A photo of George Pal with the class of 2016 I-witness Field School, which can be found in his recently released memoir, Prisoners of Hope.
Shoah survivor George Pal introduced the printed and electronic versions of his memoir, Prisoners of Hope: Rising from the Ashes of the Holocaust, to a Zoom audience on June 30.
His eyewitness account describes life at Auschwitz, where Pal, now 94, was interned in 1944-45 as prisoner #42821. The book is the result of the warm response to his presentations given through the University of Victoria’s I-witness Field School, a program that explores “the ways in which the Holocaust is memorialized in Central Europe, to build an understanding of how the lessons of the Holocaust are relevant in today’s world.”
His story demonstrates how rapidly upheaval can occur in a person’s life. Pal’s hometown of Mukachevo, now in Ukraine, found itself, by turns, under the rule of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Germany and Russia – all within the first half of the century. “At the age of 17, I already had lived in several different countries, without ever having left town!” Pal observes.
The memoir’s title conveys Pal’s steadfast spiritual resistance to the horrors and brutality that he endured. He believes that many of his fellow concentration camp inmates shared this resolve. Eventually, he was “liberated” by the Russian army, and traveled back to Mukachevo, where he was reunited with his mother and sister. His mother had been interned in a ghetto in Budapest, while his sister had survived a concentration camp.
Pal soon moved to Budapest. A decade later, that city was invaded by the Soviet Union. By then a married engineer with two children, Pal went to Austria. Ultimately, he found asylum in Canada, where he became the dean of engineering at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ont. There, he learned English. He already spoke Czech, German, Hungarian, Hebrew and a smattering of Russian. In 2006, he moved to Victoria. His journey has been one of patience, perseverance, love and hope.
The release of his memoir proves timely, as nations worldwide explode in public protests urging their governments and police to confront their histories of systemic racism. Pal’s heartfelt plea reiterates the famous refrain “never again.”
“Having survived one of the most monstrous events in human history, I believe that it is my duty to testify. This is crucial especially because Nazi sympathizers and followers continue to exist throughout the world,” he writes.
In May 2019, Pal began working with Vancouver editor Lisa Ferdman, whom he credits for “her consummate skill and insight.” Her recent work as editor includes The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather Was a War Criminal by Silvia Foti, soon to be released by Regnery Publishing, in Washington, D.C.
“It was an honour to assist Pal in sharing his story with a wider audience,” Ferdman affirmed.
The book launch featured Prof. Helga Thorson of the University of Victoria’s department of Germanic and Slavic studies; Shoshana Litman of the Victoria Storytellers’ Society; and a video-recorded conversation with Pal.
“For the past 10 years, George has shared his story in my Holocaust studies courses at UVic. In this way, he has affected the lives of countless students, who now carry his story with them as they face their own experiences of a world still struggling with racism, antisemitism and genocide – 75 years after the Shoah,” Thorson said.
“George’s stories of resilience offer concise glimpses of experiences few of us have endured. His writing helps us begin to understand the tremendous perils of unchecked racism in a very personal way,” Litman, Canada’s first ordained maggidah (female Jewish storyteller), reflected.
In one of the later chapters, Pal states: “I have often been asked, ‘Do you hate the Germans?’ My emphatic answer is always, ‘No! If I were to blame the entire German people for everything that happened to me, my family and all those who did not survive, I would be making the same mistake that the Nazis made in blaming the Jews for all of Germany’s woes.’ Such generalizing, or demonizing, is dangerous.”
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
In her recently published book, Shalom Uganda: A Jewish Community on the Equator, Vancouverite Janice Masur writes about her life in Kampala, Uganda, where she moved as a child of 5 and stayed until the age of 17 in 1961, leaving just before Uganda achieved independence in 1962. The small Jewish community of Kampala has been all but forgotten, its history mostly undocumented and lost to time.
JI: How did the idea for this book come about, and when did you begin researching and writing it?
JM: The idea originated in a modern East African history class I attended at Simon Fraser University. I began writing in 2005, traveling to interview octogenarians and nonagenarians, who [earlier in their lives] had arrived in Kampala. They included Holocaust survivors, individuals who might otherwise have gone to Kenya but could not afford to pay the required head tax, and those who arrived on work contracts of two to four years.
JI: Why was it important for you to try to capture the history of Jewish life in Kampala?
JM: I wanted to both document and honour my small Jewish community on the equator, an imploded star vanished in the diasporic galaxy. While many people are familiar with the Abayudayah who, in 1921, converted to Judaism in passive rebellion against British rule, my community is almost completely forgotten. There’s not even a cemetery to mark the existence of 23 secular families who, without a rabbi, Torah or synagogue managed to create a small, cohesive, but unreligious community. There is a great paucity of research literature on this topic and I have been told that, presently, Shalom Uganda is likely the only scholarship devoted to the Jewish community in Kampala.
JI: How did spending some of your formative years in Kampala leave a lasting imprint on your life?
JM: To this day I love mangos, and growing up in Kampala has made me feel comfortable in the company of all ethnic groups. This long-forgotten colonial world included boarding school attendance and, though much-hated, this education provided me with some excellent life lessons.
JI: Do you have any inclination to return to Uganda to visit or live?
