Testifying

Microphones
Photo: Håkan Dahlström

It’s commonplace to say that at different stages of life we revisit the past and understand it in a new way, but sometimes the past ambushes and wrests new insights from us whether we’re ready for them or not. Recently, the burden of family history fell on me like a cartoon baby grand slipped from its hoists. Would I be prepared to testify at a Nazi war crimes trial? I cringe from public speaking and generally shy away from joining groups including those of fellow Jews. The prospect seemed flattening.

My sister, who has written and spoken publicly about our parents’ families lost in the Holocaust, had been contacted by a retired German judge. Thomas Walther was leading an initiative to bring former SS servicemen to trial for their part in facilitating the murder of millions in the German extermination camps of World War II. Seventy years after the fact, the ranks of the perpetrators were thinning as quickly as those of the surviving victims. This was to be a last-ditch effort to correct a travesty of justice that had allowed thousands of accomplices to the Final Solution to live their lives with impunity. The trial of Oskar Gröning, the so-called Accountant of Auschwitz, hinged on the Hungarian Operation of 1944 that had devastated the lives of my parents, annihilating most of their families. During the stepped up mass-production of murder in the Hungarian Operation, Gröning would have been called upon for duties at the ramp where the deportees were selected for slave labor or the gas chamber. My father’s pre-war marriage had produced a little girl who had died in Auschwitz. My sister and I were qualified through this half-sister, dead before our births, to testify. The six-year-old Eva may have passed before Gröning’s impervious gaze as his gun-toting presence pressed her towards the ovens.

Three months before the trial, Thomas Walther arrived on my doorstep in the worst snowstorm of the season, committed to depose me of the facts pertinent to his case which, as with all his co-plaintiffs [witnesses], required probing soft tissue. I had decided to speak up, but how does one do justice to, or try to seek justice for, a six year-old half-sister dead seventy years, in front of a stranger armed with a video camera? Quipping in heavily-accented English about the Canadian weather’s virtuoso performance and the length of his trek from the Novotel in the north-west sector of Toronto, Thomas formulated his first—and even he couldn’t have guessed how trenchant—question. “Can you tell me? I am looking at the Google map to make my journey. And I am looking and looking for this street. Everyone else, all the co-plaintiffs they are not too far away. Easy to go from one house to the other house, maybe just a little ride with taxi. But I must to make it search, and I see.” Here he looked directly at me for the first time. He raised one hand. “Everyone else lives over here,” and dropped the other hand, “except this one, this  Judit [he used the Hungarian pronunciation of my name] who lives exactly the other way. Can you tell me please why?”

I garbled something vague at the time. I can now frame a better answer having come out from under the onus of the land of the oppressors where I bared my heart to the microphones and cameras of the world.

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In October of 1961, my parents bought their first house in Montreal in a freshly-laid out suburb of cul-de-sacs and scalloped crescents in the eastern corner of the island city. Our street was lined on one side by a long row of duplexes matching ours. When my parents took possession, the other properties were already occupied and landscaped. The lawn in the back had grown so high and matted, it took my father a month of intermittent hacking with the push mower to save it from rot over the winter.

Our half of the duplex consisted of a lower spacious flat with a basement, both accessed by an outer stairwell, as was the upper rental. Next door, through the adjoining wall, the mirrored units housed an extended family of Italian immigrants who ranged between the floors hanging out their laundry from the back balconies, and in the clement months, running up and down the spiral staircase bearing baskets of tomatoes and zucchinis harvested from the kitchen plot in the rear of their garden. In front of their house, a riot of dahlias filled the bed beside the plunge to the in-ground garage. On our side my father had embedded chunks of grey Laurentian granite to host lichen, sedum, and spawning hens and chickens he called rock roses, either translated from Hungarian or because that was the name he had learned in Britain where he had tended a tiered, tumbling rock garden to which ours in Ville d’Anjou was a pale allusion. I noted how the only two immigrant families on not only our street, but all the routes I grew familiar with on my walks to school, ballet, and piano lessons lived side by side. I never heard any language but French or English beyond our duplex, and was frequently embarrassed by the volume of foreign voices issuing from the open windows at the Napolis next door, not to mention chez nous the Kalmans, despite my mother’s hissed commands to keep our voices down or the British tenants upstairs would think we were killing each other.

