Laura Reynolds and David Volpov in The Wars, which opens Nov. 7. (photo by Javier R. Sotres)
Timothy Findley’s award-winning novel The Wars, adapted by Dennis Garnhum for the stage, comes to University of British Columbia’s Frederic Wood Theatre Nov. 7-23. Directed by Lois Anderson, it will be performed by UBC Theatre and Film’s graduate class of 2020, among whom is Jewish community member David Volpov.
Volpov takes on the leading role of Robert Ross, who is described as “a tender-hearted idealist who shares a strong bond with his wheelchair-bound sister” and “trades his comfortable Canadian life for the harsh world of trench warfare in World War I.”
“What I find challenging about playing Robert is imagining the play as a series of events, with each event slowly transforming him into a new person,” Volpov told the Independent. “At first, he’s a shy city boy who comes from a wealthy family. Over the course of the play, he becomes a confident lieutenant, who’s gained a lot more life experience. It’s not until he escapes his domestic life and goes to war that he truly discovers who he is. He discovers more about his sexuality, his morality around war and his will to live.
“As well as being a war story, the play is also a coming-of-age story. Finding those moments of change has been a rewarding experience because Robert is such a complicated character to crack. Even though he’s so young, he has so much trauma and weight that he carries with him to France. It feels like a big step for Robert every time he grows or learns something, or pushes past his comfort levels.”
Volpov is in his final year of the bachelor of fine arts acting program at UBC. As a writer, his plays include The Minimum-Wage Dame and Ten Years Later. His acting credits include Promethean Theatre Company’s productions of Of Mice and Men and Saint Joan.
“I love working with Promethean because we’re a small group of friends who are passionate about theatre,” he said. “We come together and discuss what stories we want to tell, what stories we think are important to tell. Then we go ahead and tell them. There’s nothing high-brow about it.”
Volpov’s appreciation for storytelling comes in part from his parents.
“My parents were Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union – my mom from Latvia and my dad from Belarus. Having grown up persecuted for being Jewish, they found it important to pass on their life stories to me, and that I understood what it meant to be Jewish,” he explained.
Growing up in Richmond as a secular Jew, he said, “It wasn’t until I was a teenager and spent one summer at Camp Tel Yehudah in Upstate New York that I felt connected to my heritage. The camp was oriented on teen leadership, so each camper chose a global issue which they were passionate about, researched it and created an activism action plan.
“The issue I chose to dive into was gun safety,” he said. “My group and I created a policy plan that we got the chance to take to Washington, D.C. We met with senators’ aides and representatives of the NRA [National Rifle Association] and the Brady Campaign. It was very important to be able to speak with people on both sides of the issue and still be able to have a healthy discussion. The experience impacted me a lot because it was the first time that I felt like I had a voice about something I was passionate about, something that felt so personal to me. That’s one thing that really helped in my acting from then on. Before that, I knew how to read and play someone else’s script, but that was when I learned how to make someone else’s text feel like it was my own.”
Considering the text of The Wars, Volpov said that one of the reasons Findley wrote about the First World War “is because that was the war that changed everything. It marked the first use of chemical weapons in war and the first time that the senselessness of war was widely reported. World War I marked a point where the world shifted to a much more cynical outlook, where the chaos of the world was realized.
“Presently,” he said, “we’re living in a similarly cynical time, in a new age of increasing isolationism – of Brexit and [Donald] Trump, and the climate crisis, too. The message that the play applies to the First World War can also apply to today: even when we’ve lowered our faith in our leaders and in humanity, we can always hold onto hope and lean on meaningful connections to others to get by.”
He added that “these connections take precedence over mere survival. The play is so life-affirming because it’s all about finding hope and joy even during the hardest times.”
Vancouver Peace Poppies co-founder Teresa Gagné at the White Poppy Memorial in 2018. (photo by Diane Donaldson)
A local group is hoping to broaden the scope of Remembrance Day as more than an occasion to honour the brave men and women who have died while serving for their country. Through the distribution of white poppies, the Vancouver Peace Poppies (VPP) movement strives to extend the focus on Nov. 11 to all those who have suffered as a result of military conflicts.
Teresa Gagné, who co-founded VPP with Denis Laplante in 2008, stresses that the group intends no disrespect towards soldiers. Instead, they wish to bring more awareness to the toll warfare has on the whole population, whether it be the loss of life or other trauma experienced. Beyond representing the victims of war, civilian and military, the white poppy, according to VPP, also challenges the beliefs, values and institutions that create the view that war is unavoidable.
“I have always had respect and sympathy for veterans, who put their life, health and family on the line to serve,” Gagné said. “I believe they deserve recognition and support, but, for years, I was uncomfortable wearing a red poppy, because of the undercurrent of promotion and recruitment for present and future wars that I detect in many public events around the topic of supporting veterans. The white poppy attracts questions, and gives me a chance to explain the nuances of my support.”
