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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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Discovering Poland

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John Crust, Special to The CJN

LODZ, Poland — When Evelyn Tauben was in the ninth grade, she watched how the older students at her Jewish high school in Montreal acted after returning from the March of the Living in Poland. There was something about the annual Holocaust education program and marching through Auschwitz that didn’t quite sit well with her.

“I was very shocked by their behaviour,” she recalled. “There was something misguided by the whole operation and how it was done. The students acted as if they were in some elite club, accepted in this experience, [and had] some kind of status. It was inappropriate. They came back weeping, hugging, saying, ‘You don’t know what we had been through.’ It seemed they had gone too far embracing the status of victim.”

Calling the program a “very constructed manipulative narrative in Poland, then in Israel,” when it came time for her to take part in the March of the Living, she declined, and wrote letters explaining why. “My impression was they were not interested in contemporary Poland and not respectful of contemporary Poland,” Tauben said, adding that “there’s no nuance of understanding” the complexities of the history before, during, and after World War II.

Tauben’s presentation, “Born in Montreal, I Come from Lodz: Rediscovering Connection through Creative Expression,” at an international conference on Jewish-Canadian literature and culture at the University of Lodz touched a nerve and appears to mark a shift of sorts, a shift in identity and consciousness among a growing number of Jewish people. Beginning with a biographical note, Tauben said her grandmother came from Lodz, her grandparents were married in the summer of 1939 in Poland, sprouts of lineage with roots deeply embedded in this land that she fervently embraces.

“I always felt I came from Poland,” Tauben, now 35 and living in Toronto, told the audience. She has come to discover Poland on her terms, making Polish friends, collaborating with Polish peers, and using artistic expression as a way of “reclaiming our connection to Poland, a desire to connect with this place more fully, and to overcome how we were raised to mistrust a people we did not know,” as she put it.

“We’ve been separated too long,” she said.

As part of her creative endeavours, Tauben is developing a performance piece and an exhibition. Among the artists she is working with are Michael Rubenfeld, Evan Tapper, and Sarah Garton Stanley.  

Based on her observations and research, Tauben said Jewish children frequently grow up with stories of the Holocaust, an education “inducing trauma and fear” into young minds.

Such was the case in her own Jewish elementary school. “I know my teachers were doing the best they could,” she said in a question-and-answer session following her presentation. Family histories, undoubtedly, could shape lessons a certain way. The instructors, she noted, often “were not well equipped” to be teaching about the Holocaust in an objective manner.

“I identify with your teachers,” said Ida Wynberg, 68, of Toronto, whose parents came from Poland and Latvia, both of whom survived the war. “Maybe it takes a generation to take that leap.”

“The immediate trauma was acute,” poet Isa Milman of Victoria, B.C. told Tauben. “For you it wasn’t acute.”

Milman added, “I have a tremendous empathy for the suffering of the Polish people. I was never taught that. All we learned was trauma.”

It seems trauma blotted out so much that could have been heard. “Near death, my mother began to speak more positively of her experiences in Poland,” said Milman, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1949.

Sherry Simon, a keynote speaker from Concordia University, later said she concurred with Tauben. “I absolutely agree and am perhaps a little more apprehensive than she is,” said Simon, a professor specializing in translation theory and cultural contact. “All the interpretations of Jewish Poland are not equally welcome.” Acknowledging it has been “a very difficult history,” she said “I think it’s fascinating to watch this new episode, new Polish-Jewish relations in Poland.”

The local Jewish community has long expressed quiet disappointment over the lack of dialogue and interaction between Jewish youth visiting Poland and Polish youth, but Jozef Kwaterko, a Jewish-Polish professor who specializes in Quebec studies at the University of Warsaw, believed the March of the Living is gradually connecting better with contemporary Poland.

“I appreciate the March of the Living,” Kwaterko said. “The problem is the Israeli youngsters. The groups from Israel are completely isolated. They come for the galut” – the historical Jewish exile, culminating with the Holocaust – “to see the cemetery of Jewish life. It’s only to see ‘the end of Jewish life,’ and the cemeteries and concentration camps.” The March of the Living, he said, “is more open-minded. Each year it’s more connected with the Polish landscape.”        

