agers. 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 neighbourhoods 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 non-fiction 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.