A 2016 study by Alexandre Marc, a specialist in conflict and violence for the World Bank, brought to light the overwhelmingly disproportionate number of casualties among non-combatants as opposed to combatants in recent decades. According to some reports, civilians constitute 90% of wartime fatalities, a ratio that has existed since the mid-1950s.
What’s more, Marc’s research points out that global poverty is increasingly concentrated in countries affected by violence and that prolonged conflict keeps countries poor.
Gagné and Laplante have been active in the peace movement since their teens. Their 2008 launch of VPP began by distributing handmade white poppies as a way to promote discussion and a broader focus for Remembrance Day. The following year, while still a “kitchen table” operation, they imported 500 cloth poppies from Britain. VPP now sends out more than 5,000 poppies across Canada annually.
Since 2016, VPP has partnered with the B.C. Humanist Association to host Let Peace Be Their Memorial, an annual Remembrance Day wreath-laying ceremony that includes peace songs, short presentations and poetry. This year, the Multifaith Action Society is also a co-host. The event poster highlights, “The time and location of the ceremony has been chosen to avoid any appearance of competition with, or disrespect for, veteran-focused events.”
As in previous years, this year’s ceremony at Seaforth Peace Park on Nov. 11, 2:30 p.m., will include a special wreath laid in memory of Holocaust victims.
Two members of the Vancouver Jewish community, Marcy Cohen and Gyda Chud, are engaged in the local movement. In 2017, Cohen attended her first Let Peace Be Their Memorial and then sought to get others in the community involved.
“I was far more affected emotionally than I anticipated,” said Cohen of the occasion.
After learning of the history, values and focus of VPP, Chud recently joined the committee, and seeks to profile their work in the larger Jewish community. She represented Pacific Immigrant Resource Society (PIRS), a local refugee service group, in laying the refugee wreath in 2017 and 2018.
“The memorial serves as a powerful and compelling call to action for everything we can and must do to create a more peaceful world,” said Chud.
Last year’s Holocaust wreath was laid by Henry Grayman and Deborah Ross-Grayman, both children of Holocaust survivors. Having each experienced the intergenerational effects of trauma, the couple, both therapists, are facilitators for the Second Generation Group, an organization in Vancouver comprised of children of Holocaust survivors sharing their experiences among peers.
The people laying the Holocaust wreath at this year’s Let Peace Be Their Memorial have yet to be announced.
The red poppy widely worn today first appeared in 1921 on what was then called Armistice Day. In 1926, the No More War Movement, a British pacifist organization, came up with the idea for the white poppy and, in 1933, the Co-Operative Women’s Guild in the United Kingdom sold the first white poppies as a means of remembering that women had lost husbands, sons and fathers during wartime.
The wreaths that Vancouver Peace Poppies and other groups make, a mix of white and red poppies, highlight the amount of civilian suffering. VPP also distributes white poppies in schools in an effort to teach students that wars mostly kill non-military people, pollute the environment and send the message that violence as a means to settle disputes, even for adults, is acceptable.
VPP hands out its poppies by donation to increase awareness of its cause and not as a fundraiser. Poppies cost $1.25 each, of which 95 cents goes to the Peace Pledge Union, a pacifist organization based in London, England, which, since 1934, has advocated for nonviolent solutions to global problems. A $1 or $2 donation allows VPP to provide subsidized poppies for classroom use and free poppies to disadvantaged groups.
For poppies and more information, visit peacepoppies.ca or call 604-437-4453.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
An image of drones filling the sky from Reva Stone’s Falling. (photo from Reva Stone)
Multi-awarding-winning Winnipeg artist Reva Stone researched drones for three years and then began creating art to share some of what she had learned about how the technology affects our lives. The exhibit erasure, which comes from that research, features three works – Falling, Atomic Bomb and Erase. It is on display at the University of Manitoba’s School of Art Gallery until April 26.
“I’m very much an observer of what’s going on with new technologies, so when I saw the impact that UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] were starting to have – especially with war and changing the nature of war – I applied for and got a Canada Council [for the Arts] grant to do a lot of research and reading about what actually is happening,” Stone told the Independent.
She went so far as to get two quadcopters, to understand what they really sounded like, and hoping to use them in her art, which she has.
“I was working on this, and then I started thinking about our skies filling up with these commercial and militarized drones and how they were basically machines … that could fall out of the sky … that could crash into each other, that could bring down an aircraft. We were filling up our skies,” she said. “And then, about two years ago, I was reading and realized that we were now targeting not other countries, but targeting humans.”
Stone ended up making five or six individual pieces that deal with different aspects of the use of drones, but relate to one another. Depending on the exhibition venue, she decides which ones will work best together in a particular space.
