McDonald: Finding my future in my husband’s past

Rifat at work in his home office in Toronto after creating Canadian Aircraft Instruments and Accessories.

I met my husband the day before my 21st birthday. He was a director/producer at CTV’s W5, and I was a journalism student at the University of Western Ontario, at the network to observe how the program was put together. When I was accepted for the weeklong internship, my professor told me I would encounter a “lovely guy and talented producer” by the name of Heinz Avigdor. Little did I suspect that, within six months, I would fall completely in love with him, marry him and happily share the next 43 years with him – all of my adult life to that point.

Then, on Feb. 3, 2015, Heinz died, leaving me grief-stricken. My world went silent. The days were endless and empty. Mornings and evenings were the worst. For months, when I would first wake up, I would think he was downstairs, having a coffee and doing the crossword – his regular morning routine. Then, it would crash in on me. He wasn’t there. He was never going to be there again.

It was all I could do to force myself out of bed and put one foot in front of the other until it was night and I would go to bed. Often, as I fell into a restless sleep, I would turn to hug him and be hit anew with overwhelming loss and a loneliness so crushing that it’s impossible to comprehend unless you’ve lived it.

One day, several months after Heinz died, I was cleaning out some files when I came across one I didn’t recognize. It was yellowed with age. Inside were carbon copies of letters written by Heinz’s father to the British Home Office and the British Air Ministry. I couldn’t recall having seen them before, but I knew at once that they were all that remained of the story of how and why the family had left Berlin in 1938.

Heinz’s early childhood in Europe was not something he’d talked about much, and because our lives were so busy with work, travel, family and friends, I hadn’t given it much thought. But now my interest was piqued. I’d never met Heinz’s father, Rifat – he died when Heinz was only 14 – but I knew he’d been a successful aeronautical engineer, born in Constantinople, who moved to Berlin in the early part of the 20th century. Heinz’s mother, Else, who I had known briefly, was a beauty. Rifat had had a good job as the manager of a large airplane parts company and they’d lived well in the affluent suburb of Charlottenburg. But, aside from that, I didn’t really know anything about them and why they’d left Germany when they did or how they’d managed to get out of Holland the very day it fell to the Nazis.


I started doing some research. I scoured the Internet, where I learned the family was Jewish – a truth never revealed or discussed with Heinz and his siblings – and had their German citizenship revoked in 1935. Heinz’s father had patented a game-changing fuel pump and taken the patent with him when he left Germany, putting him on Hitler’s notorious “black book.” He’d also provided the Air Ministry’s Intelligence Branch with valuable information about Germany’s aircraft industry. Suddenly, their abrupt departure made sense.

Now, I was eager to learn more. Instead of dreading the day ahead, I began to look forward to it, wondering what new discovery I would make.

I contacted Heinz’s only living relatives, cousins in Rome, and flew there to find out what they knew. They, too, had long ago buried their Jewish heritage in order to survive, although they did confirm that Heinz’s aunt (his mother’s sister) had been murdered in a concentration camp. (I could find no record of what happened to his uncle, so I suspect he met a similar fate.)

I travelled to Berlin and toured the family home, which had miraculously survived British air attacks, trying to recreate it from Heinz’s point of view as a young boy. I wandered around the nearby park, where I knew he had gone with his nanny; along the streets of
Charlottenburg, where he walked with his mother; and through the zoo, a place he went often, one of the few memories he shared of those early years. I tried to imagine how it must have looked with red Nazi banners and German soldiers everywhere.

I took the train to The Hague, and as we passed into Holland, I pictured the terror Heinz must have felt when, stopped by German soldiers, his father managed to bribe their way across the border. In The Hague, I went down to the harbour at Scheveningen, where he and the family boarded a small fishing boat to cross the North Sea as bombs rained down on Rotterdam – the sky so dark with smoke, he later incorrectly remembered that they had left at night. And I talked to his sister-in-law and brother-in-law in Toronto to learn what I could from their conversations with Heinz’s brother and sister, both of whom had died before I met Heinz. For months, I gathered bits of information from different sources about the family’s life and what I knew now had been a perilous escape from Hitler’s Europe.

My first thought was to write a history for our family. But as I began to piece together the story, an interesting – and quite wonderful – thing happened. As I wove together the facts I’d gleaned with how I imagined a young Heinz would have felt and acted, the history turned into his story. Writing that book – and its soon-to-be released sequel – helped me get through crippling grief and showed me that life can be fulfilling and meaningful again.