I was a late-comer to the grade-two class as we were to our street. It was my fourth school since leaving Hungary in November 1957. There had been an English nursery first, in the upscale London suburb of Purley, where we refugees of the 1956 Revolution had been offered a stately home to essentially house-sit free of charge by the headmistress of the school my mother’s brother taught in. The nursery frightened me, separated as I was from my family for the first time, and also by language. A German shepherd presided over us with more rigor than our infant care guardians. It appeared that the British loved their dogs more than their children. I had watched in horror as the mother across the road threatened to pick up the telephone to call the child collector to fetch her little boy if he wouldn’t behave. I pictured voluptuous, red-glossed lips on the mouthpiece beckoning something sinister out of the grey Purley mists. Next door, however, a listless, superannuated Georgie peed and poohed wherever he pleased, rewarded with a fresh bone from the butcher’s. The dog at nursery didn’t hurt anyone, but the fact of its size, its stiff, bristly pelt, and sharp muzzle confirmed the darkness in its name.

In Canada, I attended a second nursery school and then grade one as a little latch-key girl. I don’t think anyone thought twice about switching my schools again. We were better off owning a home. We were better off in Canada where my mother could teach in the public school system instead of translating business letters in a Philips factory as she had in London. My father was better off here too as a bookkeeper rather than, at over fifty years of age, loading television chassis. England was better than Hungary where guns were fired in the streets. Canada was better than England where immigrants with accents couldn’t get jobs teaching school. Here we could say we were Jews without anyone losing their job, my uncle too notwithstanding the goodwill of his headmistress. If it was my fourth school in four years, what matter? The school was clean, well-appointed, the children decently dressed, and it had employed my mother to teach kindergarten. She was genuinely surprised to hear that I wouldn’t stop sniveling.

The straw that had broken me was the intimidating word “composition,” its grown-up sound full of unreasonable expectation. I had tried my best to adapt to changes but this was the limit. Every time the teacher approached kindly with notebook and pencil and pictures of sunny barnyards or children playing hopscotch for inspiration, I burst into tears. Finally she eureka-ed, “Why don’t you just write something about yourself.” At which I rubbed my nose on the sleeve of my sister’s out-grown cardigan, picked up the pencil, and pressing its lead down hard so it wouldn’t skedaddle, I incised the words, “I was born in Hungry.”

Given that early expression of my identity distilled from my nascent self under duress, why did I stop thinking of myself as first a Hungarian Jew identified by the land of my origin, and start saying I was a Jew born in Hungary? When did I give up both, joining ranks with millions of migrants who have ended up calling themselves Canadian? And how did I arrive at my notion of self as a product of history, happenstance, and genetics who claims no more than to be the grateful resident of a hospitable state?

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Sleeping dogs have laid low during the decades since I opened my eyes one rain-smeared Purley morning to peer into the meat-laced maw of the beast I dared not call by its name. Normally I sat immobile and silent on my pint-sized chair afraid to make any inadvertent move the dog might mistake for invitation. I don’t know how the chair tipped and up-ended me, but I did not perceive the avuncular tongue-hanging as concern for my well-being. A hot, stewey miasma stuffed both nose and mouth. Yellow fangs clicked above my eyes. I knew definitively what I had only sensed in the early days of my incarceration among strangers in this foreign encampment guarded by German shepherds. Didn’t we hide our Shabbat candlesticks when the headmistress came to visit? Didn’t we always say we came from Hungary without any mention of what had happened to my parents and their families in the war, as though the Revolution during which no one close to us had been rounded up, enslaved, little children gassed, was the greatest crisis in our lives? Wasn’t it obvious that the world was still not safe for Jews, that what had happened to my father’s first little daughter, first wife, brothers, parents and all those aunts, uncles, cousins and their families—I wouldn’t even start counting on my mother’s side—was something shameful we the blameless had to hide, or else even the better world might bite us?

