A resident of Tapestry at Arbutus Walk, Ilona Wagner can best be described as a spunky little fireball with a quick wit and a genuine love for good conversation. She describes herself as very social and easy to talk with. Ilona enjoys walking “with a purpose” and spending time with her 14-year-old grandson, her daughter and son-in law. She enjoys dressing well and looking put together. Ilona jokes that when she dies, she better have her eyebrows done!
Ilona is health-conscious consuming a finger-nail amount of raw garlic and 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar daily. She is often found working out in the Tapestry gym trying to reach the elusive 10,000 steps per day.
Photos of a young Ilona look like a ravishing Rita Hayworth appearing not to have a care in the world. But behind her lovely smile and gorgeous starlet appeal, is the image of a strong, independent woman who has lived on three continents and overcome challenging circumstances to build a joyful and fulfilling life.
Born in Germany, Ilona remembers the strict confines of life as a teenager during World War Two. She recalls enduring frightening bombing raids while hiding in the basement of her home. Ilona also remembers listening in secret to the British Broadcasting Corporation for news about the war’s progress. At the time, the simple act of listening to the BBC was against the law and if she or her family were discovered by the Nazis, there would be serious repercussions too terrible to even imagine. Food was in short supply and Ilona longed for the sweeter tastes of life. “I would go to a local bakery and buy cookie crumbs for 10 cents,” she says. “I just wanted to have a little bit of a sweet taste.”
While experiencing the deprivations of war, Ilona missed many things, but possibly the most poignant, was the carefree life of simply being a teenager and what we now look back on as trifling matters that to a young woman were so important. “We would get in trouble for wearing nail polish, make-up or curls in our hair,” says Ilona, who just longed to enjoy the everyday pleasures of teenage primping.
At 16 years of age, Ilona was able to leave Germany and the challenges of living in a war-torn country by being selected for a professional ballet company, which took 24 German dancers to live in Spain. “The selection process involved looking solely at the dancer’s legs with their top half-covered,” says Ilona, thinking back on the oddness of the situation. “Luckily I had skinny legs, and that’s all that mattered for ballet dancers.” Although thrilled to pursue her passion and thankful to leave Germany, Ilona left behind her beloved mother and her dear father, who was a prisoner of war at the time.
Ilona spent the next 12 years in Spain, living on her own and dancing in a professional company. “I loved my time in Spain,” says Ilona, who became fluent in Spanish.
Many years later, her mother moved to Canada and convinced Ilona to join her in a new country where they could reunite their family life. So, at 28 years of age, Ilona once again packed up her life and dreams for the future and travelled to Canada, not knowing what she would find and leaving behind the dance career that she had worked so hard to establish.
In Canada, Ilona found true joy and contentment, meeting her husband and starting a family. It was truly a new beginning and the opportunity to realize dreams that her younger self may have never imagined while sitting in her basement home listening for the overhead bombs landing in the city.
When asked what her many varied and unique experiences have taught her, Ilona doesn’t hesitate to share. “My years have taught me to be very independent and to seize opportunities that become available to better your life.”
Ilona’s experiences living on three continents, letting go of the past and embracing the future, remind all of us that while we can’t change world circumstances, we can adjust our mindset and continue to look for opportunities that we may never have realized could exist.