JM: I have not had the courage to return yet, and think that perhaps memories are best left to glitter in the distance. I know that the town is much more densely populated and built up now than it was when I left, and that the red murram country roads are in ill repair.
JI: Who do you believe will benefit most from reading this book?
JM: My intent is to place this book in all major libraries worldwide. It seems that all who have read Shalom Uganda so far seem to have learnt a new fact, enjoyed the memoir or want to tell me how their life was or wasn’t similar to mine. So, I believe that the book will be well read among a Jewish following or among scholars thirsting for information about Jewish history and life in far-flung places last century. I hope others enjoy reading my writing effort. It is a relief to have the story out in the open.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Lillian Boraks-Nemetz has a new poetry compilation, called Out of the Dark, which will be released by Ronsdale Press in the fall. (photo from Lillian Boraks-Nemetz)
The death in late May of George Floyd, while he was pinned down on the ground by a Minneapolis police officer, has sparked continuing protests throughout the United States and the world. The tragic incident struck a nerve with Vancouver author and poet Lillian Boraks-Nemetz, and she composed “The Arm,” a poem about racism, in Floyd’s honour.
The poem begins: “Today I am George Floyd / I am a Jew / so I know how it feels / To be stifled / By the arm of hate / That extends toward anyone / Who is different in colour / Culture or creed.”
“Before he died, George Floyd said, ‘I can’t breathe.’ When I think of the enormity of the Holocaust and its implications in my life, I can hardly breathe,” Boraks-Nemetz, a Shoah survivor, told the Independent in a recent interview from her home in Vancouver.
“There were moments during the Holocaust when fear froze my throat and I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “The first time, I stood at the Nazi checkpoint dividing the Warsaw Ghetto from the rest of the world, I had to let go of my father’s hand and walk alone through the checkpoint, hoping the German guard holding a rifle won’t shoot me. The second time I couldn’t breathe was when I found out that my little sister was murdered by a policeman during the war only because she was a Jew. Like poor George Floyd, my sister didn’t survive.”
When asked what she hopes people who read the poem will take from it, she replied: “There are people in our community who do not identify with the anti-racism goings on. I do.”
She explained, “They talk about the black injustice, the indigenous injustice. I am talking about the Jewish injustice and the rise of antisemitism around the world. It seems as if this topic has been completely omitted from all conversations on racism by both Jews and non-Jews. These incidents, like the killing of George Floyd, touch every survivor of trauma one way or another.”
“The Arm” ends: “As the world burns / From loss, guilt and disgust / May the good people of this Earth / Rise and open their arms / Far and wide to release / Love, kindness and justice for all / Because today each one of us / Is George Floyd.”
The poem comes ahead of the release of Boraks-Nemetz’s new poetry compilation, Out of the Dark, which will be released by Ronsdale Press in the fall.
The 100-page collection offers a cycle of poems in three parts about the poet, who has had to live with the memories of the Holocaust all her life. The first section describes the evils of suffering and prejudice, of war and destruction, and the loss of loved ones, even the loss of self.
“This is a ghetto / where humans live in neglected cages / within a fire that burns sleep out of their eyes,” one verse proclaims.
The second section offers “flickers of light” in locating paths to a more fulfilling life, once the poet understands, “We must always seek / new ways / of reaching one another / though each of us / is a world unto itself.”
The third section pays homage to the creative minds who preceded us and who have bequeathed us their gifts. And it explores the ability to live and love: “I run toward you / carrying the glow of marigolds / lighting your path to my love.”
Boraks-Nemetz is well-known in British Columbian and Canadian literary circles. In 2017, she published Mouth of Truth, a novel that also addressed the power of speaking up for justice. In it, the protagonist must confront secrets from her family’s past in Warsaw during the Holocaust, issues of guilt and discrimination, and verbal, psychological and physical abuse.
Canadian poet John Robert Colombo called Mouth of Truth “a work of great insight and fine delicacy about the human condition.”
Previous works by Boraks-Nemetz – The Old Brown Suitcase, The Sunflower Diaries, The Lenski File and Tapestry of Hope – have garnered Canadian and international awards, as well as praise in literary publications.
Outside her literary endeavours, Boraks-Nemetz is a campaigner for Holocaust education. She speaks frequently at local schools and at international events about the Shoah and is deeply involved with the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada.
A travelogue of observations and experiences from the unique to the mundane, the personal to the universal, a mix of prose and poetry, Goosefeather: Once Upon a Cartographic Adventure has arrived. Its journey, which started in 2011 when storyteller Naomi Eliana Pommier Steinberg interviewed her grandfather in Paris, will culminate in a book launch in Vancouver on June 9 that will stream live on Facebook and YouTube.
Vancouver-based artist Steinberg asked her maternal grandfather, who was not Jewish, more than 100 questions. In particular, she told the Jewish Independent in a 2018 interview, “I wanted to know how he had helped my Jewish grandmother survive the Second World War and why he was a collector of maps, weights and scales. Given his work with the metric system, I also thought it would be interesting for us to talk about measurements in general.” (See jewishindependent.ca/around-the-world-in-382-days.)
