Waterloo Region Generations
A record of the people of Waterloo Region, Ontario.

Marta Janzen

Female 1915 - Yes, date unknown

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  • Name Marta Janzen 
    Born 25 Nov 1915  Tiege, Ukraine Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Gender Female 
    Name Marta Schafer 
    Eby ID Number Waterloo-227030 
    Died Yes, date unknown 
    Person ID I227030  Generations
    Last Modified 12 May 2024 

    Father Bishop Jacob H. Janzen,   b. 19 Mar 1878, Steinbach, South Russia Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 16 Feb 1950, Waterloo City, Waterloo Region, Ontario, Canada Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age 71 years) 
    Mother Helene Braun,   d. Bef 1923, , Russia Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Family ID F19409  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

    Family Stanley Schafer,   d. 1999 
    Married 1947 
    Last Modified 13 May 2024 
    Family ID F62048  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

  • Notes 
    • Lifetimes: A small act of kindness marked Marta Schafer's long life

      By Valerie HillSpecial to the Record

      It was Christmas Eve, 1924, when nine-year-old Marta Janzen arrived with her family in Canada, after a gruelling journey from their Russian Mennonite community in Ukraine, fleeing famine and political upheaval.

      It would be three more days before they finally made it to their destination: the city of Waterloo.

      The weather was bitterly cold and a woman who offered to help the family at the Kitchener train station asked her daughter to give Marta her mittens. It was likely the first, but not the last, bit of kindness that would be shown to the girl in Canada, a girl who had already suffered so much.

      "This act of generosity had a profound impact on Marta," said her former pastor Mark Harris. "It became iconic of the generosity of spirit that she exhibited throughout her life."

      Marta was born Nov. 25, 1915, in the Mennonite farming village of Tiege, in Ukraine, to Jacob and Helena Janzen, the youngest of seven children. Her mother died when Marta was six. Jacob married a widow the next year, and with that marriage came four stepsiblings, children who had suffered their own trauma when their father was brutally executed. Among those stepsiblings was Woldemar Neufeld, destined to become a celebrated artist.

      It was Woldemar, 15 at the time, who later recounted how the family had been shuffled from place to place in Russia before they fled. They spent a month travelling by train and ship before arriving at the Kitchener train station. Woldemar recalled the family being met by a horse and sleigh, then driven through Victoria Park, where they were mesmerized by the sight of skaters waltzing to music. "It was so beautiful. I had never seen anything like it," he later recalled.

      Marta, at only nine, had trouble letting go of the fear that had gripped her since leaving Ukraine. At a stop in Toronto, her father got off to fetch supplies for the family and missed the train when it left the station. Marta, who had already lost her mother, feared her father was now gone too. He simply caught the next train, which ended up being coupled to the same train his family was on. Marta, sobbed at the sight of him, deeply relieved.

      Once in Waterloo, the family was scattered to various billets until Jacob was able to buy a home. Jacob was a Mennonite bishop, a writer, preacher and lecturer, known for having a strong influence on the Mennonite Church across North America.

      After high school, Marta completed teacher's training at the Stratford Normal School, though she never taught and instead spent three decades working in the payroll department of Dominion Life. She met Stanley Schafer on a blind date, and the couple married in 1947. Both were already in their 30s, unusual for the times.

      Together they raised two sons, Grant and Glen.

      Daughter-in-law Janet Schafer adored Marta and was deeply impressed at how, despite everything she had lived through, nothing quelled her spirit.

      Granddaughter Nataliya Schafer remembers her grandmother's boisterous belly laughs, and her self-deprecating humour, which turned rather dark as she got older. There were always jokes about what would happen after she died. She loved to rib her son Grant, who would proclaim after a visit that his mother had said the most outlandish things.

      "She was always cracking jokes, roasting my dad," said Nataliya. "Even when she was 100."

      She also remembers playing endless board games with Marta, and her grandmother's yummy lemon cake, which only later was revealed to be from an instant mix.

      "The spirit she had, she never complained about anything," said Janet, Grant's widow.

      Both Marta's sons predeceased her: Glen of cancer in 2018 and Grant the following year of a heart condition. Marta, by then well into her 100s, was experiencing dementia and was not aware of their passing. Stanley had died in 1999.

      Marta was "wonderful, bright, intelligent, quick-witted - , a lovely, lovely person," said Glen's widow Diana Schafer. Marta didn't have a filter, Diana said \emdash she was rather a "tell it like it is" sort of person.

      Marta's legacy is one of resilience and fortitude. She died April 27, 2022, five months after turning 106.

      "She is my heroine," said Janet.

      "Marta was a keen observer of human behaviour and of the idiosyncrasy of people," said Mark, her pastor. "I never heard her say an uncharitable thing about anyone.

      "She saw the humour in people and situations, but was always eager to offer others the same generosity of spirit and largeness of heart that had been extended to her by that anonymous woman on the train platform in Kitchener so many years before."

      Valerie Hill is a former Record reporter. She can be reached at vmhill296@gmail.com.

      "Lifetimes: A Small Act Of Kindness Marked Marta Schafer'S Long Life". 2022. Therecord.Com. https://www.therecord.com/life/2022/09/13/lifetimes-a-small-act-of-kindness-marked-marta-schafers-long-life.html.