Originally, drones were developed for spying purposes for the military. Later versions were outfitted with weapons for protection and assault. More recently, commercial drones have been developed. Now, anyone can buy a drone for as little as $20. This easy accessibility is challenging our society, contends Stone, causing hazards to planes in airports, affecting people at parks and disrupting the peace.
“Drones are becoming these things that fly in the air that have no human controllers … that are almost autonomous,” she said.
Stone often uses computers, movies, motors and speakers to help fully immerse visitors in her art pieces.
The work Falling, she said, “is an animated video that I made that has to do with what I see as a very new future, wherein UAVs are ubiquitous, because of civilian, military, commercial and private use.
“It’s almost slow motion or balletic on a massive screen,” she said. “There’s constant falling out of the skies, sometimes flipping as they fall. Sometimes, there’s a drone that has exploded in the sky … sometimes, small and far away and, sometimes, they’re so big when they fall through the sky that they look almost life-size and you’ll have to back away from the screen … that will be the feeling you get. Then, sometimes, there are these little windows that open up and you look through, into another world, and that world is more about what we’re fighting about – the fact that we are actually using these to make war. Other than that, some of them are commercial, some are cute, some are scary looking … and it’s like a continuous rain coming down.”
Atomic Bomb is also a film.
“I started with an early atomic bomb explosion,” said Stone. “It was a 30-second film and I made it into an almost 20-minute video. I really slowed it down and altered the time to give the impression that the person in the exhibition space is looking at a still image caught in time. I show this video together with texts that I found speak to the history of the use of radio-controlled airplanes and UAVs, and to longheld ideas about collateral damage – the relationship between … the use of atomic bombs and the use of drones and collateral damage, which, to me, is a huge issue with the use of drones as military.”
The first text is from Harry Truman, the American president who made the decision in the Second World War to use the bomb, and it reads: “The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished, in this first attack, to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.”
The next one is from John Brennan, Central Intelligence Agency director from 2013 to 2017: “There hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”
According to Stone, “This is just bullshit. But this is part of the cleaning up of the media presentation of all these ideas and all these things I’ve been researching, that I’ve been noticing going on over time. And, it has actually made me change the name of the work. I was going to call all three of them a totally different name. Recently, maybe a month ago, I changed it to erasure because of the erasure of people, the erasure of a lot of critical dialogue that’s been happening since I started researching in 2015 … how we are mediated, what we are presented with as a culture. The info is so mediated by how it’s reported, and if it’s reported.”
Stone wants “her audience to consider how the capabilities of such technology may be turned against citizens and how governments might, and do, get away with employing them in the name of patriotism in ways that ultimately test the ethical and moral values of its citizenry,” notes the exhibit description. “With news cycles moving so rapidly, the reports of deadly events quickly fall from memory, seemingly erased from public consciousness.”
The third piece, Erase, is interactive. Stone said it is based on what, in her view, the Obama administration practised – the targeting of individuals based on algorithms, mostly guilt by association.
“With this one, I’m actually replicating the procedure,” she said. “I have my two quadcopters that are doing the surveillance and capturing people in the exhibition space, unbeknownst to them. Then, they get captured and saved.
“Then, it’s a process that goes on, that they get played back. And you begin to realize that you’re under surveillance, the people in the space. And, every so often, a target comes up over one of them, one of the captured images. It’s really intense and an explosion occurs, and that person actually comes out of my captured list. That person will never show again. They’ve been erased.”
The exhibit erasure opened Feb. 7. For more information about Stone and her work, visit revastone.ca.
Itay Exlroad as Dancer Soldier. (photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
An audacious work of art that melds raw emotion and absurdist allegory into a blistering assessment of contemporary Israel, Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot deserves to be seen and demands to be discussed.
Winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival – where Maoz’s taut debut, Lebanon, won the Golden Lion in 2009 – and eight Ophir Awards (Israel’s Oscars), including best film, director and actor, Foxtrot uses a small-scale story to examine some of Israel’s deepest issues: the concept of military sacrifice, the oppression of Palestinians and the legacy of the Holocaust.
Skilfully strewn with ironies all the way to the final shot, Foxtrot was shortlisted for the Academy Award for best foreign language film but did not receive a nomination.
The film begins with a middle-aged man (the sublime Lior Ashkenazi, who played a fictitious prime minister last year in Norman and Yitzhak Rabin in this month’s 7 Days in Entebbe) opening his door to the worst possible news for a father with a son in the army. Even as the gravity of the situation and the intensity of his response wallops us in the face and grabs us by the collar, Maoz counter-intuitively undercuts the emotional naturalism with precision camerawork and a stylized set design.
It appears, at first, that the filmmaker is evoking the surreal, detached and alienating experience of being struck with a life-changing bulletin. But we get the nagging feeling, from Ashkenazi’s character’s black-humour interactions with the army representatives to the off-centre introductions of his wife and daughter, that there’s more on tap than the melodrama of domestic tragedy.
