John Hirsch, who arrived in Winnipeg in 1947 as a 17-year-old orphan of the Holocaust knowing no English and no one, was unlikely to become a trailblazer of Canadian theatre and a nurturer of this country’s fragile cultural identity.
The tall, skinny, black-haired, rather wild-looking adolescent was welcomed into a warm, working-class Jewish family in that prairie town’s fabled north end. Against all odds, he would put postwar Winnipeg and then Canada on the world stage, says his biographer.
Freddie Martz managed, after 10 years of work, to write a comprehensive biography of the legendary Hirsch, best remembered as the artistic director of the Stratford Festival and earlier, head of CBC’s drama department. It is a formidable task that three others before her had failed to complete.
Martz, who lives in Vancouver, was back in her native Montreal to talk about her book A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch [Vehicle Press], co-authored with British collaborator Andrew Wilson, at the Jewish Public Library (JPL).
The title is fitting for a man famous for his hot temperament and willingness to take risks, artistically and with hard-won budgets.
Martz, a social worker by training, is also the author in 1996 of Open Your Hearts: The Story of the Jewish War Orphans in Canada, published as well by Montreal’s Vehicle Press.
Hirsch, whose parents and younger brother perished during the war, was among the first of 1,123 Jewish war orphans that the Canadian government – reluctantly, according to Martz – allowed in from 1947 to 1949.
Martz worked in the Jewish General Hospital’s psychiatry department at a time when a large number of its clients were Holocaust survivors.
A theatre lover, she was drawn to the story of “the gifted and complex” Hirsch, who died in 1989 and whom she never met. She befriended Hirsch’s beloved adoptive sister Sybil Shack, who gave her blessings for the biography.
She agreed that Hirsch “would have wanted a warts and all” portrait, but he was, not surprisingly, a difficult person to get a handle on, Martz said.
“He described himself as a member of four mafias: the Hungarian, the Jewish, the homosexual and the Winnipeg,” the author said. But, he took a long time in coming to terms with his Jewishness, she added, alternating between self-hatred and fierce pride.
Hirsch formed a close bond with the easy-going Shacks, particularly its matriarch Pauline (“Ma”), which lasted for the rest of his life (he predeceased her by four months). Sybil helped invaluably in recreating Hirsch’s happy time in Winnipeg, for which he retained a strong fondness, before he went on to New York and then Toronto.
The Shacks’ devotion allowed Hirsch to overcome his tragic background. Recognizing his genius, they encouraged him to go to university (where he excelled) and in his unlikely theatrical ambitions.
Eleven years after his arrival, Hirsch co-founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre in a city that had no professional theatre and where anyone with artistic dreams wanted to leave.
Winnipeggers gave the benefit of the doubt to the young immigrant and the MTC established Hirsch’s reputation, not only on the Prairies, but among Toronto and even New York critics.
Before Martz took on the project, two people gave up in their attempt to write the story of Hirsch’s life, and the third, the American theatre director Elizabeth Osbourne, died before getting a book out.
Martz was able to use the taped interviews Osbourne made with Hirsch about his early life in Hungary and after the war as a homeless, hungry boy in Paris.
Hirsch, who wanted to be a theatre director from childhood, ditched plans to go with his Zionist youth group to Palestine, and headed for the city that Hungarians especially revered as the artistic and intellectual mecca.
He ended up in Canada, after having applied for entry into a number of other countries, because he thought he was in a queue for free shoes, Martz said.
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Why Winnipeg? He chose it because his mother had warned him to stay away from borders, and he figured, given its location, that it must be at the centre of a thriving cultural life.
Martz’s account benefited from the generous contributions of the memories some of the actors Hirsch worked with, such as Martha Henry and Douglas Campbell. And while Martz found “staggering” amounts of documentary material on Hirsch in the National Archives of Canada and the Manitoba Archives, it was badly organized and in danger of oblivion.
Martz pinpoints Hirsch’s decision to put on S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk as proof he had finally made peace with his Jewish heritage. That journey into his heritage culminated with his English adaptation of the Yiddish classic in 1974 at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre, a production that received rave reviews.
An audience member, Belva Thomas (nee Boroditsky), knew Hirsch well in his Winnipeg days and provided Martz with a bit of information she did not know.
Hirsch was a member of the Habonim Zionist youth group there and took part in both its English and Yiddish plays – his first experience in theatre.