Category Archives: TPL Talks and Programs

Edith Gelbard: Mon Témonignage Personnel (Talk for Holocaust Education Week, November 4th, 2014)

I have been attending Holocaust Education Week talks at the Toronto Public Library since 2010, but this year was the first time I listened to a program in French. It took place in a full auditorium at the Toronto Reference Library.

Even though I failed to catch about 30% of Edith (née Schwalb) Gelbard’s testimony, her engaging, warm presence did not need words to communicate strength. With elegant ease, the 82-year-old grandmother of nine captured the attention and affection of a lively crowd of teenagers from two French-immersion high schools in the city.

For example, when she introduced a surprise guest, a long-lost friend from the 1940’s, the audience let out a long “Awwww!” in unison at the sight of her planting a kiss on his forehead. The teens’ reaction was equally responsive when Ms. Gelbard showed pictures of her family who had fled Vienna in 1938 for Belgium and later from Belgium to France in 1942. Edith and her older sister Therese were joined by a baby brother while the family was in Belgium, and a picture of little Gaston elicited another enthusiastic chorus of “Awwww!” from the crowd.

As narrated in Hiding Edith by Kathy Kacer, Edith and Gaston were sent to a boarding house in the southern French village of Moissac in March of 1943 (p. 30). (Because some details eluded the grasp of my intermediate-level French, I have relied on Kacer’s book to fill in the gaps).

Shatta and Bouli Simon, a couple affiliated with the Jewish Scouts of France, managed the safe residence from 1939 until the post-war years (Kacer, pages 35 and 38). The efforts of the Simons and “toute la ville” of Moissac protected the Jewish children in their care by keeping the safe house a secret, thus saving hundreds of lives (p. 151). During her talk, Edith praised Moissac as a “Ville de Juste.”

While Edith sheltered at the residence in Moissac, she went to school in the village, made friends with other ten-year-olds, performed her assigned chores, and learned camping skills. The lessons in knot-tying and tent assembly were not for recreational purposes; they prepared the children for Nazi raids. Each time the mayor of Moissac warned the Simons that a raid was imminent, the children went to Camp Volant — Flying Camp — to escape to the countryside until the danger passed, moving “to a different location every night, in deep thick woods offering shelter and cover” (p. 80).

By August of 1943, deteriorating conditions in France led to the realization that it was no longer safe for the children to stay in Moissac (p. 89). Heartsick at having to flee again, eleven-year-old Edith was transferred to a Catholic boarding school in Ste-Foy-la-Grande, which meant assuming a new name, pretending she was an orphan, and attending church in the village every week, all the while guarding her true religious identity. In the new hiding place, she suffered from hunger, lice, the constant terror of discovery, and bombing raids. “C’était dur,” Edith said.

In the summer of 1944, Edith was moved to a farm to escape the frequent bombing of Ste-Foy-la-Grande. She stayed on the farm with a kind family until she reunited with her mother, sister, and brother in September of 1944. In 1945, she heard that her father had died of dysentery caused by overtaxing his starved body with food after the Americans liberated Auschwitz. Turning loss and grief to social service, Edith continued to help the Simons in Moissac until 1949, and six years later she immigrated to Canada (p. 144).

Listening to Edith Gelbard’s testimony reminded me that the highest call of humanity is the imperative to shelter and protect the vulnerable from brutality. Edith’s willingness to speak about her unspeakable trauma models the courage we need to fight fascism, tyranny, and hatred. Her testimony is a call to create Villes des Justes in our hearts, our communities, and throughout the world.

Joe Leinburd’s Holocaust Survivor Testimony

For the past four years, I have been attending programs in honour of Holocaust Education Week at the Toronto Public Library. Last Tuesday, November 5th, I went to Sanderson Library to hear Joe Leinburd speak about his experiences in wartime Romania.

In 1939, Mr. Leinburd was only 17 years old when he heard the news that Germany had invaded Poland. The news interrupted a volleyball game he was playing with his friends, and at that moment he realized that his “plans and dreams were shattered.”

To help us visualize the horror of heavy forces of history pressing down on innocent people, invading their lives without consent, our speaker held up a piece of black construction paper. It resembled a shroud with menacing scallops that showed the arbitrary curves of political borders. When he placed the black cape over a map of modern Europe to indicate areas occupied by the Nazis during World War II, the effect was shocking. Very few countries evaded the reach of that twisted blanket of death and hatred.

Two years after the start of the Second World War, the “Romanian Facist Regime, collaborating with Nazi Germany, deported the entire Jewish population of Northern Bucovina and Bessarabia to Transnistria, an area in southwestern Ukraine” (Neuberger HEW 2013 information booklet, page 40). Mr. Leinburd told us that the authorities only gave them 24 hours to leave. Then the nightmare journey to Transnistria began, in which Leinburd and his family rode in a cattle car for two and half days “without food, water, or medicine.” They were in “total darkness with no space to move and little air to breathe.”

In response to a question about whether he had a numbered tattoo on his arm, Mr. Leinburd said that the “Jews in Romania died of starvation and sickness instead of being gassed.” Later, one of the middle school kids in the audience asked, “If you had had a tattoo, would you want to remove it?” Leinburd’s short, emphatic answer was “No.”

Suffering drew no distinctions between concentration camps or starvation and sickness in the open air. Joe and “his entire family survived a death march from Moghilev to Murafa and was liberated in 1944″ (Neuberger HEW 2013, page 40). The forced march lasted two days, and “nobody dared help the elderly, sick, or children who fell behind. The helpers would be shot.” However, during three years of forced labour and unspeakable privation (including eating grass), Joe recalled that everybody helped each other to survive.

As Joe Leinburd’s talk was coming to a close, a young girl wearing a headscarf asked, “What is your wish for this generation?”

“My wish is for them to remember what happened and to distinguish between right and wrong.”

I’m thankful for the courage and fortitude of our 92-year-old speaker who shared traumatic memories with us so that we can remember the past into the future, pushing against shrouds of hatred the moment we recognize them in ourselves, our communities, and in our governments.

Brothers Grimm in the House in the Woods at the Osborne Collection

A visit to “The House in the Woods: Magical Tales of the Brothers Grimm” revealed the ways that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales (1812) have evolved over the centuries, soaked into the very bones of our culture, and remain alive to this day.

