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Notre- Dame

Interesting articles by author Nancy Huston and Joseph L. Clarke, assistant professor of architecture, in the Globe today, both focusing on Notre- Dame. Every art student has studied the Gothic cathedral built in the 1200’s by Violet-le- Duc, recalling the competition among cathedrals between towns : to build higher and higher into the heavens to reach God, until the structures unable to support their magnificent heights eventually began to tumble. Constructed from wood, churches were prime targets for the candles that kept them shadowy lit.

I chortle to recall learning the parts of the church, nave, transept, rose windows, gargoyles, spire, and the reason for the long aisles: to efficiently move the flow of tourists, yes tourists even back then, pilgrims, up one side , down the other, and out into the hubbub of throngs of stalls hawking things, stalls pushed up to the very edges of churches to tantalize the tourist trade. I chortle because I also continued to call the flying buttresses, those winged side supports to hold up the buildings, “ flying buttocks” as both ensured the bodies held upright. Even my professor guffawed.

But my memories of Notre- Dame are- as well -personal. I worked two jobs at university so I might travel to Europe and see for myself the hundreds of slides flashed on the screen during an hour in university class. I was so smitten with art history and the stories behind the artifacts. So I continually saved so I could fly to Europe every summer and haunt the churches. Paris where the most important treasures were located was my goal. As I rambled in the city, I discovered and immediately was charmed to stay at Hotel de Notre Dame, a sign I noticed as I wandered the streets with my heavy backpack that held my three wrinkle free dresses and assorted necessities for three months sojourn by myself. Sounding fabulous and magical, the name of the establishment was a revelation. Hotel Notre Dame was in reality a tiny bug- infested holeup above a café close to the cathedral, but the name called out to me and every meandering walk took me past the doors of the magnificent cathedral. So enchanted with the location and ignoring the bedbugs that laced my body, year after year I returned, even writing ahead to ensure a bed. Many years later I noted the petit hotel had been transformed to an establishment worthy of the epithet.

And when we toured Europe with our children, they absolutely had to see and climb the turrets of Notre Dame, we recounting the story of Esmeralda and Quasimodo crazy in love with her. Houston picks up on the idea that the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame dwelled on outcasts,” the usual refuge of all those wretches who came to conceal in this corner of Paris, somber, dirty, muddy and tortuous, their pretended infirmities and their criminal pollution.” :truly the story of les miserables as presently we view them on screen, in the theatre from Victor Hugo’s books. Like the grandmother rarely visited that Houston evokes in her article, Notre Dame was a bulwark, a base, an enduring presence you appreciated because you felt grounded by something eternal, a family part, a piece of history that situated you in a rich culture of dreams, society, a landmark with which you could measure how far you had come from the medieval ages, a kind of cultural talisman.You didn’t have to enter it more than once or twice a trip, but note it -you did, giving it a friendly wink, acknowledging a relationship, but like the demise of that fond grandparent, you truly miss when gone, wishing you had explored further the tales that might have been shared.

But Joseph L. Clarke, that architecture maven, takes another look at the cathedral, also capitalizing on some thoughts from art class. We,once in seminar , debated how architecture can become redundant, fossilized if these structures do not change with society: the need being that artifacts do not stay stuck, unused in the past but somehow become remain relevant so people truly interact as they are reinterpreted for the present. Clarke cites the Neues Museum in Berlin, bombed but reconstructed. What is conjured for me is Daniel Libeskin’s addition to our ROM in Toronto, criticized for not really enhancing or working with the original design , or the Louvre with the strange black pyramid set against the rest of the building. It is hard to fathom a new limb on Notre Dame that does not cull from times past in an attempt to contemporize it. Often a mixture of old and new is a plan for discord, but perhaps a brilliant architect could manage a metamorphosis.

I actually think there are those pieces that should remain in tact,reminding us of another time, another world, not necessarily better, but different and unique, hallmarks against which we can measure our own growth, our distance. The Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Pyramids, the Great Wall, ancient libraries, castles and landmarks that provoke debates, contemplation of the evolving situations of freedom, liberty, strife and success. In Berlin, remnants of war ruins are juxtaposed with new joyous constructions and somehow the old and new coalesce, the old not erased with the memories they hold for those who endured during those terrible days.Perhaps ironically, however, the Memorial to the Jews Murdered in the Holocaust across from the Reichstag has become a spot for picnicking, selfies and jumping from block to block. Impossible to stop, many of the inhabitants of the city obviously feel no need to maintain the piece as a place for respect. Could one consider this a fitting tribute to the dead? Likely because a new generation is able to roam there, accept its presence as a living spot: the ghosts that may wander there can smile down that life continues and people can move freely without the fear of destruction. Yet there is something within me that would have preferred it become a shrine of sorts, the dead respected in a way I deem appropriate.