In 1957 and ’58, the years we spent in England, twelve years after the Nuremberg Trials whose judges were headed by the British, the social climate in Britain still blew cold for Jews—immigrants and refugees of the war in particular. In March 2003, I flew to London to attend the funeral of my mother’s brother, the school teacher whose headmistress had put a roof over our heads. He and his wife had had three sons, not raised as Jews, but neither as convincingly Christian. The sons learned, in their teens, of the history of their father’s Hungarian family, most of whom ended up in the ovens at Auschwitz-Birkenau. My uncle had stayed in regular contact with his two sisters in Montreal, but there had been few visits across the Atlantic. My cousins’ grown children regarded me with suspicion. What was this stranger doing at their grandfather’s funeral? My Auntie Jill wasn’t sure about my presence either. I was there, I explained, to represent my uncle’s two sisters—my mother and aunt—and our whole families. I’d brought photographs of everyone. My mother, aunt and their British brother were the sole survivors of a family of seven children, their spouses and offspring. Now he too was gone. Was there really need to explain further? The vicar gave the eulogy. Not a word was mentioned of my uncle’s Jewish family murdered by the Nazis, nor of his two sisters in Canada who had survived Auschwitz, slave labor in munitions plants in Germany, Bergen-Belsen, and a death march to nowhere, before being liberated by the British. No wonder my English relatives looked on their Canadian cousin with distrust. Was I there to spill the beans?

By contrast, to call ourselves Hungarian was acceptable. In grade school, I’d boast that I was born on the Pest side of the Danube. My friends looked at me blankly. The town of Pest, I’d repeat, in Budapest. Get it? Why I’m such a pest ha-ha. The friends’ last names were Spratt, Govern, and James; Benoit, Marshall, Fathers. What did they know about the map of Europe? But when the word Jew arose, a hot frisson ran up my back, scorching by the time it hit my face. This happened rarely, but sometimes a classmate might say so-and-so had jewed him out of something. It wasn’t the insult that burned, but that private word uttered casually, publicly. Being Jewish made me feel set apart. We were special by tragic history. We were the chosen people. We liked to believe we were smarter than most. And in our suburb there were no others.

It’s a little dizzying for me to note that I’m just one generation removed from the profound Orthodoxy of my father’s family that kept two kitchens, one for milchig, the other for fleischig. From his workplace on ethnically diverse St. Lawrence Boulevard, my father brought home to our white Wonderbread suburb unpackaged rye, kimmel, and black pumpernickel, and deli meats made of pork innards veined with rivulets of fat: kolbasz, hurka, Debreceni sausages, salamis, and hams. Spiritually, emotionally he belonged to the world of his parents; while his body, flung across first war-torn Hungary, then a continent, and later an ocean, had adapted like any organism bent on survival to what the new environments had on tap. Such a body and mind divide contorted one’s self-image, I could only imagine, way beyond the attenuated distortions of the fun house mirror. What was my little vertiginous head rush by comparison?

In the summer of 1964, my parents met with the rabbi of a Reform congregation in a posh, modern synagogue in one of the wealthiest areas of the city. It was way over on the west side of Montreal, requiring three buses and travel time of an hour and a quarter or more. As a family we had taken this journey a handful of times in the previous year to attend a few holiday and Sabbath services. My mother was impressed by the chic modern décor, my sister by the cashmere sweater sets and camel hair coats of the college girls from Westmount, Snowden, Notre-Dame-de-Grace, St. Laurent, and Town of Mount Royal. My father felt less uncomfortable in the red velvet theatre seats, and with the integration of the sexes in the sanctuary, than by the fact that the men prayed bare-headed. Not even on the bimah did the presiding rabbi, cantor, or congregation functionaries cover their heads, not the merest yarmulke to be found among them. Here we were, finally among Jews, and my father in his broad, black fedora stood out as conspicuously as he did on ascending the rattling Ville d’Anjou bus each morning. Recognizing the driver who picked him up at the same time on the corner of boulevards Yves Prévost and Joseph Renaud, he would lift his hat by the crown and dip his long, Semitic nose in greeting, a decidedly European, old world gesture. Loyalty to my father notwithstanding, I didn’t mind going to the synagogue because I got to put on my patent leather party shoes. There had been discussion over the months of the steep cost of tickets to the High Holy Days services, and membership dues, that I had let wash over my head while doing under-water somersaults in a manner of speaking in the pleasant pool of trust that my parents had financially reached a point of comfort to afford such luxuries. I didn’t mind accompanying them to the synagogue for their meeting with the rabbi to discuss the terms of our membership. I could browse through the synagogue shop admiring the mosaic and enamel inlays on the brass menorahs from Israel, and the silver chalices and mother-of-pearl-handled knives for the Shabbat wine and challah. When my mother called me back to the rabbi’s office, she looked pleased, and I didn’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed that she’d cut an advantageous deal with the cleric. He got up to introduce himself, shook my hand. “We look forward to having you in Mr. Shore’s grade five class this September. Welcome to Temple Emmanuel Religious School.”