From the second volume of Children’s and Household Tales (1819), the “engraved frontispiece by Ludwig Grimm is a portrait of one of the Grimms’ principal sources: Dorothea Viehmann, a tailor’s wife who sold fruit in the Grimms’ village of Kassel” (exhibit notes, Martha Scott)

Martha Scott, the curator of this exhibit at the Osborne Collection, generously took the time to walk me through the collection of illustrations, pop-up books, and art that she had gathered to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Children’s and Household Tales. During the tour, I appreciated Ms. Scott’s extensive knowledge of the different versions of the tales and her witty engagement with the illustrations.

For background information, Scott supplied me with a copy of the notes that rested in plastic sleeves on the display cases.

The Sleeping Beauty. Told by C.S. Evans and illustrated by Arthur Rackham. London: William Heinemann, 1920 (exhibit notes, Martha Scott)

From a very young age, the phrase “The Brothers Grimm” has captivated me, and when I see it in my mind’s eye, I visualize the letters G-R-I-M-M in mahogany-inked calligraphy with extravagant loops like twisted roots for the downward swoops of the “r” and double m’s.

In addition to the distinctive twin m’s, it is possible that the romance of the name is in the word order. Whereas “the Grimm brothers” sounds like a family singing act from Nashville, The Brothers Grimm could be the title of an ancient fairy tale that stars two solemn brothers who live in a dark forest cottage and spin tales by a hearth on winter evenings.

The real Jacob and Wilhelm, scholars with an interest in preserving oral history, most likely did not sit around hearths in cottages. (Indeed, they interviewed middle-class women to collect their tales). However, the imaginative illustrations I saw in “The House in the Woods” left the mystique of the Brothers Grimm intact. If anything, the more I learned, the more enchanting the stories became.

Thorn Rose. The Brothers Grimm. Illustrated by Errol Le Cain: Faber and Faber, 1975. (exhibit notes, Martha Scott)

Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Illustrated by E.J. Andrews and S. Jacobs. Edited by Edric Vredenburg. London: Raphael Tuck and Sons, [1902]. (exhibit notes, Martha Scott)
Snow White. V. Kubasta. Westminster, London: Bancroft & Co., [1958]. An ARTIA production. Printed in Czechoslovakia.
“In the first edition of Children’s and Household Tales (1812), the wicked queen is Snow White’s natural mother. In the second edition of 1819, the Grimms substituted a stepmother as villain.” (exhibit notes, Martha Scott)

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Translated by Mrs. Edgar Lucas. London: Constable & Company, 1909. (exhibit notes, Martha Scott)
Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Selected and illustrated by Elenore Abbott. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937.
Instead of relying on a fairy godmother, Cinderella “sings to the magic hazel-tree which grows from her mother’s grave, and the birds toss down a splendid dress.” (exhibit notes, Martha Scott)

Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Pictured by Mabel Lucie Attwell. Edited by Edric Vredenburg. London: Raphael Tuck, [ca. 1907]. (exhibit notes, Martha Scott)
Beauty and the Beast Picture Book . . . . with eighteen coloured pictures by Walter Crane: engraved & printed by Edmund Evans. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, [1900].
“Walter Crane’s The Frog Prince was first published in 1874 . . . . The Grimms chose “The Frog King, or Iron Henry” as their opening story because they considered it one of the oldest tales in Germany. In their version, the princess, disgusted by the frog’s request to sleep in her bed, throws it against the wall, whereupon it transforms into a handsome young prince.” (exhibit notes, Martha Scott)

The Fairy Book . . . . by the author of “John Halifax, gentleman.” With 32 illustrations in colour by Warwick Goble. London: Macmillan and Co., 1913.
“British illustrator Warwick Goble pictures Snow White and Rose Red as they rescue the spiteful dwarf from an eagle.” (exhibit notes, Martha Scott)

The Little Brother and Sister and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm. Illustrated by Eddie J. Andrews, and Elsie Blomfield. London: Raphael Tuck and Sons, [ca. 1910]. (exhibit notes, Martha Scott)
The deer is actually the little girl’s brother who has unfortunately drunk from a bewitched stream.
Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten. [Illustrated by] V. Kubasta. Prague: Artia, 1965. (Panorama-Marchen). (exhibit notes, Martha Scott)
Little Red Riding Hood. Illustrated by Patricia Turner. [London]: Folding Books, [195-].
“This ‘carousel’ book opens in circular fashion to reveal six three-dimensional scenes.” (exhibit notes, Martha Scott)

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Translated by Mrs. Edgar Lucas: Constable & Company, 1909. (exhibit notes, Martha Scott)
My Bookhouse. Edited by Olive Beaupre Miller. Chicago: The Bookhouse for Children Publishers, [ca. 1928].
“This wooden house contains the six volume My Bookhouse and the three volume My Travelship collections . . . . The My Bookhouse collection was first published from 1920 to 1922.” (exhibit notes, Martha Scott)

Thank you Martha Scott, Leslie McGrath, and the Osborne Collection for an enriching afternoon in the magical company of the Brothers Grimm! Your book house is a jewel worthy of the finest scholars in the land!

Judy Lysy’s Holocaust Survivior Testimony at Locke Library

Two hours after Judy Lysy’s talk, my throat still carries its impact, an ache weighted with gratitude for this 84-year-old great-grandmother’s bravery. Ms. Lysy’s physical presence in Locke Library‘s program room testified to a beautiful fighting spirit before she even said a word.

Before the testimony started, I looked up some biographical facts in the booklet “Culture of Memory” published for the 32nd Annual Holocaust Education Week: “Judy Lysy was born in Kosice, Czechoslovakia, in 1928. She lived with her parents, sister and grandmother. In March 1944, Judy and her family were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and from there to various slave labour camps. She was liberated in May 1945, by the US army. She immigrated to Canada, in 1952, with her husband and daughter” (page 32).

I was glad for the informative booklet, but nothing can compare to listening to a survivor tell her story in person. When Judy occasionally leaned on her cane or wiped her eyes with a tissue, these simple gestures found a way into my heart-memory that letters on a page cannot easily reach.

