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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.


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.

The First Class

My parents drove me to Oshawa and dropped me at the YMCA. I paused in the doorway of McLaughlin mansion that once belonged to the founders of General Motors in Canada. I felt like some wayward teen to be whisked away into the depths of the musty residence. With its crystal chandeliers and circling staircase, that were no doubt once elegant, I might have been some “bad” girl in a sepia-toned movie.

In reality, I was only a student teacher.

When our practice teaching assignments had been posted, we demanded to know one another’s placements. That day, our names were aligned with schools whose names like St. Mary’s, Oakwood, or Summerview revealed no information about the students, associate teachers or even the communities into which we would be hurled like too rapidly formed snowballs. Those first assignments before Christmas were only two weeks long; three longer ones would follow. I pondered that someone had decided that these sojourns might magically transform us into professional teachers.

Beside my name, I read O’Neill Collegiate. O’Neill sounded Irish although I doubted that Oshawa boasted a large Irish population: I had no reason for this assumption. In any case, the only O’Neill I knew was Eugene O”Neil and his saga of the dysfunctional alcoholic family who spat words at one another in “Long Day’s Journey into Night”. Was the playwright’s name an omen to prepare me for my own journey into teaching?

Someone from the cluster of would- be teachers slipped me a phone number, shouting over the din that she was from Oshawa. I pocketed it, thinking, maybe I would call. We were allotted a stipend of $50.00 a week to cover costs and given a list of guest homes.

My “teachables” were art and English, mainly because I liked to draw and read. Once I had stumbled into art history, it had become my mission to see for myself the thousands of slides flashed on the screen, day after day, in darkened lecture halls, year after year. I was mesmerized by sumptuous details and intrigued by bizarre stories that surrounded the painters. I wondered by what foul deed had the fingers of saints been delivered into gilded reliquaries and whether or not fragments of noses or toes were authentic?

I pursued art in Europe: a girl from Toronto, who easily chose the wrong direction when two roads presented themselves. I lived in my head, preferring the intoxicating beauty of things and the lure of the strange to the cold touch of people.

I traveled to Chantilly to examine the Duke of Berry’s illuminated manuscripts, painted by the Limbourg Brothers. I learned many medieval artists had been trained in cloisonné, a multi-step enamel process that resulted in fabulous decorations for the rich. Had eyelashes of peasants been plucked to form microscopic paintbrushes to paint individual blades of grass? Each jewel-like page gleamed with secrets that beckoned and taunted my prying eyes.

I searched the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to contemplate the numerous paintings Rembrandt had chronicled of himself as he aged. I didn’t much like his portraits of his three voluptuous wives. Too much flesh and flabby thighs that reminded me of myself. Sometimes I sketched, too, but my work was weak, a diversion from traveling and investigating the work of real artists.

At university, I flitted and flirted and flung myself about, unconcerned about much more than satisfying my own passions.Too many late nights and late essays precluded a future in art history. Did anyone really care that I spent nights in third class trains, tracking down lost etchings by the blind Goya? Did tipping my head backwards for hours in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel render me a scholar? My grades deemed me only a voyeur, a tourist in the realm of art, not a serious graduate student. But in the end, the future of girls had usually fallen under the headings of nurse ( I had no science) or teacher ( I did have a B.A. in Arts). So, I applied, at the besieging of my mother, to be a teacher.

At the faculty of education, I doodled during classes on John Dewey, and slept open-eyed through policies and procedures and practical tips on classroom management. Often I imagined myself back in Provence or Heidelberg, unraveling some hidden clue, an artistic gumfoot, hot on the trail of some lost artist’s technique.

Only in my English instruction classes was I alert. My professor instructed how poems and novels sparked paths of adventure into words, format or hidden stories. Words evoked pictures in my head as I imagined images captured by the stiff staccato sounds or cadences of beautifully narrated prose.

I taught my first practice lesson to the other student teachers on “The Naming of Parts”. When I drew the flower in the poem, “Japonica” on the blackboard, I was inside the story of a recruit who wanders- in his head- out of doors on a spring day rather than listen to his commander name the parts of a gun. I must have been passionate or at least, diverting because thirty eyes smiled approval, caught in my presentation, that made meaning for them, connecting them with their own experiences, sustaining their interest to probe the recruit’s psyche through discussion and discourse that was only terminated by the bell at the end of class time.

And for me, it was an invigorating class as we were all participants, driven with the joy that occurs when learning excites personally, extending beyond the self to join in the collective.

In Oshawa, I called the number passed to me from Barbara McFarlane. Previously a face in a class, I soon realized we shared more than just the teachable of English: we were both neurotic, our fingers constantly combing through our hair. I could already see some bare patches on her scalp as she twisted and untwisted bits of hair. My own hair, I assured myself, was still thick, so no one knew my guilty secret. Yet I, too, yanked out those miscreant strands, as ruthlessly as Barbara. We laughed about our obsessive natures, wondering if teaching would be a panacea, finally making us fit with the rest of our smoothly coiffed classmates who seemed so certain of their fate as teachers. I pondered if we would be always be like the recruit in my teaching poem, dreaming of escape, or finding ours in the classroom.

When morning arrived at my first practice teaching assignment, I followed Barbara’s directions and arrived at O’Neill to teach art. My associate teacher seemed young, anywhere from 25 to 40, I thought. He was, smiling, laid back, and said, “You can watch me for a few days, and get a sense of the class. When you are ready, say, on Wednesday or Thursday, you could teach a lesson.” My knees knocked together as I grinned foolishly back at him.

Liam Johnson shared the students’ space naturally and with ease. It was apparent the kids liked him. If the teacher is like Liam, learning really occurs as problem-solving becomes explicit and part of an intriguing game that kids clamor to play. Stretching your brain in innovative ways feels so good. I had experienced that with my peers that day I had taught “The Naming of Parts”.

