A Life's Story
November 13, 2021
The woman with 99 lives
Maria Lee, 96 (maybe), freewheeling spirit carried concentration camp survivor
By: Geoff Kirbyson
For teenage Maria Lee, a good day meant scavenging a few morsels of food, a couple sips of water and not being killed.
Orphaned at birth in the Soviet Union, she found herself on a train to Germany during the Nazi invasion at the start of the Second World War. She debarked in Bremen, site of the Farge concentration camp.
"Somebody came along and gave her a job out of the blue," says her daughter, Michelle Lee. "She didn’t realize she was going to a work camp."
She was old enough during the war that men — particularly German officers — were attracted to her. One commandant had a thing for her and when she rebuked him — a potentially life-ending move — he responded by withholding food and beating her.
"She realized the only things she had control over were her body and her sexuality. She constantly refused to give in and she paid the price for it," Michelle says.
What likely saved Lee, ultimately, was she was fluent in five languages — German, English, Russian, Polish and Ukrainian — plus a little French and Latin, so she was a very useful interpreter for the Germans.
"That gave her an advantage," Michelle says. "She told us stories about sleeping on hay bales in barns. People were taken away from the barns constantly and disappeared, but she was never taken away.
"She ate grass and mud and counted on the good will of people here and there."
Lee, who died Aug. 27, is survived by her daughters, Michelle and Teresa. There is a good reason why no age was posted in her obituary — she didn’t know how old she was. Her mother died giving birth to her after already being abandoned by her father, so she never knew when she was born.
When the war was over and the labour camps were liberated, all of the displaced persons were lined up and Allied officers took a look at them and guessed their age.
They chose Dec. 29, 1924, as Lee’s birth date. Using that arbitrary estimate, her age at death would have been 96.
The displaced persons were given a few choices to start their lives anew. She didn’t know much about world geography but she had heard of Big Ben, the famous clock tower in downtown London, so she opted for England.
Teresa says one of her mother’s motivations to survive was to show her captors she could build a good life for herself.
"She would say, ‘Just wait. I’m going to write a book and show you that I did.’ That was her quiet little dream," she says. "She was a very humble, grateful person. She would never describe her life as extraordinary, but we always knew she was remarkable and extraordinary just by watching her live her life.
"She was the woman with 99 lives, the magician who kept pulling rabbits out of her hat. We don’t know how a person who had nothing, no role models, who was orphaned when so young and had no strong maternal influence (survived and turned out so well)."
In London, she received her first formal education and started her nursing career. (England proved dangerous, too. She was hit by a double-decker bus, requiring a metal plate in her leg.)
A few years later, she took the Queen Mary across the Atlantic Ocean to New York, where she boarded a train to Winnipeg, en route to a nursing job at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre.
Lee was an incredibly shy woman, so when she was walking down the street one day and offered a ride by a young Asian man, she politely said, "No."
Henry Lee was persistent and polite, however, and she eventually agreed to go do dinner with him at the Shanghai restaurant, which was owned by some of his relatives.
She had never eaten Chinese food before and soon discovered it wasn’t sitting well with her. She threw up all over Henry’s red Chevrolet on the way home. Ignoring the mess, Henry asked her out a second time.
Despite the cross-cultural marriage norms at the time, they exchanged vows in 1956. After Henry died in 1983, the three Lee women became closer than ever, with travel being one of their favourite pastimes.
One of Lee’s mottos was you could get some of the best education by submersing yourself in different cultures.
"She’d tell us, ‘There’s so much more to life than your own little island.’ Travel was her way of giving us her version of education, just in a different format than going to school," Michelle says.
But the mother-daughters trips weren’t always relaxing. During one cruise on the Mediterranean, Maria and Michelle were taking a taxi back to the boat. The cab driver demanded more money than had been originally agreed to and while he slowed down, he threatened to not let them out. After staring down Nazis, Lee wasn’t going to be intimidated by a cab driver. She cranked down the back window and jumped out; Michelle was right behind her.
"I had to follow. That’s the spirit she had. When you put her in a crisis situation, that’s when she would shine. That’s how she survived. You do what you’ve got to do. You think about it after," she says.
Years later, Lee was determined to visit her homeland, which Teresa found a little strange considering her paranoia about being watched by KGB spies.
As the pilot informed passengers they had entered Soviet airspace, Lee passed a note to her daughter. It said: "Don’t tell anybody my last name is Serduk."
(That was the surname of a woman at the concentration camp Lee had protected before she died. She had a piece of paper from the woman with her name on it and handed it over when the camps were liberated.)
Then, she put the note in her mouth and swallowed it.
Teresa says her mom’s paranoia wasn’t completely unfounded; she’s positive they were followed throughout the 11 republics they visited.
"There was one guy who was on every flight we were on. From our tour group, we were the only two who didn’t get their luggage. It took 15 hours (to get our bags)... Mom told me she wasn’t going to speak any Russian. It was pretty nerve racking going through customs. This guy was following us around," she says.
During their stay in Uzbekistan, just over the border from war-torn Afghanistan, Teresa and her mother decided to go for a walk in the forest. They came across a barricade with a warning sign in Russian.
"Don’t be a chicken," her mother said, and kept walking.
Teresa wasn’t entirely surprised when they walked around a corner and found themselves in the middle of a military zone, full of soldiers.
"Just keep walking," Lee said.
They were about 100 yards to the other side of the forest when army vehicles and soldiers started to approach.
"On the count of three, run like hell!" Lee instructed.
They made it — barely — and went back to their hotel, fully expecting the military to show up later. They didn’t.
"Life was always an adventure with her. It was fun. You knew you were going to get into trouble," Teresa says.