I heard the pain in her voice when she remembered that not a single one of her Christian neighbours made an attempt to protest or even look out of their windows when Judy’s family was being marched to the ghetto. And the spoken narrative provided more images that made history shockingly real:

The feathered cap of the gendarme who came to take the family to the ghetto. Judy’s grandmother praying in the cattle car for God to intervene. The brutal shearing of Judy’s ribbon-tied pigtails after she arrived at Auschwitz. The German guard eating his lunch of bread and meat with 45 inmates watching him intently, waiting for him to drop a piece of rind.

I’ll never forget Judy’s description of a tank smashing through the fence of the last of five concentration camps that she and her sister and mother endured: “An African-American man looked out from the tank and said, ‘We are the Army of the United States of America!'” Until that point in the talk, her voice had been steady, but it broke when she started to say the first part of the name of my home country. She cried through the pauses she made between “the United . . . States . . . of . . . America,” and the release of powerful emotions in a November 2012 talk seemed to mirror the beginning of release from horror in May 1945.

I’ve never felt prouder to be an American than when Judy Lysy made me see and feel the meaning of liberation. (Barack Obama’s election wins have created a similar pride). I felt the traumatized survivor’s cautious relief, her gratitude for the way the Americans provided baths and “pablo” (baby food) for the survivors, one of the few foods their stomachs could cope with after long periods of starvation.

I was very proud of Canada, too, when Judy spoke of how its acceptance of immigrants and refugees from all over the world actually restored her faith in God: “I love Canada! Living here with people of every colour and religion, I felt free to be me. And my children could go to any school they wanted.”

She leaned forward to address the two classes of grade sevens in attendance and said, “I want to give you some advice. When you grow up, vote for a government that protects minorities. I’m eighty-four years old and I know without a doubt that we all have hearts. We all have souls.”

Today I’m thankful for Judy Lysy and her willingness to share her heart, soul, and exquisite wisdom. Thanks to her generosity, I take her story with me into the world.

Flying Bookfish by Catherine

I was lucky to attend Emily Tinkler‘s free Altered Books workshop at S. Walter Stewart Library a couple of weeks ago. More than a dozen participants eagerly listened to Emily describe how to fold, cut, and poke pages with an awl to turn an old book with a sewn binding into a work of art.

Flying Bookfish by Catherine Raine, 2012

My husband had given me an out-of-date computer book for my project, and I soon went to work folding the pages to create an accordion shape. I was inspired by the examples that Emily had brought to show us, especially one with wire and ribbon rioting through the pages of a former book.

Flying Bookfish by Catherine Raine, 2012

I took my unfinished piece home, where it sat on a table mutely calling out for something to spring from the folds of paper. Meanwhile, I continued sewing clumps of paper together with saffron and fern green thread.

Flying Bookfish by Catherine Raine, 2012

A trip to the sticker aisle in an art store supplied me with the missing element. Fish! When I saw the fish collection, they just seemed to want to be flying out of a book.

Flying Bookfish by Catherine Raine, 2012
Flying Bookfish by Catherine Raine, 2012
Flying Bookfish by Catherine Raine, 2012

Back home with my stickers, I experimented with enlarged color copies of them, and Stewart kindly offered to print out mirror images on photograph paper to resolve the issue of looking at the back side of the piece and not seeing fish.

Flying Bookfish by Catherine Raine, 2012

With my fish assembled, it was just a matter of cutting and arranging twelve skewers and affixing the energetic yet dignified creatures to them. As a final touch, I tied short lengths of the saffron and green thread around each skewer. I also added stickers to the decorated inside covers of the book. And that’s the story of Flying Bookfish!

Flying Bookfish by Catherine Raine, 2012

Library Map Pass Keeps on Giving!

Last year I visited the Textile Museum of Canada courtesy of a library Map Pass. I enjoyed the experience so much that I returned last week just in time to see Dreamland: Textiles and the Canadian Landscape before the exhibit ended.

Signature Quilt, New Brunswick 1875-1900

Fascinating art and artifacts populated Dreamland in every direction, almost overwhelming me with visual delight. I loved the hooked rugs holding memories of the lost farm of a New Brunswick couple (“The Gagetown Hookers”) and the remarkable examples of ordinary nineteenth-century clothing.

Lydia and Raymond Scott
New Brunswick
Mid to late 20th Century
Lydia and Raymond Scott, New Brunswick, mid to late 20th century
Man’s Shirt, Quebec, 1870-1890’s (wool, hand-spun, hand-woven)
Child’s Shirt, Ontario, Mid 19th Century

The quilts and samplers reminded me of my grandmother Raine, a beautiful textile artist who knitted a pink poncho with pearl buttons for my Barbie and sewed doll clothes for Her Barbiness, too. Grandma’s favorite quilt pattern was log-cabin, a very disciplined form, so I wonder what she would have made of the crazy quilt I saw in permanent exhibit one floor below.

Crazy Quilt, Ontario, c. 1890
Crazy Quilt, Ontario, c. 1890
Crazy Quilt, Ontario, c. 1890

Even before I knew it was the work of a loving Canadian grandmother, I was drawn to a display of a doll’s complete Red River winter outfit. I also learned from the explanatory text that Anna McLeod Gilmor “would make a doll’s dress as a Christmas present for Margaret (her granddaughter).” She did this “each Christmas from 1945-1950.” Decades later, Margaret Johnson donated these doll clothes to the Textile Museum of Canada.

Doll’s Red River Outfit, Anna McLeod Gilmor, Toronto 1945-1950

In addition to the poignant textile legacy of an awesome grandmother, the exhibit that affected the most strongly was Michael Snow’s “Solar Breath/Northern Caryatids.” Snow’s cinematic illusion of a window in a house off the coast of Newfoundland was so effective that I thought it was real.

Michael Snow, “Solar Breath/Northern Caryatids,” 2002 (62 minutes)

The sound of the wind pulled me into the darkened viewing room and I was hooked. Although chairs were available, I settled down on the carpet to better surrender to the meditative peace of a film in which the star actor was the wind flapping the curtains, offering brief revelatory glimpses of a woodpile, solar panel, trees, and the Atlantic Ocean

Michael Snow, “Solar Breath/Northern Caryatids,” 2002

TPL and Map Pass, thank you for giving me the opportunity to experience Solar Breath, marvel at quilts, sashes, long underwear, dresses, rawhide stuffed animals, and a camel cover from Turkemenistan!