I wasn’t being forced to leave my current school-mates. The three-and-a-half-hour weekly commitment was to expose me to—in order to develop a taste for—the company of”my own kind.” The assimilated North American Jewish children I met at religious school downtown proved, however, to be nowhere near like us. They had TVs in their bedrooms and three-car garages, and rode roughshod over our religious school teachers with a dismissive disregard today we call disrespecting, but my mother would have pegged as big-mouthed. When Mr. Shore brought in pictures from articles that showed Jews in striped pajamas behind barbed wire and far worse, I froze, much as I did at school when I heard the word Jew bandied as an epithet. My Jewish classmates poured over the photos avidly, adding choice gruesome tidbits they had heard about, and for once not acting bored or mouthy but enthusiastically interested. Enthusiastic, avidly interested as one can only be about something that has nothing to do with you and is compellingly entertaining in its horror. Nothing since has made me feel less among my kind, and more Jewish. It dawned on me that I was a Jew as one can be only when born from the ashes of the sacrificed dead, seared by the brand of history.

Around this time I transposed my ethnic identity, placing the Jewish part foremost. There were two things I actually loved about going to religious school: the bus rides there and the bus rides back. The pleasure going may have been mitigated by the dread of arrival, but the rides back were enhanced by the snack of a York dark chocolate bar meant to tide me over for the feast of Hungarian blood sausage, hurka, (how’s that for cultural dissonance?) that awaited me in reward for enduring yet another isolating session of religious school. Together they offered hours of observation of the nuanced city as it revealed itself by way of Sherbrooke Street which crossed a large breadth of the island from east to west. I loved nothing better than the switch at Pie IX (pronounced always in French) from the eastern 185 route to the number 24 that bore me into the older, more atmospheric and historic neighborhoods, towards the central cosmopolitan core. My parents may have felt some assurance that they had made the right decision to send me forth to discover children of another class and community when I insisted we give up our Christmas tree and exchange gifts at Chanukah instead. Until then, Christmas with my aunt’s Presbyterian family had been the focal point of a season merely punctuated with chocolate Chanukah gelt. I admired the city west of Pie IX. It seemed to hold more substance and gravitas than our new bungalows and the Dairy Queens and Dunkin’ Donuts along Sherbrooke East. But eventually I would ride past the Temple, all the way to the university at the end of the 24’s route, and as though that thrust westward had entered my bloodstream, didn’t stop until life took me across the different provinces. By then I’d finished graduate school and married a Gentile boy from the West Island, as I think I’d been destined to from the start. After all, I did not grow up among Jews. My best friends, including my beloved cousin Pauline, were not Jewish. Even as I had walked down the center aisle of the sanctuary during my Confirmation ceremony in grade nine, wearing a white robe and carrying a bouquet of red roses, I had done so cynically, already a confirmed non-believer, with my eye-linered, Twiggy-lashed eye to the main chance of delivery forevermore from the alien world of my kind.