But I am of another generation, savouring all tales that connected me to the lost ancestors, cousins and relations slaughtered. Perhaps the mere words that honour that loss should suffice, for no actual relationship to the present inhabitants in the city may have caused this insouciance of behaviour.

Everything changes, but in deed, some memorials, some buildings like Notre- Dame will survive, their meaning open for learning or meaning for those fascinated by history and those who believe there is deep import and significance in preserving works of art because they hold unerasable truths.

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Hitler’s Tasters

From earliest ages, we have poured ourselves into holocaust literature, trying to understand, witness, empathize. For the most part, the perspective has been a Jewish one, sometimes a scholarly dissertation, a history book, a probe into evil, a horrifying tale or memoir. And we are mystified, amazed, speechless. We are fascinated, distracted, hurt, aware, for we as survivors, the children or cousins or descendants or friends of survivors are only able to glimpse the horrors we did not experience. Thank G-d.

As years pass and more distance accumulates, we can stand slightly apart and instead of engulfed in tears and anger, we are able to glean other stories, perhaps not written by those whose narratives are first hand. In At the Wolfs Table by Rosella Postorino, she rewrites the story of the last surviving woman tester, Margaret Wolk, forced to taste Hitler’s food before he did. Although Postorino changes Margaret’s name to Rosa, recalling her own name, Rosella ,the author, personally embodies the question of the protagonist faced with a terrible moral dilemma : What would I do if…..? By sampling Hitler’s food, Rosa/Margaret is ensuring Hitler’s survival, and knowingly supports his war endeavours and atrocities. Obsessed with her protagonist’s issues of guilt and responsibility, Postorino states, “We cannot ask everyone to be a hero, and I wanted to tell the story of an ordinary woman.”

Margaret Wolk was a secretary living in Berlin in 1941, married to Karl, with Jewish friends. Her husband departed for war and her apartment was bombed, forcing her to relocate in Gross- Partsch( now Poland) to live with her mother-in-law. The details of the true life are closely replicated in Postorino’s book as she describes the circumstances of Rosa’s life : her meals of vegetables, grains and fruits Hitler demanded in his diet; her escape on Goebbel’s train aided by a Nazi; and even the return of her husband from a Soviet prison camp. Because Wolk died at 95 before Postorino could interview her, she gleaned the facts revealed in podcasts, articles and newspapers such as der Spiegel that lay out the interment at Wolfsschanze and after. It took decades for Wolk to speak publicly about her wartime life.

Rosa Sauer, our protagonist in Postorino’s book is a sympathetic German, forced along with nine other women in the story to taste Hitler’s food to avoid his being poisoned. Born into a family who has resisted and scorned Hitler’s philosophies, Rosa’s idealistic father is a railway worker, her mother a seamstress so Rosa comes to the reader as the innocent bystander. She recalls a vivid memory from high school fixated on Adam Wortmann, a beloved math teacher, marched away because he was a Jew.

She confides ,” I had never been a good German”, and explains even at an early age, she had played at the game of death by swallowing threads from her mother’s creations. Rosa’s mother dies when their apartment is bombed and Rosa continually returns to her past, her former life and her mother’s admonitions regarding the necessity of eating. She remembers her mother saying that eating was a way to battle death: “She said it even before Hitler, back when I went to elementary school”. Chosen by the town mayor in Gross- Partsch as a taster, Rosa has become party to the war effort and so, the correlation between food and endurance continues : ironic when most are starving. Three times a day , a bounty of asparagus, peppers, peas, rice, salads, milk and even cakes are her daily fare : “ Hitler nourished me and that nourishment could kill me.”, she relates.

Rosa says, “We were ten digestive tracts.” Wolk herself commented, “Some of the women cried at the beginning of every meal, fearing the food [was] indeed poisoned and they were going to die. We had to taste everything and wait an hour, after which we cried our eyes out, knowing that we were saved, day after day.” Although treated to delicacies and the finest foods, eating is far from a comfortable, enjoyable pastime. In one scene in the book, many women succumb, faint, become extremely ill, vomit, but ultimately recover .Hitler’s tasters are always in peril, for the food might be toxic ;the Allies, but especially England had wanted to destroy Hitler.