More than a year of research followed and, while she was able to show her grandfather pieces of what would become the performance work Goosefeather, he passed away before the work was completed. The JI saw the 2014 Vancouver Fringe Festival show, in which, the article notes, “Steinberg intersperses what she knows and learns about her grandfather with observations about the concept of measurement, of time and space. What do we measure? Our waists, our burdens? What are our favourite measuring tools? A yardstick, the position of the sun?” (See jewishindependent.ca/jewish-flare-at-fringe-festival.)
The idea that there is no such thing as an exact measurement is accented in the book Goosefeather, as an opportunity for readers to consider what they don’t know, to accept and embrace the unknown, and the fact that there will always be a margin of error, not just in our measurements, but in our perspectives and approaches to life.
“What I arrive at in the book is that: ‘Practising right-relation is predicated on allowing space for not knowing, space for humility, space for listening.’ It is a term borrowed from Buddhism,” Steinberg told the Independent in an interview last week.
“In Judaism,” she said, “there is kavanah, the stilling of self to prepare for entering the mystery. The setting of intention. Before ritual gestures, we centre ourselves, humble in the light of all there is, intending to practise peace. For some, the experience is made desirable and the longing for union acute through visualization. Then, I believe that tzedakah is one of the ways we can practise right-relation. With my own liberal interpretation and limited understanding, I could say that Judaism wrote laws to ensure the circulation of wealth, including, for example, tithing and taxation systems. Tzedakah, charity, is a mitzvah – a very important good deed. Finally, slichot [forgiveness prayers], the ability to recognize what is important … what needs to be let go, instead of focusing on negatives.”
The ability to adapt, to make quick decisions and to remain positive serve Steinberg well as a storyteller, no doubt. These attributes also helped on her travels, where things didn’t always go as planned, or were even left unplanned until the last minute. Her 382-day journey – by almost every mode of transportation except airplane – covered just under 56,000 kilometres and took her to many countries, including Canada and the United States, as well as Australia, China, Japan, Russia, Norway, England, Scotland, France, Switzerland and Belgium. She performed Goosefeather, as well as did other storytelling, along the way – 37 productions in all, according to the press material.
From countless experiences, Steinberg has created a concise account that is informational, philosophical, lyrical and thought-provoking. Some days, she records the details of her travels; other days, she ponders larger questions; yet other days, she simply notes how something smelled or sounded.
“An itinerant artist is a human on the road,” she explained. “There are ups and downs on life’s road. Parts of the 382 days on the road were uncomfortable or stretched out, long and slow. Well, we know it’s not all just fun and games in life. I wanted to keep it real. Much of what I was trying to do by sharing those moments was enter the banality of the day-to-day; to bring readers’ bodies there, evoking images, awakening senses, remembering experiences. That’s what storytellers do!”
Steinberg not only performed during her travels, but gave workshops, in which she offers her experience in crafting a story to communications professionals and other groups, stressing the importance of play and movement.
“The diaphragm is a great muscle that holds a lot of tension,” she explained. “It works super-hard every day, as does the heart, to maintain a flow of oxygen to all parts of the body. That’s amazing. We can practise gratitude towards our bodies every day! Sometimes, the tension in the diaphragm can be released through conscious breathing, laughter, certainly through yawning, and, probably, hopefully, through crying. These are four good ways to release the diaphragm. When we play, the diaphragm gets shaken up a bit and we can relax. Try it!
“Play is fun, charming, disarming. Play is guileless. Otherwise, you may as well call it manipulation and dress it up in propaganda’s clothes. Play can be surprising, logic threatening, synaptic gap leaping. These transformations in perspective can be subtle yet profound.”
Such thoughts come full circle back to the concept of margins of error and how our recognition of their existence could make us less quick to judge and more open to others’ ideas and perspectives.
Steinberg cited American writer and translator X.J. Kennedy, who, she noted, “says: ‘To leap over the wall of self, to look through another’s eyes – this is valuable experience, which literature offers.’
“Lateral movement is good for the body,” said Steinberg. “In theatresports, there is a game called space-jump – you literally leap in and out of scenarios, putting your whole self in an imaginary situation. Playing this feeds agility, spontaneity and willingness.”
Books, she said, are essential for many people, including, or perhaps especially during difficult periods, such as the COVID-19 pandemic we are currently experiencing. “Escaping into other experiences, or trying to understand what’s happening through the lens of historical accounts, can be a kind of lifesaver,” she said. “Books provide solace in challenging times. The act of writing can record, reflect and frame.”
Describing Goosefeather as “a memoir and travelogue with literary aspirations,” Steinberg said, “I have tried to bring my strength as an oral storyteller from the stage to the page. I hope the readers of Goosefeather feel included in a process of emergence and discovery. That a lightness and delight is found in the journey and that there is emotional resonance with humanity and with the planet. In some ways, I want to position the book as an antidote to the propagation of fear and the dangers of isolation.
“We are living a tremendous story of transformation,” she said. “The most gripping stories I’ve listened to or read, the ones that were somehow useful to my psyche, were the ones that gave insight into how a character might navigate difficulty, or might share their love and appreciation for what makes life wonderful. Listening, generosity, caring … these are manifest around the globe in a thousand small gestures and are giving shape to our emergent global culture. My hope is that Goosefeather’s story, her journey around the planet, contributes to this.”
And is that journey now complete?