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Contradictions of identity were a hallmark of my upbringing. We came to Canada from England so my parents could have white collar jobs and openly practice their religion. Yet we lived among Gentiles. Our Christmas tree, until I nixed it, sat in the front picture window of the living room, the curtains left open so its lights might be enjoyed from the street. But my father closed the dining room curtains before we lit the Shabbat candles. My parents feared not for our own exposure but that of the family we were closest to. My uncle’s and aunt’s answer to Holocaust trauma was to erase the past. Whereas my parents spoke to us of the past incessantly, my uncle and aunt hid it. They had converted to Christianity when they left post-war Hungary for first Paris, then Montreal. They were active in a French Canadian Presbyterian congregation, raising their family in that faith and also ignorant about who their parents had come from or what they had endured. We lived in the east end so my aunt’s family could visit us freely without fear of “endangerment.” During childhood, my cousin Pauline was my best friend. Before she came over, my mother would remind me to put my religious school books in a place where Pauline wouldn’t come across them. There was a spot I used in the deep closet of my bedroom, behind my mother’s stored eiderdowns and clothes that weren’t in season. On the one hand I was being asked to cultivate a taste for the company of my own people, and on the other to hide who we were from my closest kith and kin.

What did I think as a child about being asked to protect my beloved cousin from my identity? It was like handing her a Kevlar vest while sending me into action without one. I didn’t resent her, or feel any real threat. I took my parents’ view that my aunt and uncle were unreasonably paranoid given the open society we enjoyed in Canada, and felt sorry that Pauline’s life lacked the depth of mine, as in knowing where we came from and how our parents had come to be who they were. My cousins cultivated a lack of interest in the past that may have been in response to the tacit warning signals their parents flashed at them: DON’T GO THERE! pulsating in emotional neon. They didn’t ask about grandparents for instance, or wonder why we didn’t join them for church every Sunday. I resented the inconvenience of having to tidy away incriminating evidence before Pauline came over, and it made me angry at my uncle who was chiefly behind the subterfuge. He had hated the impoverished, repressive, ultra-Orthodoxy of his home. Denying and forgetting it was a second liberation that perhaps did not cost him much. I speculate here. But my mother and aunt came from a happy family and idyllic childhood landscape they loved nothing better than to roam through when my uncle and cousins were not in earshot. My sister and I were privy to these amusing reminiscences about the antics of seven children allowed free range of the Jewish neighborhood in their Hungarian town on the eastern border with the Ukraine. But we were also subjected to sudden reversals of recollection that landed us in Auschwitz or on a death march or under a bombardment of Allied fighter planes. My aunt felt no compunction about pouring her nightmares into the tender ears of her nieces. My cousins were to be sheltered while my sister and I were slapped around by the horrific flashbacks the two survivors wallowed in like a forbidden indulgence. It made me much angrier at my uncle though he never spoke of his traumas, because it was he who forced my aunt to excise what was also beautiful from her past. I don’t think my uncle trusted me with their secret although as child I was obedient and never once “inadvertently” left a Hebrew copybook lying around. My cousin Pauline was quiet by nature, whereas my aunt dubbed me kocs-kocs, which is Hungarian for chatterbox. Perhaps he mistrusted my spilling over with anecdotes and opinions.

In the 1970s, I took to making my own clothes because much of what I wanted to wear couldn’t be found in my uncle’s ladies’ boutiques, or in our shopping cenetr. Long peasant skirts, loose batik blouses, and African print dashikis smelling of incense and patchouli came from stores cropping up downtown among the smoked meat delis. My mother certainly wouldn’t spend a penny on these outlandish get-ups when respectable outfits were available to us at reduced cost, or free, from my aunt. When I could get my hands on fabric lying around, I’d fashion something loose, flowing, and long from it. Out of a trunk in the basement, I unearthed a pair of burgundy brocade antimacassars my mother had used to cover the armchairs in our first Canadian apartment, presumably because the threadbare chairs had been passed down by my aunt. In my innocence I made identical flowing tops, an ironic tip of the hat to a childhood of matching outfits: the shiny green snowsuits with hoods that zipped open at the crown; the bathing suits, Pauline’s blue trimmed in white, mine a red version; skirted sailor ensembles we wore at the same time, Pauline the little blond cousin, me the brunette. I was sixteen when I made us the “hippy” tops. We weren’t ever close after that. The virulence unleashed against me by my open-hearted, generous aunt hurled out of left field. I was called every salacious Hungarian invective, and forbidden to consort with my cousin again.

