During the Yom Kippur War, the author had to learn how to fire an Uzi and other weapons. (photo by Victor Neuman)
In this eight-part series, the author recounts his life in Israel around the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The events and people described are real but, for reasons of privacy, the names are fictitious.
Part 4: Training Day
We were two or three days into the war and the news was chilling. Egypt had overrun the defences along the Suez Canal and was pouring into the Sinai. Syria had breached the outposts in the Golan and was within striking distance of Tiberias. We were in shock to think that, a scant six years after the pummeling of the Six Day War, these countries were able to go to war again.
I think the nation was in disbelief as well. Soldiers, in large numbers, had been sent home to observe Yom Kippur with their families. The government had effectively demobilized much of the Israel Defence Forces prior to the attack. The trust in Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir would never be the same.
At first, the response of the average Israeli was cocky. Tamar thought the attack was stupid. “We beat them in six days … now it will be five.” Then, as the news came in, the optimism vanished. Kibbutzniks came around to ask me if I was tuned in to the BBC. They didn’t trust the government to give them the truth of what was going on. It was wartime after all and, at such times, every involved government lies through its teeth. There was not much to listen to, though. Everything was so sudden that the international news services hadn’t caught up with what was going on.
Then Gidon came by. The next day, I was to receive weapons training along with three other volunteers who had just enough Hebrew to say “Halt! Who goes there? Who are you? Stop or I’ll shoot.” The basic wartime jabber.
I don’t recall ever being asked if I wanted to join the fight. As a candidate for kibbutz membership, it was a given that I would step up and do anything required to help. And so it was. This was now my home and these people were my family. Not doing everything I could was never a question in my mind. But, truth be told, to me the fighting seemed far away and unreal and I had no real sense of personal danger. More oblivious than brave might be the way to put it.
Next day, the four of us and Gidon met in a field behind the kibbutz. Gidon had set up a target that consisted of a plywood board on two metal rods that were banged into the ground. There was a rise behind the target to stop the bullets from straying. On a table to the side, he had weapons. There was an Uzi, a bipod sniper rifle and three Second World War relics. Gidon apologized for the older guns, saying they were there just to give us the hang of things and he expected we would have better weapons soon. But, first, he addressed us with a sombre face.
“As you know, our kibbutz is located on Wadi Ara. This valley connects the West Bank territories to the coast of Israel. The military tells me that, if Jordan enters the war and opens a third front, there is a good chance they will come right down Wadi Ara and we are the first Israeli settlement past the West Bank. If that happens, I am told, we have to hold out for six days without help from the army. They are fully occupied in the Golan and the Sinai and will not be able to help us until they have solved their problems over there. Are we understanding?”
“We are,” we all said, a little unenthusiastically. I was thinking, “Worst pep talk ever, Gidon!”
Then came the practice shooting and I learned stuff that no graduate in English literature needed to know.
When sniping with a rifle, lie flat with elbows well anchored. The right leg should be extended back in a line with your rifle and your body to absorb the shock of the recoil. Your left leg is splayed out to the left for stability. Don’t breathe, take aim and squeeze the trigger. Our accuracy was rough, then better. But my main recollection is the kick of those rifles. We were basically lying in fine dirt and, when the round went off, the force pushed our whole body two or three inches backwards. The movement after every shot caused a small cloud of dust to rise up around us and we had to wait a moment before we could see well enough to shoot again.
An Uzi has 32 rounds in its clip. The sliding switch by your thumb has three positions: safety, single shot and automatic. Gidon told us to forget about the first two positions. In battle, you had to be quick. You had to be in automatic mode and learn to shoot from the hip without aiming. The dumbest thing you could do was to hold the trigger down. Doing that would empty your clip in three seconds and the recoil would twist your arm and body up and to the right. Gidon taught us that we had to squeeze off short bursts of around three rounds, see where they hit and adjust accordingly.
Our shooting with the Uzi was fairly awful. Shooting from the hip is really tricky. There were puffs of dust halfway up the hill behind the target, in the dirt just metres in front of us, way off to the left and right of where we were trying to aim. I thought the safest place to be on that range was standing in front of the target.
I had a little better luck than the rest. High with the first burst. Low with the second. Then I adjusted again and hit the target with a burst that knocked the whole thing over.
That evening, Gidon marched us into one of the bomb shelters and gave us all our assigned Uzis. Then he showed us how to disassemble them. We had to disassemble and reassemble our Uzis over and over again until we could do it in a matter of seconds. We were feeling pretty good about ourselves until suddenly Gidon turned off the lights and we had to do the whole thing in pitch dark. A bomb shelter, of course, has no windows. So, when the lights are out, you might as well be spelunking in the world’s deepest cave. We eventually learned to do it using only our sense of touch.
Training ended and so did my date nights in the banana fields with Tamar. She was needed elsewhere and I was approved for carrying a weapon, so I was on my own for going out to the fields at night and dealing with the irrigation. A scary business. Alone in the dark, banana trees making the fields look like a jungle, shadows everywhere and the possibility of infiltrators from the West Bank. I felt like I never breathed until I was in the Willis, job done and heading back to the kibbutz. Back at the kibbutz, I signed in to prove I was still alive. Sometimes I even looked at my own signature to make sure.
When I returned to our flat at 2 a.m., Tamar would be fast asleep. In another world, my girlfriend would leap out of bed and throw her arms around me, overjoyed at my safe return. Tamar would half-waken and say, “Shalom, shalom sweetie,” then go back to sleep. And I understood. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about me. This was Israel. The Yom Kippur War was not their first rodeo.
Victor Neumanwas born in the former Soviet Union, where his family sought refuge after fleeing Poland during the Second World War. The family immigrated to Canada in 1948 and Neuman grew up in the Greater Vancouver area. He attended the University of British Columbia and obtained a BA and MA with majors in English literature and creative writing. Between 1968 and 1974, he made two trips to Israel, one of which landed him on a kibbutz at the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Upon his return to Canada, he studied Survey Technology at BCIT and went on to a career of designing highways for the Province of British Columbia. When he retired, he reconnected with his roots in creative writing and began writing scripts for Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir concerts and articles for the Jewish Independent. Neuman and his wife, Tammy, live in southeast Vancouver and enjoy the company of friends, their extensive extended family and their four sons.
Tamar on a visit to Canada. (photo from Victor Neuman)
In this eight-part series, the author recounts his life in Israel around the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The events and people described are real but, for reasons of privacy, the names are fictitious.
