In 1937, the Mann family received a letter from their Canadian relatives containing boat tickets to bring them across the Atlantic. But they weren’t able to travel to Canada, as Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had adopted the infamous “None is too many” policy, which refused the admission of Jewish refugees from Europe. As a result, most of the family perished, with the exception of a young writer and artist named Mendel Mann.
When the Germans occupied Warsaw in 1939, Mann fled to Ukraine, to the small town of Rovno, where the local Jewish community welcomed him. As the family legend goes, a high school student named Sonia was selected to perform a song for the newcomer. They were married a year later. In the summer of 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Mann and his new bride were on the run again. This time, they fled further east. They ended up in a small village called Tengushei in Mordovia, about 1,600 km from Rovno. Populated by Tatars and Mordvines and home to some of Stalin’s gulags, the area was known as the “Land of Death,” due to its extremely harsh climate. Sonia gave birth to the couple’s first and only son, who they named Grisha.
Mann was then drafted into the Red Army – first he served in combat, then, after being severely wounded, worked with the legendary General Georgy Zhukov. Born with a keen sense of history, whenever he heard a song or a saying, especially from fellow Yiddish speakers, he would write it down. In 1944, a young man named Osher Plansker recited a song to him: “I love my automatic weapon, I am a Jewish partisan boy.” Another anonymous soldier sang about using a machine gun: “I hit the Germans so that my people should be free!”
When the war ended, it turned out that it is only thanks to Mann’s work that we now know some of the Yiddish songs that were sung by Red Army soldiers. After the war, memories faded and few remembered the tunes.
Following the war, Mann escaped the Soviet Union, went to Poland, then Germany and finally landed in Israel in 1948. He worked on the editorial board of the only Yiddish-language publication in Israel, the Golden Chain, but did not get along with its editor-in-chief, Avrom Sutzkever, who was also a Soviet war veteran.
In 1958, Mann left Israel, settled in Paris and started painting. He became friends with Marc Chagall, who respected him for both his writing and his artistic talent. Chagall devoted one of his paintings to him. A few years later, Mann returned to Israel. He wrote nearly 30 novels, but most of them were not published. Yet the published ones earned him the title of one of the most accomplished Yiddish writers of the 20th century.
Mann’s son, who now goes by the name Zvi, a retired Israeli engineer, delivered a lecture in Yiddish at the University of Toronto at the end of November, in which he said that had his father come to Canada in 1937, he would not have ended up as a Yiddish writer. Instead, he would have been an artist. He might have had his own gallery. He would have been a happy, fulfilled person.
But Mendel Mann died when he was just 59, probably due to his old war wounds. He was unhappy.
We usually think of stories like Mendel Mann’s as having happy endings. Indeed, unlike his brother Wolf, his one-year-old niece and his parents, he survived the war. But was he lucky?
The answer is far from clear. Had he been lucky, he would have ended up in Canada, but he did not. Instead, he wrote, painted and recorded a war that he barely survived. It is now up to us to ensure that we do not take his work for granted. This is the only way we, as Canadians, can truly apologize for “None is too many.”