“I like the idea that the performance is over, and need that for my own closure,” said Steinberg. “It ensures celebration of achievement. I can say, ‘Done’ – journey around planet as singular gesture towards time-space, ‘check!’
“Then there is the show, which I suppose could be performed again, but I’d have to relearn the text fresh and new. I’ve toyed with the idea of Goosefeather’s character doing a different stage performance, but, truth be told, I don’t actually know what comes next after this book! Maybe someone will pick it up and help with soft cover distribution? For now, I have 500 hardcover, first-edition, silver-gilded books for sale, and the desire to produce an interesting and entertaining live-stream launch event.”
Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag by Monika Zgustova (Other Press, 2020) is the first book to focus exclusively on women who lived in the Gulag. It is an intimate look at nine women, who shared their experiences with Zgustova. Regrettably, several of them passed away before the book was published.
The word Gulag is the acronym for Main Administration of Camps (in Russian), which was the government agency in charge of the former Soviet Union’s forced-labour camp system, which started under Vladimir Lenin. The system continued through Joseph Stalin’s rule and the term is also used to refer to any forced-labour camp in the former Soviet Union, including camps that existed in post-Stalin times. The camps housed a wide range of people, from actual criminals to political prisoners.
Zgustova was born in Prague. In the 1970s, her parents took her and her brother on a trip to India. Instead of returning to Prague, they went to the United States, where she studied at the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago. She taught Russian in several American universities before moving to Barcelona, where she works as a writer and translator.
The book’s translator is Julie Jones, who is a professor emeritus of Spanish at the University of New Orleans.
In 2008, Zgustova traveled to Moscow, learned about the women of the Gulag and decided to interview some of them. To do this, she also traveled to Paris and London.
Zgustova writes in the book’s introduction that she wants her readers to learn about the Gulag “through the stories of the nine intelligent, sensitive and strong women [she] had the honour of interviewing.”
“What these women found in the Gulag was their hierarchy of values, at the top of which were books and invulnerable, selfless friendship,” writes Zgustova.
Zayara Vesyolaya, her sister and their friends were celebrating her sister’s successful thesis defence in 1940, when Vesyolaya was arrested, imprisoned and sent to Siberia. The people there would compose and memorize poetry and recite it at night to develop their minds through literature.
Susanna Pechuro was sentenced to 25 years in a forced labour camp for ostensibly belonging to a group of Jewish dissidents. She was in 11 prisons and seven work camps.
Ella Markman was part of an anti-Stalin group and sentenced to forced labour in the mines of the Arctic Circle.
Elena Korybut-Daszkiewica came from a Polish family, spent the war in Ukraine but was arrested as a collaborator and sent to work in the mines above the Arctic Circle, where she kept a Pushkin book that was passed from person to person.
Valentina Iyevleva was imprisoned after having an affair with an American and having his daughter.
Natalie Gorbanevskaya was arrested and sent to a psychiatric hospital because she went to a demonstration and was a well-known dissident.
Janina Misik, a Polish woman with a half-Jewish father, was sent to a work camp.
Gayla Safonova was born in a labour camp and raised there.
Irina Emelyanova is one of the most interesting of the women interviewed for the book, and the best known. Her mother was Boris Pasternak’s last love and the inspiration for Lara in Doctor Zhivago. She and her mother were sent to the Gulag after Pasternak’s death because of their connections to him.
Each woman’s story is moving and the theme running through all the oral histories is their strength in surviving. Zgustova also includes their struggles after their release. It is a remarkable book to read.
Sybil Kaplanis a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.
Gilad Seliktar, left, and Rolf Kamp in Amsterdam. They are drawing the last hiding place of Nico and Rolf Kamp in Achterveld, which was liberated in April 1945 by Canadian troops. (photo from UVic)
A University of Victoria professor is orchestrating an international project that links Holocaust survivors with professional illustrators to create a series of graphic novels, thereby bringing the stories of the Shoah to new generations.
Charlotte Schallié, a Holocaust historian and the current chair of UVic’s department of Germanic and Slavic studies, is leading the initiative, which connects four survivors living in the Netherlands, Israel and Canada with accomplished graphic novelists from three continents.
The project, called Narrative Art and Visual Storytelling in Holocaust and Human Rights Education, is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Its aim is to teach about racism, antisemitism, human rights and social justice while shedding more light on one of the darkest times in human history.
UVic is partnering with several organizations in the project, including the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
Many historians of the genre have argued that the rise of graphic novels as a serious medium of expression is largely due to the commercial success of Art Spiegelman’s Maus in 1986. Maus, the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, depicts recollections of Spiegelman’s father, a Shoah survivor, with Jews portrayed as mice, Germans as cats and Poles as pigs.
Schallié told the Independent that the idea for the project came from observing the interest her 13-year-old son has in graphic novels and the appeal Maus has had among her students, who have continually selected it as one of the most poignant and memorable materials in her classes.
“Though a graphic novel, Maus could hardly be accused of treating the events of the Holocaust frivolously,” she said from her office on the campus of the University of Victoria.
As most survivors are now octogenarians and nonagenarians, the passage of time creates an ever more compelling need to tell their stories as soon as possible.