Indeed, Maoz pulls the rug out from under us, then cuts from the climate-controlled setting of a high-in-the-sky condo to an isolated checkpoint in the barren, forgotten north of Israel. This is where the son, Yonatan, is assigned the “mission” of guarding a remote, nonessential road with a handful of other bored young men.
The tilted shipping container that comprises the soldiers’ base and barracks fronts on a puddle-strewn mudfield, which they must trudge across to the checkpoint. The roadblock itself is cartoonishly minimalist, resembling a set you’d see onstage more than a military installation, and putting us in mind of surrealist (anti-)war films like Apocalypse Now and Catch-22.
Nothing happens in this God-forsaken spot, and everything happens here. Each detail has significance, though one must pay close attention because it may not be clear until events play out. In fact, the meaning of a close-up or sound cue often remains obscure until the movie is over, at which point the viewer is required to arrive at his or her interpretation.
Two key events occur at Yonatan’s base: one at the checkpoint involving a carload of Palestinians heading home from a party and the other in the barracks when the soldiers are killing lonely downtime. The latter scene, in which Yonatan relates an anecdote from his father’s youth, is the most astonishing passage in this taboo-trampling movie.
Yonatan has rendered his memory into a graphic novel, and Maoz brings it to life in the form of animation. This harrowing episode connects the Holocaust – and the self-reliance, persistence, shared sacrifice and residual faith that survivors applied to building the Jewish state – to a modern Israel, where idealism has curdled into a pursuit of temporary pleasures, and worse offences.
To be sure, in every land and every age, older generations castigate young people for ignoring tradition and abandoning their core values. But this parable takes place in Israel, so Yonatan’s father’s hormone-driven rashness hearkens to Esau swapping his birthright for a bowl of stew.
Threaded through Foxtrot is a critique of Israel’s leaders for maintaining a culture of cynicism and corruption that results in the unnecessary deaths of young soldiers. Furthermore, each loss is described as heroic regardless of the circumstances.
This is not unique to Israel, of course, but it’s harder to push back against the military spin when you’re a small country surrounded by enemies than a superpower. Maoz satirizes PR functionaries in the opening scene, in fact, and never stops spearing sacred cows.
Maoz’s triumph, finally, thanks in large measure to Ashkenazi’s unexpectedly vulnerable performance, is tracking the human cost amid the not-quite-real scenarios and sociopolitical commentary. Foxtrot is an altogether remarkable work, not least because it is a beautiful film about ugly truths.
Foxtrot is in Hebrew with English subtitles, runs 113 minutes and is rated R for some sexual content, including graphic images and brief drug use. It opens at Vancity Theatre on March 23, and runs to April 1.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Left to right, Harry, Joseph, Benjamin and Rachel Seidelman, in approximately 1906. (photo from JMABC L.25670)
The following is an edited version of remarks presented at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia (JMABC) Intersections speakers series on Dec. 15 about the museum’s online exhibit Letters Home.
Recently, my wife Shelley and I were on a tour of Italy that stopped at the Cassino War Cemetery for soldiers killed during the Battle of Monte Cassino, a battle which resulted in 55,000 Allied casualties. In the 15 minutes we were there, we found two headstones with a Magen David, for soldiers from British Columbia who were killed in this Second World War battle. These headstones commemorate just two of many soldiers who have died in the fight for democracy but whose bodies are interred far away from family. My Uncle Joe was even less fortunate. Since his body was never found, there is no grave and, therefore, no headstone.
The First World War claimed the lives of 38 million civilians and soldiers alike. Approximately 2,700 Canadian Jews served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, with about 1,200 seeing combat. Of those, an estimated 123 died in battle.
In late 1917, Gen. Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, insisted that the key to victory on the Western Front was capturing the area around the village of Passchendaele, near Ypres in Belgium. Even though bad weather had turned the battlefield into a quagmire, Haig was determined to proceed.
At Passchendaele, on Oct. 26, 1917, 15,654 Canadian soldiers were killed. Among those who paid the terrible price for this hopeless decision was Pte. (Edward) Joseph Seidelman, 20, of Vancouver. His father, William, was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who, after living in Kansas and Seattle, had settled in Vancouver in the 1890s. There, he met Esther Pearlman from Winnipeg. The two were married in 1896. Joseph was born a year later, followed by four more children during the next decade. Their father unfortunately died in 1907, leaving Joseph, Rachel, Harry and Ben; William was born after his father died and was named after him.
In 1916, Joseph was a student at the University of British Columbia. He would have graduated in 1918, the final year of the university’s transition from being an annex of McGill University to being a fully independent UBC.
