As a documentary filmmaker, what more could you ask for? Anna Kaljas’ life is a readymade story of an unlikely angel.
In my hometown of Kitchener, a medium sized city in Ontario, Canada, people remember Anna Kaljas as a woman who dedicated her life to helping people on the fringes of society – the addicted, the mentally ill, the homeless.
From the 1950s until the early 2000s, she sheltered, fed and cared for them. She fought their battles with politicians and bureaucrats. Anna advocated for a dignified life for those who circumstance shunted aside.
She appeared on television talk shows, buttonholed newspaper reporters, became the subject of a stage play and a documentary film on CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster.
In recognition of her work, she received the Order of Canada in 1983.
The hostel she created, in a cluster of houses near the corner of Simeon and Frederick Streets, not only became her home, but also became home to those she lovingly called her “goof balls”. In turn, they called her “momma”.
When work at the hostel became too hard as Anna aged, her daughter-in-law, Maggie Kaljas took over. Now she and Anna’s granddaughter Stephanie, who grew up at the hostel, work side by side in those same houses where the hostel was founded. It’s now called The Kaljas Home for Supportive Living.
Anna died in 2010 at the age of 98.
Along with Anna’s caring spirit came a disdain for rules-for-rules’ sake. She constantly questioned authority and spoke out fearlessly when she disagreed. Anna was an innovative problem solver, unwilling to give up until she found a solution. She was a dedicated wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother who gathered her family and friends around her – especially at Christmastime.
Anna was also an animal lover. With her “soul mate” and “significant other” Eric Rosar, at one time they kept a menagerie of exotic pets including monkeys and snakes, for which she became known as the “Snake Lady”. These pets were “rescues” in 2021 vernacular, animals who were no longer wanted or tolerated. Anna and Eric took them in and cared for them … loved them.
This alone is a story truly worth the telling, but there’s more … much more.
Anna’s life and legacy stretches over a century. From her birth in an Estonian village in January 1912 to her arrival at Pier 21 in Halifax in November 1950 to the continuation of her life’s work by her family.
- As a child she visited the sick in her Great Aunt Anna’s medical clinic in Parnu, Estonia – talking and singing to them.
- As a high school student she tutored children with learning disabilities.
- As a young woman and teacher in 1941 she evaded arrest (or worse) by the Russian occupiers of her homeland by hiding out in a wood pile for a month.
- And in 1944 when it became clear the Soviet Union would occupy Estonia once again, she fled with her family to a refugees camp in Augsburg, Germany.
Anna lived an extraordinary life before arriving in Canada at age 38.
I’ve given this latest documentary film project the working title: “Anna Kaljas: The Untold Story”. Over the coming months, I will dig deeper into Anna’s life, interviewing family and friends here in Waterloo Region. I’ve also connected with a videographer in Tartu, Estonia who will helping produce the Estonian segments of the film that will document Anna’s beginnings and connections to Estonia that have endured over time.
Released is planned for June 2022.
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