Fears for Hitler’s security were not unfounded. On July 20, 1944, Claus von Stauffenbergs, a trusted soldier, detonated a bomb in the Wolfsschanze in an attempt to kill Hitler. He survived, but nearly 5,000 people were executed following the assassination attempt. In the story, Rosa describes meeting von Stauffenbergs at a party given by her father-in-law’s employer, the baroness who is quite taken with the Fuhrer, believing he will save Germany. She is also entranced by Rosa, inviting her to the castle where they ride horses, talk books, music, film and theatre: a contrast and brief respite from the Wolf’s Lair. However, with assassination attempts, the tasters are forced to live on the premises believed secure. Rosa never encounters Hitler, but glimpses his dog, Blondi. At the baronness’s party Rosa -the- taster becomes Rosa -the -love interest as she is noticed by one of Hitler’s obersturmfuhrer, Ziegler. Before the lock down, he begins to appear at Rosa’s window at night.

Besides the wartime examination of the tasters, At The Wolfs Table illuminates many themes that pertain to women, many feminist ones. It is a story of victimized women forced to comply during wartime to the orders of men. Rosa talks about missing love and her own body. For the baroness’s party, Ulla, another taster, had come to arrange Rosa’s hair and Rosa herself altered an old dress from Berlin’s nightlife in attempt to feel attractive. Her dalliance with Ziegler is part command performance, part investigation of self. She believes she ultimately has no choice, but also recognizes a desire within herself.

As a young bride before Karl’s departure, Rosa spent barely a year with her husband, dreaming of children, a life of normalcy, but of course, the extremes of war disrupts lives and hopes. In Gross- Partsch, tormented by his absence, she writes to Gregor everyday,” a diary of me missing him.”

The other women in her group also cope with their stilted loveless lives and their used but de- sexualized bodies. One of the tasters, married with two young children, becomes pregnant by a young farm hand , and Elfreide , another of the inmates, is able to procure a clandestine abortion for her in the woods.And another of the young women, Leni with a blotchy complexion dreams of her first love experience, but naively allows herself to be courted and betrayed by a soldier. She blames herself, disclaiming the admittance of rape. Elfreide speaks up, refusing to allow the outrage to pass. Rosa briefly in a position of power demands Ziegler provide protection for her, but Rosa too is betrayed when the woman disappears, likely sent off to a camp. Yet the Rosa- Ziegler liaison is complicated as he does insist on finding safe passage for her on Goebbels’s train once the war appears lost. She had told herself, “ But at night , Gregor( her husband) disappeared because the world itself disappeared and life began and ended in the trajectory of the connecting of Ziegler and me.” Cold comfort and rationalization for her nagging submission to Ziegler’s advances and withdrawals.

Rosa’s escape back to Berlin on the train, her discovery among the luggage and simple meal with a young family, the crooning of a lullaby and simple kiss to their baby juxtaposes the chaotic inhuman cattle cars that drove the precious human cargo of unfortunate targeted Jews to camps. Without mentioning that final destination, it is strongly evoked in the gently contrasted paragraphs. I doubt any Jew could read the section without a gasp of sorrow for those lost in the persecution.

As well, the theme of eating that should be pleasurable becomes a main obsession in the book. As readers we think of bulimics and anorexics who cannot tolerate or vomit their meals. Forever, women have considered their bodies too fat, too thin, playing with, balancing their diets.From skeletal Twiggys to curvaceously plump Sophia Lorens, the size of hips, busts, waists, legs and butts( whether to enlarge like the Kardashian’s or not) are the fodder of magazines and the cause of self doubt plaguing women forever. One of the tasters papers her room with images of stars, fantasizing about the perfect looks of a German actress. The women are all stand ins for Little Red Riding Hoods, guessing who or what ( food) will destroy and devour them, helpless? And will they all be blaming themselves or others for bad choices, too tight clothing, wrong moves, uncertain paths, neglecting the advice of those older and wiser.

Rosa aware of this strange life she is leading writes, “ The ability to adapt is human beings greatest resource, but the more I adapted, the less human I felt.” In a wash of contradictions and consumed by guilt, she admits her personal punishment was not poison, or death but life: as she had persisted in living by ingesting food, engaging in a romantic tryst with the enemy and seeking escape back to Berlin.In all of these situations, Rosa cannot rejoice or even forgive herself, as women often refuse to do, for there is shame, guilt, the burden of surviving when so many others succumbed.

At The Wolf’s Table raises many complicated and complex issues. In real life, Margaret Wolk’s leaving Wolfsschanze and return to Berlin was not the end of her story. Her treatment by the Russians was a nightmare. It is not surprising that only towards the end of her life did she reveal the horrors. As Jews who have continued on with our own memories, I think we can empathize, once more sadly aware of lives lost and destroyed – even those who were not Jewish.

Summer Roundup

As a child, I believed summer stretched forever, an unending beach that unwound along the endless shore. And even though I now spend part of my year in San Diego, summer here at home always beckons with the feel of promise, a break from routine. 