Part 3: Dating, Israeli Style
After our kibbutz commander, Gidon, had given everybody their marching orders, Tamar and I went back to her flat and started hanging black plastic on all the windows. It was late afternoon. Darkness was on its way and it was going to be our first night of wartime blackout. I didn’t bother hanging plastic in the shack I was originally assigned. Days before the war, Tamar and I had begun living together at her place. I got the girl of my dreams and a room upgrade all at the same time.
As a kibbutz volunteer from abroad, I was on the lowest rung of the accommodation ladder. All such volunteers were given a room of their own but it was in a sreef (shack), which was no more than an old wooden cabin left over from the first days of the kibbutz. These were the slap-dash shacks occupied by the kibbutz founders, intended for shelter only until the kibbutz was able to get on its feet. Once crops were sold and the money was flowing, housing was built out of concrete and tile. Who got into the new units was purely a matter of seniority. You could hold the highest position in the hierarchy (kibbutz secretary) but you’d still live in a shack until it was your turn to upgrade.
Our kibbutz had around 250 members and all the members had newer homes that were on the small side, but clean, solid and agreeable. None of them had a tub. Too much of a waste of water and space. Instead, there were narrow-stall kerosene showers for those who preferred not to use the communal hot showers down the path. Tamar had one of these. You would start a kerosene fire at the base of the water tank and go away for 20 minutes while your water heated. Then you’d come back, turn off the kerosene and enjoy your three minutes of hot water. If you wanted to push it, you could leave the kerosene burner on while you showered and squeeze a couple of more minutes out of the hot water supply. There was a down side to that, however. Though the burner was screened from the shower water, things could go wrong. During one of my showers, water got into my kerosene burner. It overflowed and I had the disconcerting experience of washing my upper end while flaming drops of kerosene landed around my feet.
The evening we were hanging the black plastic, Lev, the banana boss, came by to tell me he was being called up to the war and I would have to do everything I could to maintain irrigation on my own. The rains hadn’t come yet and the bananas wouldn’t recover if an irrigation cycle was skipped. He was going to try to get an exemption from the army on the grounds that the all-important banana crop stood in danger of being devastated in his absence, but he was not sure if it would come through. It wasn’t a cop-out. It was true. Lev was a banana guru and he was single-handedly responsible for the establishment of the kibbutz’s most important cash crop. Without him, there was nobody to be the banana whisperer and make the damn things thrive the way he did. I could do irrigation on my own but, for the rest, I always looked to Lev for direction.
Irrigation was done around the clock. With several fields to supply and only enough pressure for one field at a time, I would have to be changing taps, cleaning filters and dumping fertilizer at various times of day and night. I would have to catnap between sessions and try to be awake enough to stay on top of the schedule. I told Lev I could do it and he went away satisfied. Tamar looked at me as if I was crazy to agree but she was an Israeli, she understood. Then Lev came back and told me I could use the Willis and I was much happier. The jeep would get me to the fields a lot faster than the tractor. More time to rest. More time to sleep.
But not that night. The war was edging closer to our ordinary lives and, all night long, vehicles of all kinds were coming and going. There was the noise of a truck pulling up, the sound of boots pounding past our window, loud voices giving orders, the truck driving away, then silence. The same sequence repeated over and over again.
By morning, the kibbutz wasn’t the same place. All our trucks and buses were gone and so were all the young men and some of the young women. Why not all the young women? Because, while the Israeli army gave weapons training to both sexes, there were still some traditional attitudes toward women in war. The women all knew how to handle weapons but, somehow, when push came to shove, they never ended up on the front lines or in tanks or in planes. In war – at that point in time – their duties were confined to nursing, communications and secretarial work. Most of the young women reservists, like Tamar, remained on the kibbutz, along with the older folks. With them was a ragtag bunch of hapless tourist-volunteers wishing they had picked another time to experience life on a kibbutz. And then there was me: a volunteer worker who had become a candidate for kibbutz membership. And now we were running the show.
Gidon dropped by to talk to me.
“Are you going to the fields after dark?” he asked.
“Yes, I have to change the taps.”
“Two things then. First thing. You have to sign out when you leave and sign in when you come back. Second thing. You have no weapons training, so you have to take Tamar with you as your guard. Are we understanding?”
Conversations with Gidon were never anything but straight to the point and businesslike. He never had much of a sense of humour at the best of times and he now had the safety of 250 people in his hands. He felt the weight of it deeply and I wasn’t about to make his job any harder.
The next night, Tamar and I signed ourselves out and headed for the fields. I drove. She sat next to me with her Uzi resting on her lap. When I got to the irrigation pipes, I got out and, in the glare of the jeep’s headlights, I cleaned the filters, dumped sacks of fertilizer into the tanks, reset the flow timers and hopped back into the vehicle. All the while, Tamar kept her weapon at the ready and scanned the shadows of the banana trees for trouble.
There was a beautiful full moon out. A lover’s moon, just for the three of us. A guy, a gal and her Uzi. This was dating, Israeli style.
Victor Neuman was born in the former Soviet Union, where his family sought refuge after fleeing Poland during the Second World War. The family immigrated to Canada in 1948 and Neuman grew up in the Greater Vancouver area. He attended the University of British Columbia and obtained a BA and MA with majors in English literature and creative writing. Between 1968 and 1974, he made two trips to Israel, one of which landed him on a kibbutz at the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Upon his return to Canada, he studied Survey Technology at BCIT and went on to a career of designing highways for the Province of British Columbia. When he retired, he reconnected with his roots in creative writing and began writing scripts for Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir concerts and articles for the Jewish Independent. Neuman and his wife, Tammy, live in southeast Vancouver and enjoy the company of friends, their extensive extended family and their four sons.
The author took refuge from the perils of the streets by joining a kibbutz as a volunteer. (photo from Victor Neuman)
In this eight-part series, the author recounts his life in Israel around the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The events and people described are real but, for reasons of privacy, the names are fictitious.
Before the War: Part 1
“The bomb shelters can no longer be used as discotheques.”
It was Oct. 6, 1973. Gidon, our kibbutz commander, was announcing that we were under attack and giving us our preparation instructions, including the immediate clearing out of bomb shelters for use in the event of air attack.
Syria had overrun the Golan defences and Egypt was pouring into the Sinai. I was in disbelief over the whole thing. Last year, I was writing my master’s thesis, analyzing Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Now I could be writing something more like Warfare: A Tourist’s Guide. How had my life gone so abruptly from pondering literature to pondering existence?
There’s an expression Israelis use: “I could sell you.” In other words, you are ripe for the plucking and I could easily take advantage.