Coverlet, John Campbell, Ontario, c. 1880

 
 

Coverlet, John Campbell, Ontario, c. 1880 

Quilt, New Brunswick, late 19th century (cotton)
Quebec, 19th century (wool, finger woven)
Man’s Long Underwear, Quebec, 1870-1890’s
Girls’s Dress, Quebec, 1870-1890 (indigo blue top)
John Henry Fine Day, “Rez Dog in Flight,” 2006
John Henry Fine Day, “Rabbit,” 2006
Camel Cover, Turkmenistan, early 20th century (red wool probably recycled from Russian army uniforms)

 

Free Gaga Dance Workshop at Parkdale Library (June 16, 2012)

Hearth and Circus Dancer, Catherine Raine 2008

Intrigued by the opportunity to learn about Gaga dance, I arrived at Parkdale Library just before two o’clock. Three volunteers in Luminato festival T-shirts guarded the staircase leading to the program room below and checked off names from a list of 60 registered participants.

This was a very special program, for members of the renowned Batsheva Dance Company were coming all the way from Israel to share the Gaga technique with Toronto.

After my name was ticked and my wrist stamped, I went downstairs. Grooved wooden dividers had been pushed back to create the largest possible amount of space. From the maps and educational posters on the wall, I guessed that the space was usually devoted to homework clubs and other more stationary pursuits than dance.

Due to some problems with traffic, the Gaga dancers were about ten minutes late. This gave me plenty of time to observe my fellow participants. Eagerly gathered for guided movement, most of us lined the edges of the room, but four movers put themselves out on the floor. One made a starfish shape, sprawling comfortably in lavender socks, her form not confined by the large white square tiles of the floor. Another person executed a series of energetic stretches while a nearby lady rolled from side to side on her back. A middle-aged man in shorts walked slowly across the room in a straight line, rising up on his toes at regular intervals.

Circle, Catherine Raine 2009

I appreciated the diversity of age, gender, ethnicity, and body size in the group. As a tall and robust 43-year-old woman, I was initially worried that I’d be an elephant among dancing gazelles. I had even considered bailing out earlier in the day, but I am so glad I didn’t!

Column Dancer, Catherine Raine 2009

Among the gathering, I noticed a lot of Lululemon clothing and yoga-straight backs, feather earrings, gym bags and marathon souvenir T-shirts. Also present were jeans and ballet slippers, water bottles and bike helmets, rainbow socks and pedicured toes.

It seems that if you leave dancers in a room with nothing to do, they will automatically start stretching. They will twirl their ankles, perform unbidden leg-lifts, and engage in hip and shoulder stretches. Some made expansive movements, swinging their arms and legs like elegant pendulums. Unsure what the next hour might bring, they prepared all parts of their bodies for possible engagement. Accepting their wisdom, I sat on the floor and stretched forward, wishing I could touch my forehead to my knees like the guy next to me.

When Rachael Osborne, our dance facilitator arrived at 2:10 p.m., she asked us if this was the class for dancers or non-dancers. Somebody assured her it was for the latter, and she laughed and said, “But I see a lot of dancers here!”

I liked how Rachael launched right into the program without preliminary talk. She invited us to spread throughout the room and to contemplate the way that gravity was affecting our bodies. She encouraged us to increase our awareness of how our bodies exist in space, the distance between our arms, the temperature of the air on our skin, how our clothes feel where they touch us, the way our bones stack upon each other, and the feeling of our inner and outer flesh.

“Think about the inside our your bodies. We often don’t know what’s going on in there. Imagine channels and highways flowing throughout you, sending important information. Picture the energy, heat, and juices flowing through these channels. Keep these highways open.” Later, she also exhorted, “Keep the box of your chest open so that it’s no longer a separate ribcage box disconnected from the surrounding flesh.”

As a group, we experimented with expressing the sensation of our flesh and bones floating in water and then in the thicker liquid atmosphere of honey. “Don’t be a victim of gravity. It ages us.” Then we followed Rachael’s example as she demonstrated port de bras and asked us to imagine our entire outstretched wingspan as being one long rope, not two separate right/left binary limbs.

“Your spine, let it flow like seaweed. We also call it the ‘snake of the spine’ in Gaga.” Rachael reminded us that our neck is an extension of our spine and that our head is also composed of flesh and goo. (My inner Midwestern Puritan grew squeamish at the juicy way she kept repeating the word flesh).

Fiery Merman of the Falls, Catherine Raine 2011

As the hour flew by, we pulled the rope of our arms across the spine, articulated our shoulders and arms with palms up and palms down, challenged our hips with figure eights, walked with a groove, and cultivated a quake in our pelvises that translated into full body quakes. For our final movement exercise, the quakes that begin in the core quickly began to shake legs, torsos, shoulders, arms, hands, and heads.

Sixty people grooving and quaking around the room was an unforgettable sight, and I’m so grateful I got to be part of it. Thank you Rachael, Parkdale Library, and Luminato for this revelatory experience!

Free Poetry Workshop Nourishes Creativity at Don Mills Library

I’m fresh home from an afternoon devoted to poetry! Facilitated by spoken word artist, Andrea Thompson, the workshop combined a writing exercise, performance, and discussion. Ms. Thompson had a warm, engaging presence that put me at ease, and I appreciated her genuine passion for poetry.

To give us the flavor of her work, Andrea performed three of her pieces, transforming our group of twelve into a fascinated audience. I especially loved the way she sang some of the words when she felt called to sing. She brought a melodic and dramatic quality to her poems that made a big impact on me.

After we introduced ourselves, Andrea invited us to write a four-line poem based on a simple exercise. Each line was to start with the line “I am from” and then fill in the lyrical blanks with the name of a food (line one), a family or cultural tradition (line two), a snapshot of a location (line three), and something about the climate (line four).

I enjoyed listening to the poems that my fellow participants created, and many of their words have stayed with me: sandalwood, honey, dinner at five a.m., stars, land of Buddha, sound of flowers, and the promised land. To our amazement, the writer of a beautiful poem about grief said, “This is the first poem I have ever written.”

When my turn came, I noticed some constriction in my breathing, but I was able to read the following lines to the group:

I am from pecan pie, treacle sweet, tasting of Midwestern corn syrup and warm Southern trees.

I am from total immersion baptism by the old pastor in his Brooks Brothers suit.

I am from Liberty, Missouri, the buckled up Bible belt, green and friendly, with undercurrents of despair.

