Actor Tovah Feldshuh talks about her new book, Lilyville, on April 15, in an event held in partnership with the JCC Jewish Book Festival. (PR photo)
The long-awaited Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival closing night event – Tovah Feldshuh talking about her new book, Lilyville: Mother, Daughter, and Other Roles I’ve Played – finally takes place on April 15.
The event was postponed to piggyback on the Book Festival of the Marcus JCC of Atlanta and JCC National Literary Consortium In Your Living Room Live series. It will feature Feldshuh in conversation with CNN correspondent Holly Firfer, and promises to be an entertaining evening with many laughs and lots of good advice, if Lilyville is any indication.
Feldshuh’s first book is a unique memoir in that it is framed in terms of her relationship with her mother – the longest and most important of Feldshuh’s roles having been the one she didn’t audition for, being the daughter of Lillian (Lily) Kaplan Feldshuh. The memoir is structured as a theatre piece, starting with the Program Note and ending with Exit Music, with three acts, many scenes and more in between.
Strong women characters, from the fictional Yentl (from the mind of Sholem Aleichem) to the very real U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dominate Feldshuh’s career. She has performed in theatre, film and television, winning numerous awards and nominations for the excellence of her work. She also has been recognized for her charity work. And, it seems, through it all, family has been a priority.
In Lilyville, Feldshuh writes about her upbringing, how and why she became an actor, some of the people and incidents that have influenced her, her marriage (to a lawyer, like her beloved father was, and which she considered becoming at one point) and being a mother herself. Given her successes, readers may be surprised at the professional challenges she has overcome along the way, including being told outright by a director that she’d never make a good actress, she should become an accountant. But the biggest obstacle for her was coming to understand that her mother, who seemed cold and shy throughout Feldshuh’s (and her older brother’s) upbringing, loved them. While hypercritical and emotionally closed throughout their growing-up years, their mother was always there for them. It was only after their father died that their mother – who had been raised to be what was considered a good woman back then, ie. a woman who dedicated herself to her husband and kids, her own aspirations be damned – blossomed.
In an interview with the Detroit Jewish Book Fair, Feldshuh said about writing Lilyville that she “felt compelled to tell her [mother’s] story and mine and how the two of us had a lifelong journey toward each other. In essence, I dig down into the primal relationship between parent and child, with the specifics between mother and daughter.”
Luckily for the women, they had the time to repair and build their relationship, as Feldshuh’s mother lived to 103. Through that century-plus, Lily Kaplan Feldshuh, who was born before women were given the vote in the United States, witnessed countless social, cultural and technological changes, and Lilyville is partly a history of women’s rights in that country.
General admission to Feldshuh’s book talk is free. Admittance to the pre-event meet-and-greet portion of the event comes when, in addition to registering, you purchase the book; the $36US includes shipping and you will receive a copy with a signed bookplate. Visit jccgv.com/jewish-book-festival.
Near the beginning of her acting career more than 50 years ago, Beth Kaplan wanted to improve the world through art. “I believe in the theatre as a tool for social change,” she told the director of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art when she arrived for a one-year program. “I’d like to touch people’s lives as a force for good.” His reaction? “Well,” he said, standing up. “I do hope you have a fruitful year. Best of luck.”
Kaplan writes about her journey from acting to writing, from youth to adulthood, from insecurities to self-acceptance, and more, in her memoir Loose Woman: My Odyssey from Lost to Found. Local JI readers may recall her name, as she was a part of the Vancouver theatre scene in the 1970s. But a 1979 trip that included a visit to France to see her best friend, who had moved there, changed Kaplan’s life.
Through her friend’s husband, Kaplan ended up for a spell living and working in a L’Arche community, which brings people with and without intellectual disabilities together. Initially uncomfortable there, the experience and the slower pace allowed her to learn about herself, and to not treat life as a performance. From her time at L’Arche, she sees how, “in one way or another, we are all handicapped.”
In telling her story, Kaplan seems to rely mainly on thoughts she committed to her diaries over the years. She’s kept one ever since her first, which was a gift when she was 9 years old. Some of the terms she uses, like handicapped, hearken back to that time, and it’s a choice Kaplan makes, “to be true to the time, hoping that readers understand that what is offensive now was not so then.” Indeed, through some of the language and the stories of her objectively wild life during the 1970s, Kaplan highlights the advances that have been made in areas like women’s rights and inclusion.
Loose Woman is an interesting book, even though Kaplan is not a completely likeable heroine, despite it being her own story. Some readers might chafe at her harsh judgments (even when she is the target) and her self-acknowledged mix of confidence (some might say arrogance) and insecurity. But others might revel in her tales of debauchery and her resolute openness.
Chicken soup with matzah balls is a staple of the Ashkenazi Passover seder; for meat-eaters, at least. (photo from onceuponachef.com)
My father used to start the seder with a joke. One I remember was: Abe goes to see his boss and says: “We’re doing some heavy house-cleaning at home tomorrow for Pesach. My wife says she needs me to move all the heavy furniture, clean the stove and even clean out the garage.” “We’re short-handed Abe,” the boss replies, “I just can’t give you the day off.” “Thanks boss,” says Abe. “I knew I could count on you!”