Yearbooks are meant to celebrate successes at the institution but the 1918 edition also records the experiences of students who went to fight in the war and returned home, and it laments those students who went to war and did not return. One section is entitled “Military” and includes a copy of the Roll of Honour in Memoriam plaque that hangs in the foyer of the UBC War Memorial Gymnasium. It also contains brief biographies of those who were killed in action, including Joseph. Seventy-eight UBC students lost their lives during the war, and are commemorated on plaques in the War Memorial Gymnasium.
Compelled to do his patriotic duty, Joseph enlisted in the Western Universities 196th Battalion, which was made up of more than 150 students from universities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. Joseph was in England by November 1916. Early in 1917, he was sent to northern France and found himself in the muddy trenches of the Western Front.
So, how much do we know about someone who lived and died so long ago? Well, because of the letters featured in the JMABC online exhibit Letters Home, we have come to know Edward Joseph Seidelman better. In addition, in the 1918 yearbook, there is also a short mention of Joseph in a message from Prof. Lemuel Robertson, the first chair of the classics department at UBC. “Do you remember those little talks on socialism with Coughlan, or when Norman Hughes came into class the day after a dance, in the hope that he wouldn’t be asked anything? And Seidelman, too?” There are only three words but they give us a clue into his personality, that perhaps he liked to party.
In the letters Joseph wrote to his sister Rachel over nine months, he discussed family business and Vancouver affairs – in one letter, he expressed surprise at being a candidate for a Rhodes scholarship – and stated his hope that the war might end soon, though his optimism about the war varied. Even though he was in the centre of the action, he seems, in retrospect, to have been somewhat ignorant of how the war was actually proceeding.
The following letters are only examples drawn from the 87 he wrote. The letters from May 7, 1917, and are part of the JMABC online exhibit.
Camp Hughes, Man., Oct. 2, 1916: “I am going to Brandon again on Thursday afternoon and will stay over Friday, the 6th of October and also Saturday. I stayed with a Jewish family named Kisner and they were glad indeed to have me. Five or six decent-looking Jewish families wanted me to stay with them but Kisners had me first. Mrs. Kisner is only about 30 years old and she comes from the same city in Russia where mamma comes from, Novgorod. Mrs. Kisner introduced me to her 18-year-old sister….”
Dec. 24, 1916: “I knew Mr. Gibson’s son who was reported killed. Mamma has no reason to worry about me. It looks as though Germany will surrender to the Entente Allies…. I read in a London newspaper to-day called Lloyd’s Weekly News that a very high official of the German government … has confessed that Germany is starving and will give to England all that England demands even surrendering the Kaiser himself if necessary. It is quite possible, therefore, that the war may stop within a month or two by Germany’s sudden and complete surrender.”
Joseph stated that he applied for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps but they were not taking any more applicants at that time. Instead, he was taking a lieutenant’s course and would perhaps go to a military training school later.
Feb. 17, 1917: “Two large Trans Atlantic liners carrying about 12,000 sacks of mail were reported torpedoed and sunk by German submarines and so let me tell you once again not to send anything valuable, for a German submarine might put an end to it.”
Feb. 27, 1917: “No doubt there are still many fellows hanging around in Vancouver who should be in the Army. I cannot understand their state of mind unless they have no self-respect or sense of honour. Let them go their ways while there is no conscription but I certainly am glad I am not in those times in civilian clothes. The B.C. University will have to wait until the end of the war for me at least.”
March 4, 1917: “France is certainly a muddy place. You ought to hear our artillery guns hurl death and destruction into the rank of the Huns [Germans]. The artillery makes most of the noise at night and then, when you wake up, you hear the terrific reports of each shot as quickly as the pat-pat-pat of a typewriter.”
March 11, 1917: “Things are somewhat interesting around this part of the world. British aeroplanes fly over us about as thickly as birds. To-day the Huns were firing at our aeroplanes and the puffs of smoke from the enemy’s shells bursting around the aeroplanes could easily be seen. It is very regrettable though that one of the enemy’s shells must have pierced the petrol tank of one of our aeroplanes, for it came down a mass of flames with a thick black column of smoke shooting out behind it. I never saw a single German aeroplane since I came to France. No doubt they have their wits scared out of them.”
April 7, 1917: “The chances of peace do not … look as rosy as I thought but the Huns will be defeated ultimately.”
April 17, 1917: “To-day after returning with a party from a certain part of France where the Germans were once expelled from and the ground all cut and plowed up with trenches, I found waiting for me a parcel containing a broken biscuit tin with some of mamma’s home-made confectionary (including many crumbs) and a tin of strawberries and coffee.”
May 7, 1917, datelined “some other place in France this time”: “I suppose it must have been reported to you that I was very slightly wounded by two very small pieces of shrapnel and, as I feel that you folks at home are very anxious to hear particulars, I want to assure you that there is absolutely nothing whatever for you to worry about. The two wounds I got are on the outer side of my right leg, one above the knee about the centre and the other below the knee about the centre. Although each wound has the appearance of nothing more than a [scratch?] on the skin, nevertheless I had to come to the hospital, where it is a pleasure to be for a change. One of the attendants told me that the leg will be alright again in about 5 days. So tell mamma to be happy and cheerful at home.