I am from tornadoes, sirens that shoo us to the cellar, staring at the cold rust on the freezer.

I am from there.

Live From My Blog Talk at Taylor Memorial Library

I’ve reached the point in my library blog talk where I have invited the audience to create a post with me. A few minutes ago, there was mention of refreshments, so I’m also thinking about the possibility of tea and Dad’s oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies. My audience is eligible for these refreshments because they love libraries and came out to hear the talk.

Here are some of their impressions and memories of the Toronto Public Library:

“I’ve been coming here with my young children for thirteen years. We love sitting by the fireplace and reading, especially in the winter. It’s very cozy. My daughter is sitting out there by the fireplace right now.” (Dawn)

“I’ve been coming since the original structure was still in use. I remember the Taylor House. On the far side, there was a round conservatory. That’s where they had the mystery books and the stained glass window at the top of the stairs. When the new building was built, they installed the original stained glass window. This branch is a memorial branch and will revert back to the Taylor family if the library doesn’t have enough funds to sustain it.”  (Heather)

“If it wasn’t for my great-grandfather, I’d never be a librarian. He lived across the street from Locke Library. He never had a chance to get an education, so the library was very important to him. When I was nine, he said to me, “You like books. You should be a librarian.” (Andrew, Librarian-at-Large)

“My grandson Cy and I visited 90 TPL libraries so far. His favourite is S. Walter Stewart. I like it because there are 10 A. Y. Jackson oil paintings there. I like libraries for different reasons. I love the panels at Dufferin/St. Clair that they uncovered. I’m also fond of Beaches. I worked there for 19 years. One of the squares on the community quilt there is mine.” (Darlene)

“It was my first job and my only job.” (Despina)

“The garden (at Taylor Memorial) was a joint effort between Maureen and me (Sally). We met at the afternoon book club. She designed the garden. The library bought some shrubs, but most of the plants were donated. It’s nice because we have a patio. Lots of people sit out on the patio with their laptops and books, enjoying the fresh air. We have tea and books there in the summer. Sometimes the authors join us as well.” (Sally)

“The Thursday evening book club is one of the longest running book clubs in Toronto. It’s been running since 1991. This club has read approximately 200 books. Heather was one of the original members.” (Heather and Despina)

It has been a true pleasure to gather these stories from my attentive and knowledgeable audience. I asked if I should add “good-looking” to the description, and Sally said, “Why not? This isn’t television!”

Library Blog Talk This Thursday at Taylor Memorial Library!

I’m tickled pink to be part of this April’s Keep Toronto Reading Festival. My contribution to the literary celebration will be an illustrated talk about the very blog you are reading now, Breakfast in Scarborough.

The presentation will describe my pilgrimage to all 98 Toronto Public Library branches and what I saw and experienced along the way. I’ll provide some background information about the origins of the blog, present selected pictures, and then create an interactive post with the audience on the spot.

My hope for this talk is that it will encourage TPL library patrons to venture beyond their home branches and discover the beautiful diversity that the entire system has to offer.

On a more personal level, I also aspire to be an example of what can happen when you ignore the inner critic who says things like, “Get a life, nerd! Nobody will read this obscure blog!” If I had listened to that voice, I would never have had the pleasure of proving it wrong.

Breakfast in Scarborough has now enjoyed over 17,000 views, and I have been interviewed by The Toronto Star and appeared on Matt Galloway’s CBC Metro Morning radio program. Hooray for nerdy projects! May they prosper all over the land!

Frescoes, Carpets, and Languid Ladies Found at Book Ends South!

Yesterday I found these three treasures at Book Ends South, the second-hand bookstore at the Toronto Reference Library. The volunteers who took my seven dollars teased me about having expensive taste because two of the books I chose were three dollars instead of one!

Welcome Back TPL!

Today I’m feeling so grateful for the end of two weeks of labour disruption at the Toronto Public Library. I hadn’t realized how much I counted on the libraries’ well-being for my own peace of mind. During these two weeks, I felt a vague sense of unease, disturbed by the darkened and empty branches. I’ve learned that for this nerd, libraries are one of my important existential substructures!

Toronto Public Library’s 2012 One Book Community Read: Girls Fall Down (2008)

I finished reading Maggie Helwig‘s Girls Fall Down almost a week ago, and I still find myself thinking about it. Girls Fall Down is a frighteningly plausible story about contagious fear and urban breakdown, but it’s also a beautifully complicated love story about two isolated souls, Alex and Susie-Paul, connecting and re-connecting with each other.

Helwig’s omniscient yet empathic vision of Toronto really impressed me, the way she brought to life an impersonal municipal geography by close observation of hundreds of personal details. Here’s an example: “The boy with the box of evil sat in the cafeteria of his high school, the box on the table beside him, eating a hamburger and feeling unusually cheerful. He . . . didn’t know that a security guard had phoned in an alert while he was on the (subway) train, though it would have made him happy to know this” (26).

For me, the most moving part of the book is when Susie-Paul finds her twin brother Derek living in a tent under a massive bridge. Derek is schizophrenic, off his medication, and starving. However, these facts are not the whole truth about Derek. Maggie Helwig directs our attention to the man’s “raw courage . . . . His hard-won choice to continue living, when so many possibilities to stop are offered at every hand, the cars on the highway, the trains on the tracks, an end to the daily loss. None of this represents Derek’s soul, scraped bloody, howling, fighting always to hang on, a solitary superhuman ordeal, unacknowledged by the world, unrewarded” (149-150).

When I see Derek through the author’s compassionate lens, I become a witness to his courage and his suffering. For this reason alone, I highly recommend Girls Fall Down. The book is also a fully engrossing read, all the more pleasurable for readers familiar with Toronto’s streets, and the Zephyr Antique Laid paper makes turning the pages a tactile as well as visual delight.

Thank you for picking a winner, Toronto Public Library!

Black History Month Event at Queen and Saulter Branch with Rita Cox!

In my travels throughout the Toronto Public Library branches, I have admired the Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collections at York Woods, Malvern, Maria Shchuka, and Parkdale. This morning I had the good fortune to observe the legendary Ms. Cox tell stories to a large group of children at Queen and Saulter Library.

She began her program at 10 o’clock with an interactive street rhyme, explaining the call and response structure. It went something like this:

Rita Cox: Did you milk my cow?

