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Monday, September 15, 2014

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Two books by Toronto authors

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A Stone for Benjamin

A Basket of Apples
Shirley Faessler
Now and Then Books

Now and Then Books, a Toronto-based publisher is to be commended for bringing readers A Basket of Apples, an anthology of six thematically connected short stories by the acclaimed writer Shirley Faessler who died in 1997.

The stories were first published in 1998 by McClelland and Stewart. As a way of re-acquainting new generations of readers to Faessler and to the vibrant Yiddish-speaking enclave in the Kensington Market area of downtown Toronto in the late 1920s and 1930s, Now and Then Books has reissued the collection in an esthetically pleasing booklet of some 180 pages.

The stories are intertwined. They appear to be autobiographical, depicting different pieces of the jumbled jigsaw that formed the author’s colourful family. With unabashedly bold writing, she deftly, pointedly, captured the cacophonous, mostly hard-edged, tangled-up, Jewish immigrant life that she remembered growing up.

Faessler introduces us to a roughhouse assortment of vivid, memorable characters. There are no wilting, diminished personalities in these stories. All of them leave a dent in the wall of the reader’s memory bank. In one story we meet the author’s step-uncle, Yankev, and his wife, Henye. In another story, we meet the author’s father, Avrom Mendel and her stepmother, Chayele. Faessler describes the respective spouse’s feelings for one another in pitiable and painful detail. In the other stories, we meet a former employer from the author’s young adulthood, school chums, street personalities and countryside rakes. The characters are remarkably convincing and emotionally evocative.

Faessler is greatly adept at creating believable dialogue. She writes scenes of high drama and emotional gravity through authentic-sounding conversations among the new arrivals who are her family members, friends and the overflowing humanity of the neighbourhood in which she lived.

Thus, for example, Mr. Layevsky, the author’s boss at a take-away dry good store, scolds the narrator when she brings a book to the office: “No, no, no. Don’t bring no more a book to the office. It’s not nice a customer comes in and the girl sits with a book.” Many of us can hear Mr. Layevsky’s facsimile of spoken English echoing in the missing voices we can recall from our own past.

Faessler’s ability to establish character and content through conversation is astonishing. But the characters she establishes are mostly gruff, harsh, lacking in warmth or compassionate sentiment and, at times, even cruel. To be sure, there are occasional moments in the stories of loving and humane interactions, but these are at the periphery.

Roughly hewn personages and the brash, stark, sometime brutal way they encounter life does make compelling reading. But one is left wondering whether these were the sum total of the author’s recollections of life in the Yiddish-speaking world of her family.

Were there no moments in her world – as there were in the Yiddish-speaking immigrant world in which countless others were raised in Toronto – of thoughtful gesture, sweet song and tender caress?

A Basket of Apples is indeed compelling reading, but it leaves us feeling and regretting this absence in Faessler’s portrayal of her immigrant world.

*  *  *

A Stone for Benjamin
Fiona Gold Kroll
Iguana Press

By contrast, Fiona Gold Kroll has written a gripping story, which in profound manner is itself a thoughtful gesture and a tender caress to the memory of someone she never met, namely her great-uncle, Benjamin Albaum.

A Stone for Benjamin is a moving testament to the author’s iron will and determination to track down all the details of his life, despite the inevitable sorrow in knowing her great-uncle’s ultimate fate during World War II.

Kroll writes her story as a resolute detective piecing together, clue by partial clue, the fragmented story of her grandmother’s brother. What happened to him and to his family after he left Poland in the 1920s to settle in Paris? Her tale began with a photograph clutched in her hand and ended with an indelible imprint seared into her heart.

“My search for Benjamin has changed me in profound ways,” Kroll writes in the epilogue. “Every one of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust deserves a place in our memory and in our hearts. Benjamin Albaum is one of them and he will stay in my heart forever.” 

Kroll writes in a forthright manner: spare with narrative, precise with description. For example, while peering out of the window of the plane on her way to Krakow, she observes, “All I can see are quiet country roads cutting through emerald green rolling hills. Fields are lush and horses graze peacefully in the bucolic landscape. It is a stark contrast to the circumstances 65 years earlier when Nazis surrounded terrified Polish Jews, some of them my family, who struggled to flee their assassins.”

The author’s quest was more than a personal search for historic certainty, although that would have been sufficient justification for her exemplary enterprise. It was an individual’s attestation – achieved through tears and fears, courage, strength and dignity - that it is the sanctity of all human life that counts above all else in this world.

“Now I am beginning to understand what is driving my obsession,” Kroll wrote after receiving some information at her home in Toronto from the archives at Auschwitz. “Every piece of information about Benjamin that I gather helps negate the Nazi doctrine of dehumanizing their victims. I want to erase the idea of Benjamin as a number. He should be remembered as a human being, a man with feelings and a man who lived life and cared deeply for his wife and children. I want to give Benjamin back his life.”

Alas, Kroll could not give her great-uncle back his life.  But she did restore the memory of his life to those who live after him. And if we could only follow Kroll’s example – not in seeking out the details of the way they were killed but in remembering and recalling and then conveying the details of the way they lived – we too will have helped sanctify, for eternity, the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust.

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