Friends and family gathered Friday at a Montreal funeral home to honour the memory of Naomi Bronstein, a tireless humanitarian worker who died last week in Guatemala.
Known as the "Canadian Mother Teresa," Bronstein died in her sleep Dec. 23. She was 65.
She spent more than four decades helping sick and orphaned children in developing countries around the world, most recently Guatemala.
Many Montreal families credit Bronstein with helping them adopt orphaned children she met through her work.
Her daughter Heidi says her mother couldn't turn her back on suffering.
"Any time that she would see any kind of misjustice or she would see children starving or dying, she would see that there was the need and she couldn't just let it go. She would just get on a plane and get out there."
Relative Matthew Rubinovitch says Bronstein was an inspiration to their family.
"She actually got up and did something for the world, it's an incredible, an incredible story."
Bronstein's lifelong humanitarian mission started in Vietnam in 1969.
She moved to Guatemala in 2005 to help victims of a hurricane that devastated the Central American country.
Somewhere in Canada are an estimated 38 former Cambodian and Vietnamese orphans, who won't know that in 1975, when they were babies and the Indochina wars had reached a bloody finale, their lives were saved by two young Canadian sisters who refused to abandon them.
It was 40 years ago that Eloise Charet, 22, and her sister Anna, 20, stood their ground, first in Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge surrounded the Cambodian capital, and later in Saigon as it was under assault and about to fall to the North Vietnamese army. They flatly refused rescue unless the 63 children came with them.
"We just weren't going to leave without them," said Eloise Charet, who lives in New Denver.
The Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975, when the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong overran Saigon and celebrations to mark this 40th anniversary are scheduled to be held by the victors in Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
But victory of a different sort took place in Saigon that April, and is likely to be celebrated quietly in the hearts of those who were there and remember what happened.
Eloise's description of what she witnessed as the city was surrounded and bombarded has all the clarity of an etching.
The sisters were among the few Westerners still in Saigon as the North Vietnamese army, after the Americans left, was on the brink of taking the capital.
"The South Vietnamese army split. One segment ran toward the coast, the other ran toward Saigon. We watched them come in. First came the army, then came the wounded, and then came the peasants pushing all their worldly possessions on carts — all of them coated in this grey dust, looking like the living dead," said Eloise Charet.
Eloise and Anna had been late arrivals to the tragedy of the Indochina wars.
A few months before finding themselves besieged in Saigon, the Quebecois sisters had been working in Montreal for a little known adoption agency, Families for Children, packing aid for an orphanage being planned for Phnom Penh.
"Then Naomi (Bronstein), the director, asked us if we'd go out and run it," said Eloise.
The sisters and Bronstein arrived in Phnom Penh during Christmas, 1974, as everyone who could was fleeing. The dreaded Khmer Rouge that would kill a quarter of the country's eight million population - the elderly and the weak being the first to go — was closing in on the city.
"We got a hotel, then visited the state orphanage," she said.
This is what was waiting for them.
"The staff didn't have a lot of skills or medication and didn't know what to do if a baby was really ill. When they gave up on a child they'd put it in a room upstairs and leave it to die."
The sisters asked to see the room.
"The babies were lying there and couldn't move and the ants and the flies were eating them alive. They were in their nostrils and around their eyes just eating the soft tissue. The children were so still and the only way you could see they were alive is that once in a while their eyes would flicker. There were about a dozen of them."
Eloise and Anna removed the children from the room, took them to their hotel and placed the worst in hospital.
In January, Bronstein flew out of Phnom Penh with 14 children, leaving the young sisters to run the orphanage they called Canada House in a home donated by the Cambodian government.
By March, 1975, they had 55 children in their care, 24 under the age of six months. Phnom Penh was under fire and the British gave the sisters orders to leave on planes coming to evacuate embassy staff.
"There was no Canadian embassy there by then, so it was left to the British. They gave us three orders, but we kept refusing because we wouldn't go without our babies."
Their mother flew into Saigon from Montreal with Bronstein to attempt to persuade them to leave.
The sisters had been unable to get visas from any western country allowing the babies entry.
Only Vietnam would take them, but with the Khmer Rouge about to take Phnom Penh, civilian flights had ended, the airport runway was cratered and at times under fire.
"Luckily, we knew a stewardess who had helped us and she knew the Flying Tigers. These were intrepid men - Americans - who had fought in the war and for some reason couldn't, or didn't, want to go home. They came with Naomi and mother and got us."
The sisters and 55 children were bundled into an old transport plane operated by the Flying Tigers, an airline with a colourful if not dubious past, and the crew delivered them to Saigon.
"Mom had rented a house in Saigon and we figured we'll just park here until the war's settled in Cambodia then go back."
But Phnom Penh was doomed and, now, so was Saigon.