Children: Yes, ma’am.

Rita Cox: Will you tell me how?

Children: Yes, ma’am. (Children make milking motions and sounds of milk swishing into a pail).

Rita Cox: Did you milk her good?

Children: Yes, ma’am.

Rita Cox: What did you feed her?

Children: Corn and hay.

Rita Cox: Did my cow die? (Very sorrowful voice).

Children: Yes ma’am.

Rita Cox: How did she die?

Children: Aaaaack. Aaaack.

Rita Cox Did the buzzards come to pick her bones?

Children: (sadly) Yes, ma’am.

(end)

The next two stories were equally interactive but contained cheerier endings. One was about a funny little man who lived in a funny little house and spent his day playing hide and seek with a neighbour. When the funny little man looked up and looked down, Ms. Cox raised her arms and lowered them, encouraging the audience to mimic her movements. The other short story featured hand signs and gestures to illustrate important objects for baby: a ball, a hammer (!), soldiers, and a cradle.

Three entertaining longer stories rounded out the hour-long event. My favourite one was an island version of Little Red Riding Hood in which a little girl foils the dangerous Gunny Wolf by singing him to sleep as she picks flowers. Her tune contains the words “coom-qua-keen-wah,” the perfect combination of sounds to induce lupine drowsiness.

When the Gunny Wolf wakes up, he chases the girl, making the noise “unk-cah-cha” with his giant paws as he runs after her. (Rita Cox sang the girl’s flower-picking song gently but slapped her thighs with fierce wolf-claw hands when she imitated the running animal).

At the end of the story, the girl returns home safely and the Gunny Wolf complains that there’s nobody to sing him to sleep.

Cox asked the kids if they would like to sing him to sleep, and there was a chorus of “Yes!” However, one dissenting child said, “No!”

It was very warm in the large room with wooden floors above the Queen and Saulter Library, and after half an hour of listening to the storyteller’s wonderful voice, many of the kids had shifted from sitting on their jackets to reclining on them.

Responsive to the needs of the audience, Cox decided everyone had most likely had enough stories for the time-being, and around quarter to eleven, the children’s caregivers called for a water break and a stretch.

After a round of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” Cox led the group in another energizing chant:

Rita Cox: (spreading arms wide) I have a large and funny hat and glasses on my nose. (Here, she curled her fingers into circles in front of her eyes). I have a long and furry beard that reaches down to my toes. (Mimes length of beard and then touches her toes).

I was sorry to miss the last ten minutes of the program, but I had to get back in time to go to work this afternoon. It was a privilege to observe a gifted educator in action as she enriched our morning with stories. Thank you Rita Cox and Queen and Saulter Library! I take my large and funny hat off to you!

 

 

Personal Holocaust Testimony of Denise Hans at North York Central Library

Last week, I listened to the personal testimony of Holocaust survivor Denise Hans at North York Central Library. A very large group of teenagers and adults filled the library auditorium, creating an audience five times the size of the Holocaust Education Week programs I’ve previously attended at Deer Park, Mount Pleasant, and High Park.

The speaker explained that she started giving these talks four years ago. “I do it to pay homage to my mother. Without her, I wouldn’t be here with you today.”

I’m grateful to Ms. Hans for gathering the profound courage necessary to share such a painful story with strangers. It’s one thing to read the following sentence in the program booklet for the 31st Holocaust Education Week: “In 1942, after (Denise’s) father, aunt, and uncle were taken from her home and murdered, her mother sought places to hide her six children and two nieces” (page 26). It’s quite another experience to listen to the story in person.

In addition to her animated voice and the range of expressions on her kind face, the memories of Denise Hans’ early life really made her narrative come alive in my mind. The fourth of six children, Ms. Hans was born in Paris in 1938. To this day, she remembers the colourful visors her mother used to sew on the brims of hats. She remembers her father’s delivery tricycle with its large box in the front (into which he’d put a couple of his children on Sundays and take them on an exciting ride around Paris). She remembers her regret over teasing her six year-old brother for having to wear the yellow star of David when she was too young to wear one. And she still remembers the first cries of her baby sister, Monique (who was born at home because Jews were barred from the hospital), even though Denise was only three and a half at the time.

The speaker also recalled the grit and bravery of her mother when her father was taken to a holding camp. She managed to get a pass for her husband to visit home by setting her crying baby on a Gestapo officer’s desk and saying, “If you can’t let my husband out to support his family, then you take care of the baby.” The officer’s face became redder and redder as the baby’s howls set off a chain reaction of crying among her older siblings. “You can’t imagine what a huge noise and hullabaloo we made!” said Denise. The officer quickly wrote the pass and sent them on their way.

When Denise’s father returned home, the children had to pretend he was a family friend. It was hard to remember not to call him affectionate names and address him as Monsieur instead. By this time, Denise’s aunt, uncle, and two cousins were living in the house, too. They planned to use the secret entrance to the attic and hide there in case they heard a knock at the door that wasn’t the agreed upon knock. However, when the dreaded home invasion came in 1942, there was no time to hide four adults and eight children. A Nazi took all the adults except Denise’s mother away to the police station. They were never seen again.

Denise’s voice shook when she said, “I was only four years old when my father was taken. Do you know that I can still remember every line on the Nazi’s face, but I can’t picture my father’s face?” And the sadness she felt for her mother, who lost her closest family members in a single day, was present in the speaker’s voice as well.

After the murder of Denise’s father, aunt, and uncle, her mother was the sole comforter and provider for eight children. She was only in her early 30’s. At night, the four youngest children were very frightened, so they crawled into bed with their surviving parent, each one claiming a maternal limb to hug all night long. Denise said, “The right leg was mine. I remember pressing my cheek against it for warmth. Everybody was so busy during the day that there was no time for hugs and kisses for the children.”

Soon, Denise’s mother realized that she needed to find a hiding place for all the youngsters in her care, and the first of three eventual locations she secured was at a farm house in the country. Sadly, the farmer’s wife wasn’t kind to the eight children she hid. She cut off Monique’s beautiful blond curls because she falsely assumed she had lice, and worst of all, she didn’t give the children enough food. Denise’s mother realized her children were starving after she arranged to have her youngest child visit her briefly in Paris. She gave the little girl some hot chocolate and cookies, and when a few crumbs fell to the floor, the child got down on her hands and knees and licked up the crumbs.

