Garment worker, peace activist, mother. Born 1906, sister of composer Leonid Tsukert, wife of poet and peace activist Harold Bates.
Like a rose bush, Sonja bloomed many times, sending her roots into whatever soil there was, finding nourishment where others found only dirt, and producing beauty and joy where others found only darkness and misery. She was the 4th of 9 children born to a stationmaster on the Imperial Russian railway in eastern Poland.
Her earliest memories were family circles where her father, a committed Zionist, read the Torah and Tolstoy to Sonja and her 6 sisters and 2 brothers.
During WWI in 1915, she was evacuated to Poltava, Ukraine, along with her entire family when her village in Poland became a bloody battle ground. Soon she was swept up by the heady transformations in Russia, as the Bolsheviks seized power, boldly proclaiming an end to war and exploitation.
It's hard to imagine today what this meant to a young girl, used to a constant atmosphere of anti-Semitism, from a poor but cultured Orthodox family, where Zionism gave hope for a future of spiritual freedom and economic equality. This heady period, until she returned reluctantly to Poland and then emigrated to Toronto in 1922, inspired her for the rest of her long and full life.
Though they lived on rations in the Ukraine, though her father died of typhus in a Bolshevik jail, falsely denounced during the brutal and confusing period of the civil war and War Communism, she nonetheless could sense the fundamental truths behind the upheavals, and quietly devoted the rest of her life to fighting prejudice and militarism in all its manifestations. Her love of Russia and the ideals of the revolution no doubt are one of the secrets of her cheerfulness and long life.
I met Sonja much later, in the late 1970s, at the Canada-USSR Association, where we were fighting the latest chapter in the struggle against militarism, during the short reprieve of detente, after the Vietnam War and before the tragedy of the Afghan civil war.
At that time, it looked as if the Cold War was finally winding down and an era of peaceful coexistence was possible. She immediately took me under her wing, offering to help me with my Russian, and I was soon part of her extended family.
Her reminiscences of Poltava during the early years of the Russian revolution - Trotsky speaking, alternating white pogroms and red liberation, her older brother Leonid's adventures in the Red Army, his brush with death and his being saved by a young girl - brought to life a very different view of what this great upheaval was all about.
In the meantime, she had worked in a sweat shop in Toronto to help support her widowed mother and many siblings, moved to Greenwich village with her companion and future husband Harold Bates, and raised a family of three children, Nina, Brian and Steven. As their income rose, she began to extend her family, teaching Russian and raising funds to help Russia during WWII. She was careful, however, to shield her family from the witch-hunt during the McCarthy period.
Eventually she returned with Harold to his family home in North York in 1977. In retirement, Sonja blossomed again, again extending her family to take in first her neighbourhood and anyone who fought for peace or simply needed a friendly ear and a bite to eat.
Socialism and the peace movement were practical issues in her eyes: they meant community building by example, through generosity, tolerance, love of children (everyone's), hard work and culture. Family meant much more than blood. For Sonja, family meant anyone that needed you and that you could connect with.
No one who met her could possibly be anti-Semitic as she exemplified the best of Jewish traditions - matriarchal, outspoken, with a wry sense of humour and an almost religious awe of learning and culture. Though never a feminist, she had an inner strength that made her an equal partner in her marriage. She had a natural dignity that gave her automatic respect, though she never strove to be more than a worker and a housewife.
Her dreams of a peaceful world did not come true, but she never lost her optimism. After Harold died in 1996, a great blow to her, she lost her physical vitality and moved on to the final chapter in her long and wonderful life to stay at a nursing home on St Claire West. Though frail after several strokes and unable to say more than a few words towards the end, she kept her gentle laugh and radiant smile and her faith in mankind. A rose till the end, she was a joy to the staff and residents, and brought a constant stream of visitors (more like pilgrims) from her natural and extended family, now scattered all over the world.
Sonja lived her ideals, creating a matriarchal island of socialism and peace wherever she went, a legacy as precious and as revolutionary as any theoretical text or political movement, and much more robust for those whose lives she touched.