Obituary: Cecile Klein, 114, spent seven memorable months as Canada’s oldest person

Cecile Klein with her daughter Harriet Nussbaum (right) and granddaughter Elaine Nussbaum (left).

Cecile Klein, who at her death on Jan. 13 at age 114 was the oldest person living in Canada, is being remembered for her positive attitude and zest for life.

Montreal-born Klein died peacefully at Maimonides Geriatric Centre, having lived through two pandemics, the first being the Spanish flu of 1918, not to mention two world wars.

Although she started to slow down after 110, family and friends say Klein retained her thirst for learning and new experiences, her determination to keep going physically, and her warm, gracious personality until her final years.

Cecile Edith Efros was born on June 15, 1907, a fact verified by the Gerontology Research Group, confirming her as Canada’s top “supercentenarian” and among the oldest people in the world.

While her own parents’ longevity was not extraordinary, she did have a great-grandmother who made it to at least 103.

After attending secretarial school, Klein worked in a lawyer’s office and then at RCA Victor in what might be called today human resources. Her family says that during the Depression she did her best to find jobs for people.

She married Israeli-born Erwin Klein in 1932 in a ceremony at the old Windsor Hotel and they would have three children. She did administrative work in the pharmaceutical company he owned called International Drugs.

“During the Second World War they manufactured and delivered pharmaceuticals to Montreal hospitals in their rumble-seated car,” eldest daughter Harriet Nussbaum said. The company was sold in the 1940s to the pharmaceutical giant Bayer.

The Kleins loved to travel around the world, and in later years did so with their children and grandchildren.

Cecile was an active community volunteer throughout her life, and could recall helping out during the Spanish flu and raising money with her father for the eventual Jewish General Hospital that opened in 1934.

She enjoyed taking courses and attending lectures throughout her life. With her daughter, she was a regular at the fitness classes at the Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors.

After her husband died in 1999, Klein continued to travel and study. She went on cruises to Alaska and Mexico when she was 102 and 103. In winter she visited her children in California until she was even older than that.

She especially loved the McGill Mini-Med and Mini-Law series at the Jewish General and attended well into her 100s. Always interested in current events, she read the paper until she was 111 and did so without glasses.

Theatre was a true passion, and in later years she was a devotee of the Côte St. Luc Dramatic Society. She never missed any of the amateur troupe’s musical productions, and they celebrated her birthday each year with a special performance.

Côte St. Luc Mayor Mitchell Brownstein, the troupe’s producer, was impressed by Klein’s fortitude and common sense approach to life, which could be summed up as not worrying about the small stuff and just carrying on.

He remembers that when she was 106 Klein still insisted on climbing the stairs, unaided, to see Fiddler on the Roof.She said the exercise was good for her. 

Three years earlier she had broken her hip and undergone surgery. Warned she might not walk again, Klein rejected the prognosis, went to rehab and was back on her feet.

One of family friend Rosemary Steinberg’s favourite stories about Klein was the time she bought a new watch in her mid-90s and insisted on the 10-year guarantee. “She certainly was right and outlasted the watch.” 

In the past few years when she could not get to shows, the Dramatic Society brought excerpts to her at Maimonides. At her last birthday, Brownstein said Klein, who had become less verbal, still moved to the music in evident delight at a concert they put on in the garden.

While Klein did not get infected, the COVID-19 pandemic was difficult for her. Like other Maimonides residents, she was unable to see family during the first months, but did appreciate connecting with her many relatives via videoconferencing.

In addition to Harriet, Klein is survived by children Louise and Arnold, eight grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren.

Friend Miriam Cohen, who knew Klein from her participation in the Beth Ora Seniors group, says, “I never met Cecile’s equal. Her beautiful serene nature was reflected in her smile. She was incredibly active and alert, even into her very old age, loving people and learning till the end.”

(Canada previous oldest known person, Phyllis Ridgway of Toronto, died June 4, 2021, at age 114.)

The CJN Daily podcast: Canada’s Oldest Person: Cecile Klein marks 114 years