You may well ask where that came from. It’s difficult to control children once they become teenagers, especially when the slogans of the time exhort them to rebellion. Nothing seemed to flaunt my defiance to my aunt and uncle so much as my refusal to don the tasteful wardrobe available in their shops and to sport rags instead. That I had extended such a rag to Pauline made them see red at every pass. Forty years later, it strikes me as an excuse to remove Pauline from my generally challenging influence.

If they were afraid I would try to turn Pauline into a Jew as I had tried to dress her as a hippy, they couldn’t have been more off track. But the issue of Jewishness was a track Pauline’s parents were as stuck on as the cattle cars that had relentlessly drawn them and their families to Auschwitz. That I had given up my practice as a Jew the moment I returned my Confirmation gown to the cubby at the Temple was of no reassurance. That too was a sign of my unreliable character. I must have embodied the disclosure they feared. With nothing more to lose regarding my friendship with my cousin, I unzipped their story from the secret compartment in the fringed pouch of my heart.

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Daily in Lüneburg, Germany I was taken for a representative of the Jewish community. The co-plaintiffs were followed closely by the media. While we breakfasted together, we were filmed for a documentary. A beautiful white-haired lady dabbed the corners of her mouth, and the next instant a journalist gallantly but firmly led her away. Together, we filed off the coach hired to take us to court and strolled processionally into the building as cameras tailed us on caddies. Microphones swaddled in micro-fiber muffs hung over our heads to pick up remarks we learned to keep to ourselves. We sat side by side in the courtroom; repaired to the adjoining hall during adjournments when journalists once more swarmed to our honey. Every evening we reconvened for dinner at one of the hotels quartering our collective. We were the co-plaintiffs, Jews all, survivors all of the Hungarian Operation and internment at Auschwitz-Birkenau. All save me and my sister, who represented the second generation. As a group we seemed homogeneous.

What makes me uncomfortable among Jews are assumptions that we share values just because we are Jews: solidarity with Israel for one, or the imperative of maintaining our traditions or other kinds of distinctness. The worst conflicts stem from familial, clannish, tribal, racial, and religious divisions. Freedom to practice all religions and to dress and follow dietary laws according to any preferred tradition should be everyone’s right; but that doesn’t mean that the cultural codes that make us appear different from one another are the clearest paths to harmony and peace. I feel deeply offended when assumptions are not just made about me because I was born and raised Jewish, but about the incontestable virtue of certain principles that allegedly define us because of history and lineage: that a good Jew supports Israel at all costs, even if not its one state policy; or that a good Jew practices cultural traditions because not doing so fulfills the Nazis’ plan to eradicate us all; that whatever the cause we should stick together. I don’t buy it, but I am equally Jewish.

It isn’t easy for me to pinpoint why testifying had such a profound effect on me, as I’ve written about our Holocaust legacy. There was something different about telling a German panel of judges in a German court, and the German people—via the many microphones not so such thrust in my face but oh-so respectfully and considerately soliciting my story—that the Nazi murder of a six-year-old Hungarian Jewish girl I never clapped eyes on shaped not only the subsequent life of our shared father, but defined my life too in a country and era far removed from hers. I was a North American child of the ’70s, wearing head bands, peace symbols, and patchwork jeans at the same time that I was a child of her period, her death and those of eighty members of our extended family a reference point against which I weighed the key elements of my life. This private narrative bruited in the press of the nation that had aimed to wipe out all possibility of there ever being a me, unlatched something. For the first time in my life speaking in public did not pose a problem.

