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Noemi Matthews Fooks

A larger-than-life aunt who revelled in life's twists and turns. Born July 26, 1909, in Libau (now Liepaja), Latvia, died Aug. 29, 2012, in Melbourne, Australia, from natural causes, aged 103.

Noemi Matusevics (Matthews) was the youngest in a Russian family of limited means but unlimited energy and ideals. She spoke Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew at home, German at school, and acquired further languages (English, French, Japanese) in subsequent years. Her father, a teacher, directed local theatre and choral groups.

Turmoil unfolded around her – the First World War, German occupation, Russian Civil War, virulent anti-Semitism – but Noemi experienced adversity as adventure, and described her childhood as strangely idyllic.

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Her tuberculosis diagnosis in 1929 became an opportunity to see the world. She was treated at an Italian sanitarium, courtesy of a Jewish welfare organization. There she met young adults from all over Europe, including Ernest Fuchs, the Viennese architect she married.

In 1935, after what she called "a five-day tryst in Prague" with Ernest, Noemi joined her family, who had settled in Canada. Ernest escaped from Austria in 1938 only to find that most countries had closed their doors to Jewish refugees. Australia's remained open for a fee, so he travelled to Montreal, married Noemi, and they departed for Australia.

The Second World War erupted a few months later, and Ernest was declared an enemy alien. Eventually, his talent and advanced degrees resulted in professional success as an architect and artist. Equally talented and resourceful, Noemi found employment as a bookkeeper, later arranging and promoting Ernest's art exhibitions.

Noemi supported women's rights, gay rights and refugee rights before those causes were fashionable, or even mentionable. To preserve her cherished freedom of thought and action, she chose not to have children. She socialized with people who shared her liberal views and befriended aspiring artists, providing encouragement and financial assistance. But she reserved her most ardent support for Israel as a haven for Jews.

Noemi and Ernest travelled widely, to aboriginal Australian areas and to Asia, Africa and South America to view indigenous architecture and artifacts. On a trip to the southern United States in the early 1960s, Noemi was outraged by the whites-only signs, registering her protest by using blacks-only benches and fountains. She shared those memories as she tearfully watched President Barack Obama's inauguration on television in 2009.

I accompanied Noemi on a trip to Papua New Guinea, where we travelled by dugout canoe. I'd extract my aching body each day after hours of immobilization, but Noemi unfurled herself from full lotus position, commenting, "That was comfortable, wasn't it?" Perhaps her daily yoga practice and years of camping and skiing contributed to her pretzel-like flexibility.

Noemi had two main regrets. One was the distance separating her from her Canadian relatives. The other was the need to alter the spelling of her surname (Fuchs to Fooks) to end the embarrassing mispronunciations.

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Sandra Trehub Matthews is Noemi's niece.

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