“Given the advanced age of survivors, the project takes on an immediate urgency,” said Schallié. “And what makes their participation especially meaningful is that each of them continues to be a social justice activist well into their 80s and 90s. They are role models for the integration of learning about the Shoah and broader questions of human rights protection.”
The visual nature of a graphic novel allows it to bring in elements or depict scenes that are not possible with an exclusively written work, according to Schallié. A person may describe an event in writing but leave out aspects of a scene that might add more to the sense of what it was like to be there at the time.
One of the survivors participating in the project, David Schaffer, 89, lives in Vancouver. He is paired with American-Israeli comic artist Miriam Libicki, who is also based in the city. The two met in person in early January so that Libicki could learn the story of how he survived the Holocaust as a child in Romania.
In 1941, Schaffer was forcibly sent with his family to Transnistria, on the border of present-day Moldova and Ukraine, by cattle car. There, they suffered starvation and were subjected to intolerable and inhumane living conditions.
“The most important thing is to share the story with the general population so they realize what happened and to avoid it happening again. It’s very simple. History has a habit of repeating itself,” said Schaffer.
Libicki, who was the Vancouver Public Library’s Writer in Residence in 2017, is the creator of jobnik!, a series of graphic comics about a summer she spent in the Israeli military. An Emily Carr University of Art + Design graduate, she also published a collection of essays on what is means to be Jewish, Toward a Hot Jew. (See jewishindependent.ca/drawing-on-identity-judaism.)
“The more stories, the better. The wiser we can be as people, the more informed we can be as citizens and the more empathy we can have for each other,” Libicki said. “Graphic novels are not just a document in the archives; they’re something people will be drawn to reading.”
The other illustrators are Barbara Yelin, a graphic artist living in Germany, and Gilad Seliktar, who is based in Israel. Yelin is the recipient of a number of prizes for her work, including the Max & Moritz Prize for best German-language comic artist in 2016. Seliktar has illustrated dozens of books – from publications for children to adult graphic novels – and his drawings frequently appear in leading Israeli newspapers and magazines.
Brothers Nico and Rolf Kamp in Amsterdam and Emmie Arbel in Kiryat Tiv’on, Israel, are the other three survivors who are providing their accounts of the Holocaust.
The books will be available digitally in 2022. A hard copy version of each book is planned, as well. When finished, the graphic novels will be accompanied by teachers guides and instructional material designed for schools in Canada, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.
UVic hopes to match a larger number of survivors with professional illustrators in the future. To learn more, contact Schallié at [email protected]. You can also visit the project’s website at holocaustgraphicnovels.org.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
I review a lot of books for the Jewish Independent. Over the years, that has included many children’s books. I do my best in these instances but, as much as I like to let my inner child run free occasionally and as much as I’d one day like to create a children’s book or two, I’m a grown-up. What do I really know about how enjoyable the single-digit-age set will find a publication? Well, for my latest two reviews, I turned to a couple of experts for advice.
With COVID-19 causing the shutdown of schools, my youngest nieces – Fae, 8, and Charlotte, 6 – were suddenly available to be put to work. With their parents’ blessing, nay, encouragement, I scanned and emailed them two recent books published by Intergalactic Afikoman (see jewishindependent.ca/new-publisher-set-to-launch). The assignment was to read Asteroid Goldberg: Passover in Outer Space by Brianna Caplan Sayres and illustrator Merrill Rainey and Such a Library! A Yiddish Folktale Re-imagined by Jill Ross Nadler and illustrator Esther van den Berg. As my nieces were new to the reviewing world, I gave them a handful of questions to answer: What did you like about the books? What did you not like? What did you learn? Would you recommend the books to your friends?
Their mother, Deborah Weiss, sent me summaries of their answers, as well as Fae’s handwritten responses – I’d asked her to be the family’s scribe for the job.
They started with Asteroid Goldberg, which features Asteroid and her parents on their way home from Pluto for the Passover seder. When the family gets to earth’s orbit, they are not allowed to land (for an unstated reason), so they must make alternate seder plans on the fly (pun intended). A few of Jupiter’s moons for kneidl, a piece of Saturn’s rings for matzah, the Milky Way as their pantry. Who to invite? Family members close by, including Grandma Luna, who was biking on Venus, and Uncle Cosmos, who was hiking on Mars. When they come to the Mah Nishtanah, Asteroid asks, “What makes this night so different?” to which the answer is “Everything!” Caplan Sayres couldn’t have known how relevant her Passover story would be this year.
Both Fae and Charlotte loved the story and the artwork. Even though Charlotte found it a bit too long, Fae recommended it for kids 7 and under.
“I like this book because it was a rhyming book and because it had lots of play-along words,” wrote Fae, who explained to her mom that “play-along words are words with multiple meanings.”
As for lessons learned, Fae “did not learn anything.” However, her sister, who can be a pistol, said she learned that one should “never go on a rocket before Passover.”
As for their mom’s thoughts, Deb said, “I really liked this book. As we get ready for a Passover that will be very different this year, I loved reading about a family that had to change their Passover plans and still had lots of fun and found new ways to celebrate. This really resonated with me!”
Deb and the girls also enjoyed Such a Library! “I thought this was a really clever and imaginative take on a well-known folktale,” said Deb, who noted, “Both girls liked the funny text, the story and the artwork. We also liked the clever name of the librarian.”