“I received three letters from you while I was in the firing line. I was much surprised to hear of the murder of Chief of Police McLennan. I guess Vancouver was shocked at the time almost as badly as a war event.”
On May 22, 1917, from “somewhere in France,” Joseph writes that he still has not rejoined his battalion after his leg injury, as another shrapnel piece was found in his leg, and required more medical attention at the hospital. Joseph tells Rachel that the shrapnel was found with the aid of an X-ray, and the doctor let him keep the shrapnel as a souvenir.
On July 3, 1917, again from “somewhere in France,” Joseph has returned to his battalion. In this letter, he tells Rachel that, on the night of May 5, 1917, when he received his leg wound, he still made the effort to help out a wounded officer. A telegram indicating Joseph’s return to the battalion from the hospital was sent to Joseph’s mother, Esther, on July 5, 1917.
On Oct. 14, 1917, still “somewhere in France,” Joseph reports “nothing to write about.” It is the last letter he writes home.
Joseph fought and survived the Battle for Vimy Ridge, was wounded in the leg in another battle and spent several weeks in an army hospital before being sent back to the front. On Oct. 26, the first day Canadian soldiers fought at Passchendaele, he was killed. Joseph was the first Canadian Jewish soldier from Vancouver to die fighting in the war.
UBC Remembrance Day Ceremonies have been held since 1951, when the War Memorial Gymnasium was opened. Since that time, I have attended nearly every ceremony. At first, I went with my brother and our father, Harry, who was too young to be part of the First World War and too old to be part of the Second World War. In the early years, my father would speak with veterans who knew Joseph. Over time, they all have passed away, but I have continued to attend the memorial ceremony with various members of my family as a way to remember my Uncle Joe, who is lying somewhere in France with no grave or headstone; our own kever avot (tradition of visiting the graves of our fathers).
Perry Seidelmanis, among other things, president of the board of the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia.
The author and fellow servicemen at a moral leadership course in Fayid, Egypt, in 1951. (photo from Alan Tapper)
It was the spring of 1951 and I was serving in the British Royal Air Force in the Suez Canal Zone of Egypt. I was one the many hundreds of thousands of young British conscripts sent to Egypt to replace the local workers, who had been told by their government to leave their jobs servicing the British military there. While these men did menial jobs, the work provided them a subsistence wage, which they lost by leaving. Times were difficult.
I worked for the air force intelligence unit. My job was to document all the incidents that took place in an area from Iraq to Egypt. There were a large number of shootings, disturbances in villages and casualties, both Egyptian and British.
Drug smuggling was also an issue. Habbaniya in Iraq was a British air force base at the time, and part of our command. The unit I was in also employed local Arabic-speaking trackers for intelligence work. Hashish was the drug of choice then and a tracker with the RAF once brought back some to our office for airmen to sample at the end of a cigarette.
I was based in Ismailia, in northern Egypt, on the edge of an airfield. I lived in a tented compound where the locals regularly fired volleys of bullets into the base. They were indiscriminate. Not a pleasant experience.
I also worked in the civilian labor office, where I discovered information on the large number of Jewish people from different countries living in Alexandria and Cairo. My job entailed monitoring all previous applications forms and that’s how I found out that there were many Jews in the region, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi, who had worked for the British forces during the Second World War.
Even though the nominal head of Egypt at that time was King Farouk, the British government had a colonial attitude and controlled the whole of the Suez Canal Zone from Port Said to Suez, with army and air force bases throughout the area. Britain knew the strategic importance of this waterway to countries of “the Empire.”
Fifty years later, the British government recognized the effort of the conscripts who served in Egypt by giving us a Suez Medal. They were going to charge us 50 pounds for the medal, but changed their minds after the uproar the idea caused. Regardless, I’m glad to have served, and I still have the medal. I wear it at Remembrance Day ceremonies.
I was in Egypt for 16 months. One of the most memorable parts of my time in the Suez Canal Zone was when I attended a moral leadership course organized by the Jewish chaplain to the British Armed Services in Fayid, Egypt, during Pesach 1951. It was attended by Jewish servicemen stationed in the area and special Pesach food was brought in for the seder and the festival. It was a wonderful experience to meet fellow Jews in – of all places at Passover – Egypt.
Alan Tapperis a local freelance writer. His work has been published in the Vancouver Sun, Province, Courier, National Post, among others, as well as the Jewish Western Bulletin, now the Jewish Independent, and online publications. His first story was published in the London Evening Star when he was 14.