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 But this summer has been unusual and has vanished in a flash, but as I reflect on it, I have to admit there have been some really wonderful moments. In spite of Howard’s fall, our travels in overcast rainy Europe were fun, particularly wandering through Copenhagen’s Fredericksberg park and watching the baby elephants nuzzle their moms; and as tourists feeling welcome in that city as we sought out differing varieties of cinnamon buns at local cafes. But even as a girl traveller I was drawn to Copenhagen time again, maybe the magic of the Tivoli drawing me in.

And recently, our time in Berlin was something very special too, the echoes of the clang of the war incongruous with the present day ascendancy of an incredible aesthetic, particularly in its magnificent eclectic buildings. There is a buzz here, particularly the art scene, exemplified in the outdoor East Gallery marking where one section of The Wall demarcated the city. Even hobbling and waiting in line, Howard responded to the Pergamon, museum of antiquities, remarking with awe at the turquoise tiles of the Gates of Ishtar with its dragons, serpents and strange creatures assembled piece by piece in the museum by wise architects -way before IKEA numbered their pieces, and the Marketplace at Miletus from 2 AD reconstructed by the Germans after an earthquake in the 1900’s.

We wandered and read and tried to imagine Berlin divided into quadrants. We walked and walked, each morning there at a tiny bakery where the fraus upbraided Howard. Their kuchen fresh from the oven, fragrant with heat and spice, a perfect way to begin the day after our nights spent at the fabulous boutique Hotel Am Steinplatz , an art nouveau designed hotel where Brigitte Bardot and Nabokov slept- but not together.

Berlin hustles and throbs, the people aloof and mainly unhelpful. Yet a supper at Nobelhart and Schmutzig, greeted at the locked door by a man with a messy man bun askew at the top of his head was memorable for its rose blush on venison, tiny new potatoes dusted with lavender and fennel ice cream. Along the long bar, we were seated beside a hotelier from Hawaii whose lover lived in Norway. The restaurant reminded us of Allo, Canada’s number one restaurant, but focused on locally grown ingredients allowed to shine in themselves, not entwined with myriad others- quite spectacular, except perhaps for the frozen, grated pinecones! They described their cooking art a “performance” and their chefs “actors,”and it was true that we were served with great confidence as our offerings were meticulously described.

Berlin overwhelms as you never can see it all, museums, intriguing spaces, that contrast of old and new that is difficult to assess and evaluate. As a Jew, I wish for an enduring rebuke to the past, but as a human touched by the evolving growth of an incomparable city, I applaud the beauty of advancement, that beat of art and architecture that pervades this perplexing city.

And in the raggedly beautiful Dubrovnik overrun by cruise ships, reminded me of Italy’s Cinqueterre with orange tiled roofs amid overgrown shrubbery. It too was an amazement, the quiet of tainted Lokrum where one cannot stay at night or die!, so the legend warns, reached by the gently rocking ferry. And later home watching Games of Thrones and recognizing the throne from which the wicked Geoffrey and manipulative Cerses committed their disastrous crimes, and the comment by a salesperson in the old city on the origin of the tee- shirts: “They’re crap”, he gleefully offered,”but the tourists love’em”. Huge smile.

And in spite of the torn thigh muscle for Howard , a milestone birthday where the stunning grandchildren all in sparkling white, assembled to pull off a surprise that even the all knowing Howard had not uncovered. An evening in the Cave Springs Winery, really a soirée of a tiny familial group prancing and dancing to the guitars of father, son and teacher as they strung and sang. Children well behaved, twirling, whirling and delightful to be caught by the artful photographer in a night not to be forgotten. Perfected scenes frozen forever we will want to return to and wonder at : four month old Georgia’s twinkling smile ; the mischievous antics of the boys; Aaron’s wild fling of a dance in a secluded corner; Carter’s impeccable rendition of Hallejuah on the recorder; or Remy finally breaking into smile at the black eyed susan; an overtired Rhett by the end of the evening, running around the table, signalling it was time for festivities to end . And Howard, who in spite of insisting on no celebration, had celebrated, the rock star of his own event. And me, quietly appreciating the ephemeral bliss of family when every carefully planned element falls into place, even the weather gods calling off the storms in the nick of time. Just wondrous.

There were quieter times too as we went to Stratford to catch a play.

We are aware but unaware of time, only marvelling in the photos of how we have changed: stomachs less taut, wrinkles more, faces softened by the years. One protagonist in Wagamese’s Ragged Company book reflects on how we cannot stop time, but how it is in us, as we change, but hold our memories of what has passed in ourselves and in photos as well. There is no evidence of time, no tangible proof. We cannot grab a handful of it, or take a picture of it as it moves: slowly, when I was a schoolgirl contemplating my days away from school; quickly as an adult when years appear to disintegrate and I ponder what events occurred just three or five short years ago. Yet I know poets have lamented, contemplated and considered on the passage of time, the incongruities as they explored times past, present and future, attempting to capture all in thoughtful, meandering words , a response to the unending march that eventually consumes us all.