In Such a Library!, Stevie heads to the public library to read his book – “With three brothers, two sisters and a baby at home, Stevie’s house was never quiet.” As he starts to read, though, he hears pages turning, computer keys tapping. He tiptoes to the librarian, Miss Understood, and says, “This library is too noisy.” He tells her, “It’s like a party in here.” Thinking that a party sounds like a wonderful idea, she opens a book: “Hundreds of colourful balloons flew from the pages, followed by party hats and horns.”
Each time Stevie goes to Miss Understood to complain, she opens another book and the library becomes a zoo, then a circus, as the characters jump out of the pages of the books she opens and take over the library. Only once the characters are all returned to their books can Stevie enjoy reading his, to the relatively quiet sounds of the pages turning, computer keys tapping.
Such a Library! is an interpretation of the Yiddish folktale about a man who thinks that his small house is too crowded with his wife and many children. The rabbi recommends that the man also bring into the house the family’s cow, chickens, goats, geese and ducks. When the man can’t take it anymore, the rabbi tells him to kick out all the animals, after which, the small house seems quite big and spacious.
Fae would recommend Such a Library!, once again, to kids age 7 and under, while Charlotte really liked it and would recommend it to anyone.
As for what the girls learned, Deb said, quoting Charlotte, “We learned that, if you’re looking for a quiet place to read, to not to go to the library when it’s full of acrobats!”
In the play Birds of a Kind by Wajdi Mouawad, the character of Eitan, injured in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, lies in a coma. As his estranged parents and his grandmother hope for his recovery, they bitterly dig ever deeper into their familial dysfunction. At one point, the doctor tells them about Eitan, “What matters is the voices of those dear to him. His parents, his friends.”
His father responds, “His friends are in Berlin.” His mother, “Or New York.” His grandmother, “But his fiancée is here.” (The Palestinian fiancée that his parents cannot fathom and regarding whom they are nasty, based on a mix of racism, fear, guilt, concern over their own identity, secrets they have kept and more.) The doctor tells the trio, “The stronger the emotional attachment, the quicker the brain responds. We reconstruct ourselves through affection.” Godspeed to Eitan, then.
Birds of a Kind is a fascinating, if somewhat predictable, story and Mouawad’s exposition of complex and hyper-relevant topics, such as group identity versus individual choice, is nuanced and poetic; he uses language beautifully. It is no wonder that Montreal-based translator Linda Gaboriau earned the play its 2019 Governor General’s Literary Award for translation (from French to English).
Also faring well in last year’s awards was Calgary writer Naomi K. Lewis, whose Tiny Lights for Travellers was a finalist in the non-fiction category of the prize, which is funded and administered by the Canada Council for the Arts.
Lewis is extremely candid and self-critical in this travel memoir. Readers learn about her family, her struggle with developmental topographical disorientation (which means she can’t envision a map in her head and, therefore, often gets lost), the complicated messages about Judaism she received growing up, her insecurities about being Jewish (including a botched nose job when she was a teen) and her failed marriage, among other things. We follow her on her literal and metaphorical journeys to self-discovery, -understanding and -acceptance, as her personal story is interwoven with her retracing of the route her grandfather took in 1942 to escape from Nazi-occupied Netherlands to southern France, from where he then traveled through Spain and Portugal to get to London, England.
While Tiny Lights for Travellers includes excerpts from Lewis’s grandfather’s journal of his escape, it is mostly about Lewis and her exploration of identity, family history and the Holocaust. As Lewis notes well into her book, “the journal seemed a tease, so withholding, the anomalous 30-page confession of someone who otherwise lived inside his own experience with no desire to make himself known to anyone.”
Lewis may have set out with a goal of learning more about her grandfather, of connecting to her past, “trying to find what made me,” but there are not clear links from the past to the present. The journey is revealing in the end, just not about her grandfather or exactly how she came to be who she now is, but rather in coming to terms with who that person is.
Deborah Grayson Riegel, left, and Sophie Riegel co-wrote the book Overcoming Overthinking. Sophie also authored Don’t Tell Me to Relax!(photo from Riegels)
Many people experience one or more kinds of anxiety disorder, yet fewer than half seek professional help, often because of the perceived stigma of having such a condition, according to Deborah Grayson Riegel and Sophie Riegel.
Both Deborah and her daughter Sophie, 19, have more than one diagnosed anxiety disorder – Deborah has three and Sophie, four. Initially, as Deborah and husband Michael were helping Sophie with her anxiety, they didn’t tell her about Deborah’s. But that silence has ended.
Today, Deborah is a speaker, executive coach, instructor and writer who works part-time in the Jewish community in Manhattan. The bulk of her work is within the corporate community, helping people navigate difficult conversations.
“As Sophie and I were putting our book together, I realized how much of my work is about helping people manage the anxiety associated with getting up and speaking in front of other people, or giving feedback or having hard conversations,” Deborah told the Independent.
Most recently, Deborah was invited to work with Duke Corporate Education, which she was excited about, with Sophie having just started as a freshman at Duke.
“I think Sophie feels really strongly about letting parents know that, if you’re withholding or not exploring medication because of a stigma, because of a fear of dependency, because of anything, you may be costing your kid time,” said Deborah. “Sophie had said in a different interview, where questions came up about what we as parents wish we’d done differently … Sophie’s answer was that she wished we’d explored medication sooner.”