When I arrived in Israel on my first trip, in 1968, I was totally pluckable. No knowledge of Hebrew. No knowledge of the country. No tour group guide to protect me. All I had was my curiosity about this country that had recently achieved a stunning victory in the Six Day War. I think that event had caught the attention of many like myself, and there was a huge influx of tourists and volunteers to visit this remarkable place.
I was bought and sold in the streets of Tel Aviv. Simply buying a prickly pear fruit was fraught with fraud.
“One-and-a-half lira please,” the street vendor told me. I paid him and started walking away. Then an Israeli stepped up to the stand.
“One-and-a-half lira please.”
This time, the buyer was having none of it. “Yes, one-and-a-half lira, but you’ll take 75 grush.” Leaving no opportunity for a response, he paid what he wanted and took the fruit. I had just paid double for the same thing.
At another time, I tried to be smarter. I needed to change my German marks into Israeli money. I was aware there was a black market for foreign currency and the street usually offered better rates than the bank. It didn’t take long to find a dealer. They can smell a tourist a mile away. One came up to me asking if I had foreign currency to change. I asked him what rate he was offering for German marks. He gave me a number that sounded pretty good and we agreed on a transaction. I handed over the Deutschmarks – he could have bolted but he was an older guy and I figured I could outrun him if I had to.
He took my money and began counting out Israeli currency. I thought there was something odd about the way he wrapped the money around one finger as he flipped the bills and counted them out to me. Later, when he was long gone, I recounted what he gave me and found I was several bills short. He had flipped the bills so that he had ended up counting the same ones twice and giving me less than we had agreed upon. In the end, I was “sold” again and had even less than I would have gotten at the bank.
You never really lose at these things because they always come with lessons. In most cases, you win some and you learn some. The only time you really lose is when misfortune befalls you and you’re sleeping through class.
I took refuge from the perils of the streets by joining a kibbutz near Haifa as a volunteer. Kibbutzim are basically communal societies where all wealth, housing and equipment are owned by the collective. Material perks like TVs or stereos are doled out on a seniority basis. No one – even those running the place – has any real power over others or more wealth than others. The top jobs are considered something to be avoided. You have all the responsibility and headaches of administering the mess without any particular rewards. In my experience, a kibbutznik generally takes the top job when it is their turn in the rotation and they simply can’t get out of it. Socialism in its purest form and no commissar overlords.
Kibbutz life was good. Nobody tried to rob me and, in return for picking grapefruit and oranges, I got accommodation, food, Hebrew lessons and free tours of the countryside. Sometimes, on my days off, I went further afield.
One of those forays was particularly memorable. My girlfriend, Suzanne, was a kibbutz volunteer from Paris and together we decided to attend Independence Day celebrations in Jerusalem. We booked a hotel room in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City and thought about our plans for the evening. The debated options were hanging out in the room or going to the cinema to take in a movie that was a modern American take on Romeo and Juliet. Romance won the day and we left for the movie. The movie was mediocre. Things back at the hotel were less so.
When we got back, we were met by police and the hotel manager. The manager apologized for the inconvenience but we were being moved to another room and could we please collect our luggage from the original room. The sight of our old room was amazing. It was all sparkly. The windows were gone and every horizontal surface was covered with dust. Someone had set off a bomb in the alleyway outside our room.
You might think that a bomb blast would send great shards of glass flying across the room. A blast close by doesn’t. Instead, it pulverizes the glass into a fine dust and that’s what is blown across the room. Objectively speaking, the room looked beautiful – like a fantasy bed chamber decorated in fine diamonds. In reality, we were shaken, as we carefully swept the glass from our bags and began hauling them to our new room on the opposite side of the hotel. It was nice. It had windows.
And the movie? We upgraded its rating from mediocre to fantastic.
Suzanne and I had different travel plans and, after Jerusalem, she traveled to be with friends on a kibbutz north of Hadera. I was concerned that I didn’t have enough money to fly home if the need arose. I was also learning very little Hebrew from the kibbutz we had been on and it was getting annoying needing Suzanne to translate for me wherever we went. When we parted, I headed south to find work in Arad, hoping I could make some serious money and learn Hebrew by some kind of immersion method.
The immersion was profound. I was plunked down in an environment where nobody spoke English. The Arad employment office put me on a crew building a pipeline that would take Dead Sea chemicals to a refinery in Tishlovet. The crew consisted of central European Jews, Israeli Arabs, some local Bedouins and an assortment of thieves, bastards and criminals who were probably one step ahead of an Israeli SWAT team. One of them stole my camera (a beautiful Zeiss Ikon that my father had gifted me) and an assortment of items from all of the crew. We were put up in a motel and, the day the thief quit, he still had the key to the motel room. He made the most of it.
On the job, I was low man in the pecking order. I had to fetch tools when yelled at and woe to me if I didn’t understand what was being asked for. With this bunch, everybody knew only enough English to swear, and little more. I was sworn at in English, Arabic, Romanian, Hungarian, Polish and Hebrew. It was somewhat typical of what I heard in other parts of the country. Israelis have a knack for adopting the choicest insults from all the languages they encounter. Understandable when you come down to it. Spoken Hebrew was basically invented by linguistic scholars around the time the state was created. They had the difficult task of updating ancient Hebrew to cover things like helicopters and toaster ovens. They didn’t spend a lot of time thinking up swear words. Israelis had to improvise and they did a fine job of it.
The upshot was that, in two months on the pipeline, I learned more Hebrew than in a year of kibbutz Hebrew school. I was getting pretty fluent and I had a good ear for the accent. I began to find that, when I spoke, I was often being mistaken for a Sabra. And, as a bonus, I could swear like a sailor.
* * *
Living in Arad, I now had a decent amount of money rolling in from my work. I decided to take an offer from a guy I’ll call Bad Lennie. Bad Lennie was a South African Jew who had immigrated to Israel with his brother, Good Lennie. Good Lennie lived in one part of Arad with his girlfriend; Bad Lennie had his own apartment. When the two of them were in the same room, I noticed Good Lennie seemed somewhat embarrassed around his brother and often cringed when his brother rambled on about his life in South Africa. In time, I found out that he had good reason to be embarrassed.
Bad Lennie was between jobs and needed money, so he offered me a chance to share his flat if I split the rent with him. I couldn’t pass up the chance to leave behind the den of thieves that were my pipeline crew, so I moved in with Bad Lennie.