This summer, the terrorist attacks, the idiocy of a Trump response to Charlottesville and the threat of North Korea elicit my thoughts of years long gone, of how my mother hoped for a better world for her children and the future. But even today, the 21st century, we are insecure in a world threatened by bombs, antisemitism and discrimination. Yet my friend Anne rebuked by her brother for her narrow view of the world submits there is beauty and good in the world too and she chooses to focus on that rather than the wider circle of the awfulness we read of, and experience vicariously every day in the news media.

Perhaps that is why my small candles in the light wash over me today as I seek to share them in my blog.

Gratitude.

A  Jew in Berlin

I continue to say, “Oh, I was there before the wall came down- more than 40 years ago when I traveled as a student”, yet unlike other locations I have scant memories of Berlin and I am not sure if I’ve imagined being here when I rambled and roamed for summer months when I was a university student.

Yet I do remember vaguely K’dam as we called it and being fearful at the haughty looks of the soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie.

But the Berlin I’m now visiting overwhelms me with its aesthetics, its buildings, its trees and sprawling extensions of areas. We do the Hop on and off Bus,, linking the purple and yellow lines in an attempt to locate the museums and buildings we are here to visit. I’m intent on the Pergamon because it was unavailable back when the wall separated it from West Berliners and Westerners. Why would I have carried that fact around for so many years if an art history prof hadn’t lamented the impossibility of viewing famous Greek antiquities when I first studied them?

I know for sure that I was in Munchen( Munich) and Heidelberg( “ Ahhh…if only the Fuhrer were still alive,” , crooned the old women knitting on the benches near the schloss in the 60’s) I a hitchhiker then , took a bus to Dachau and then left, bemused and angered that the camp neatly scrubbed resembled summer camp.(“ NOT so bad,” with a shoulder shrug, said a couple of strolling overfed Americans.)

Today the buildings here are incredibly impressive but I’m confused as the Hop on- off guide keeps reminding us that almost everything was destroyed during the war. The well worded and spoken guide is very careful to point out the spot where all the ‘ dangerous’ books were burned, making no judgment really, almost sanitizing the Nazis’s horrors, but the voice through the earphones almost sniffingly demures there is an empty room beneath the square to remind us. As well, when the main railway station is pointed out, I imagine all the children separated from their huddled crying parents en route to concentration camps unknown. “Yes, the station was well used,”, the guide ironically underlines.

Yet I cannot take away from the very beauty of present day Berlin, the strikingly decorated facades of gingerbread, marble, mosaics , Bauhaus and Renaissance , Art Nouveau, Gothic, antiquarian balustrades, , cast iron patios overloaded with sparkling red flowers, Greek statues, gold cupolas, masterful craftsmanship with exquisite work- that one is aware of – even from far below.The Reichestag with its new dome, glistening Kulturforum , misshapen Jewish Museum, the moving Memorial to the dead Jews in Europe where parents photograph their babies next to the slabs of concrete and even The East Side Gallery demand your attention.
In spite of the crumbled preserved ruins of the past, Berlin bubbles and enchants and excites. From the guy who carries a the brotworst oven around his middle to the one star Michelin drama of the choreographed food courses at Nobelhart &Schmutzeig, Berlin is something quite amazing.

And I consider my thoughts. What bothers me? Would I prefer the ruins of tenements and bunkers as opposed to sanctioned refurbished holocaust monuments?
My mind flies back to The Hare with the Amber Eye and After the Fire and The Book Thief and even the history of the Rothsschilds forced to live in overcrowded ghettos and endure abuse from six year olds because they were Jews, the hatred of the Prussians and the French( remember the Dreyfus affair), a long history of debasement as early as 1000 because some believed Jews defiled the host and baked bread with the blood of Christian children.

I’m thinking of the troubled past that fomented until 6 million sizzled.

The antisemitism fanned by the Lutherans and openly acknowledged in tableaux and political broadsheets from early times of hook nosed Jews as Christ killers are tunes that whisper to me. And later in Weimar, belief that wealthy court Jews controlled the country’s finances and even small shop owners cheated their neighbours. Shame!
I’m frozen before these huge lush buildings that have honoured regimes and emperors to announce to the world their power and vision and provide” protection” and custody : language used by the Nazis to hold and remove undesirables from towns, city, the country. It troubles me mightily and I’m thinking about history lessons that decimated the Germans as losers in the Treaty of Versailles, the path being paved for Hitler’s self aggrandizement that resulted in the murders of more than Jews- jazz musicians, the infirm, the elderly, homosexuals, nuns, gypsies, political opponents,Catholics, etc.etc.