Yet, Liam was not really their friend, but more like a mentor. He spoke respectfully to students, and they, too, were respectful. He listened; he observed; he taught in a manner that demonstrated he enjoyed what he was doing. He never condescended or patronized, intuitive to the styles and needs of each individual. “No rowdy kids or classroom management problems here,” I jotted in my journal. Even at 20, I knew that Liam Johnson was someone who peppers your thoughts with choices and you want to emulate him as a role model.

Eventually I would learn that art is an easy sell . Kids actually choose art; they work at their own pace; they can be creative; art is an oasis and a relief from the hard seats from which they are not allowed to move in other prescribed classes, or the voices that drone on about subjects for which they care little.

I shadowed Liam until Wednesday, when he inevitably posed the question, “Ready to teach?” Actually I would have been quite content to watch him teach-forever.

What could I mumur, but “Yes”?

He paused, “The kids are ready to begin lino-cutting. You could spend about 20 minutes, explaining the process to them. “ Another silly smile.

That night at the Mclaughlin mansion, I began my research. I read “Lino cutting offers the older child endless scope for individual, creative print making. Linocut is a printmaking technique, a variant of woodcut in which a sheet of linoleum (sometimes mounted on a wooden block) is used for the relief surface. A design is cut into the linoleum surface with a sharp knife, with the raised (uncarved) areas representing a reversal (mirror image) of the parts to show printed. The cut areas can then be pulled from the backing. The linoleum sheet is inked with a roller (called a brayer), and then impressed onto paper or fabric. The actual printing can be done by hand or with a press.” (Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia)

I already knew this; I had dabbled in printmaking and every grade school kid has made a Christmas card from some kind of print relief method. I just wanted to be sure that I had not missed anything.

In deed, I had carefully laid out pieces of tan linoleum on the desks of the thirty students in the chemistry-style setup room before leaving O’Neill the night before my presentation at 6:00. And I knew that placing linoleum on the radiators at the sides of the room would warm the tough leathery slabs and make the cutting easier. I worried, of course, that the students would cut towards themselves, not away and slice into their skin, even severing an artery that would require doctors and stitching. I could even hear the screech as an ambulance pulled up to the front door of the school. I shook my head, allowing the screams to dissipate.

Now for pedagogy. I wrote out the steps on little cards, a card a step. I even created diagrams. I found quaint examples in old art books in the musty McLaughlin library.

I approached the mirror in my bedroom and grimaced. So far at O’Neill I had only moved around the classroom, offering positive comments to the students deeply involved in their artwork. To them, I must have been a minor annoyance as they returned my courtesies, letting me admire their work, or nodding to suggestions made in the form of superficial critique. I saw them laugh with Liam and enter into real conversations that lasted for maybe 10 minutes. I saw trust in their eyes and interchanges that looked meaningful.

I re-examined my reflection in the bedroom mirror and said “Good morning class” , commencing my presentation to my bedroom of silence. I paused to ensure the imaginary students were paying attention. I spoke slowly, enunciating clearly, practicing in my best voice, (that was nonetheless quaking), over, and over again for just the right stance, the supportive appearance, the knowing and intelligent mannerisms. I thought and rethought my 10 simple steps in lino-cutting, reviewing my notes, reorganizing my visuals, and deciding where to punctuate my carefully planned talk for questions.

It must have been midnight and I was soaked with perspiration, but I finally decided that it would be just fine.

I arrived early the next morning, and Liam was already in the class, to welcome and encourage me, “ I’ve seen you with the kids. You will be fine.”

Absolutely. It would be fine.

“Good morning, class, “ I began, just as planned. I even paused in the right spot to turn my head, right and left, to acknowledge all of the boys and girls with welcoming smiles.

“Today, we will do lino- cuts…”

I continued to speak… and I heard my words, but my sentences seemed to pick up speed with every carefully rehearsed phrase. Like a train on the tracks that gathers momentum as it moves from the station, I heard my words accelerate as I began to rush through the steps, one through ten. My tongue, disregarding my brain, had a conductor of its own. My head, then my body were mere attachments to a mouth that was hurling itself at breakneck speed, never pausing for periods and pauses. I stood outside of myself and watched as the student teacher at the front of the class held up visuals, words spewing faster and faster from her mouth.

In spite of my racing words, I still managed to demonstrate how to hold the knife, attach the various blades, draw the image, paint in the negative parts with India ink- at the side of the class- warm the lino, cut the lino, print the image.. .

But, I was held captive by my tongue, that rambling purple snake I could not control. How had an alien invaded my mouth, taking my tongue as ransom for pretending to be a teacher? In horror, I performed robotic-like, a slave to the words that continued to race.

The faces of the students, not two feet away, their cool detachment had turned to amazement. Incredulous at the teacher-impersonator whose words seemed propelled by some wicked spirit, they turned to one another, unsure of what to do, of what to think. They remained glued to their seats, too dumbfounded to move. Perhaps they were awaiting a shapechange or transformation into something more terrible than a rambling student teacher.

I completed my lesson: albeit in 3 instead of 20 minutes!

As if my spring had been totally unwound, I was now depleted and wordless: the train had not gone off track, only driven at breakneck speed to arrive back at the station, its cargo erratically cast off Dejected, embarrassed, eyes focused straight ahead, tears barely contained, I made my way to the back of the room. Heads twisted; unblinking eyes followed me. There was silence in the room. I wanted to flee.

But shortly, the students picked up their tools and started to work.

From a fog of tears, I saw Liam approach. Before he opened his mouth, I surmised my teaching career had ended. I was about to plead.

He said, “ You did very well to-day”.

I knew it was a lie, but it was what I needed to hear.

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