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Jewish Book Awards will honour 9 authors

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S. Weilbach, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor in Vancouver, has won the 2012 Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award in the Poetry category for a long poem she had put off writing for decades because the memories were too painful.

 The author’s first book, Singing from the Darktime: A Childhood Memoir in Poetry and Prose (McGill-Queens University Press) recaptures the immediacy of Weilbach’s feelings as she travels with her parents and grandfather aboard the ill-fated refugee ship, the St. Louis, along with more than 900 refugees hoping to escape the Nazis’ clutches in 1939. Blocked from landing in Cuba, America or Canada, the St. Louis was ultimately forced to return to Europe.

In an online interview, Weilbach explained that the childhood feelings and memories she revisited in writing her story were far too delicate to be expressed in prose: only poetry would suffice. However, she uses prose in a latter section in which she and her family disembark from the St. Louis to begin new lives in wartime Britain.

Weilbach’s sense “of profound grief and the helplessness of trying to save anyone,” as she described it online, comes across in her writing. One stanza in particular, occurring just as the passengers learn they will not be landing in Havana, seems to convey some of the surreal imagery of the iconic Edvard Munch painting The Scream: 

 

The empty deckchairs line along the painted wall, / And I sit down and watch the seabirds swoop. / But all at once I hear some footsteps race /Across the boards above my head / And someone yelling, “no-o-o-o!”

When I stand up to look / A sudden bright red streak / Is trickling down the glassy wall. / From every side the people run. / A woman in a purple dressing-gown / Bursts through the bulkhead door / Near where I stand. / She screams and screams.

 

Weilbach’s childhood memories of her family’s dairy farm in Germany, the long and increasingly desperate sea voyage, and subsequent return to normalcy are conveyed with vividness and profound directness. She is a deft painter of human nature, interpersonal relations and even God’s role in human affairs as her child’s mind tries to puzzle out what she sees happening in front of her.

 “We were delighted to discover this little book, which had not had much publicity,” Judy Stoffman, chair of the nine-person Canadian Jewish Book Awards jury, told The CJN.

* * *

Nine prizes will be given out at the 24th annual Canadian Jewish Book Awards ceremony on June 7.

 Winner of the prize in fiction is David Bezmozgis for his first novel, The Free World (HarperCollins). As previously reviewed in this space, the book follows members of the Latvian Krasnansky family who attempt to immigrate to “the free world” in 1978, but get stalled in a bureaucratic purgatory in Rome. Dark and deliciously ironic, The Free World must have eclipsed any other fiction entry of 2011 and would have been all but impossible for the jury to overlook.

 I found A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch, by Fraidie Martz and Andrew Wilson (Vehicule Press), particularly engaging. Solidly researched and filled with anecdotes, it is – like a good souffle – “fluffy, not stuffy” as it recounts the key episodes of Hirsch’s remarkable career and private life.  No wonder it won the prize for best biography.

 Perhaps Canada’s most gifted theatrical director, Hirsch was a Holocaust orphan who arrived in Winnipeg in 1947, and directed theatrical triumphs (and many failures) in Manitoba, Stratford, Toronto, New York and Los Angeles. High points included a brilliant production of S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk and, when Hirsch was head of CBC drama, the famed King of Kensington TV series. This highly readable bio celebrates Hirsch’s accomplishments but is not hagiographic, clearly revealing that its subject could be “a monster” as well. 

 This year the jury made a rare decision to award a prize (History) to a book written in French and as yet unavailable in English. Perusing Denis Vaugeois’s Les Premiers Juifs d’Amerique, 1760-1860: L’extraordinaire histoire de la famille Hart, it’s clear to see why. Published by Septentrion, this beautifully illustrated history of Quebec’s historic Hart family likely trumps all previous works on the subject. Let’s hope the English edition is not too long in coming.

Richard Marceau’s Juif, Une Histoire Quebecoise, was also published originally in French (by Editions du Marais) but has appeared in English as A Quebec Jew. It won the memoir prize. The author, a lawyer and former Bloc Quebecois MP, converted to Judaism after meeting his future wife. As his book recounts, his Jewish faith and love of Israel have become as much a part of his identity as his French Quebec roots.

Rebecca Margolis took the Yiddish prize for Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil (McGill-Queen’s University Press), an academic study of Montreal’s vibrant Yiddish cultural scene from the 1930s onward, and how it helped to sustain Jewish culture in the Diaspora.

Also written in academic prose, Kalman Weiser’s Jewish People, Yiddish Nation: Noah Prylucki and the Folklorists in Poland (University of Toronto Press) took the scholarship prize. Prylucki was a leading Jewish cultural and political figure in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, whose path from Zionism to secular Yiddish culturalism illuminates the dilemmas and competing options facing the Jews of his era.

 The other winning titles are The Muselmann at the Water Cooler (Academic Studies Press) by Eli Pfefferkorn, which took the Holocaust literature prize; and Yuvi’s Candy Tree (Kar-Ben Publishing), by Lesley Simpson, which won the prize in youth literature.

 The 2012 Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Awards take place at the culmination of the Toronto Jewish Book Festival, at the Toronto Reference Library, Bram and Bluma Appel Salon, Thursday June 7, 8 p.m. Admission is free and everyone is invited. 

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