On the ashes of empires and bombed destroyed buildings, a new Phoenix has risen. And yet this is not to disparage beauty or require children to inherit the blasphemous sins of their fathers or grandfathers who petted the family dogs. And yet, The Topography of Terror Museum reinforces that the “volk” or common people played a huge part in initiating and perpetuating a rolling non- stoppable machine of death.

In Copenhagen where we stopped first! I could replay the newsreels of the holocaust on the buildings I saw, shivering to think of the people with only what they could carry doggedly head – into towards the station. But here in Berlin, much has been erased, cleansed by the shining new edifices built by Mercedes Benz, Boss, Sony, rejoicing in the pure beauty of buildings that scrape the sky or so wide they overtake entire blocks.
It’s hard to take: that these gleaming streets were full of a people I never knew whose dreams and future offspring had no chance to persist and flower. Maybe their ancestors should have packed up earlier and set sail to the new world. I can understand that even with the bad talk and discrimination that they could not bring themselves to leave their own cosy houses or trips to the surrounding forests or afternoon rambles in the Tiergarten , just continuing to live their lives , go to work, raise their children, kissing them softly as they sent them off to school, imagining a better, safer future in a preposterously beautiful city, no matter, the Prussians, the French, the Nazis…

Would I have been sage or frightened enough to abandon the beauty of this place?
I’m feeling guilty that I am seduced by this Berlin, would love to engage in its art scene and walk its wide wide boulevards, so clustered by streets that they bang on the roof of the Hop on hop off bus. I’m troubled by the repetition of history, and uncertain futures that remind of a horrorful past.

Fixated on Food

I know it’s that time of year and we are glad for some relief from everyday reality, trying to obliterate from our minds the news of Cannes and Berlin, the confusing horror of Aleppo and the election of Trump. So we all need some holiday spirit(s) to blur the grittiness and sorrows of these perplexing days. Although most people are looking forward to family gatherings, shiny decorations and window displays, it seems I’ve been deep into chocolate treats.  

Besides, Lindt chocolates have had an amazing sale, and I have overindulged in boxes and bears and balls. However I must admit that I had been scarfing up those delicious balls for sometime now. For my Toronto grandsons who like to be surprised with a tasty confection, I have explored chocolate dipped marshmallows, sprinkle- enhanced iced pretzels, macaroons the colour of candy floss, decorated cookies on sticks or even a reliable chocolate chip cookie or two, only rarely falling back on commercial offerings such as sun chips! in a pinch.

With the renovation of Pusateris nearby and being diverted to the Bayview Mall, I have been lured into Lindt’s chocolate dream factory .The purveyors of this delicious nibble are smart cookies. They ensnare you with one freebie, and once you sample, you are hooked , whether swallowing their freebie whole or savouring and sucking it slowly as the two parts divide into a tasteful duo in your appreciative mouth. The balls come in a variety of flavours from cacao to orange to strachetella, all with that same structure that like a truffle, encases that delightful secret: a centre core of smooth and rich delectable chocolate. One ball is rarely enough as the slow ooze, my preferred method, seduces you to maintain and prolong the delectable sensation that has your tastebuds begging for more.

Maybe it’s not such a great sale as the woman ahead of me spends $35 on those amazing balls in shiny wrappings. My bill this time is only $13.But like the siren call, these babies tantalize and hypnotize with their chant of chocolate so you might actually imagine yourself as a pasha on an island far, far away, fed off the exotic riches of the land and you are queen of all things good, deserving of the treats that have been so elegantly
crafted for your royal palate. But chocolate, good chocolate is so damn sinful. 

For many years I’ve been purchasing a chocolate Lindt Santa advent calendar for my grandkids. Hidden behind each day of the month of December, a variety of shapes and sizes will appear, from mini balls wrapped in glittering foil to minuscule scrumptious bears with red ribbons at the neck ( if you are lucky) to tiny perfect gold- wrapped chocolate bars. I rationalize that the calendar reinforces their math intelligence because the child must search for the right number before poking out his edible prize. To my grandson newly arrived from a Philadelphia, he proclaims, “ I like this game.’? The regulars insist on opening several , even beyond the inscribed date, ecstatic should they wind up with one of those tiny perfect bears, the little balls abandoned besides the rarer more detailed confection.

Although no longer children who openly drool, for some reason to binge during holidays , we have given ourselves permission to devour deserts, rewarding ourselves for surviving our workday endeavours. At my husband’s festive lunch party this past week, his assistant provided him with not  one but two homecooked apple pies, huge slices of apples in a nicely browned beige crust.He was so eager to taste his gift, he rushed home and immediately cut cleaved the pie in eights, scarfing up nearly a quarter of it. His weary work junior lamented that an hour of two of quiet would be her exquisite treat; my husband was pleased that he could offer her a spa certificate, not exactly eatable but truly delicious.