A connection with Poland seemed to be an underlying theme at the conference. “My impression from the students I teach – Holocaust, Jewish history – young people, Jewish or not, their knowledge, to be kind, is lacking,” said co-organizer Norman Ravvin, an author and professor of Jewish studies at Concordia University. “They may be informed about the Holocaust. They don’t know about the culture that existed here. When I teach that material, I constantly highlight the importance of pre-World War II culture.”

 The “great majority” of Jewish young people, and even those who are not so young, visit Poland in so-called “mission travel,” which includes the March of the Living, Ravvin noted. The tours are “scripted in a way, and [can shape their minds to  limit] Poland,” he said. “They are getting people to come, but on a very narrow script.”

Discussions on Leonard Cohen and Mordecai Richler, of course, illuminated realms of the four-day conference –Kanade, di Goldene Medine? Perspectives on Canadian-Jewish Literature and Culture –organized by the University of Lodz and Concordia University in Montreal.

Legendary figures that could have been lifted from a Richler text coloured the proceedings. There was the tale of Jewish immigrant Julius Meyer, who arrived in Nebraska in 1867 and is said to have been captured by an Indian tribe during a buffalo hunt and lived with the indigenous people for several years, leading into a talk on individuals with aboriginal and Jewish parentage.

There was the story of Chaim Leib Fuks, who, at 76, began to put together a Yiddish lexicon of Yiddish and Hebrew writing that spans a century in Canada, with biographies of 429 authors and poets, finishing the labour of love at age 84.

During a tour of the Jewish cemetery, a modest headstone was pointed out, that of Menachem “Blind Max” Bornsztajn, a Jewish gangster, who is said to have controlled Baluty, the renowned impoverished Jewish district of pre-war Lodz. Perhaps romanticized, Bornsztajn reportedly took kindly to the poor, and had connections straight to the mayor’s office. Born in 1890, he died in 1960.  

“I signed you up for art classes,” Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s mother told her father, “and they don’t give refunds.” Thus, in his early 70s, Mayer Kirshenblatt of Toronto was pushed to explore an innate talent, and the memories flowed with the paint, vivid scenes of the Jewish community he left in 1934.

“Art began to be a way to express his memories,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, program director of the core exhibition for the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, said in a presentation. Opatow – the town known as Apt in Yiddish – “is my memory,” the father said in a film that was shown. He painted some 300 works that make up a book, They Called Me Mayer July. The painter, who lived to be 93 and had often been reluctant to talk about the pre-war past, capped his art career with an exhibition that took him back to Opatow, Poland.   

Art, no doubt, was a way for the late Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb to express and sort out so much that was going on deep in her thoughts. “I am still there,” a character named Barukh says of pre-war Poland in Rosenfarb’s short story, The Greenhorn.

“In her heart, she never left,” Rosenfarb’s daughter, Goldie Morgentaler, an English professor at the University of Lethbridge, said in a lecture. The Poland of Rosenfarb’s youth – “all gone” – was “the catalyst for her imagination,” though her major works were written in Canada, said Morgentaler, who translated much of her mother’s writing into English.

“Her imagination responded to nothing else.” Rosenfarb felt she was “a citizen of a second category” in Poland, but while she saw Canada as “a country of promise,” Morgentaler said her mother did not feel at home in the adopted land.

Rosenfarb spent more than 20 years writing her masterpiece, The Tree of Life, set in the Lodz Ghetto. Hailed as the greatest Yiddish woman writer, and the last of the great Yiddish novelists, Rosenfarb, who grew up in Lodz, survived the ghetto, and then Auschwitz, was essentially recreating Jewish Poland, living it in her inner thoughts.