A new hiding place at a second farm was found, this time with a more congenial family. However, the children had to be split up, and another big disadvantage for Denise was that she was appointed the daily task of scratching the legs of the new family’s teenaged daughter, who suffered from a skin disease. “It was a disgusting job, I tell you.”

A Sisters of Zion convent was the last war-time shelter Denise’s mother found for her. By this time, the Nazis were having trouble fulfilling their quotas of Jews to fill the death camps because they had already rounded up so many. (One shocking historical fact that I hadn’t known before was that the Vichy government made a deal with the Nazis that they would allow them to take the Jews of the unoccupied Free Zone of France in exchange for not bombing the monuments of Paris).

For extra safety, Denise’s mother requested that the children be baptized. The Sisters took all six girls, and the boys were sent to an equivalent Catholic institution. “The Sisters were strict, but I enjoyed my time in the convent. I loved the pageantry of the masses, and I enjoyed Christmas and Easter.”

In 1948, “les trois petites” (the three youngest girls, including Denise) were finally re-united with their mother. The older five children had returned earlier because it was difficult to support all eight right away at the end of the war. “One day, the Sisters summoned us and said that we were going home because we had a new father. A new father? We were really surprised, but in those days children didn’t ask questions.”

Determined to remove Christian symbols from his home and his step-children’s minds, Denise’s new parent tore up the “beautiful cards of Jesus that the Sisters gave me,” in an understandable reaction that nevertheless was a big “culture shock” for the ten-year old Denise, who had spent a good portion of her childhood in a convent. “We couldn’t complain, though. We were alive and his children weren’t.” She shared her feelings of regret that she not only lost her father but her mother as well during the war: “I was separated from my mother for six years. I’m still sad about this loss today.” At this point in the narrative, I could hear crying in the audience for the child who had suffered so much grief, deprivation, and terror.

The vast majority of the North York Central crowd listened in respectful silence to Denise’s testimony, but a few small groups of restless students talked and even laughed among themselves at times during the program. It’s possible that they had tuned out because of a language barrier, however, it pained and angered me to hear laughter while a 73 year-old woman was sharing the most excruciating memories of her life. Denise Hans gave us her precious time and words to educate our hearts, and she deserves our infinite respect.

Andy Réti’s Personal Holocaust Testimony: The Triumph of Love

“We are here to learn about the Holocaust and make sure it never happens again,” said Andy Réti to our group of thirty in the program room of High Park Library. Most of the audience were Grade 7 and 8 students plus a smattering of adults.

Born in 1942 on a hospital floor in Budapest, Hungary, Mr. Réti was only two years old when the Nazis forced his family and neighbours from their homes at gunpoint on October 16, 1944. Then they were marched to an empty racetrack, where they spent two days sitting on the cold ground. At one point on the terrifying march, a blanket was thrown on the ground and everybody in the roundup was ordered to put their valuables on it. Andy’s mother Ibolya was determined to protect her wedding ring from these armed thieves, so she quickly hid it in the baby’s diaper. (One of the grade eight students in attendance gave a cheer when she heard this, a heartfelt sound of admiration for the mother’s quick-thinking act of defiance).

After two days, the captives at the racetrack were elated when their captors told them they could return home. Momentary happiness turned to terror, however, when the Nazis opened machine-gun fire on the fleeing crowd. The young Mr. Réti, his mother, and paternal grandmother escaped the attack, only to endure a second roundup the same month (October, 1944).

This time, the Jews of the city were “herded” into what became the Budapest Ghetto. Mr. Réti described how his family had to share an apartment building (capacity, 600) with three thousand people. He lived in a two-room apartment with twenty five others, including five children like himself. His first conscious memory of the Holocaust was the cold sensation of his friend Kati’s feet as they slept head to foot at the bottom of the bed. Andy and Kati’s mother were in the bed, too, and Andy’s grandmother slept on the floor. There were no toys to entertain the children, only stories which were read over and over again.

In December of 1944, the Budapest Ghetto was completely shut off to the world: “Nobody came out except the dead.” Already extremely scarce, food became next to non-existent in the Ghetto. Réti’s grandmother hardly ate at all, saving what little she had for her grandson and daughter-in-law. “By this time, we were hungry all the time. When you’re that hungry, you can’t think about anything else but food.”

Starvation formed the background for Andy’s second conscious Holocaust memory, which was eating a roll of brown bread after the Russians liberated the Ghetto on January 18th, 1945. In later years, his mother wrote a poem about this incident, describing her tears as she begged a Russian soldier for some food for her child.

Mr. Réti never knew his father Zolti, who was conscripted into a Hungarian military labour battalion at the beginning of the war. Initially, it was reported that he died of typhus, but his son never believed this, for Zolti was a tall man and incredibly fit, a strapping swimming instructor. It wasn’t until decades after the war that Andy found out the truth: his father was murdered for having “the audacity to be a Jew.” A relative of Andy’s dad had tried to persuade Zolti to escape the labour battalion, but he didn’t want to risk it for fear of making his beloved wife a widow and his baby boy fatherless. More than six decades after the outrageous crime perpetrated against his father, Andy praised him as a “a martyr for love.”

The triumph of love over evil was Mr. Andy Réti’s central message. He titled his talk “The Ring of Love” and shared with us the profound words of a friend: “Every Holocaust survivor’s story is a love story. It’s a story that celebrates love of life, love of family, and love of freedom.”

Hatred or bitterness never overwhelmed Andy’s testimony, only love and the imperative to be “an upstander instead of a bystander. When you see something wrong, speak up! The Nazis were the biggest bullies in history. How differently would things have turned out if more people had stood up to them?”

Andy Réti’s testimony at High Park Library more than fulfilled the purpose of the 31st Annual Holocaust Education Week, for we gained personal understanding and appreciation of the loving resilience of Andy’s family in the face of brutality. Like the student who said, “Yes!” when she heard the story of the wedding ring hidden in a diaper, I wanted to cheer for Andy, a dynamic individual who Rides (a motorcycle) to Remember and teaches future generations to say, “Never again!”

Never this cruelty, never this monstrous disrespect for life, love, and freedom.

Library-sponsored Cultural Outing: Map Pass Rules!