Passover was both an exciting and an embarrassing time for me. Both my parents were born in Australia in the late 19th century, when Jews were quite a rarity there. The influx of Jews from Europe to Australia only began after the Second World War, when those lucky enough to survive the Holocaust reached our shores. Back then, I was the only Jewish child in my school, so I had no Jewish friends and, apart from some family members, neither did my parents. Of necessity, we were quite assimilated, as there were few facilities available for Jews in those far-off days.
Still, we adhered to some traditions, and one was the seder. As a child aged 7, it was exciting for lots of reasons, but I had no one to share it with except my two brothers and two sisters, all much older than I was. Our family of seven would sit around the table with Great-Aunt Frances and Uncle Dave, and some of our non-Jewish neighbours, who looked forward to being invited to join us in this, to them, odd ceremony every year. One of them was Penelope, who had a daily radio show and, the next day, she would relate to her listeners all the details that she understood and that seemed to fascinate her.
The table would be set with a white tablecloth and all the traditional seder trappings, with a big decanter of raisin wine my mother had made. I was wearing my “best” dress, which I loved. Like most people during those Depression years, we had very little money, so most of my clothes were hand-me-downs from my sisters. But this one had been bought especially for me and I loved it – pink velvet, with puff sleeves and a lace collar. It broke my heart when I outgrew it.
My father, of course, sat at the head of the table, a big pillow on his chair for reclining. Dad was a man of enormous contrasts, something of a genius. He knew Hebrew, Latin and Greek and thought no one could call themselves educated without an acquaintance of these classical languages. But he was also very modest, rarely let it be known that he was a scholar, and had a fund of off-colour stories that always made me blush and resulted in my being very prudish well into adulthood.
He would conduct the service from the Haggadah in Hebrew, giving explanations in English all the way through. He said that the Wise Son who asked questions at the seder was so intelligent that no one had the faintest idea what he was talking about. The Wicked Son had to be excluded from the table, so he went back to work and got paid double-time for working on Pesach. When the Simple Son asks, “What is this?” you just tell him, “It’s dinner.” And, as for the one who does not know how to ask, you go and wake him up and say, “Next year, remember to come to the table.”
When it came to the Four Questions, Dad had transliterated the “Ma Nishtana” for me in big English letters and the guests all thought I was very clever to be reciting something in Hebrew when I was only 7. I did nothing to disillusion them. I loved the singing and so did our guests, who, after some coaching from Dad, sang along with us heartily, with mostly mispronounced words. I remember we always sang one song in English, “Chad Gadya”: “Only one kid, which my father bought for two zuzim….”
A good meal followed, although my mother – a great cook of Australian dishes – didn’t do too well with Pesach recipes, as her own mother had died when she was my age, so she didn’t have the benefit of learning from her mom. But she tried valiantly. The chicken soup was good, apart from the matzah balls, which were as tough as bullets; and her gefilte fish I won’t attempt to describe. Our guests probably thought we were meant to suffer, and this was just another punishment like having to eat matzot for a week.
Just as I couldn’t share my friends’ Christmas and Easter festivities, I didn’t even tell them about our seder. But now I realize how special it was. When I close my eyes, my family are with me again. Maybe that seder was the last time we were all together in person, as my two brothers soon went overseas with the Royal Australian Air Force. The younger one, shot down over Rommel’s lines in Tobruk, never returned. Over the intervening eight-plus decades, the losses have multiplied. There is only one beloved sister left, and she is in Australia.
I would love my parents to be able to see my family at a seder in Israel. We are more than 50 people now, including all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I am sure we observe it more authentically today, but there is something special I have lost that can never be replicated – the family I once had, who gave a little girl love, safety and security.
When I think about our seder table back then, it’s not just about the matzot, shankbone, roasted egg, bitter herbs and charoset. I see the family I have loved and lost, and hear the jokes and the songs and the laughter. I have come a long way since then, both spiritually and physically, but the seeds were planted back then, at the seder table with my family, who will never be forgotten.
Dvora Waysmanis a Jerusalem-based author. She has written 14 books, including The Pomegranate Pendant, which was made into a movie, and her latest novella, Searching for Sarah. She can be contacted at [email protected] or through her blog dvorawaysman.com.
Ilana Masad participates in the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival on Feb. 23. (photo from the JBF)
Women are at the forefront of two new books. Specifically, how we perceive their (our) roles. Especially, with regard to motherhood.
Ilana Masad’s debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers, is told from the perspectives of a daughter and her mother, and highlights how much we cannot know about the people close to us, while Myriam Steinberg’s graphic novel, Catalogue Baby: A Memoir of Infertility, is a no holds barred sharing of her challenge to become a mom. Both Masad and Steinberg are participating in this year’s Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival, which takes place online Feb. 20-25.