It had hurt me that no one but my sister and I bore witness to my father and my mother’s terrible losses. They’d had to adjust to their new lives with neither benefit from community support, nor open acknowledgement of their unhealed wounds. When I testified and spoke out publicly in Germany, on their behalf as much as that of my half-sister and all their lost family members, I felt lightened. The world was finally listening. We’d been insignificant people, yet we told a story enormous in its monstrosity, a story greater than us while also quintessentially personal. Each testimony of the co-plaintiffs in the Gröning trial was the same in its despair and general description of events; utterly unique to the teller and the mourned. The power of their presence in the courtroom lay in the intonation of each voice as it penetrated the opacity of the numbers. Their personal tenor charged the abominations, made them intimately felt.

Before leaving for Germany, I worried as much about being part of a group of Jews as I did about being surrounded by Germans. Had it not been for Thomas Walther and the Gröning trial I would never have crossed the border into the land where my mother and aunt had been slaves. Because of this German man, I strove to also overcome my aversion to being absorbed into a collective of my own kind. It felt like an achievement to separate the survivor voices of the courtroom from some of the statements they made at our dinners and breakfasts, often fierce in antipathy to Palestinians. Evidently one can feel respect, compassion, even affection for the person who had suffered unspeakably, while finding his or her politics distasteful. It dismayed me, though, whenever one of the group presumed that it’s natural to agree that one who questions Israel is its enemy, and that the Holocaust justifies disenfranchisement of those not our kind. These positions only cheapen the tragedy of the Shoah.

In Germany, I surprised myself by extending a level of patience and support to the survivors that I have offered only in niggardly proportions by comparison to my mother and my aunt. Perhaps by this solicitude I actually meant to say thanks to my mother for her bravery, perseverance, and leap of faith in giving birth to us, and sorry to them both for once being a royal pain. They are very old now. My aunt, ninety-five, comes to my sister’s for dinner whenever I’m in Montreal. She sits beside me, pats my hand, tells me she wouldn’t pass up the chance because, “Tu sais, je t’aime beaucoup.” I doubt she takes seriously—if she remembers it at all—the time she chewed me out over an old antimacassar. I too have let it go. My mother, ninety-six, is cognitively compromised. Maybe that’s why she says I’m beautiful. The thought never crossed her mind let alone her lips when I was young and insecure in my womanhood. But I choose to believe she is freer now to speak her heart. I accept the compliment as a gift and tell her, without reservation, that I love her right back, an outcome Thomas Walther never dreamed might arise from bringing a former Nazi to trial.

I have often compared the pros and cons of the way my sister and I were brought up with a singular connection to the tragic past, and how my cousins were raised ignorant, but free of its oppression. There’s no perfect way to raise children in a world rife with conflict and contradiction.

This is my answer to Thomas Walther’s question. I am a Jew who lives in a new development on the edge of our city but within easy access to its core. When I first walked here along the two or three newly built-up streets, their three-story houses bald-faced, yet-to-be landscaped, only intermittently lit by recently occupying lives, I didn’t guess how they would turn the ground of buried associations. Over the next months, images sprouted of tender leaves on fledgling branches, fields of weeds and tadpole ponds, split-levels, bungalows, duplexes, fresh paint, shiny soffets. There would be seven inhabited streets, a mud field of a promised park, and a pit bounded by hoardings for future development by the time we bought a house here. The demographic reflects one of the most culturally heterogeneous cities in the world, and is more diverse than the suburb of my childhood: young families, retirees, white, black, mixed race, Asian and South Asian, Middle-Eastern, LGBT, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, and—true to the anomalous upbringing that shaped me—one Jew.

Author: Judith Kalman

Judith Kalman is a Toronto writer whose collection of linked short stories, The County of Birches, was published by Douglas & McIntyre in 1998 and St. Martin’s Press in the U.S. in 1999. It was a co-winner of the Danuta Gleed Award and a finalist for the U.S. National Jewish Book Award. Several stories in the collection received individual awards. “Not for Me a Crown of Thorns” appeared in the 1998 Journey Prize Anthology. “Flight” won the Tilden Canadian Literary Award, a National Magazine Award and the President’s Medal for overall best magazine publication and was broadcast on CBC’s Between the Covers. Other stories from the collection have been anthologized in The Oxford Book of Stories by Canadian Women and Contemporary Jewish Writing in Canada, as well as in other anthologies.