Born to Ukrainian Orthodox survivors of the Holocaust, Dr. Eva Pip knows all too well the long-lasting effects of war. Her parents were imprisoned in labor and concentration camps as punishment by the Nazis for harboring Jews on their farm.
“My mother was never a fully functional human being again,” said Pip. “She had a number tattooed on her arm that she was always trying to conceal. She felt that, if someone saw it, they’d think less of her. Her greatest fear was of being sent back.
“She had terrible nightmares for the rest of her life. At least once a week, she would scream in her sleep, as though she was being murdered. I’d have to run to wake her up. She had a lot of old injuries and scars, and an improperly healed collar bone and breast bone.”
Pip’s mother came to Winnipeg by train from Halifax. Her mother did not choose to come to Canada; it was simply where that week’s ship from Germany happened to have been bound. The previous week’s ship went to Australia.
Several years later, Pip’s mother was able to sponsor her husband to come to Canada. He could not get out of Germany when the war ended and the forced labor camp in which he was held was disbanded, as he was wounded and not yet medically fit to be cleared to come to Canada. He finally came in 1949.
Pip was born the next year though her parents never wanted a child. The war had taken the humanity and warmth from them and they found it difficult to cope with basic daily life.
“In many ways, both of my parents were like children,” said Pip. “They could not make decisions, they could not take proper control of their lives, they constantly lived in some past world before the war had happened.
“There must be thousands and thousands of these silent casualties that are not recorded or even recognized. This damage did not stop with the people who personally experienced war atrocities. It affected their children, too, such as myself, who grew up in essence without parents to love and nurture them, to teach them, to respect them as human beings that they have brought into the world.
“My parents never once hugged or kissed me. We had very little food to eat. Often, we ate out of garbage cans. My mother made my clothing out of scraps and bits because she could not afford to buy me anything. My father did not want to support us, although he lived with us.”
Pip’s father worked as a painter for a billboard company, Universal Signs, which was owned by Max Gardner – who was Jewish and who Pip said took pity on her family – until he retired at the age of 66.
“The Gardners were our benefactors,” said Pip. “They gave us their old furniture for our home and did many kind things to help us out. They almost adopted me.
“Our next door neighbors on Manitoba Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End happened to be the parents of Dr. Harry Medovy [a well-known pediatrician and academic]. Although he had already left home long before we arrived, his mother was very kind to us and often shared her home-made Jewish holiday food with us.”
Later on in life, Pip has, in turn, helped out with various Jewish women’s and seniors organizations.
Growing up in a home that did not encourage friendships, Pip developed a very rich interior life, and found empathy and compassion for other beings in her North End environment.
“I developed a passion for nature, for the earth, and felt incredible sadness at what was happening to our environment,” she said. “I felt the hardships of the creatures around me that had even less than I did. I could feel their voicelessness and powerlessness from those who could kill on a whim and who were unmoved by the suffering and injustice we inflict on the companion spirits God gave us to accompany us during our brief time on this earth.”
This view led Pip to her career choice. She wanted to speak for those who could not and to raise awareness of how damaging and destructive people’s actions are for our planet.
Regarding any desire to have a family of her own, Pip said, “You cannot miss something that you have not had. I have lived alone all my life. The advantage of this is that spiritual development becomes a much more important life path, without the distractions of family and its problems and demands.
“My work became my family. I obtained my PhD from the University of Manitoba in 1977. At that time, being a woman in science was hard. I was able to go to university only because the National Research Council supported me with scholarships. I worked very hard and got good grades.”
Pip taught at the U of M for three years before transferring over to the University of Winnipeg, where she has been teaching for 37 years. This year, Pip is retiring, though by no means does she intend to spend her days resting. She plans to continue writing and publishing pieces on the environment and working in her large rural garden.
Pip grows most of her own food because she knows it will be clean and free of chemicals.
“I’ve always loved tomatoes,” she said. “That interest has grown into my trying to preserve heritage varieties, as these are rapidly disappearing and are an irreplaceable part of our collective culture. I also grow heritage potatoes and heritage varieties of flowers, giving away much of what I cannot eat. I also harvest wild foods on my land.”
Instead of having a cottage, which Pip views as harmful for the environment, she buys land of ecological value and donates it to wildlife preservation institutions. She has donated most of her land to the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation.
“I hope there is never such a monstrous exhibition of human cruelty and vice in our world again [as was the Second World War],” said Pip. “I hope we never again have millions of damaged human beings in the aftermath. I hope we can make peace with each other, that we can recognize that we are all equal, that we do not look down on each other and pretend we are better, that we do not rob each other of our right to life and right to God, and that we make peace with our Mother Earth.
“For these things to happen, human nature needs to change, our values and our dollar worship need to change. I fear that it will be too late by the time we and our leaders realize this. When it is time for me to hand in my dinner pail, I wish to face God and feel confident I have done a good day’s work.”
