George Herczeg was born in the small mountain village of Nagyvisnyo, Hungary, on Oct. 26, 1925, to Rose and Jeno Herczeg. George was a mischievous, fun-loving child, and he and his younger sisters, Klara and Lillian, enjoyed a privileged childhood; the Herczegs owned a coal mine and a lumber mill, and were a generous and respected family at the centre of Jewish life in the village.
In 1944, word spread that the Nazis were moving toward Hungary. Jeno prepared a hiding place in the mountains for his family, but they never made it. Jeno and George were taken one night and wound up in a forced labour camp near the Austrian-Hungarian border. Rose and the girls were brought to Auschwitz, where Rose died. George watched his father die of typhoid three weeks before their camp was liberated.
Just 19, George made his way back to the village and reunited with his sisters. He began rebuilding the family business, but when Soviet Communists took it over, George escaped over the border to a refugee camp in Austria. With his talent for getting things done, he quickly found sponsors for himself and his sisters to go to Canada. They sailed to Halifax in 1949. To pay for his passage, George worked on a farm in Listowel, Ont., where he fine-tuned his English by talking with the farmer’s son.
George later headed to Toronto and got a job as a dishwasher at Fran’s Restaurant. His hard work and huge smile earned him several promotions. When offered work as a delivery driver, George fibbed about having a car and a licence. With borrowed money and a bottle of perfume (as enticement for the woman at the licensing office), he had both within two days. Always ready with a joke, George befriended some realtors from an office next door who often lunched at Fran’s. They invited him to work for them and George accepted, launching a career that would span decades.
George first set eyes on Agnes Jellinek at a ball in early 1962. Newly arrived from Budapest, Agnes was 14 years his junior, but George’s attention was fixed: “He told me he’d waited for me all that time,” says Agnes. They were married by October, and daughter Anita was born in 1965; Ron followed in 1966.
George was “very devoted to family,” says Anita. He’d be cheering “on the sidelines of every single sporting event,” says Ron, and thought nothing of hopping on a plane to surprise Anita by showing up in the audience of her school play while she was studying in Israel. George was also generous with everyone he came across, buying dinner for his Pilates instructor and her family, helping new business owners make their payroll, or supporting several charities in his beloved Israel and Canada.
As his family grew, George’s real estate business flourished. While others were seduced by the suburbs, George had a vision of a city with a livable downtown, and helped shape several neighbourhoods in Toronto. In a 1977 Toronto Life profile, he was described as having “stumbled among the roomies and rubbies of Cabbagetown,” and having “the guts to put his money in.” He eventually moved into commercial real estate, and at one time owned several prominent buildings downtown. The recession in the early ’90s hit George’s portfolio hard, but he went back to where he’d begun, and started a new company developing residential communities in the city. Ron joined the firm in 2000, though George never really slowed down; even as he entered his 80s, he was still very active in the business.
George exercised “every day of his life,” says Agnes, playing tennis or going to the gym. He was “terrified of water in his early years,” says Anita, but got his mind set on learning to swim in his 40s, and signed up for a learn-to-row program in his 60s. George and Agnes bought a cottage near Gravenhurst, Ont., in the ’80s, and George was a fixture on the lake out on his scull, and was thrilled to be able to enjoy the water with his six grandkids who adored their “Saba.”
After spending the Canada Day long weekend with Anita, Ron and the kids, George and Agnes went back up to the cottage for a weekend on their own. On the afternoon of July 10, George headed to the water to do his exercises. When he didn’t return, Agnes began to worry, and couldn’t find him when she went looking. Emergency crews found George in the water near a dock. It was later determined he’d gone into cardiac arrest, collapsed into the water and drowned. George was 84.