While the premise is a stretch to my worldview, All My Mother’s Lovers is an extremely relatable read on many levels. Twenty-something Maggie’s mother, Iris, dies in a car crash and Maggie must return home for the funeral and shiva. But, along with her will, Iris has left behind six letters – all addressed to men Maggie hasn’t heard of – and Maggie quickly flees the communal mourning to deliver these missives.
Leaving behind her grief-addled father, who has been the emotional-support parent for her, and her younger brother, with whom she has an older-sister-bossy relationship, Maggie attempts to track down the unknown men. The space from her family and from her current partner, with whom there might actually be a substantial, meaningful relationship brewing, allows Maggie to deal with her long-held insecurities and naïve perceptions of what it means to be married, what it means to be a parent; basically, what it means to be a loving and reliable person. We get to know Iris through the letters and, though Maggie doesn’t get to benefit from these personal musings, she does learn more about her mom, which allows her to connect more deeply with her father, as well as to others in her life.
Masad’s writing is crisp, intelligent, wry and sensitive. The novel starts with a bang – Maggie answering her brother’s call (telling her about their mother’s death) while having sex with her girlfriend. The pace emphasizes Maggie’s confusion as she tries to understand her mother, and herself. Iris’s letters offer slower moments of reflection, but also were a way for Iris to try and better understand her own missteps and successes.
Steinberg’s Catalogue Baby also took me into a world I’ve never personally experienced, though I do know people who have so wanted to have a child but either could not conceive or had great difficulty conceiving. Steinberg’s refreshing openness on a topic that is often spoken about in whispers, if at all, is most welcome. And her voice is amplified by the colour-bursting, energetic and imaginative illustrations by Christache Ross, which take readers right close up into the physical and emotional upheaval and turmoil that Steinberg has lived.
Catalogue Baby takes readers from Year One (starting January 2014), and Steinberg’s admission that her dedication to work, organizing the In the House Festival for 11 years, only occasionally gave her the time to put her “loneliness and unrequited motherhood” front of mind. Almost 40 years old at this point, she “didn’t have time to waste with someone who didn’t eventually want a family.” But, people being who we are, Steinberg nonetheless tries to make an unsatisfying relationship work, all while her biological clock (which follows her throughout the novel’s journey) ticked away. From when she finally decides to go it alone to when she gives birth to twins in late 2018, she goes through much. The list includes 123 blood draws, 31 ultrasounds, multiple fertility treatments, five pregnancies, thousands of supplements, about $100,000, help from dozens of family and friends, etc., etc. – and “25 litres of tears.”
To hear more about and from Steinberg, Masad and many other fabulous writers, check out this year’s Jewish Book Festival: jccgv.com/jewish-book-festival.
At 109, Richmond resident Reuben (Rube) Sinclair might be Canada’s oldest Second World War veteran. (photo from Reuben Sinclair)
A Richmond resident is almost certainly Canada’s oldest Second World War veteran. Reuben (Rube) Sinclair received a special recognition on Remembrance Day, though, because of confidentiality issues, Veterans Affairs Canada can’t confirm he’s the oldest service member. But, at the age of 109, basic statistics suggests that, if Sinclair isn’t the oldest, he’s got to be close.
The centenarian spoke with the Independent virtually via Zoom about his life and what advice he might have for aspiring super-seniors like himself.
Sinclair was born in 1911 on the family farm near Lipton, Sask. Lipton was one of many “colonies” created by Baron Maurice de Hirsch in Canada, Argentina and Palestine to resettle oppressed Jews from Europe. Sinclair’s father, Yitzok Sinclair (born Sandler), traveled from Ukraine, via Liverpool and arrived at Ellis Island Jan. 4, 1905, on the SS Ivernia. He made his way to Saskatchewan, where he was given land by de Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association. However, the land was poor and so the newcomer worked for the Canadian National Railway long enough to save up and buy a better plot and build a house. When he was settled, he sent for his wife, Fraida (born Dubrovinsky), and their two young sons.
Reunited in Lipton, the family grew to include not only Samuel and Sol, who were born in the old country, but the only sister, Clara, then Rube and the youngest, Joe.
The last survivor of his birth family, Sinclair has fond memories of the farm life. He and the other two youngest did chores while the older two headed to university. Samuel became a medical doctor and Sol was a professor of agriculture at the University of Manitoba.
“There was a whole colony of Jewish families,” Sinclair said. “My parents had one of the largest farms – 16 quarter-sections [more than 2,500 acres]. I remember we had 42 horses. We had milk cows. I had my jobs. My job was to go collect the eggs from the chicken house and, when I was 12, I was already driving our car.… Always things to do on a farm.”
Yitzok donated a few acres to the community and helped construct a school, which doubled as a synagogue. On Shabbats and Jewish holidays in winter, the boys would sleep in the hayloft so the local men could stay in the house and not walk home in the freezing Saskatchewan weather.
“My father was a leader in the community,” he said.
Sinclair joined the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War and was stationed in North Battleford, Sask. In the days before radar was commonplace, he taught Allied pilots how to take off and land in the dark using a “standard beam approach,” which involved a navigation receiver that allowed the pilot to line the aircraft up with the runway when preparing to land.