A lot of this echoes in the works of writer Regine Robin, one of the keynote lecturers. Among the French speakers at the conference, a literary star was in their midst. Robin, who has been called “Montreal’s grande dame of postmodernism” and winner of a Governer General’s Award, is “the most important migrant writer in French-speaking Canada,” said Kathleen Gyssels, a literary critic from Belgium.

Robin’s book, La Quebecoite, is read “in all faculties of French,” Kwaterko said. “In new trends in migrant literature, it’s the most studied.” The term “immigrant” implies literature that deals with sociological elements of immigration, he explained. “When you say ‘migrant,’ it deals more with aesthetics, the hearing of ancient voices of other countries I left a long time ago, the relationship to the identity in between the past and the present, with all the problems of assimilation, not assimilating, fear of new ghettoization.”

Robin, the child of Jewish-Polish parents who had moved to France, was a hidden child in Paris during World War II. “We had to move, to change places almost every week,” she said. “I have vivid memories of the last year – ’44.” She knows how forces of the past can linger on, taking hold, carrying well into the present. For six years she lived in Berlin, what was then West Berlin. “I had a friend. He committed suicide. His father was a Nazi. I tried to help him. At that time, in the ’70s, the German youth couldn’t stand their parents. Some overcame the problem. Some didn’t.”

In what was described as a rare, if not unprecedented, international conference on Jewish Canada in the academic world, the two congenial Polish hosts who orchestrated everything happen to have Jewish backgrounds.

Krzysztof “Chris” Majer and Justyna “Yael” Fruzinska of the department of American literature and culture reflect what’s been deemed the “post-revival generation,” and signalling a subtle shift, shining in the warm April weather that greeted the conference participants. A Jewish revival in Poland began around 1989 with the fall of the Communist regime. Now a younger generation is being heard and felt.

“For my mom, it’s been the most difficult,” said Fruzinska, 29, a poet who recently completed a doctoral dissertation on individualism in Disney animation. “She didn’t know my father was Jewish. She married a Jewish man, not knowing it, and here she has a half-Jewish daughter.” The discovery, and the mother’s one and only child identifying with Jewish culture and religion, understandably, can seem foreign, and was not part of the original family makeup.

Fruzinska, who was active in the Jewish choir Tslil, informed her father about his true identity, and halachically Jewish at that – 100 per cent. “He learned it from me. ‘Dad, you know what? – you’re Jewish.’ I made sense of some family stories passed on without reflection.” Something about the family background seemed – strange, amiss. For instance, word that her grandmother’s sister received financial assistance from the Jewish community after the war to start a hairdressing business was suggestive there was more to the story. “I wrote to the archives,” she said.

The issue – are we Jewish? – was first broached some 12 years ago. Fruzinska’s father, not overly religious, initially was resistant to the notion of now being Jewish, but when she brought him a kippah from a trip to France, the gift had an effect. “When someone makes an anti-Semitic comment, he’ll stand up and say: ‘I’m Jewish.’”

For Majer, 37, the family background was “just known,” but registered little thought. Majer, who completed a doctoral dissertation on the Messianic messages in Richler’s writing, is halachically Jewish. “My Jewish heritage is spotty,” he conceded, though his academic interests are bringing him closer to that heritage. “My grandmother on my mother’s side was Jewish.” He noted that a diary belonging to his great-grandmother that dates before the World War I describes Christmas trees, with no mention of anything Jewish.

“My grandmother didn’t really like to talk about this. She lost her mother in the Warsaw Uprising.” The Warsaw Uprising against the German occupiers began Aug. 1, 1944, a little more than a year after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. “When did I find out? I can’t remember the moment. I always somehow knew about this. It didn’t seem to have any consequences. There were no religious family traditions. It was this abstract word – Jewish. I was raised very loosely Catholic.”

Majer, however, remembers when his younger brother found out about their Jewish heritage. “I told him. I was surprised he didn’t know. He was in high school.”