Bad Lennie had some disturbing fantasies. He had undergone some military training in his home country. He had a lot of stories to tell me about his time in the military. According to him, he was a top-notch officer in command of hundreds of blacks. His favourite story was of the day one of his men questioned his authority in front of the others. Bad Lennie calmly walked up to the offending black soldier and put a bullet in his head. After that he never had trouble with the others. He told me many stories with pretty much the same theme. The den of thieves was starting to look better to me.
Bad Lennie had a revolver. I found out about it one day when he had this huge grin on his face and told me to feel under his arm. I wanted to pass but he grabbed my hand and stuck it in his armpit.
“What do you think? It’s a gun!” What did I really think? He was wearing a holstered gun under a turtleneck sweater! Not a bad James Bond look except that his turtleneck quick draw was going to need some work. I knew he was an idiot but now I was beginning to wonder how dangerous a one.
Bad Lennie pestered me to get him a job on the pipeline so I did. He lasted three days. On the third day, he came up to me and said, “Watch this.” Then he proceeded to go up to our Arab foreman and swear a blue streak at him in English. He turned back to me with that same stupid grin on his face. “It’s OK. The bugger hasn’t a clue what I’m saying.”
I had been on the pipeline long enough to know different. Everybody in this bunch was fluent in Swearese. Bad Lennie was fired. He still seemed confused about why but he was a goner nevertheless. And his problem became my problem. Bad Lennie was getting half the rent money from me but it was not enough and he started borrowing my money. I saw no chance of getting repaid because Bad Lennie now had no job. He spent most of his time hitting on his brother for money and going to the cinema in Beersheva to watch the latest Western. After coughing up a fair amount of cash, I cut him off. Then he offered to sell me some of his coffee table books on Israel. Truth be told, they were beautiful books but I was still living out of a backpack and couldn’t see myself schlepping all that weight.
I said, “No thanks.” He looked pissed but I didn’t care.
One day, I returned from work and walked through the door of our flat. There was Bad Lennie standing kitty-corner across the room with his gun pointed straight at my head. I just froze. I felt a powerful urge to say something but nothing came to mind. Then he pulled the trigger and there was this loud “snap.”
“It’s empty,” and he was grinning again. “I’m just kidding around. I wasn’t really going to shoot you.”
I decided then and there that I had made enough money and my Hebrew would suffice. Bad Lennie’s gun was empty but I was sure he kept bullets somewhere. It was time to get out of Dodge. On the day I decided to leave, I left the job site early and headed for the apartment. I knew Lennie wasn’t around because they were playing a new Western at the cinema. I grabbed all my things and stuffed them in my bag. There was a little room left, so I grabbed Bad Lennie’s books and stuffed them in my bag as well.
Lastly, I wrote him a note: “Hi Lennie, I’m leaving town to go to a kibbutz in the north. Take care and best of luck. P.S. I’ve changed my mind about your books. I’ll buy them after all. Just deduct what they are worth from the money you owe me and we’ll call it even. Cheers.” Then I headed for the nearest road out of Arad and started hitchhiking north. It was a bit nerve-wracking. I wasn’t sure who would show up first – my ride or Bad Lennie. I was in luck. My ride came first and I was on my way to join Suzanne.
As I mentioned, Suzanne and I had met at our previous kibbutz, near Haifa. She was Jewish and, like me, had come to Israel to check it out and become a volunteer. She was a huge fan of Leonard Cohen and, as a consequence, had a real thing for dark, brooding, handsome Canadians. All I had going for me was the Canadian thing and, happily, she settled for that. For me, the trigger was her incredibly sexy French accent. It was like listening to music.
She also spoke her mind entirely with nothing held back. Tears or laughter came at the drop of a hat and you were never in doubt about what she thought or how she felt. It was a raw honesty of emotion that took some getting used to but, once you did, it was exciting in a scary kind of way. The ride was bumpy but never ever dull. And nothing frustrated her more than people suppressing their feelings. Once, when I was being particularly uncommunicative, she booted me in the rear to try to get me past it. I don’t recall if it worked but, after that, if I felt withdrawn, I made sure I was sitting down.
Suzanne worked in the children’s house and I had a steady job in the banana fields with a guy named Lev as my boss. Banana life was good but there came a time when I worried that I was spinning my wheels. I wasn’t sure I wanted kibbutz life forever and I thought I had the beginning of a career back in Canada. I had a BA in English literature, after all. It had to mean something. I felt I needed to return to Canada and see what I could make of my life there. I was in a dark, who-am-I kind of mood. When I told Suzanne I was going home, she was angry.
“I won’t be the one left behind,” she told me.
Before I knew it, she was on a plane bound for Paris and I was sitting in the middle of a very empty room. Worse than empty. The life had gone out of it. To my surprise, I actually wept. I never realized until then how much I would miss her. Typical of me. Why not save steps? Burn the bloody bridge while you’re still standing on it.
I couldn’t bear that empty room and so, in the time I had left before going home, I joined an archeological dig in the Negev near Beersheva. The work was hot, dirty and finicky. We had to move a lot of dirt to get down to the Iron Age town we were looking for and, at that point, the work had to be much more careful. Every find was scraped, brushed clean, surveyed for location, photographed and, finally, removed to our storage room at the base of the hill.
I was particularly proud of finding an intact Iron Age kiln, circa 700-600 BCE – basically, a three-foot-wide, clay-walled cylinder standing on its end. I carefully brushed and excavated the kiln to its base, always careful to leave the dirt in the centre as support for the walls. After three days of clearing the outside of the kiln and the floor around it, I was told it was time to take it down and go deeper. It had been photographed, measured and catalogued and now it had to be removed. Strangely, my fellow volunteers had all dropped their tools to come and watch me take a pickaxe to the kiln. Not sure what was going on, I swung the pickaxe and buried it in the centre of the kiln. There was a horrible sound of glass breaking.
“Crap!” I thought. “I’ve just destroyed some 2,600-year-old glass artifact that was situated in the middle of my kiln.” Everybody who had gathered round gasped loudly in horror. Feeling disgraced, I dejectedly began pulling out bits of glass. But there was something peculiar. The glass had a colour that was unlike any ancient glass I had ever seen. In fact, it looked a lot like.… “Alright,” I said, “Who buried the frigging beer bottle in my kiln?”
Aside from the pranks, we did a lot of good work and, by the end of the season, I was standing on the streets of ancient Beersheva where Abraham once walked.
When the dig ended for the summer, it was time to go home. My first trip to Israel was over. I returned to Canada in 1970, got an MA in English literature by May 1972 and, damn me, I still didn’t want to teach. I was no further ahead in knowing what I wanted to do. Also, I missed the kibbutz. I decided to go back to Israel later that year. My thinking was that I’d spend some quiet time there deciding about my future. I didn’t realize that I’d have to do my contemplating in the middle of a war.