“In the air force barracks, I was on the top bunk,” he said. “I always got the top bunk because the younger generation would come home drunk and I wouldn’t sleep in the bottom bunk.”
One day, he encountered a barrack-mate in tears. Sinclair recalls the conversation: “They’re sending me to Vancouver, he said, and my family is all here around Brandon, Manitoba. So I said, that’s no problem. When they want a person to go to Vancouver, they don’t care who the person is. Vancouver wants one person. So, I said, don’t cry. We’ll go see the commanding officer. I told him that my wife has got family in Vancouver and I’d be glad to go instead. He said they don’t care, all they want is one person. So, I was the person who went to Vancouver at that time and I’m still here,” he recalled with a laugh.
Joe, the youngest of the five siblings, had served in the army and after the war joined Rube in British Columbia. They started Sinclair Bros. Garage and Auto Wrecking, in Richmond, just across the two old Fraser Street bridges from Vancouver.
“My job was to go out and find old cars and we had a tow truck,” Sinclair said. “I’d bring them in and my younger brother would wreck them. We opened a wrecking company.” They also bought surplus army vehicles to fix up and sell.
The business soon became a sort of family compound. A small house adjacent went up for sale and the Sinclairs bought it, bringing parents Yitzok and Fraida to the coast. Then sister Clara and her husband Morris Slobasky bought a general store that was next door.
Because of his wartime experience, Sinclair developed migraine headaches and was told to go to a drier climate. He thought Arizona sounded good, but his wife, Ida, had siblings in the Los Angeles area and a brother-in-law offered him a job in a furniture store in Anaheim.
In 1964, Rube and Ida packed up the three kids – Nadine (now Lipetz), Karen and Len – and moved to Southern California.
“He put me in charge of the furniture store,” Sinclair said of his brother-in-law. “I knew nothing about furniture, but I learned pretty quick.”
Soon he was in business for himself again.
“Then my boss that I worked for in Anaheim, his wife wasn’t very well and she spent a lot of time in Palm Springs,” Sinclair recalled. “So, he said, instead of me going back and forth, I’ll move to Palm Springs and you can have the store, just pay me for the inventory.”
In 1994, Ida had a stroke and the couple moved back to British Columbia. She passed in 1996. Rube still lives in their Richmond condo.
Rube and Ida were active in their communities. In Los Angeles, they raised more than a million dollars for City of Hope, a cancer hospital and research facility. Both were active members of Schara Tzedeck Synagogue here, he especially in the Men’s Club, and he is proud of his lifetime honorary membership in the shul. In addition to their three adult children – Nadine is in Vancouver; Karen and Len in California – he has six grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
Asked if he has any advice for others, Sinclair didn’t hesitate.
“That’s easy. I always say, if you have a problem, don’t worry; you’ll lose your hair. Fix it. If you have a problem, fix it. Don’t sit back and worry. Worry is not going to help.”
Any bad habits?
“I don’t think so,” he said after a thought. “I spent most of my life working and, in my spare time, working for people less fortunate. That was my enjoyment in my spare time.”
Two years ago, the City of Richmond named Sinclair an “honoured veteran.”
Recalled daughter Nadine: “He was part of the Remembrance Day service in Richmond and they made a big deal about it. They sent a limo and he sat with the mayor and the Silver Cross Mother. They gave him a wreath and then they walked him around. He was up on the dais with the mayor and the head of the RCMP as the soldiers all walked by. It was a very big deal for him.” Last Remembrance Day, he received a certificate from Veterans Affairs.
If, by some chance, Sinclair is not
Canada’s oldest veteran of the Second World War, he seems determined to attain that title.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “I still have some unfinished business.”
A scene from the documentary Martha, in which director Daniel Schubert is given a more appropriate shirt by his grandmother, Martha Katz. (Courtesy NFB)
Two very different scenes in the National Film Board of Canada’s short documentary film Martha – which will be released on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27 – combine to highlight the joy and pain that is life. Directed and co-written by Daniel Schubert, a grandson of the film’s subject, Martha Katz, there is a funny and relatable interaction where his grandmother questions his choice of shirt for the filming and provides him with a more appropriate one. This lighthearted exchange contrasts with the heart-wrenching tour that Katz takes with her grandson through the Holocaust Museum LA.
Born in Berehove, Czechoslovakia, Katz is 14 years old when she’s taken to the ghetto, then to Auschwitz. Both of her parents and two of her brothers were murdered in the Holocaust; she, along with two other brothers and two sisters, survived the concentration camps. She speaks, with emotions near the surface, about some of her experiences. The documentary is a mix of seemingly spontaneous moments, while other parts are scripted reenactments or prepared questions being asked and answered.
“My original idea for the documentary,” Schubert told the Independent, “was to track Martha and her two sisters’ incredible journey together through the ghettos and, eventually, Auschwitz. After Auschwitz, they were even forced to work at a German bomb factory together in Allendorf, manufacturing the bombs. The fact that Martha and her two sisters managed to stay together and survive through all of the horrors of the concentration camps, to me, was a miracle. I thought that would make an amazing documentary.