Kacper Bartczak, a department colleague, also had a grandmother that wasn’t keen on discussing the past, but his family has a medal that reflects a remarkable story. Two Jewish children – “a boy and a girl,” he said, “very small” – were smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto, and Bartczak’s grandmother took it upon herself to take care of the children, along with her own daughter. As the story goes, they ended up in the countryside where it was safer, living there for some three years. According to an official testimony, neighbours were told Izabela was a niece, Jozef an illegitimate child.

“She never discussed it,” Bartczak, 42, said. But the story was always there, the proud story of doing the right thing despite the risks. More than half a century later, the family felt the grandmother’s selfless actions should be known. “I found this person – Izabela Owczarek. She was still living in Lodz.” That little girl grew up and became an engineer. Together, they documented everything in a letter in English. “She had a daughter,” Bartczak said, “didn’t know anything about this until later in life.”

In 1998, Stefania Bartczak, a strong-willed, working-class woman who for years toiled in a rubber factory, was recognized as the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. “She was 88, already dying,” said the grandson, a recognized poet. “My father went to the ceremony in Lodz on her behalf.”  

As Bartczak shared a few words about his grandmother, Sheldon Glass was absorbing the special experience of being in Poland. The 77-year-old Toronto man smiled at how friends discouraged him. Why would you want to go back? they said, but he wouldn’t listen. “Just stories that they heard – ‘It’s very anti-Semitic,’” Glass said. “Had they ever been here? No.” Glass, a retired men’s clothing buyer for the old Eaton’s department store, was part of an entourage of friends and relatives that accompanied Toronto-based Yiddish translator Vivien Felsen, who did a presentation on Chaim Leib Fuks.

“I’m a grandson of Poland,” Glass declared.

His mother left Poland in 1911. His father left in 1915. They met in Toronto and married in 1917. “I wanted to go back to the country of my parents,” he said. A family anecdote held the colours of Sholem Aleichem. “My great-grandfather was the first postman in Chmielnik. He couldn’t read. My grandfather took the letters every day. ‘This one is for Chaim, this one for Moishe…,’ and the great-grandfather delivered the mail.” As well, the Glass family has a particular connection to World War II. “My brother was the first Jewish war hero in Canada. He went down in 1944. He’s buried in England.” Harry Glass, 23, was in the Royal Canadian Air Force, shot down over the English Channel. For Sheldon Glass, this trip was also an opportunity to pay his respects to the dead. “I felt a responsibility,” he said.

A high point of the conference was the Friday night Shabbat gathering at what is called the Lauder Club, associated with the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, a Jewish outreach program. An emotiona1ripple was felt when Gloria Valentine, on the spur of the moment, began to pour out words to a Yiddish song, Ikh Dermon Zikh Oyf Der Frytik Oyf Der Nakht (I Remember How It was on a Friday Night). “It evoked a time that was probably a very beautiful time for our ancestors,” said Valentine, a singer and actress from Toronto.            

“I love Yiddish,” she said. “I was raised in my grandmother’s kitchen to Yiddish songs and spoke Yiddish before English. I could sing in English. When I sing in Yiddish, it comes from my gut. I feel it.” She added, “I always say, ‘Yiddish zingt zikh, Yiddish redst zikh’ – Yiddish sings itself, Yiddish speaks itself.”

Valentine carried a frayed envelope postmarked Lodz, with five fragile letters carefully folded inside, two undated, three dated 1935, handwritten jewels of Yiddish from family “thanking my mother for sending five dollars. There was a wedding – ‘wishing you could come to the wedding.’” Those were the last letters received from extended family in Poland. Valentine’s mother kept the letters tucked in a drawer. Shortly before her mother died at age 95, Valentine was given the letters. She felt an urge to bring those precious Yiddish words with her on the trip to Poland.

“Our history is here,” she said. And something from that history is flowering in Poland today. “I don’t think there’s a phoenix. Perhaps a little sparrow. Perhaps a little Yiddish songbird. It’s a start. And that’s enough.”

The conference ended with a warm applause. There is already talk of a “second chapter” that would be held in Montreal, and, ideally, some kind of an exchange program might eventually be put into place between the two universities.

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