Victor Neumanwas born in the former Soviet Union, where his family sought refuge after fleeing Poland during the Second World War. The family immigrated to Canada in 1948 and Neuman grew up in the Greater Vancouver area. He attended the University of British Columbia and obtained a BA and MA with majors in English literature and creative writing. Between 1968 and 1974, he made two trips to Israel, one of which landed him on a kibbutz at the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Upon his return to Canada, he studied survey technology at BCIT and went on to a career of designing highways for the Province of British Columbia. When he retired, he reconnected with his roots in creative writing and began writing scripts for Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir concerts and articles for the Jewish Independent. Neuman and his wife, Tammy, live in southeast Vancouver and enjoy the company of friends, their extensive extended family and their four sons.
As public opinion surveys continue to tell us that vast numbers of people know little or nothing about the Holocaust, it was encouraging that Max Eisen’s memoir, By Chance Alone, became CBC Radio’s Canada Reads 2019 choice, bringing this wrenching narrative to many more eyes and ears.
Born in Czechoslovakia in 1929, Eisen enjoyed a childhood filled with shenanigans and idyllic summer excursions to his maternal family’s farm – until the Nazi invasion of his country, in 1938.
“At 9, I didn’t fully understand what was taking place, but I noticed the rising tensions in my hometown,” he writes.
Eisen’s father’s friends assembled at their home to listen to a major address by the Führer on a crystal radio. “All of us understood basic German,” he writes. Hitler’s words, “Wir werden die Juden ausradieren” – “We are going to eradicate all the Jews of Europe” – clarified for the young Eisen the import of the moment.
While traumas befell the family from then on, it was in the night after the first seder in 1944 that the worst of the family’s catastrophe began to unfold.
At 2 a.m., after the family had settled into bed after what Eisen calls their “last supper,” a neighbour arrived at their property urgently insisting that the family hide in the forest because he had overheard gendarmes saying that they would gather all the Jews in the vicinity the next day. Because it was Passover and the Sabbath, Eisen’s grandfather declared that the family would not travel. At 6 a.m., gendarmes forced their way into the home, gave the family five minutes to pack a bundle and be ready to depart their home.
The complicity of bystanders before, during and after the Holocaust permeates the book.
“On both sides of the road, the townspeople jeered and cursed at us as we passed. Many were looking out the windows of the Jewish homes they now occupied.… Many townsfolk who bought goods on credit from Jews like my grandfather were happy they wouldn’t have to pay the money back. Our deportation was an economic windfall for them.”
In the chaos of arrival at Auschwitz, Eisen had no idea of the seriousness of the separation of himself, his father and uncle from the rest of their family. The three would be the only ones to survive the first selection.
The everyday “indignities and deprivations” they had experienced before quickly turned to horrors. The forced labour he endured, long shifts of excruciatingly exhausting work on starvation rations, was fatal to those less strong.
His father and uncle were moved to another barracks and, after selection one day, Eisen could not find them.
“I ran to a fenced off holding area where the SS kept the selected prisoners until they were ready to transport them to Birkenau to be gassed.… My father reached out across the wire and blessed me with a classic Jewish prayer…. The same prayer my father once uttered to bless his children every Friday evening before the Sabbath meal. Then he said, ‘If you survive, you must tell the world what happened here. Now go.’”
At one point, when Eisen let down his guard and relaxed for a moment, an SS guard delivered a blow with the butt of his gun on the back of Eisen’s head. The nearly fatal attack put Eisen in the camp’s infirmary, which proved one of the chances that led to the book’s title. A surgeon, a Polish political prisoner, assigned Eisen the job of cleaning and running the operating theatre. Although the responsibilities he was forced to undertake and the things he witnessed were appalling, the comparative comfort of the job may have saved his life.
As the Nazi regime was on its last legs, “the SS ceased distributing rations and the water system was shut down,” Eisen writes. “I woke up to the smell of cooking meat.… Several inmates sat around a small stove and watched as a pot boiled. I could not imagine how they had acquired meat, but when I crawled to the latrine where the cadavers were stacked, I noticed that some of the bodies were missing pieces from their buttocks.”
On May 6, 1945, the camp was liberated, but the term lacks much meaning in the context. Everything and everyone Eisen knew was destroyed. When the Americans provided food, a stampede of starving people led to deaths by trampling. Those who got food suffered ruptured stomachs and many died on the spot.
After overcoming a nearly fatal bout of pleurisy, Eisen faced yet more incarceration. After the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, his plan to find freedom abroad was dashed. Because he came from the eastern, Hungarian-speaking part of the country, he tried to obtain phony Hungarian ID and join a mass of Hungarian refugees passing through to the West. Discovered, he was imprisoned for a year.
When finally released, Eisen was given 24 hours to get out of his native country. Eventually, he made his way to Canada where, since the 1980s, he has educated school kids and others about the Holocaust.
“It is in this way,” he writes, “that I have fulfilled my final promise to my father: telling the story of our collective suffering so it will never be forgotten.”
Nora Krug’s Belonging offers a thoughtful and artistic exploration of identity and history. (photo by Nina Subin)
Nora Krug’s Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home (Scribner, 2018) opens with a page made to look like it’s written in pencil on yellow graph paper. The illustration of a bandage takes up half the page, which is ostensibly “From the notebook of a homesick émigré: Things German.” Entry No. 1 is about Hansaplast, a type of bandage created in 1922 that Krug associates with safety, her mother having used it, for example, to stop Krug’s knee from bleeding after a roller-skating accident at age 6. “It is the most tenacious bandage on the planet,” writes Krug, “and it hurts when you tear it off to look at your scar.”
Belonging is the written and illustrated account of what happens when Krug decides to rip off the Hansaplast and examine the scars left by the history of her family – which had only been related to her in vague terms – and her country of birth, Germany. It is a creative and engaging memoir about Krug’s efforts to define for herself and reclaim for herself the idea of Heimat, tarnished by the Nazis’ use of it in propaganda.
Heimat can refer to an actual or imagined location with which a person feels familiar or comfortable, or the place in which a person is born, the place that played a large part in shaping their character and perspective. Krug’s exploration of identity comprises archival research, interviews with family members and others, and visits to her mother’s and father’s hometowns – Karlsruhe (where Krug grew up) and Külsheim, respectively.