 In the final week before holidays, my mind has veered into baking my formidable chocolate chip cookies which I rationalize are healthy because they have oatmeal. However in these hectic days, I also find myself purchasing cupcakes at our favourite cupcake store Bakes and Goods. They use Belgium chocolate and also offer a proper, not overwhelming ratio of creamy buttery icing to lusciously light cake in numerous flavours such as cookies and cream or caramel drizzle or kiwi. Then there are the brownies from Pusateris that are really large and chewy and chocolately… But do not forget the superlative chocolate ring from Harbord bakery. And please,  I beg you not to be misled with the poppyseed that pretends to be chocolate but requires closer inspection or the time to discern the actual name of the item tenderly enclosed in clear plastic wrap. In deed, I think the chocolate ring serves as good breakfast eating because it doesn’t resemble a cake but has a sensible circle open in the middle. Wherein a health- minded soul could heap with berries, although strawberries with real whipped cream might be an enchanting way to commence the day. 
In deed, my breakfast on my birthday this week will be a platter full of dripping chocolate croissants from Douce France who actually import their dough from France and bake it here, recalling for our family a summer in Beaulieu sur Mer : where we trundled off to the local café to kickstart our vacation rambles in the south of France when our kids were little. Memories of Patachou now defunct, where my first grandson learned to love their impeccable chicken pot pie. My daughter correctly raves about Pain Perdu’s almond croissants too that mingle crunchy, sweet, flakey and soft. One whiff and we are back barefoot on the coastal beaches.True, all proper in this season of indulgence.

I remember my exquisite childhood birthday cakes, my mother used to bus down to St. Clair for at Patisserie Francaise years ago. For a special lunch, she would make party sandwiches on their pink and green bread, exciting the artist in me. Sadly, however, she insisted on using my birthday supper as an occasion to invite and cook for her relatives, some wrinkled and bespeckled ancient great aunts and uncles with weird sounding names like Meneel. I hated the intrusion of people I hardly knew who only arrived to devour my mother’s hard spent hours of cooking for them- or so it seemed to me. Worse yet, no one brought me a gift or even a bouquet of flowers for my mother. And when her gentle Auntie Bayla quietly asked for a second slice of my coveted treasure, I carved it so thinly that it would not stand upright and the airiness of the cake practically sent it heavenward without much volume to attach it to any party plate.I too shocked myself by the absurd spareness I had achieved

I think back to my bad eating habits, Hostess potato chips and a coke every day after school while I watched American Bandstand supine on the couch . My mother who was whisper thin encouraged us, my sister and me, and besides, the pharmacy next door to our store was a ready source of all things sweet and fattening. Every week in our home, there was a chocolate from Margo’s bakery, small size 90 cents, large $1.10. If not available, SaraLee stood in for a dinner closer for chocolate obsessed eaters.

But back to present day and my chocolate gene that has been satisfied way too often in the last few weeks as I have not ignored a nod, smirk or an invite from a shop or counter that displays and lures with the riches of the season. Macaroons, cupcakes, truffles, Buche Noel ( from Dufflet for my birthday) and now has expanded its variety from hazelnut and caramel to vanilla mousse. So delicious.I do not care a fig that it is a Christmas cake with all of its symbolism. But Dufflet as well must have realized the intrinsic worth of this piece because I’ve noticed miniature versions tempting shoppers before the grand date of the 25th. You can eat with your eyes, I’ve often , told my kids. But here, eyes and mouth grow large and gobble- slowly.

Sadly even as we indulge, the bad news will be there after the holidays and reverie has quietened down.We will have to contemplate not only extra pounds, clothes that do.not close around our midsections but an unstable world. At least the sweetness of moments of indulgence will endure and hold at bay unsavoury and unswallowable thoughts.

Eli Wiesel and Stories

As been noted by many newspapers, Eli Wiesel, was a very special human being. He felt that having survived Shoah, that he had a profound responsibility to speak out for all those who did not. He broadened his insights from Jews to all those oppressed. Interestingly Rick Salutin in The Star newspaper last week presented another opinion, in spite of Wiesel’s Nobel Laureate award, an unflattering observation of an aging man whose views did not champion all people or nations.

At Northern Secondary,our enlightened department head, Harold Lass, put into place an incredible curriculum of literature even before Margaret Atwood became a house hold name. In OAC( Ontario Academic Credit for graduating students in the 90’s), our students studied the imposition of tyranny on women’s bodies via The Handmaid’s Tale and Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage that examined the Noah story from the bible.