Sometimes there are jokes about how we’re all emotionally damaged to some degree. It’s a serious problem for us, because we all lived through wars and terror attacks,” shared Canadian-Israeli Yolanda Papini Pollock of Winnipeg Friends of Israel (WFI) at a lecture co-hosted by WFI on Feb. 9.
The discussion, which focused on the topic The Psychological Impact of War and Terrorism: Coping with and Minimizing Trauma, was held with the local Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev chapter, the Jewish Post and News and Congregation Temple Shalom, at the synagogue.
“I’ve worked with refugees for the last decade,” said Michel Strain of the Manitoba Immigrant and Refugee Settlement Sector Association. “All have come from countries affected by war and many have experienced trauma and torture, many living in refugee situations for many years.
“In my role in the employment program I worked in, I was often one of the first people the refugees began to trust. And, during this trusting relationship, I had the privilege of many individuals sharing their stories with me…. Their resiliency was resoundingly evident to me.”
Holocaust survivor Edith Kimelman spoke about dealing with her personal trauma. She was 16 years old when Germany invaded her small community in Poland.
“I stood at a neighbor’s window and watched my father being led away by soldiers, only to find him later in a field – dead and riddled with bullets,” she said. “It was beyond my young comprehension to understand that no one in our non-Jewish community of neighbors would help us bring him home. My childish belief was, once he returns to our house, he would return to life.
“To watch from our window, as Jewish neighbors were led behind a stable, shot and quickly buried gives me, to this day, nightmares. To find my mother so severely beaten that it led to her death will haunt me forever. I felt like I was punished, having to remain alive without her.
“When I had my own children, I lived in constant fear that something terrible would happen to them or to my husband, and that I would be unable to help them.”
Kimelman explained how this trauma has affected every aspect of her life, including, of course, her relationships with family and friends. While she fears she will leave her sons with the heavy baggage of her unfortunate experiences, she is confident that her fierce love for life and her survival will carry them through.
The keynote speaker of the event, BGU’s Dr. Solly Dreman, who was born and raised in Winnipeg before moving to Israel 50 years ago, was introduced by Dr. Will Fleisher, a local therapist experienced in working with traumatized youth and adults. Dreman is professor emeritus in BGU’s department of psychology.
Dreman has witnessed the long-lasting effects of terrorism. Decades later, “soldiers are having night terrors, night sweats, family difficulties, are unable to cope.”
He differentiated between war and terrorism, explaining that war is usually preceded by prior events and circumstances, while terrorism occurs suddenly, without warning, causing a different type of trauma. Unlike war, terrorism is not confined to a specific geographic arena or time dimension.
“The threat persists, the fears, uncertainty, the sense of helplessness,” he said. “Such attacks are looming over our heads all the time. You have the unbridled devils lurking in your soul forever. That’s going to serve as the trigger for anxiety, feelings of helplessness and inability to cope.
“People who have lost loved ones may have been witness to the event, and we all know the symptoms of survivor guilt,” he continued. “By escaping unscathed, they experience feelings of guilt that they came out alive. There’s research that shows that people who have been injured in a terrorism event after having lost a family member have less PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] than someone who comes out unscathed. Survivor guilt has been a major factor.”
Dreman pointed to the media as an aggravator in Israel, saying they continually expose the public to the horrific events, while frequently providing information that is unreliable and unconfirmed. He also said the general public, too, is responsible for watching, reading and listening to these reports more critically.
He spoke about his experiences with two separate terror incidents.
“Our initial therapeutic attempts were designed to deal with interpersonal things, like helping teachers in their contact with the young victim students, helping integrate them into the school system,” said Dreman.
The approach seemed to have worked for the first few years, but when Dreman went back to these families 10 years after the initial contact, he found them struggling with life and their interpersonal relationships.
“It was terrible,” said Dreman. “We failed. By the way, we got published in a very prestigious journal reporting on our failure. The conclusion, for those of you who are dealing with refugees or faced the Holocaust, is that there is a need for interpersonal intervention and getting back to business as usual.”
Dreman suggested that limiting media exposure may be helpful, as the constant repetition of the horror does not allow people to heal. But, on the other hand, he said it is important to not go completely off the grid, as that can cause anxiety to a breaking point that might create more trauma. A balance is needed, he said.
Dreman further advised that it is important to embrace life, that social support is a major factor in healthy adjustment.
“Be up front with your kids, explaining that you will do your best to protect everyone,” he said, “but don’t promise that nothing bad will happen, as that is a promise you may not be able to keep. We should allow kids the opportunity to express their fears, but not to dwell on them, as that will exacerbate the sense of trauma.
“Routine is very important – schoolwork, exercise, empowerment,” he added. “The only way to get that is establishing a routine in the face of incomprehensible uncertainty and trauma. Don’t send the kid to a shrink because, by doing that, you’re telling them you can’t manage things.”