Alternating with the narrative of her discoveries are several notebook entries, on a range of items, from bread to binders to soap, which are both points of pride, as they are quality-made items, and metaphors. For example, Persil is “a time-tested German laundry detergent invented in 1907,” which Krug uses. However, she writes, “Some referred to the postwar testimonials written by neighbours, colleagues and friends in defence of suspected Nazi sympathizers as Persil Certificates. Persil guarantees your shirts to come out as white as snow.”
As well, Krug includes pages “From the scrapbook of a memory archivist,” which present odd and sometimes disturbing arrays of items found at flea markets on her research trips to Germany. These include Hitler Youth trading cards, a letter from the front containing a lock of hair and photographs of soldiers petting or holding various animals, mostly dogs.
But the main intrigue of the book comes from what Krug shares as she persists in her research, asking questions and scouring documents. She wants to find out all she can about her family’s involvement in the Holocaust, in particular that of her maternal grandfather, who died when Krug was 11, and her paternal uncle, who was drafted at 17 and shot and killed at age 18, before her father, a postwar baby, was born; her father was named after the brother he never knew. Despite her efforts, many of Krug’s questions remain unanswered.
At the end of Belonging, it’s not even clear if Krug – who readers find out early on married into a Jewish family – feels any less guilty or any more secure in her self and in her past. But she does manage to start the healing process on some family rifts. And she highlights a couple of steps towards healing that she witnesses in Germany. For example, of Külsheim – which had, in 1988, the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, abandoned a proposal for a memorial plaque where the synagogue once stood, before it was burned down the night of Nov. 10, 1938 – she writes: “Plans are made to restore Külsheim’s old mikvah, and a memorial stone is erected where the synagogue used to be, ‘as a manifestation of sadness and shame,’ Külsheim’s new mayor says on the day it is installed.”
The book ends as it began, with a notebook entry. No. 8 is Uhu, “invented by a German pharmacist as the first synthetic (bone-glue-free) resin adhesive in the world, in 1932.” Despite its world-record strength, which is why Krug imports it to repair everything from the soles of her shoes to broken dishware, Uhu “cannot cover up the crack.”
We humans spend most of our lives searching for a path forward. Our priorities tend toward avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. We don’t even think about it, it is the instinctive reaction of any living thing. In this, we are essentially the same as any other life form on our globe. Humanity is no different than an amoeba, for example, in its instinctive struggle to survive, seeking the positive environment and avoiding the negative.
It is reported that Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. In his day, he was reportedly a gadfly, challenging everyone and everything with his relentless questioning. Difficult and sometimes uncomfortable though it may be, we ourselves often feel the need to honestly examine the what, the who and the why of our lives. And we have to look at both its micro and macro elements.
As for myself, on the macro side, I find I have a huge loyalty to my tribe, the Jewish tribe that I was born into. I am so proud of the contribution we have made, as a people and as individuals, and are continuing to make, in the advancement of the human condition in so many fields. I believe that much of this flows from the unique cultural package that adherents absorb with their mother’s milk.
But I am also aware that, along with the benefits of the moral code that our religiosity has contributed to improving the life on our planet, comes the distressing tendency for religion’s most orthodox adherents, whatever their stripe, to insist on a closing of minds to ideas that do not fit into an inflexible and unalterable worldview. I have needed to come to terms with the role my tribe (e.g. Baruch Spinoza) has played in that.
We have seen that, when religious and political dogma become state policy for believers and non-believers, and these are forced on the unwilling (e.g. the Inquisition, Communism), humanity stumbles on its way forward. We have seen the expression of the effort to avoid this in the adoption of the principle of separation of church and state, but this is imperfect and does not solve the problem of secular fanaticism. For me, humanity must always move to avoid extremism and the inevitable pain and destruction it causes to so many people.
Historically, we have seen how the advances that humanity made during the Greek flowering in the arts, philosophy and science were lost for a millennium. Some of this was salvaged under early Rome. They were then smothered for centuries by religious orthodoxy. We have seen how we have benefitted as humans from their liberation. These forces have shaped the world we live in, and the lives we are living, as we seek our pleasures and strive to avoid life’s pains.
On the micro side, I, like many of you must have, and must have been, studying the trajectory of our lives. Thinking back over my times, I wonder at the career decisions that I have made. I wonder at my actions during what proved to be watersheds in my life. Some of it was not much fun. I wonder at the impact on those whose lives, willy-nilly, were carried alongside of me in the tide of my life.
Then there is the question of nature or nurture. To what degree are our futures driven by the DNA package we inherited? Surely, to some extent, we are programmed in our reactions to fate by our inheritance. I wonder at the impact if our blood is programmed to run a certain way or another, or if our hormones, liver and kidneys function efficiently, the quickness of our minds, the quickness of our step, the state of our health. Doesn’t that make a huge difference in what we can accomplish? How much do we owe to our forbears for our results?
And then, what if we are raised on the “right side of the tracks,” our parents are educated, they pay attention to the development of their offspring, or none of these things? If we were born into abject poverty or in a country in turmoil, how greatly would our opportunities be constrained? Does not colour, economic circumstance and location make a huge difference in our range of opportunities? Doesn’t the political system, religion, sex and sexual orientation, the very epoch in which we were raised, make a difference even in these so-enlightened times?
Some of us can believe we deserve all the credit for our accomplishments, but how much do we owe to all the positive circumstances that affected our lives? Or, we may weep over our misfortunes, and surely we can truly finger the circumstances and the evidence that show that all of us do not start out on a level playing field.
We have little room for arrogance about our outcomes in the lottery. We can count on our lucky stars if we are winners, if we overcame our disadvantages enough and, summoning the best of the resources we salvaged, we can find some satisfaction in the outcomes. For those still on the trail, you may wish to proceed with caution with your assertions of personal mastery. As well, the knowledge that we face disadvantages will not absolve us from desperately trying our best in our lives. We have that obligation to ourselves.
We will know in our hearts at the end of the trail where we failed and where we succeeded. Special pleading will not help when we face our internal judge and jury, as we are the harshest of the judges we face when we examine our lives. My advice is to be kind to yourself and to one another.
Max Roytenbergis a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
Éva Fahidi, in front, and Emese Cuhorka in a still from The Euphoria of Being, directed and written by Réka Szabó.
Éva Fahidi was 18 years old when she and her family were taken to Auschwitz. The men and women were separated. The women’s selection committee cut the line after Fahidi: “I went one way, and my whole family the other way. It was over. We are talking about a fraction of a moment, when one didn’t even have the faintest idea of what was really happening.” Forty-nine members of her family were murdered, including her mother, father and sister.