“But, as we developed it at the NFB, we realized that a more traditional cinéma vérité documentary could be a viable way to tell her story, too. I did not know many of the facts beforehand, so many of the things she told me in the film came as a surprise. My grandmother and I have a warm and loving relationship and I thought, why not show that on screen as I find out all of these amazing things?
“The other thing about my grandmother,” added Schubert, “is she’s hilarious. She’s the classic Jewish grandmother and I wanted that to come across. I wanted this to also be a real picture of a grandmother and her grandson and how we naturally interact.
“We also decided that in between these cinéma vérité moments would be cinematic vignettes narrated by my grandmother herself. There were many more amazing things she went through, but, due to time constraints, I picked those stories.”
One of the stories is how, after the war, in Vienna, his grandmother met and married Bill Katz, who had been in a labour camp. The couple went to Winnipeg, with $200 they had saved up. They had two children – Jack and Sharon – and struggled financially. It was his grandmother who suggested they go into business for themselves. She went to night school, then saw an ad for a grocery store for sale – she bought it, learning on the job. There are some wonderful photos and video in this part of the film.
It was her goal in life for her two children to have whatever they wanted and she talks about her happiness at having had them. “We had to have a life again,” she says, stressing that this doesn’t mean she doesn’t think about the Holocaust all the time, because she does – “I hope it should never happen again. That’s all.”
“Bringing her to the museum was a bit of a tough decision, but she encouraged us to go,” said Schubert. “The intention was to see whether there was anything new that she and I could both learn about the atrocities committed. And, as it turned out in the film, there was; specifically, about the excruciating length of time the gas chamber took, in some cases, to exterminate those poor victims trapped inside, including my great-grandmother and her young son. Suffice to say, it took way longer than expected, and neither of us knew how long they may have had to suffer inside.”
It was for health reasons that Katz, who is now 90 years old, moved to Los Angeles.
“My grandmother suffered from chronic bronchitis since the war and, because of Winnipeg’s frigid winters, the doctors advised her to move somewhere warmer, or else her life could be at risk,” explained Schubert. “My grandfather’s brother lived in Los Angeles, so they helped them get settled there. They came to Winnipeg from Europe in 1948 and moved to Los Angeles in 1964.”
The 22-minute documentary is dedicated to the memory of Katz’s older sister, Rose Benovich. The statement at the film’s end notes: “Her courage in Auschwitz is the reason I am alive today.”
The following article was published in the Globe & Mail, as “A Dutch family hid me from the Nazis: I owe them my life,” in advance of Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, 2020. It is reprinted here with permission, in recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27.
I can never pass Remembrance Day without reflection. This year, we marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands. It meant freedom for Dutch men, women and children after a brutal five-year occupation by German military forces. More than 5,000 Canadian soldiers rest in Dutch soil and are mourned and remembered there annually. They were our liberators and will never be forgotten, for Canadians and Canada are seared into the collective memory of the population. I myself saw Canadian tanks chasing German half-tracks down the streets of The Hague. On May 4, 1945, I was looking out the window of my mother’s small apartment, where she had been hiding. A man across the street opened his door one day too early. He was shot by a retreating German soldier. I was dragged away from the window. I was not yet 5 years old.
Unlike most Dutch children who began their lives anew after the war, I was a Jewish child hidden with Albert and Violette Munnik and their daughter, Nora, from November 1942 to May 1945. I became Robbie Munnik and was returned to my parents, who had miraculously survived, the only survivors of their families of origin. My grandparents, aunts, uncles and numerous cousins had all been murdered. For Jews, the postwar world offered precious little solace or hope: it was a world of death and of mourning. Liberation did not feel particularly liberating. Within that depressing atmosphere, I made the transition from Robbie Munnik back to Robbie Krell.
For this Remembrance Day 2020, I want to honour the memory of my Christian Vader, my second father.
When my mother passed me on to Moeder (Mother), who agreed to take me for a few weeks while she secured a hiding place, Vader accepted me without hesitation. Did he know of the risk to his family, hiding a Jewish child? If not in 1942, certainly he did by 1943. But, unlike many in this situation, he did not dwell on possible consequences. He simply set about loving me.
Early in my hiding, they allowed Nora to take me out, but that was a mistake. A woman recognized me. She happened to know my mother and asked Nora why she was looking after me. Vader contacted her immediately to ensure she remained silent. From then on, I was housebound. He read to me and made toys for me. His brothers and a sister all kept the secret of my presence. One slip could lead to betrayal. I was beyond lucky. Vader worked hard, loved deeply and enjoyed his hobbies, which included playing the piano by ear and carving wood and shaping metal. He was talented.
The danger increased. Only after the war would we learn that more than 80% of Dutch Jews were deported and murdered, primarily in Auschwitz and Sobibor. Of 108,000 souls sent to the death camps, only about 5,000 returned. And of about 14,000 children in hiding, more than half were betrayed, as was Anne Frank and her family in Amsterdam.
