NEWS

This 97-Year-Old One-Time Refugee Built His Canadian Life From Scratch

“Anything I make, nobody’s going to copy me.”

08/27/2017 13:53 EDT | Updated 08/30/2017 17:01 EDT

In Lejb Pilanski's workshop, every object gets a second life. And a third. And a fourth. And a fifth.

The 97-year-old Jewish refugee lives completely independently in the Toronto home he's owned since the 1960s. There, he creates one-of-a-kind objects every day, out of scrap metal, old pots and pans, motors, fabric, machines he found in the garbage.

"I take a machine and I fix it," Pilanski told HuffPost Canada in an interview. "It makes me feel good."

His grandson, Toronto filmmaker Sean Wainsteim, recently curated an art exhibit out of Pilanski's creations. Entitled "Zei Gezunt//Keep Well," the three-day show took place at Red Head Gallery in early August.

It weaved together Pilanski's creations with photographs of him and his late wife, Ester, and documents from their journey across Europe and to Canada after World War II. Zei Gezunt is the Yiddish translation of "keep well."

Sean Wainsteim
Lejb Pilanski's creations were featured in an exhibit at The Red Head Gallery.

Pilanski never thought of his creations as art. "I have no idea about these things," he said. "Different things, I know."

But Wainsteim did. He said he wanted to tell his grandparents' story — and show their remarkable resilience — through Pilanski's work.

"It was really nice to see people connecting with the work. There were people in tears, people relating to his story because they were first or second-generation Canadians," Wainsteim said. "Whether they be Jewish or Chinese, there's people like, 'Oh my grandfather used to save scraps like this.'"

The death of Wainsteim's grandmother earlier this year was one of the reasons he decided to curate Zei Gezunt//Keep Well. It gave him an excuse to spend time with Pilanski and talk about his life.

"We don't necessarily have a relationship where we can talk about our feelings too much," Wainsteim said. "So this was a good way to sit down and relate to each other ... it gave us a good excuse to hang out. He was able to open up and tell me some stories he hadn't told me before."

Pilanski was born in Poland in 1919. He says that when he was 20, a group of Russians came to his town and forced him to join their army. While he was in Russia, he learned that his hometown had burned to the ground. He never saw his family again.

Sean Wainsteim
Lejb Pilanski was born in Poland in 1919 and came to Canada after losing his family during World War II.

Sean Wainsteim
Lejb Pilanski holds his displaced person identification card from 1947 Germany.

Pilanski claims he was expelled from the Russian army after a Polish general betrayed them. He took a train west, where he met Ester. They got married at a displaced persons camps in Bad Reichenhall, Germany, Wainsteim said. The couple paid smugglers to get them into France, where their daughter Ginette — Wainsteim's mother — was born.

Europe was where the war had started, so Lejb and Ester wanted to leave. Ester's older brother suggested they try Canada, and in 1950, they came to Toronto as refugees.

Lejb had learned tailoring from his father, so he got work in sweatshops, eventually working at Simpsons-Sears for nearly a decade.

At home today, Pilanski proudly shows off a sewing machine he got from the company when he left. That machine — and six others — line the walls of his basement sewing room. Each machine has its own custom table, built by Pilanski, with pedals and motors he's added to make them work to his specifications. Each table has its own lamp, constructed with lightbulbs, magnifying glasses, staplers, screwdrivers and wire he had lying around.

No object is too commonplace for Pilanski to customize or build from scratch. One of Wainsteim's favourite pieces in the art show was a simple dustpan that Pilanski had made himself. He found his old dustpan too flimsy, so he cut the lid of a metal film projector box in half and attached a pot handle to it.

"Anything I make," Pilanski says, "nobody's going to copy me."

Sean Wainsteim
Lejb Pilanski made this dustpan out of a lid from a film projector and pot handle. Pilanski's grandson Sean Wainsteim showed his creations at The Red Head Gallery in early August.

Wainsteim hopes the gallery exhibit will show his grandfather, and the world, how valuable he is to his community.

"There's a very big anti-immigrant push right now. That's been in the back of my mind," Wainsteim said. "This idea like 'immigrants are bad, they're ruining our world'... But here's this guy who came to this country with nothing, he worked really hard in a sweatshop, he lost his family in the war, he came here and the neighbour's calling him a dirty Jew from across the garden.

"Generally, I don't think too many people have done too much for him. He's always helping out, never expecting anything else, so I'm hoping the show cut through to show him... that he's appreciated in the world and how much his life matters."

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