Fahidi tells this part of her story as dancer Emese Cuhorka, covered from head to toe in a black leotard, moves around her, expressing with her body some of what Fahidi is expressing verbally. This is but one of many moving scenes in The Euphoria of Being, written and directed by Réka Szabó. The Jewish Independent has chosen to sponsor the documentary’s screening at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, which runs Sept. 26-Oct. 11.
Szabó had heard Fahidi give a talk in Berlin, and she had read Fahidi’s memoir, The Soul of Things. She wrote to Fahidi about wanting to make a performance about her, with her it in. The almost-90-year-old Hungarian Holocaust survivor responded positively: “Every person should possess some form of healthy exhibitionism,” she says in the film. “I have more than is needed, so I don’t have any excuses.”
Cuhorka reminds Szabó of Fahidi. From this resemblance came the concept of a duet. At one of the first rehearsals, Fahidi shows Cuhorka what she’s able to do physically. “And, from the outside, it is like seeing an entire life at once,” says Szabó, as she watches them move together.
The documentary covers the three-month period prior to the October première of what would become Sea Lavender. The work is the collaborative creation of the three women and, while what we are shown of the final result is powerful, it is the process and the bonds formed by the women that have the most impact, and give the film its inspirational quality.
Fahidi is remarkable. She is smart, spirited, well-spoken and endearing. When she talks about her Holocaust experiences, it is as if she is reliving them; her eyes look unfocused, her body appears heavier, her anger remains. She says her family should have left Hungary in 1935. “But my poor father, he couldn’t see beyond his nose,” she says. So proud was he of what he had built, he couldn’t leave it behind and only go with the clothes on his back. “This is the eternal tragedy,” she says, “that you don’t see things for what they are when you see them. Absolute idiocy.”
The film then cuts to a photo of the family – her parents, sister and her – as Fahidi describes the way in which she imagines them being gassed. She talks about a documentary she saw on Zyklon B, how it was first tried on geese. Such factual expositions lay raw the depth of her grief.
Yet, when Szabó asks Fahidi to list some of the things that helped her survive, Fahidi remarks that you have to appreciate and value the fact that you’re alive. “The fact that you exist, in itself, is euphoric,” she says. Hence, the name of the documentary and of the choice of “the flying chair duet” as the final scene of the performance. In discussing the nature of tragedy, Fahidi concludes that it’s no use thinking about it because you always end up in the same sad place. “Meanwhile,” she says, “you live happily.”
Seeing Cuhorka and Fahidi work and perform together is delightful – the two really do bear similarities, and their mutual respect is evident. The closing text of the film notes, “At the age of 93, Éva is still performing regularly. So far, we have staged 77 performances of Sea Lavender in numerous cities, such as Berlin, Budapest and Vienna.” While it is too much to hope that the show will come to North America, it is satisfying to know of the project’s life-changing effect on Fahidi, who, apparently, “can’t imagine being alive and not performing the piece anymore.”
The Euphoria of Being screens Sept. 27, 12:30 p.m., at International Village 8, and Oct. 3, 7 p.m., and Oct. 4, 10 a.m., at Vancity Theatre. For tickets, visit viff.org.
Keynote speaker Irene Dodek and Bill Gruenthal, from the Temple Sholom 60+ group, at the latest JSA Snider Foundation Empowerment Series event, which took place May 15. (photo by Marcy Babins)
Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver and the seniors group Temple Sholom 60+ co-sponsored the fourth in the 2018-19 JSA Snider Foundation Empowerment Series, which has the theme “Renewing and Reinventing Ourselves.” About 60 attendees met at Temple Sholom on May 15 for lunch, followed by a talk by Irene Dodek on Writing Our Own Stories.
Bill Gruenthal of the 60+ group welcomed the audience and announced the names of everyone who was having a birthday in April and May. He then introduced Ken Levitt, president of Jewish Seniors Alliance, who thanked Temple Sholom for the opportunity to co-sponsor the event with them and briefly outlined JSA’s programs, with particular emphasis on the Peer Support Program. He also explained that JSA’s motto is “Seniors Stronger Together.”
Gruenthal introduced Dodek, one of two charter members of the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia (JMABC).
Dodek is a graduate of the University of British Columbia in anthropology and museum studies. She said she first became interested in stories while growing up in Wapella, Sask., where she heard many family tales from her grandfather and her uncles, who were homesteaders there.
Dodek has been conducting interviews for the JMABC for many years. She outlined a few of her early interviews and pointed out some of the mistakes made by beginners. She offered the following tips, stressing that the most important thing is for the interviewees to be heard. Questions must be open-ended, she said, to give the person a chance to talk and explain. Confidentiality must be maintained, as well as respect for the person, and patience in waiting for answers. Interviewers must give people a chance to think before they answer, she said.
Dodek – who said that history is her passion – was also involved in a Steven Spielberg Shoah Foundation project that required 30 hours of training in three days on how to interview Holocaust survivors. She commented that this was very different from interviewing community pioneers.
The title of her family history, which she wrote, is You’ll Always be My Darling. Dodek took the name from a note her mother once wrote in her autograph book. She did a lot of genealogical research and the book contains many maps and family photographs. The book is in the national archives in Ottawa.
After a number of questions about interviewing and also about writing, Gruenthal thanked Dodek for her stimulating presentation.
The fifth in the “Renewing and Reinventing Ourselves” series will take place on June 24, sponsored by JSA and the Kehila Society of Richmond. Called Dueling Pianists, Lester Soo and Marilyn Glazer will entertain. Lunch is at noon and the program starts at 1 p.m. at Congregation Beth Tikvah. For more information and to register, contact Toby Rubin at 604-241-9270 or the JSA office at 604-732-1555.
Shanie Levinis an executive board member of Jewish Seniors Alliance and on the editorial board of Senior Line magazine.
Each year, the Eric Hoffer Award presents the da Vinci Eye (named after Leonardo da Vinci) to books with superior cover artwork. Cover art is judged on both content and style and, among this year’s winners is Olga Campbell’s Whisper Across Time: My Family’s Story of the Holocaust Told Through Art and Poetry (Jujabi Press). The book is still being considered for category, press and grand prizes.
Whisper Across Time also won the Ippy Award for independent self-published authors. Campbell’s book was selected as one of the 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards’ Outstanding Books of the Year under the freedom fighter category. Campbell planned on attending the May 28 gala event in New York.
Julia Ivanova’s National Film Board documentary Limit is the Sky saw its Toronto première on May 2 in the retrospective of the largest documentary film festival in North America, Hot Docs. Ivanova is one of only three directors from British Columbia who have received a Focus On retrospective at Hot Docs since 2002 – the others are John Zaritsky and Nettie Wild.