Because of his modest nature, Vader stands in danger of being forgotten. Of course, not by me. Unlike so many, including princes and popes, presidents and prime ministers, industrialists and intellectuals, he defied the Nazis and accepted the risk of my presence. So, while the names of the Nazis that murdered us linger on, as do the names of leaders who either did not lift a finger, or worse, actively prevented Jews from reaching safe havens, he might have been forgotten. So, I choose to remember him. In the hour of need, he included me in his life then and thereafter. His only reward was that I called him “Vader” and that he had, in addition to his daughter, a son.
In 1965, he and Moeder were brought to Vancouver by my parents to attend my graduation from medical school. My fellow graduates were drawn to him especially. He spoke no English, but the twinkle in his eyes spoke volumes. He was a people magnet. When they returned for my wedding in 1971, he fell ill shortly after and was briefly hospitalized at St. Vincent’s in Vancouver. There, he enchanted the nurses. When I came to visit, everyone on staff already knew him. They flocked to him. He radiated good humour and optimism. He did not know from anger, fear or bitterness. He hoped that I would not be consumed with anger over the Holocaust of my people, and that I would not turn away from Judaism or from Israel. And then, in 1972, he died. I do not know what he would have thought about the resurgence of antisemitism, the BDS movement and the antipathy toward Israel. But I can guess. And so can you.
But Vader will be remembered because Albert, Violette and Nora Munnik have been inscribed among “the Righteous” at Yad Vashem, the official site of Holocaust remembrance in Jerusalem. A tree planted as a seedling in 1981 grows at the site of the plaque bearing their names. And, in Vancouver, at Vancouver Talmud Torah Jewish day school, a sanctuary has been named in their memory and the entire story of their heroism lines the walls.
So, this year my memory is not consumed by what took place in Auschwitz and Sobibor, where so many of my family perished; this year, I will concentrate on remembering Albert Munnik, my Christian Vader, on Remembrance Day, and the Canadian troops that freed us.
Dr. Robert Krell is professor emeritus, department of psychiatry, University of British Columbia, distinguished life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and founding president of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
The author as an infant with her parents Sarah and Mechel, and brother Hy, in Kazakhstan, where she was born in 1944. (photo from Reva Kanner Dexter)
A year ago, I attended the 31st Annual World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants, hosted by our own Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. I have kept the story of my own Holocaust experience suppressed because it never seemed as tragic nor as diabolical as others’. Furthermore, because I was an infant, born in 1944, I did not think that I had the right to call myself a child survivor. However, attending the conference changed that perception.
I claim the dubious distinction of being in the one percent of children born of Polish parents who survived. As three million Jews of Poland were murdered, I feel very privileged.
Of course, the circumstance of my miraculous survival is due to several factors. First, my parents escaped Poland in September of 1939. Second, they were living close to the Ukraine border. Third, they had the essential skills and resilience to overcome many hardships.
My mother Sarah (daughter of Pinchus and Chana) and my father Mechel (son of Israel and Esther) were born and grew up in small towns in southeastern Poland. Krasnystaw and Izbica were 12 kilometres apart. Close enough for biking and walking between the two towns along the Wieprz River.
Typical of small towns in that region and era, Sarah and Mechel grew up poor. Sarah’s father was a barber, who taught her his skills as soon as she could hold a razor blade. Mechel’s father was a tailor who had taught him the art of sewing, also at a young age.
Sarah and my father had moved to Chelm after their marriage, and Sarah was already six months pregnant when the German troops invaded.
Mechel was a member of a Zionist/socialist club, so he got the news early that the Nazis had taken over the town – 1,500 young men were rounded up and shot. Rumours of castration created panic. Mechel took off by bike with some of his pals, telling Sarah he would be returning.
Sarah’s birth mother lived in Rovno, Ukraine, so she made her way alone across the border with the help of a Yiddish-speaking Russian soldier. She had the prescience to bring her barbering tools. Little did she know that trains and train stations were going to dominate her life from that night forward for the next six years.
Sarah and Mechel gave birth to their first child, Chaim (Hy), who an aunt testified was born in Rovno, while an immigration document states that he was born in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Memories do seem to play tricks when the brain is violently assaulted.
The Russians saw and seized the opportunity of so many Jews fleeing Poland into Ukraine. They tricked Jews by telling them that eastern Poland was now under Soviet rule and that they would be given safe passage back home.
It was a lie, a big one. The Jews were shoved into open cattle cars and sent to forced labour camps all over the U.S.S.R. Workers were required to keep the country running under the murderous hand of Stalin.
My parents and baby brother survived the train ride from Rovno or Kiev, which finally stopped in a logging camp on the banks of the Ob River, in Siberia. They realized immediately that their lives were only worth what their labours could produce.
I recall stories of wolves howling in the night and rats “as big as kittens” stealing their meagre rations while they slaved in the tundra in the day and tried to sleep in the frozen barracks in the night.
My father organized a strike – after all, they were in a communist country weren’t they? The demands for better working conditions were answered rapidly by rounding up the leaders during the night and incarcerating them in the Gulag.