According to Sophie, seeking professional help is important, as the combination of both counseling and medication worked best for both her and her mother, as it does for many others.
Shortly after a traumatic experience at the age of 13, Sophie began working on her first book, Don’t Tell Me to Relax!: One Teen’s Journey to Survive Anxiety and How You Can Too, which she completed in five years. “I started writing it because I was being severely bullied due to some of my obsessive compulsive tendencies,” said Sophie. “I talked to my therapist and we realized the only way to have people stop bullying me was to educate them. So, I ended up giving a 20-minute presentation in seventh grade about my experience living with OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder] and anxiety, and the girls who had bullied me ended up coming up and apologizing to me. I realized that, if I could have that kind of impact in 20 minutes, imagine what kind of impact I could have if I wrote an entire book that I could share with everyone.”
Once Sophie’s book came out, she and her mom decided to co-author one together. Called Overcoming Overthinking: 36 Ways to Tame Anxiety for Work, School and Life, it came out last year.
“When Sophie would be out speaking about the strategies that she uses to navigate anxiety, she heard herself saying, ‘one thing I learned from my mom is … and another thing I learned from my mom is’ … and, I hadn’t realized I was saying or doing these things,” said Deborah. “But Sophie was picking up some strategies I’ve used for myself. So, I said that there are clearly a lot of strategies we’re both using, and maybe we could put them in a book.
“Secondly, I had gotten a call from an organization that had thought that Sophie’s book was something we wrote together. They said, ‘Oh, you wrote this book together … we’d love for you to come and speak.’ And I said, ‘Well, we haven’t written a book together, but we will by October!’ So, we just said, ‘All right, now we’ve told somebody we’re going to write a book … now we have to go write it.’ So, we had a little bit of artificial, external pressure, but it worked well for us.”
In her first book, Sophie shares her journey with anxiety disorder and offers advice to parents, teens and educators; she also debunks anxiety myths and provides a list of resources.
In Overcoming Overthinking the mother-daughter duo offers self-help tips and tools, and focuses on strategies and advice, with about a quarter of the book being from a personal perspective.
One of the stories Sophie shares in the second book is about bribing her therapist to convince her parents that getting a dog would be worthwhile and helpful for her. “We ended up getting a dog, but the interesting part of the story is that my mom is absolutely terrified of dogs … or was … we went from having no dog to having this 80-pound pitbull,” said Sophie.
“And it’s a sign of how much a parent will do to make sure their child is OK … that they will go above and beyond and do anything they need to do. Because, at that point, right before getting a dog and before things started getting a little better for me, my parents thought I’d never be able to graduate high school … that I’d have to be institutionalized, those kinds of things. With this dog, Nash, who’s my best friend, I was able to learn new strategies to handle the anxiety … and learned how much my parents really loved me, and what they were willing to do so I was able to live a healthier lifestyle.”
Both books have been well-received, with parent readers sharing messages such as, “My teen is going through this exact same thing and, because they read your book, they’re starting to know how to talk about it … and I know how to talk to them about it, so you’ve really opened up the lines of communication between us.”
Deborah said, “I got one message from a parent who originally thought their kid was having a heart attack, but then realized from what they had read in Sophie’s book that it was actually a panic attack. It kept them from having to bring him to the ER, because they realized it wasn’t a heart attack. So, they were able to help at home thanks to Sophie’s book.”
Both Deborah and Sophie strongly encourage people to seek professional help when in need. Their book is not a substitute for psychological intervention, they stressed. Deborah added, “We strongly recommend getting that kind of support, whether it’s cognitive behavioural therapy, which has worked for both of us, [or other approaches.]”
Overcoming Overthinking has 36 chapters, which is intentionally double chai (18), symbolizing the saving of the two authors’ lives. The book is divided into three sections.
“The first one is about strategies to change your thinking, to help you change your perspective and mindset, and as a tool for coping with anxiety,” said Deborah. “The second one is about creating new strategies, some concrete things you can do to help you work with anxiety that we think are a little bit out of the box … not what one might call a typical strategy. And the third part is to connect with others about the idea of not isolating yourself and the importance of reaching out, even if that means outing yourself that you’re struggling with something. Most people are uncomfortable being vulnerable. So, we give 12 strategies in that section about how to not do this alone.”
Sophie added, “Also, we go into how it’s good to change your perspective about what connecting with others means. It can mean connecting with a rescue dog, connecting with professionals, connecting with friends and connecting with your parents.”
“I have catastrophic thinking,” said Deborah. “That’s one of the ways my OCD and anxiety show up. Catastrophic thinking has two key elements…. It’s overestimating unlikely probabilities and overestimating devastating consequences. And so, in the morning, we’d put our kids on the school bus and I’d articulate that this is probably the last time we’d ever see them again. Or somebody would get sick and I’d say they’re probably going to die. Or Michael would not answer his phone when I called, and I’d assume he’s dead on the highway. At a certain point, I came to realize that not everybody thinks like this … and that it’s not healthy to think like this … or healthy in a relationship to articulate things that the person cannot help in any way.”