Ivanova, the director, cinematographer and editor of Limit is the Sky is a Russian-Canadian filmmaker. She came to Canada at the age of 30, became a filmmaker in Vancouver and captured Canada from within but with the ability to look at the country from a distance. She has made documentaries for the NFB, CBC, Knowledge Network, played Sundance and won many awards for her films.
The screening of Limit is the Sky, the NFB film about the Fort McMurray boom-bust-fire circle and the winner of the Colin Low Best Canadian Feature Award at DOXA 2017, commemorates the third anniversary since the worst wildfire and the worst natural disaster in Canada’s history devastated the capital of the oil sands. (See jewishindependent.ca/diverse-doxa-festival-offerings.)
The Hot Docs Focus On retrospective of her work includes the world première of her new film, My Dads, My Moms and Me, a film about the joy and turmoil of parenting in the modern family, including same-sex partners, surrogates, adoption and combinations that break the old conventions. The film follows three families, filmed twice, 12 years apart – in 2007 and in 2019.
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More than 250,000 children participated in the Ontario Library Association’s annual Forest of Reading program and have helped choose the best Canadian authors and illustrators. On May 14 and 15, thousands gathered at the annual Festival of Trees, an annual rock concert of reading, hosted at the Harbourfront Centre, where winners of the 2019 Forest of Reading program were announced. Among the books awarded honours was When We Were Shadows by Janet Wees, published by Second Story Press. (For more on Wees and the book, visit jewishindependent.ca/saved-by-dutch-resistance.)
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By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz by Max Eisen (HarperCollins) won Canada Reads 2019. The book was championed by TV host and science broadcaster and author Ziya Tong, and was chosen by the five panelists as the book for Canadians to read in 2019. This year’s title fight asked the question: What is the one book to move you?
After four days of debate in front of live audiences, Tong and By Chance Alone survived the final vote to be crowned this year’s winner. The runner-up was Homes by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung (Freehand Books), which was defended by Simple Plan drummer Chuck Comeau. Audiences can catch up on all of the debates on demand on CBC Gem or by downloading the Canada Reads podcast from CBC or iTunes.
“Before 2016, I don’t remember seeing swastikas, but these days I see them often – in the news and on social media. But here’s something even more shocking: one in five Canadian young people have not even heard of the Holocaust. They don’t know what it is, ” said Tong.
This year’s debates took place March 25-28 and were hosted by actor, stand-up comedian and host of CBC Radio’s Laugh Out Loud, Ali Hassan.
Olga Campbell’s acrylic painting “Remembering,” above, and bronze sculpture “Twins II” are just two of many artworks she includes in A Whisper Across Time.
Grief is many-faceted. Sometimes, we’re not even aware for what we’re grieving. One of the most beautiful passages in Olga Campbell’s A Whisper Across Time: My Family’s Story of the Holocaust Told Through Art and Poetry (Jujabi Press, 2018) is the following poem:
“I was born with a very deep sadness / a sadness and an anger / as a child I didn’t question this / it was the way it was / when I got older my mother had cancer / she died when I was twenty-two / I thought that my sadness was caused by her death / I had no idea that it was caused by her life.”
“A Whisper Across Time is a heart-warming, emotional journey that reminds us of the suffering and pain that war, intolerance and persecutions create, not only for those who had to endure atrocities but also for the children of the survivors,” notes Dr. David Lee Sheng Tin, author of two books on spiritual health and growth, in the foreword.
In A Whisper Across Time, Campbell gives clear voice to the whispers in her ear, “whispers across time.”
“This is the story of one family out of millions of families who went through the Holocaust,” writes the artist, whose mother lost all of her family during the Second World War. It is “the story of survival and death,” “of how trauma of such magnitude is passed from one generation to another to another….” It is also an ardent call for readers to remember Rwanda, Rohingya, Bosnia, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Cambodia…. “[O]ne of every 113 people on the planet is a refugee,” writes Campbell, noting, “by the end of 2016, there were 65.6 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people in the world” and that “racism, antisemitism and ultra-nationalism are on the rise.” She pleads, “eighty years ago, the world looked away / we must not look away now.”
In an interview with the Jewish Independent last November about the exhibit of the same name that helped launch the book, Campbell updated that statistic. “Our world is a chaotic place right now, somewhat reminiscent of the period before the war,” she told writer Olga Livshin. “There are over 68 million people around the world that are refugees or displaced. My book is not only about my family. It is a cautionary tale. It is about intergenerational trauma and its repercussions across time.” (See jewishindependent.ca/whisper-across-time.)
In 2005, Campbell mounted the exhibit Whispers Across Time. “This art show dealt with memories and losses,” she writes in the book. “Many of the pieces in the show were fragmented, partial in appearance, reflecting both a presence and an absence.”
The exhibit featured masks, rusted metal figures, ceramic sculptures, photographs, mixed media and texts that, explains Campbell, “echoed the same theme of loss and regeneration – a life spirit which emerged from the devastation of the past.” Even reduced in size to fit on the pages of a book and taken out of a gallery setting, this artwork is powerful.
In A Whisper Across Time, Campbell shares some of what she has discovered about her mother, Tania, and father, Klimek Dekler, as well as about her maternal grandmother, Ola Akselrod, and her mother’s identical twin sister, Mania, and brother-in-law, who was also an identical twin, but Campbell hasn’t been able to determine which brother – Manasze or Efraim Seidenbeutel – her aunt married. Campbell recounts how her parents met, the atmosphere leading up to the war, and how her parents survived. Her father’s family also survived. There are no records, says Campbell, of what happened to her grandparents or her aunt during the Holocaust; the Seidenbeutel brothers were murdered at Stutthof concentration camp, a few days before it was liberated.
“My mother must have been completely traumatized by her experiences and her losses,” writes Campbell. “She lived and worked and loved, she still danced … sometimes. But the joy in her heart was not so big. The light inside was dim. And, at night, when she was alone in her room, she cried.”
In A Whisper Across Time, Campbell also talks about preparing for the 2005 exhibition, and some of the strange happenings that occurred, such as how multiple attempts to photograph the art failed – a broken camera, saved images that wouldn’t open on the computer. Her use of language, both in poetry and prose, is emotive without being overly sentimental. And her artwork evokes an emotional reaction, often involving some sadness and always demanding contemplation.
For more on Campbell and to purchase A Whisper Across Time, visit olgacampbell.com.