March 25, 1985 12:00 PM

On April 4, 1975, as North Vietnamese troops advanced on Saigon, an Air Force C-5A cargo jet took off from the city carrying some 240 orphans, their escorts and military personnel. Minutes after takeoff a rear door blew off and the plane crashed. Naomi Bronstein, a Canadian adoption volunteer worker who knew many of those on board, raced through the streets to the wreckage, arriving in time to help evacuate the 100 survivors. Bronstein, whose anguish was captured in a photo flashed around the world (page 78), particularly recalls the sight of a decapitated serviceman and of an infant whose arm fell off when the child was lifted. “Until then I hadn’t been afraid of being in Vietnam. I thought, ‘If you’re doing good and you’re apolitical, who is going to hurt you?’ But the plane crash blew away those reassurances.”

The horror changed Bronstein (“One does not become insane, but one will never be the same person again”), but in one respect she has remained what she was at the time: a remarkable humanitarian. In 1970 she and her husband, Herb, now a Montreal textile exporter, adopted three children, even though they already had three of their own. In short order, Tarn-Lien, an Amerasian girl; Tran, a Vietnamese boy; and Shanin, a half-black, half-white Canadian girl, moved in. Eager to do more, Naomi began flying to Vietnam, at her own expense, to arrange adoptions for others and to set up Canada House, an orphanage in Cambodia. By war’s end she had helped bring 650 abandoned children to the West. The Bronsteins also had adopted three more Southeast Asian boys: Sanh, Hong and Dov (the last had been found under the body of his mother, murdered by the Khmer Rouge) and an Ecuadorian girl, Pilar. They also had two more children of their own.

Nowadays Herb, 43, Naomi, 39, and 11 of their very assorted children, ages 10 to 20, share a 15-room brick house in the Ottawa suburbs. (The 12th, Hong, 25, works as a chef and no longer lives at home.) Naomi plays down the family’s multiracial mix. When the uninitiated stare in confusion, she simply explains that “the children all have different fathers,” and happily watches jaws drop farther. When outsiders behave more rudely, “We deal with them like Gandhi—nonviolently,” says Bronstein. “Once we went through a period of several days when kids threw rock-hard snowballs at us on the street. We did not fight back—we simply ignored them and they stopped.”

Bronstein makes the point that because four of her adopted children arrived as babies, and because virtually nothing is known about their parents, their strongest identity is as Canadians. “It’s a lot easier to explain to the children from a war situation why they have no parents than to our Shanin, who is the natural daughter of a white man and a Canadian black.” Concerning the Asian children’s cultural heritage, says Bronstein, “We do not observe holidays from their countries, but since I travel frequently to Korea and Thailand, we’re very conscious of Asia. We eat many Asian dishes at home—I’m the only one who can’t use chopsticks! The children are Canadian, but something of their past endures in them. Teachers have pointed out that they have more important things on their minds than designer jeans.

“They do wonder about their past,” she continues. “Their friends at school will ask them about it. Sanh once said he saw his mother and father shot. I know that is not so, because he was found in the Mekong Delta when he was 6 weeks old. Sometimes they dream up a past just to have one.”

Bronstein has continued to focus her energies on the present. In 1976 the family moved to Guatemala, where Naomi established Casa Canada, which provided medical care for poor children in Guatemala City. When the couple moved back to Canada in 1981, Naomi set up Heal the Children in Ottawa, a nonprofit group that brings critically ill children from various countries to Canada for treatment. (The cost is paid for by donations, defusing an otherwise touchy issue in a country where medical care is a public expense.) Last year, in recognition of her achievements, her government presented Bronstein with its highest civilian honor, the Order of Canada. In accepting the award—with then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looking on—she explained the simple principle that, coupled with an exceptional willingness to act, has guided her work and life: “I just can’t sit on my backside and allow innocent children to suffer. In Vietnam and since, I’ve always asked myself, ‘What would I do if it was the life of one of my own children at stake?’ And I have to think of all children the same way. People say that what we do is a drop in the bucket, but my answer is that if everyone helped one child we could go a long way to helping the 41 million children in the world who need medical attention.”

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