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May 21, 2004

Vancouver's unlikely hero

Partisan fighter Leon Kahn is remembered in film and book.

The family of Leon Kahn, a Vancouverite who miraculously survived wartime tragedy and years as a partisan fighter in the forests of Europe, will mark Kahn's first yahrzeit next month. Kahn passed away June 8, 2003, but the lessons of his life are being remembered through book and film.

Kahn's tragic experience as the sole Holocaust survivor in his family and his experiences throughout the war era as a partisan fighter are recollected in a film that premières May 30: Unlikely Heroes: Stories of Jewish Resistance. In an interview for the film not long before he passed away last year, Kahn told the gripping and tragic tale of how he survived the war while battling fascism and seemingly insurmountable odds.

Among his recollections are being witness to some of history's most barbaric mass murders, in his hometown of Eishishkes, Lithuania. A full review of the film, including an overview of Kahn's personal experience as a partisan fighter, will appear in next week's Bulletin. In addition to the film, Ronsdale Press and the Wosk Publishing Program of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre are re-releasing Kahn's memoir No Time to Mourn.

Kahn was involved with a partisan force that participated in the sabotaging of war infrastructure, aiming to delay or halt the advances of the German army. Among the tactics Kahn and his compatriots employed were the hacking down of telephone and power poles, the derailing of trains carrying military supplies and, eventually, the blowing up of fuel tankers headed for the front. Though his heroic acts succeeded in confounding the Nazi war machine, Kahn nevertheless suffered the loss of every member of his family to the Nazis or their Polish collaborators.

Having survived the war, Kahn found himself alone in the world and from the displaced persons camps of Europe, he made his way to North America.

In 1948, Kahn arrived in Canada, having passed himself off as a tailor at a time when that was one of the few professions that provided a displaced person entry into this country. In an afterword to the reissue of Kahn's memoirs, his children have written that "the limitations of our father's garment-making skills became clear when he zagged instead of zigged and vice versa. The jig was up and it was time to find a new job," which he did.

In 1952, he travelled to New York to meet some relatives for the first time and, while there, attended a dance for Jewish newcomers, where he met Evelyn Landsman, a Bronx girl with Eishishkes roots. They married, Evelyn moved to Vancouver with Leon, and they had four children, Mark, Charlene, Hodie and Saul. (Charlene, who was born with severe developmental disabilities, passed away in 1966.)

After they married, Leon Kahn scoped out an unlikely business niche for a Jew – Christmas trees – but his entrepreneurial spirit made a go of it and the business flourished. It was on a Christmas tree lot in 1957 that Kahn met a man who would change his life forever. Henry Block was a partner in the emerging local real estate giant Block Brothers. Spotting a talent for sales, Block asked Kahn to come work for him. Beginning as an entry-level commercial real estate agent, Kahn finally met his match. He wasn't very good at it. Block refused to acknowledge defeat, however, and pushed Kahn over to the construction wing of the company, offering the advice that, to cover up Kahn's initial ignorance of the construction industry, he should walk around confidently opening and shutting a tape measure. Block Brothers became Western Canada's largest real estate firm and Kahn would become president of its construction division before parting amicably to start his own firm. Among Kahn's most notable projects were the Vancouver Show Mart Building and the Seattle Trade Centre.

Leon Kahn's son, Saul, told the Bulletin that being his family's sole survivor of the Holocaust gave Leon a special purpose and perspective in life.

"He always felt that he survived the war because he was meant to give of himself to the community," said Saul Kahn. Infused by a deep sense of obligation mixed with an overwhelming guilt at surviving while the rest of his family did not, Leon Kahn's outlook was unique, said his son. He avoided the trappings of wealth that many of his station exhibited and devoted himself to community service and providing for his own family.

Kahn contributed enormously to the community as a philanthropist and volunteer, including serving on the boards of several local institutions. His beneficiaries included Jewish and secular causes devoted to Holocaust education, medical research, health care, as well as the Jewish Family Service Agency, the B.C. Lung Foundation, the B.C. Cancer Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. He was a founding member of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and a founding funder of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.

Writing his memoirs required a devastating reliving of the most horrific times of Kahn's life but, Saul Kahn said, the pain provided a testament to history that few others could have provided.

"We're very fortunate that he went through what he went through to write that book," he said, adding that the film will provide Leon Kahn's seven grandchildren with an important monument to their grandfather. "We're very, very blessed."

Arthur Block, one of the eponymous Block brothers, was not only a business partner of Leon Kahn's and a friend, but also a neighbor who for 20 years watched Leon and Evelyn raise their family.

"I would describe Leon as a person who was very committed to his family, his community and to his friends," Block told the Bulletin. "He had a very keen sense of loyalty. For me, he was a very dear friend."

Block believes Kahn's war experiences were never far from his mind: "I think it affected everything that he did, how he dealt with his family, his community."

Unlikely Heroes is produced by Moriah Films, the media wing of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles. Kahn is not British Columbia's only connection to the film, as Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's founder and current dean, is a rabbi emeritus of Vancouver's Schara Tzedeck Synagogue.

Unlikely Heroes screens Sunday, May 30, 2:30 p.m., at Oakridge Centre Cineplex Odeon. Tickets are $18 /$25. A book launch for the re-released No Time to Mourn will coincide with the film screening.

Pat Johnson is a native Vancouverite, a journalist and commentator.