Obituary: Holocaust survivor, prolific artist and beloved friend

June 2024
Barry Rosen and Wendy Schneider

Barry first met Ora Markstein in 1999 during Temple Anshe Sholom’s Mitzvah Week, a program in which congregants volunteered to perform acts of kindness in the community. After signing up for home visits, he was given Ora Markstein’s name. He knew she was a talented sculptor, but not much else.  

During his first visit to her Kent Street home, Ora told Barry about her idyllic childhood in a small city near Budapest, where she and her sister lived in the warm embrace of a close-knit family. Ora’s carefree adolescence was shattered at the age of 15 with the Hungarian government’s alliance with Nazi Germany and her family being deported to Auschwitz. 

Against all odds, every member of her immediate family survived the war, as did the young man who captured her heart just four months before he was sent into forced labour. Francis Markstein was near death when Ora’s mother nursed him back to health after the war. Ora and Francis were married, and their son, Igor was born in a UN sponsored refugee camp in Germany. 

The Marksteins moved to Israel in 1949, where they stayed for 26 years, until their son’s move to Illinois prompted them to try and make a go of it in Canada. Ora’s chance encounter with well-known Polish Canadian sculptor Ethel Rosenfield in Montreal marked a turning point in her life. 

Ora met Rosenfield at a dinner party, and after showing her photographs of plaster casts she had made in Israel, Rosenfield exclaimed, “But you are thinking in stone! You feel in stone!”  When Ora replied that she had never even put her hands on stone, nor could she ever afford to work in that medium, Rosenfield reassured her, “I’m going to help you.” True to her word,she  arranged for Ora to receive a scholarship from the Saidye Bronfman Centre. 

When Francis was offered a job at Beth Jacob Hebrew School, the Marksteins moved to Hamiton. Larry and Sharon Enkin welcomed them like long-lost family. Sharon Enkin soon arranged for a show of Ora’s sculptures at the Delaware Avenue JCC, which would set her career in motion. Years later, when Ora was 83 years old, the Art Gallery of Hamilton organized a one-woman exhibit of her stone carvings.

Barry’s initial visit with Ora sparked a 25-year friendship that included his wife, Leslie Viner. In addition to visiting with Ora in her home, they invited her to theirs and often accompanied her to community events and synagogue services. Leslie’s parents, Pearl and David Viner, eventually became her neighbours at Shalom Village. 

Ora loved connecting with people of varying ages and backgrounds, and she dearly missed her Kent Street neighbours after moving to Shalom Village. She was an avid reader, enjoyed quality films and kept up with current events via her favourite newspaper, The Globe and Mail. Ora was intelligent and articulate, and not shy about expressing her opinion. She was very honest and you always knew where you stood. 

For years, Ora would speak about the Holocaust at Hamilton high schools, despite the emotional toll that came from reliving her experiences. It is a testament to her enormous artistic vision and talent that she was able to create such beautiful works of art despite having lived through such horrors. 

Ora had many physical challenges, which eventually resulted in her move to Shalom Village. Staff there were loving and helpful towards her throughout her time there. Ora’s quality of life deteriorated quite significantly over the past year. During some visits, we weren’t sure to what extent she was aware of our presence.

Shalom Village threw a wonderful birthday party for Ora in April for her 100th birthday. Ora was glowing and particularly alert that day and really seemed to enjoy connecting with all those in attendance, including extended family who travelled from the United States to be with her on that special day. She died a week later, with her dedicated long-standing caregiver Nancy Coward by her side.  

Ora leaves behind her much-loved son Igor, his wife Joan, extended family members in Canada, the US and Israel, and many close friends. Ora will never be forgotten by those of us who were fortunate enough to know her. May her memory be an abiding blessing.