"Saigon was full of refugees. It was girded in barbed wire, roadblocks everywhere. People were starving, there was panic. People were running to the airport desperate to get any flight out. There were stampedes that killed people, fights in the streets, and at times it was dangerous for the 'round-eyes' like us to go out."
"My mother had a big map of Vietnam on the wall and as every province fell she'd mark it with an X."
They managed to get 12 of the sickest babies flown out to Canada but the orphanage was now being lit at night by flares. Missiles flew overhead and machine-gun fire drew closer, so they moved into the centre of Saigon with the U.S. adoption agency Friends For All Children.
"We really panicked when we heard that up north in Da Nang, when it fell, a priest had tried to protect his orphanage and was shot on the steps and all the children shot in their beds.
"We were trying to organize flights, but our babies were Cambodian not Vietnamese. Flights out were booked solid and we were trying to get help from the Americans but our children were considered the least important."
Again they could have left, but only if they abandoned the children.
On April 4, a huge U.S. military transport plane, part of the American Operation Babylift, left Saigon loaded with its first group of orphans from the American-run orphanage, many of them fathered by U.S. servicemen.
At 23,000 feet, shortly after takeoff, the rear ramp flew open causing an explosive decompression. The aircraft crashed in a paddy field near Tan Son Nhut airbase, breaking apart and killing 128 of the 313 aboard, including 78 children.
"It was heartbreaking. We were called and told come and get the wounded babies. My sister stayed with our children and I ran to the hospital. My mom and Naomi ended up out in the paddy field where the plane landed. All the children on the lower deck died — except for one baby who was found in puddle of water in the rice paddy and came to us. If you weren't tied in you just flew out of the plane. Some children who were tied in were strangled. It was awful."
At the end of the day, they had 20 more babies on their hands.
"It was this crash that turned the world's attention to the children in Saigon and, all of a sudden, the Canadian government sent two Hercules to get us out."
Getting the 63 children to the airport was a nightmare. There was chaos on the streets and martial law had been declared.
The children that had survived the crash were terrified at being put on another aircraft and the sisters had to hide two Vietnamese children in garbage cans because they had no papers allowing them to leave the country.
"We were being hassled by soldiers who came aboard - I suppose they were looking for bribes because we didn't have the papers - but the Canadian pilot saved us. He said 'we've got to leave right away, there's a big storm in Hong Kong.'"
They were flown to Hong Kong, then on to Vancouver, where some babies were dropped off, then to Dorval Airport in Montreal where adoptive families had gathered to receive them.
The sisters were exhausted. Their job finished, Bronstein sent them home.
"We were pretty young, but suffering post traumatic stress, I guess. I remember being on the family farm in Montebello and screaming 'get to the basement, get to the basement, we're being bombed' and my great-aunt — my psychiatrist — turns around and says 'get back to bed you fool, you're not in Cambodia.' "
For many years, that was that.
Eloise moved to B.C., raised her own family and became active in protesting the logging of watershed areas. She would be arrested (not for the last time) in New Denver in 1997 for defying an injunction and spent 55 days fasting in jail rather than sign an undertaking to stop protesting. Premier Glen Clark would describe her and the others as 'enemies of B.C.', a label Vancouver Sun columnist Stephen Hume took exception to, reminding readers that Eloise had stayed behind in South Vietnam to protect orphans when every sensible person, government officials included, had fled.
But Eloise and Anna remained largely ignorant about what had happened to their babies until Kim Routhier-Filion, who was three months old when his adoptive mother received him that day at Dorval, began piecing together the story five years ago.
In 2000, on the 25th anniversary of the rescue, the sisters were invited to a small reunion at Bronstein's home in Quebec with six of the children, now adults, including Routhier-Filion.
"Even then, we didn't know who Eloise and Anna were or that they'd risked their lives for us," said Routhier-Filion. "I didn't find that out until 2010, at Naomi's funeral."
"Anna and Eloise never sought any recognition for what they did. When we all arrived in Montreal, Naomi told them 'your job's over, go home and don't speak about it to reporters or try to contact any of the parents, and that must have been terrible for them," he said.
Inspired by a TV documentary about children rescued from Africa, he contacted Radio Canada with his own story. That led to the making of the documentary 'Jamais sans nos enfants' (Never Without Our Children). After 38 years, Routhier-Filion and the sisters returned to Cambodia with a film crew.
The documentary was aired in Quebec in 2014. A book by Eloise with the same title is due out in September.
"I've written it because these are 63 people who had lost their past and we should give it back to them," she said.
So far, the sisters have had contact with 25 of the 63.
For the past two years, a number of survivors have gathered in Quebec for an annual reunion. The next one is in July.
Routhier-Filion is hoping publicity will bring in the missing.
"We regard each other as brothers and sisters, and Eloise and Anna as our mothers.
"What do I feel for them? I can't describe it exactly. Just pure love. They were ready to die with us."
April 18, 2015