Thanks to a Toronto Public Library Map Pass, I received free admission to the Textile Museum of Canada yesterday afternoon. I saved fifteen dollars and gained a rewarding experience which nourished my imagination into the bargain!

Artistic Garage Door to Museum

In addition to the permanent collection, I enjoyed the gorgeous clothing and wall hangings on display as part of “Silk Oasis on the Silk Road: Bukhara” and the diverse elements of “Magic Squares: The Patterned Imagination of Muslim Africa in Contemporary Culture.”

Wrapper from Nigeria, 1970’s
Egyptian Door Hanging (1920-1929)

My favourite part of the library-sponsored trip was listening to the 99 attributes of God in Arabic as I sat on the floor in front of Alia Toor’s 99 dust masks embroidered with these Names. I don’t know how to read Arabic script, but I recognized a few of the words being recited into my ears via a pair of Sony headphones: Ar-Rahim (the Compassionate) and Al-Hakim (the Wise).

“99 Names of Aman” (2004) by Alia Toor

After I left the soul-enriching exhibit and was about to exit the building, a family of three entered the lobby. And what did they give the cashier at admissions? A library Map Pass, of course!

Fiddlesticks

I was so looking forward to hearing Métis fiddler Anne Lederman perform at Centennial Library this evening, a program which the TPL website listed as starting at 6:15 with a 7 pm finish. I was crestfallen when I arrived at 6:30, only to be told that the event had ended at 6pm.

In a why-did-I-drive-for-45-minutes funk, I picked out a couple of soothing CD’s and returned to the parking lot. Thus endeth my first ever disappointment with a TPL library program. I think I’ll choose one a little closer to home next time!

Rumi Shines in Collage and at Don Mills Library (and Indeed Everywhere!)

I first learned about Rumi‘s 13th century sufi poetry in 2002, not long after I had immigrated to Canada. I was listening to a CBC Radio program and became transfixed by a beautiful voice reading Rumi’s verses. Soon afterwards, I bought the book pictured above and began filling it with bookmarks to facilitate access to my favourite lines, which later inspired various collages I made between 2007 and 2008:

Be melting snow

Wash yourself of yourself

A white flower grows in the quietness

Let your tongue be that flower.

Be a full bucket

Pulled up the dark way of a well

Then lifted out into light.

Why stay in prison

When the door is so wide open?

Keep knocking,

and the joy inside

will eventually open a window and . . .

see who’s there.

When I saw the recent announcement that Don Mills branch was hosting a program about Rumi, it was another knock on the door, to which I answered, “Yes! I would love to go!”

On Wednesday evening, I drove through the rain to the library. At five minutes before seven, the downstairs auditorium contained about twenty people, a number which rose to nearly fifty by the time the program ended at 8:15.

Our speaker was Tina Petrova, a remarkable woman who survived a 6,000 foot plunge in a jeep thirteen years ago. The spiritual crisis that she suffered as a result of feeling imprisoned in a broken body led her to consider suicide. On the darkest night of her soul, she had a dream in which Rumi’s poetry spoke to her. The dream gave her hope and a newly inspired purpose: create a gathering in Toronto to celebrate Rumi in song, dance, and the spoken word.

Back cover of Rumi: Whirling Dervish (Written and illustrated by Demi)

The Rumi celebration came to pass and Petrova’s continued immersion in the community of Rumi scholars and enthusiasts led to the making of a documentary film called Rumi: Turning Ecstatic, which we had the privilege to see on Wednesday night. In Petrova’s words, “the film made me” and the process took seven years. Her cinematic labour of love premiered in 2006 on Vision TV and has been screened in 15 countries, translated into three languages, and honoured by the United Nations and the World Bank.

Watching Rumi: Turning Ecstatic was a profound experience, all the more so because the film’s creator had just shared her story with us. We were mostly silent as we absorbed the narrative which combined Petrova’s spiritual autobiography, Rumi’s biography, scholarly commentary, and the sheer joy of peaceful dervishes in full twirl. My favourite part of the film was when Kabir Helminski quoted these verses: “Not only the thirsty seek the water — the water seeks the thirsty.” Two gentlemen in front of me actually gasped at the impact of these words.

All too soon, an automated voice announced that the library was closing in fifteen minutes. I picked up a couple of Rumi books from the display table near the door and checked them out in a reverie. As I travelled home in the heavy rain, I continued to marvel over the relevant depth and breadth of a mystic poet who left this world seven hundred years ago.

Wonderfully Non-linear Table of Contents from The Illuminated Rumi.

One of Demi’s Illustrations (page 24 of Rumi: Whirling Dervish)

2011’s One Book Community Read: Midnight at the Dragon Café

The literary and operatic launch event for Judy Fong BatesMidnight at the Dragon Café is tomorrow evening, so it seems timely to offer a reader response to this year’s One Book selection .

I finished Bate’s novel in four days and felt a little lost when there was nothing more to read about the struggles of an immigrant family in a small 1960’s Ontario town. The narrator is a child, Su-Jen Annie Chou, whose parents and half-brother toil long hours in the Dragon Café by day and then climb stairs clogged with restaurant supplies to sleep in the living quarters by night. As the story unfolds, Su-Jen becomes an anguished witness to the unspeakable secrets and resentments that lock her mother, father, and adult brother in conflict.

Interested readers will want to check out the book for themselves, so I won’t clog this post with too many details. I’d just like to highlight one of the truths that Midnight at the Dragon Café seared into my heart: the emotional price of immigration.

Although I haven’t experienced the bitter hardship Su-Jen’s family endured, reading their story triggered a painful memory of September 11, 2001 and the isolation it made me feel. I had been an American immigrant in Scotland for almost three years when the planes crashed into my psyche. And when the towers fell, the borders closed, and the phone lines jammed, I was suddenly aware of how profoundly stranded I was.

Su-Jen’s mother seemed to have felt something similar every single day in Canada, not just on one terrible day: “For my mother . . . home would always be China. In Irvine she lived among strangers, unable to speak their language . . . . There was so little left from her old life . . . . But she described (it) with such clarity and vividness that I knew all those memories lived on inside her” (48-49).

I have a very personal wish for Torontonians, immigrants and non-immigrants alike. I wish for the ability to enjoy our lives in the present. I wish for inclusion, belonging, and community. That’s why I enthusiastically recommend the experience of reading Midnight at the Dragon Café together.