Quarantine connections that endure

How a silver samovar found its way home


Award-winning author Nancy Silcox (BA’74, MA’76) has written a book for the Rosen and Lackner families, who want to share the story of the courage, tenacity and ambition of the Israel Rosen family who escaped the pogroms of early 20th century Russia to start a new life in Kitchener-Waterloo.

Coming during the COVID-19 lockdown, the timing of a message about another quarantine was ironic. “I have a story that must be told,” my caller told me. “It’s about a samovar – a silver Russian tea pot – but it’s really about human values, saving a life and the lifelong connections that come from that.”

The message continued: “A Jewish immigrant, escaping the Russian pogroms, arrives in Kitchener-Waterloo in 1927. She contracts diphtheria and is close to death when a local doctor defies the quarantine sign on her door to save her life.” 

Now thoroughly involved in the tale, I seek more.

“The woman’s family can’t pay the doctor so they give him their only valuable: a priceless samovar brought from Russia when they escaped to Canada.”

Almost as an afterthought, she adds: “I’m told you write about such stories and I want you to take on this one.

Isolated for months, I am intrigued and wonder how the connections we forge during suffering and loss endure.

Going well beyond the Hippocratic oath was Kitchener physician Dr. Harry M. Lackner’s standard.

So, when a call came in 1927 to attend Rose Rosen, a newly arrived Russian Jewish immigrant who’d been diagnosed with the deadly diphtheria bacteria, Dr. Lackner knew that medical skills alone would not save the young wife and mother.

“When Dr. Harry walked into that house to see Rose, he could have been signing his own death warrant,” says his grandson Jim Lackner, of Waterloo.

This healer also used psychology, says Jim’s wife, Heather Lackner.

“The first thing he’d say to a patient was: ‘You’re looking better today; I think you’ll be feeling better too.’ ”

A precious possession given in gratitude

silver samovarRose Rosen recovered thanks to Dr. Lackner. Without money to pay the good doctor, Rose’s husband, Israel, gave him the family’s most precious possession. It was a silver samovar – a Russian tea urn – hidden in their few belongings.

Accepted with humility, Dr. Lackner treasured the luminous samovar, which had pride of place in his family home.

The fortunes of both families grew as the years passed. Israel Rosen and his sons, Jack and Percy, built a thriving recycling business in Kitchener. Rosen and Sons became the foundation of the region’s blue-box system. In years to come, Jack Rosen’s family would establish an annual award at the University of Waterloo: the Jack Rosen Memorial Award for Environmental Innovation.

The Lackner name remained an honoured one as well. Dr. Lackner’s son Allister became the third generation of Lackner doctors to serve the community. In 1957, as progressive minds contemplated the founding of the University of Waterloo, Dr. Allister Lackner allowed his name to stand on the inaugural Board of Directors.

And what of the noble, silver samovar? Gifted by a grateful immigrant to a caring doctor for life-saving service, the treasure passed to future Lackner generations and faded into family history.

Samovar brings families together again

In 2012, financial advisor Jim Lackner was surprised by a question from a client seeking succession advice: “I see your name is Lackner,” observed the elderly woman. “Would you perhaps know anything about a silver samovar?”

Startled, he ventured: “Uh ... yes we have one in our home. It belonged to my grandfather Dr. Harry Lackner; then passed to my father Dr. Allister Lackner, before it came to me.”

And so, the life-giving connection between two families over 90 years past had been reforged. At a joyous reunion between the two families, Lackner and Rosen, the silver samovar was returned to its roots.

Israel and Rose Rosen’s granddaughter Judy Rosen says, “It was beshert. It was meant to be.”