Sarah had to fend for herself again. Even though she was freezing, undernourished and exhausted, she had an ample amount of milk flowing from her body. This was noticed by the commandant, whose wife had just given birth and could not nurse their sickly baby. Sarah was promoted from lumberjack to nursemaid.
As the two women became friends, Sarah got news that Mechel and the other men were still alive.
In June 1941, when the Nazis attacked Russia, the Soviets granted amnesty to the surviving Polish citizens. Poland and Russia became allies. The Jewish prisoners were released, only into a more dangerous predicament.
With Mechel’s leadership, the ragtag group of Jewish lumberjacks built rafts, trusting the river to lead them to safety. They navigated the Ob River by day, roping up by night.
During the night, the women would scramble up the banks, scavenging for food on adjacent farms. My mother told us that she dodged many bullets through the darkness. But the plan succeeded in getting them to a train station.
The next few years, they were underground, following trains, bartering at train stations, trying to regain health. Sarah would do pop-up barbering, thankful for her tools and endurance.
They finally made it to Czymkient, Kazakhstan, where Mechel got a job sewing uniforms for pilots at a pilot training academy. I was born in December 1944. Hope and optimism returned to our little family.
Of course, the story does not end here. Other chapters will emerge, as I continue to pull pieces of the survival puzzle together.
Thanks to the conference, I realize how important it is to keep searching for objects and recording memories, which return our beloved victims and survivors to us in spirit.
Reva (Rivka) Kanner Dexter has been a docent at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre since 2007.
I looked across the table and a boy stared back. I was 11 years old. “Yes! A girl!” he said, incredulous. “A boy,” I replied dryly. We shook hands and took our first moves.
Oddly, Ms. Janet England, my kindergarten teacher, taught the whole class to play chess on Tuesday mornings, because she felt that it was a wonderful game. More than that, she invited non-playing parents to come, too. So, I learned chess and it has been beside me ever since, like one of Phillip Pulman’s The Golden Compass daemons.
It is the best game to take on holiday, as, whatever the location, I can play beyond my years and without a shared language. I remember, when I was small, being in a tough park in New York. My parents wanted to leave, but then we saw some chessboards and, well, my parents’ worries about the surrounding drugs and darkness meant nothing – we just had to stay. Contrary to what is depicted in The Queen’s Gambit, that is the only drug-taking I have seen near the board; never in a tournament. Players know each other quite well, seeing each other at regular events, so anomalies in personality, behaviour or play would quickly be spotted.
I really hope that The Queen’s Gambit will spur many girls on to play more. What other game lets you play on an even footing, irrespective of size or age or language? Under one metre tall, I would approach grown men to play as we traveled. “Are you any good?” they’d invariably ask. I’d shrug and we’d have a good game.
I was selected to play for Canada Girls U18 two years ago, and then invited to the World Youth Championships. It is an amazing hobby, although one I confess I have hidden until fairly recently. I love the game and thinking things through. It is endlessly exciting. I was inspired by the Polgár sisters: grandmasters Susan and Judit and international master Sofia.
I have played in tournaments that took me into a world of fancy halls and hotels. Some hotels are lovely and offer very reduced room rates, which doubled as our family holidays. Sometimes, I have taken Pesach seder plates with me during weeklong games! Sometimes, the choice of venues is odd, like the time we were part-sponsored to play the National Youth Chess Championships in the halls of a casino, from which I could not buy a Starbucks, as I was underage.
Games are intense and you lose all sense of time, although you are looking at the minutiae of time on the clocks; yours and theirs. Sometimes, I have played five days of 10-hour days of long games, only popping out to the sealed toilets area or to eat a spoonful of yogurt between matches. Other times, I go for long walks or swim in breaks, but, mostly, chess is a gorgeous thinking game and it’s not unusual for my siblings and I to play Bughouse and Crazyhouse, as we rest between significant games.
Six years ago, my brothers and I noticed that many chess-playing girls seemed to evaporate from major tournaments in their teens. At some youth tournaments, girls could win a prize just for turning up! We figured it was because of chess’s macho reputation and stone silent rooms. We sometimes saw kids attend with harsh parents or strict coaches. So, my brothers and I started the Chess Table, a jolly centrepiece at all-day girls’ tournaments, where we offer immediate, free supportive chess coaching, sponsored chocolate chess pieces and pizza, water and buckets of reassurance.
The Queen’s Gambit games are real games from real grandmaster tournaments (like Borat’s real Ivrit in his movies). Every tournament usually has a skittles room, where you meet the person you just played, go over the game or hang out; that is also real. It is a wonderful opportunity to analyze your moves and further understand the opponent’s approach.
I have found the chess community to be a mix of quiet, quirky, erudite people from all disciplines and backgrounds. It is a leveller. My Mr. Scheibel, Stephen Wright, is a wonderful chess tournament director and coach. He is incredibly knowledgeable about music, history and ancestry, too – a real Renaissance man.