Deborah said she ended up going to speak with a psychologist and getting medication. “That medication has taken my catastrophic thinking from 98% down to two percent,” she said. “Sophie was valedictorian of her class and she got into Duke … her first choice. Sophie is an all-American athlete and has won anti-bullying awards. She has written two books and struggles with four significant anxiety disorders.
“I’m somebody who has a successful career, a healthy marriage and two great children. I travel all over the world for my work. And I struggle with three diagnosed anxiety disorders.
“So, one of the important points is that you can have AD, you can have mental illness, while you can also be happy, healthy and successful. And that feels like a very important message to share,” said Deborah.
From the page before the opening of Moishe Rozenbaumas’s incisive, heart-felt memoir, we already feel the pain that will inhere in much of his story. Even before we begin reading this autobiography, we see a photocopy of the author’s dedication, handwritten in Yiddish, to the memory of his mother and three brothers, with the dates they were murdered by the Germans’ Lithuanian collaborators in August 1941, in Telz, where Rozenbaumas (1922-2016) was born.
Many people know Telz as the name of the famous yeshivah that was located there, but The Odyssey of an Apple Thief (Syracuse University Press, 2019) by Rozenbaumas – translated from the French by Jonathan Layton and edited by Isabelle Rozenbaumas – takes us into the city, depicting a vibrant Jewish culture, zeroing in on housing, way of life, learning and sports. The title comes from little Moishe’s sneaking into the bishop’s orchard next door and nabbing apples, and the author gives us an historian’s sweep of an area, with a memoirist’s penchant for detail.
For instance, his description of a middle-class household’s Sabbath meal. Although Jews lived “in poverty, hand to mouth,” middle-class Jews had munificent Sabbath meals. Typical to Eastern European towns, the housewife prepared the cholent pot at home, then brought it to the baker, whose oven was heated all Friday night long throughout the Sabbath. Then, around noon on Shabbat, the woman would go and pick up her cholent. Most Jews didn’t have the sort of meals that Rozenbaumas describes, which are at odds with the reigning poverty in Telz.
When the Germans occupy Lithuania, Rosenbaumas accents the avid cooperation between the Lithuanians and the Germans, who murdered 90% of Lithuania’s Jews. He writes that the situation of the Jews in Lithuania was no worse than in other countries; they weren’t loved but they were tolerated. However, in the very next sentence, we read that once, when the president of Lithuania addressed an antisemitic rally, he said that nobody should be stupid enough to slaughter a productive cow while it’s still giving milk.
Rozenbaumas provides what he considers a needed reassessment of the yizkor bikher, the memorial books that survivors of various towns assembled after the Holocaust, which always accented the people’s “piety, purity and morality,” even though there were all kinds of individuals. What is often omitted from these yizkor bikher, Rosenbaumas states, is the miserable poverty of Jews who lived in lightless cellars, had only black bread dipped in powdered sugar for food, froze in winter, and dressed in rags.
During the financial crisis in the late 1920s, his father’s successful fabric shop began slipping. Rather than declaring bankruptcy, the father ran away to Paris, where he had sisters. Despite continuing promises, the father never sent any support to his wife and children, and was unaware of what happened to his family until after the war.
Without a father, the author’s mother and her four boys slowly sank into poverty and hunger. Rozenbaumas becomes an apprentice to a poor tailor with 10 children who live in squalid quarters. Soon, he is the sole breadwinner for his family. But, when the Germans invade, he flees eastward to the Soviet Union, just like his father had fled westward. But the author doesn’t notice the irony of the breadwinner again fleeing alone. True, Rozenbaumas asks his mother to come, but she refuses; he doesn’t ask any of his brothers to join him in his flight.
In the Soviet Union, life wasn’t easy. First, Rozenbaumas served four years on the front, undertaking dangerous reconnaissance missions; he was wounded and decorated several times. He regrets that Jewish former soldiers from other lands never mention the half million Jews who fought with the Red Army, including hundreds of Jewish generals and other high-ranking officers.
When Rozenbaumas’s unit liberates Lithuania, first thing he does is go to his house in Telz, where he finds Lithuanians occupying his now-emptied home. He learns where his family was massacred and longs for revenge, which soon comes. After volunteering as a translator for the Russians, he gets the satisfaction of hunting for the Lithuanian murderers, finding them, watching their trials and immediate executions. He even found the murderer of his youngest brother, Leybe, “who may have been,” Rozenbaumas adds, “his playmate.”
When Rozenbaumas finally decides to leave communist-controlled Lithuania, he describes the nightmare of leaving, taking the great risk of paying an exorbitant fee for forged papers that would guarantee his exit. He makes it, finally, across the border into Poland, with suspense and fright accompanying him like a second skin. It was not until he got to Vienna that he could breathe freely.
One day, Rozenbaumas met a man who knew about his father in Paris and thus was able to find him. But the father-son relationship was uneasy. The father never expressed a word of emotion regarding the murder of his wife and his three sons.
Coincidence also plays another crucial role. Rozenbaumas, by chance, bumps into his old girlfriend, Roza, and later marries her.
Rosenbaumas concludes his touching narrative with the hope that the stories of the European Jewish civilization that was brutally erased from the face of the earth will not be forgotten.
Curt Leviant’s most recent novel is Katz or Cats; Or, How Jesus Became My Rival in Love.