In Grade 11, ours students studied Night, the autobiographical time captured in Wiesel’s novella, describing the holocaust victims’ marches wherein mates had to bargain, or steal bits of bread, where beloved parents were either dragged or laid down by the roadside, where random individuals were executed by brutal guards. Anyone who has vicariously endured the torments of the camps through Wiesel’s adolescent eyes will never forget them. In my years of teaching, many moments persist: one being a young girl who insisted Night, like most books, was only a story and that it was made up, just a story. It did not touch her. No matter what was taught or explained, she and some of her North Toronto classmates vigorously refused to accept Night as actual events. I don’t recall any expression of horror or even surprise, but continual affirmation that books tell stories that are conceived in the heads of writers, and therefore, are untrue. Maybe because they were teens, they rejected everything or maybe they felt the incidents so bizarre, too painful to be possible.

As adults, we understand that a tale may be shaped or conceived in the imagination; however, there may be , and in historical fiction especially, remnants or morsels of truth to be shared with readers. My students’ responses were problematic in several ways: Yes, It was Wiesel’s story and a story by definition is filtered through the mind of the teller. It is unverifiable. We cannot observe it first hand with our own eyes, and every second hand narrative may be circumspect, particularly in a cynical society; however, the darker issue resides in the refutation of genocides and fascist events that have plagued individuals and negators such as the Jim Keegstras of the world who actually taught that the holocaust did not occur and that Jewish conspiracy controls world events, his hate mongering harking back to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Needless to mention, even the filming of hideous events such as the Nice murders or Turkey coup are passed through media in the hands of the camera person whose eye lights upon the tragedy of the horrendous scenes. Yet, we do accept the veracity of these unfolding events.

But my student, the strong denier who forthrightly rejected the holocaust as/ is in deed troubling. As years lengthen from the heinous event, grandparents or aged friends who lived through the wars or worse, and even our own children are distanced, obviously not experiencing the same horror we did growing up in a post- war environment. The survivors who can still relate the atrocities are dwindling, and more criticism is heaped on March of the Living. My own father born in Canada felt it not a wise thing to visit the gas chambers, explaining there is enough misery in the world without burdening our children with images that cannot be erased and will form intrinsic signposts in their lives.

In the 70’s I travelled by myself in Europe and my experiences in Austria and Germany were all good, even crashing in a bed in some dorm when I flew in at 3 am, offered up by a kindly passenger. Or walking with a map in Munchen, a man in a long black coat with no other motives but to help me find my location insisted on accompanying me by streetcar and subway safely to my destination. So my memories even before the Berlin Wall came down caused me to ponder this society that was unfailingly helpful, kind and even raucous in the beer halls. ( Remember I was in my early 20’s)

I had planned on visiting Dachau , but was shocked to observe the immaculate camplike bunks and neat unadorned walls. Except for a horizontal sculpture of twisted bodies at the entrance,, there was little evidence that this camp selected gypsies, Jews, music aficionados, homosexuals, politicos who disagreed with party policy silenced by deportation.This was the very first of the camps. But as I recall it, there were no statements to the flogging, the hangings, the sadism , brutality, death marches or the deprivation of humanity that consumed its inmates.

Americans visiting that day I heard kept demurring, “ It’s not so bad”. And truthfully had I not been fascinated with stories of Nazis gouging out luminous eyes of little girls or dogs set on prisoners tearing them apart like turkey legs, I, too, might have cast my eyes on the whitewashed walls and nodded in agreement. Many many years later,I reflected on Yad Vashem’s Memorial that tenderly and painfully evoked the loss of life through The Children’s Memorial in Jerusalem or the heaped mountains of shoes in the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

And Yes, resting on a park bench back in 1970 at the schloss in Heidelberg, I did overhear some kerchiefed women mutter,” Ah, if the fuhrer were only alive…”

Even as we welcomed the Vietnamese boat people and admitted war torn Syrians to our own borders, the Canadian government was not kind or generous to Jews during those terrible war years of 1933-48 as documented by Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s None Is too Many. In Toronto, Centre Island boasted signs comparing dogs and Jews and quotas for Jewish entrance to universities and the professions were tightly reined in.

Watching Eye in the Sky last night brought  home the value of a single person. Helen Mirren as the colonel must decide on whether to fudge a percentage   point to to save possible catastrophic explosions. The image of the lovely young girl innocent of war and crime and mathematical magical calculations twirls in her hoopla hoop. She is at the centre of a dilemma. The Talmud states,”, Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a.)

In these days of terrors, we think of Wiesel, Dachau, Nice, Turkey and wherever souls are destroyed. How troubling that wars continue to plague us, and people continue to deny that we are locked into a pattern that never seems to end.

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