What is lovely is that there is space for everyone in chess. It is not as sexy as portrayed in The Queen’s Gambit, but I applaud world champion Magnus Carlsen for being both a chess player and a fashion model, challenging all stereotypes. We play in comfortable clothing, as we want to focus entirely on the game. You dress as you would for an exam. I know that I like to move freely, kneel on the chair, and breathe well, so sports attire works. As ratings grow, so does confidence, which itself is appealing.
Chess has let me think about many things, steps ahead. It lets you focus on what you want the outcome of a project or relationship to be, and then let that inform your actions. It is maybe less good if you want a calm, switched-off brain. I don’t think out things on the ceiling, as the The Queen Gambit’s Beth Harmon does, but any plain surface is fine to think multiple moves through, and many good players can win against a whole room of people simultaneously.
I would like to go on the European Chess Train that Stephen told me about. It takes place each year, winding its way round Europe, with games all the way, so you can jump off and see the sights, get back on and play.
Beth might feel isolated and alone for much of the show. In chess nowadays, you can’t help but see the support in the community, from the coach who patiently explains something important or the doctor volunteer who gives up a week of holiday to be there, and the individuals who spend months planning and hosting tournaments. It is quite a community.
I look forward to there not being division between boys and girls sections in the junior tournaments, when we can all play as equals. I have not had a sponsor or stylist yet, but, then, I wore the same pair of boots for tournaments for 11 years!
Pepi Eirew, Disney scholar in animation at California Institute of the Arts, was invited to the World Youth Chess Championships, 2018-19, and she played U12 to U18 in Canadian Youth Chess Championships. She lives in Vancouver.
Junie Swadron recently released her latest book. (photo from Junie Swadron)
The Nov. 3 release of Junie Swadron’s most recent book, Your Life Matters! 8 Simple Steps to Writing Your Story, could not have arrived on the shelves of booksellers at a more opportune time. The pandemic has presented an occasion for self-reflection, and a chance to place memories and contemplations onto paper and computer.
Swadron, a Victoria-based psychotherapist, author and writing coach, hopes the book will aid prospective memoirists in writing their story, breaking through blocks with confidence and freeing them from what may have been a painful past. Hard lessons of life can become the greatest gift, she says, and writers can inspire others with the wisdom they have gained.
“In my 30 years practising psychotherapy, the most common theme among clients – whether they be CEOs of large companies or art students – is low self-esteem. Most people don’t value what they have achieved and don’t know how to recognize the good in themselves, to varying degrees,” Swadron, who is Jewish, told the Independent.
“This is a book for people to look at their lives and see the value, the beauty and the contributions they have made. And then to write their life stories from an empowered place, from a place of feeling strong, tall and proud. Not in an egoistic way, but in a way that they can say, ‘Hey, look how far I’ve come. Or, wow, I did that!’”
The challenge of writing a memoir can be daunting, the book notes, even for a professional with years of experience in their chosen field or an individual with a unique point of view. In Your Life Matters, Swadron attempts to guide the reader towards a focus on common themes – while remaining honest and truthful to the past – and the recording of meaningful experiences with certainty and ease. She also shares some of the factors that have helped her become a more assured writer and demonstrates how someone could apply these insights to their own memoir.
The book, too, provides therapeutic exercises for writers to use when drafting their stories. A memoir, Swadron said, can be a useful tool for an individual to work through difficult experiences and reframe their trauma. Your Life Matters lists steps to record the significance of life’s major events and influences. According to Swadron, memoir writing then becomes a memorable and achievable goal.
“The book is for anyone who wants to recount their life journey, whether they be a senior or an entrepreneur, and take the time to understand more about themselves throughout the process and transform pain from the past. What sets me apart from other writing coaches is being a psychotherapist. Not only do I know how to teach people how to write books, I get them to dive deep into their story and come out the other side stronger, as a result of them knowing who they are,” she explained.
“Say a person found a weight loss program and it’s really successful,” Swadron posited. “They got into it in the first place because they needed to lose weight. They lost 200 pounds, kept it off, and they need to not only write the story of how they did that but who they were as someone struggling with a food addiction. And who they have become since they have achieved their maximum goal of what is healthy for them. They need to put themselves in the story for others to be able to relate to whatever it is they are passionate about because they have found a solution and can assist others going through a similar struggle to find their way with more ease and grace.”
She cites her operating principle as “your soul meets you on the page and something shifts. You begin to stand taller. Then, one day, you notice your voice on the page has become your voice in the world.”
Swadron has three previous titles to her credit: Colouring Your Dreams Come True, a colouring book for people of all ages, Re-Write Your Life and Write Where You Are. Additionally, she has penned a piece for the stage, Madness, Masks and Miracles, a play to dispel myths and stigmas about mental illness. Last year, she founded the Academy for Creative and Healing Arts (ACHA) for people with mental health challenges.
Beyond her books, Swadron provides workshops, online courses and meetings throughout the year – all of which are currently taking place on Zoom – to help people with their writing. These include an author mentorship program, a class on creativity during COVID-19 and a Sunday morning “sacred” writing circle. For more information, visit her website, junieswadron.com.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.