1690 Refuge in British Columbia
Out of Hiding: Holocaust Literature of British Columbia
by Alan Twigg (editor)
Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2022
$24.95 / 9781553806622
Reviewed by Norman Ravvin
Historiographic, creative and commemorative responses to the Holocaust continue to appear in impressive and challenging ways some 75 years after the end of the Second World War. Alan Twigg’s Out of Hiding: Holocaust Literature of British Columbia reaches beyond the range suggested by its title, to convey, through encyclopedic entries, the full range of BC-based historical, educational, creative and commemorative activity. Its publisher, Ronsdale Press, has contributed to these developments by way of its fulsome support of Holocaust-related books over the years. Twigg’s approach centres on the creation of a bibliographic study that lists and describes writers, survivor memoirists and activists who have contributed to an impressive output.
Twigg aims to reorder the view of BC’s writing community by choosing as its leaders survivor-educator-activists who published memoirs based on their wartime experiences. Two of these are Robert Waisman and Robert Krell, who are preceded in the leadership hierarchy by Rudolph Vrba, a Slovakian-born survivor whose reputation rests not so much on his writerly career as upon an heroic accomplishment following his escape from Auschwitz, which resulted in a report based on his witnessing of mass killing at the camp. The Vrba-Wetzler Report, named for its co-writers, found its way to Allied government leaders. Vrba expected his report would lead to concrete efforts by the Allies to preserve the lives of Hungarian Jews who had not yet been deported by the Germans. This was not its outcome. Twigg writes that the report’s “whistleblowing” led to New York Times coverage in late 1944, which diplomats in Hungary used as cover to issue false exit visas. The report gained recent attention in the 2022 volume by Jonathan Freedland, The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World.
Vrba, who spent his postwar years as a professor of pharmacology at UBC, can be claimed as the BC Holocaust writer of greatest note. With a long and distinctive cameo interview in Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film Shoah, Vrba is also the personality in Twigg’s bibliographical compendium with the greatest international audience.
Following these three leaders are the varied workers in the field, historians, survivor memoirists, novelists, children’s writers, poets, as well as such exemplary figures as H. Peter Oberlander, known for his work as a ground-breaking urban planner as well as his youthful experience as an “enemy alien” internee sent to Canada from England; Marvin Hier, a Vancouver rabbi in the 1960s who went on to head the Simon Wiesenthal Center in the United States; and philanthropist, academic and Rabbi Yosef Wosk, who contributes a concluding theoretical essay in Out of Hiding on the theme of hiding.
The work of Vancouver-based writers reflects a wealth of Holocaust stories that include Tilar Mazzeo’s portrait of Irena Sendler for young readers; Eva Hoffman’s depiction of postwar life as a child of survivors; Rachel Mines’ work as the translator of Yiddish stories by Jonah Rosenfeld; Claire Sicherman’s rendering of what she calls “third generation” writing; Bozena Karkowska’s efforts as a UBC professor to bring her classes to Warsaw, Krakow and Bialystok; and Richard Menkis’s masterly study with Harold Troper of the Canadian reaction to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The list is long and the discoveries many, taking in specialists and independent writers in a range of disciplines. Both a writerly community and the character of Holocaust activities throughout the province come into view.
Twigg’s long-time work as a literary journalist in BC serves him well, and he has a distinctive way of broadening any given biographical entry to include an array of information on Holocaust history. An entry might open out to a recognition of early programming on wartime history at UBC, on developments at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, or of survivor writing projects like the one mounted at Langara College.
Out of Hiding is well illustrated, so that people, locales and related artifacts from the BC milieu and its narratives are richly presented. Among these is a pair of photographs of the impressive Holocaust memorial in Vancouver’s Schara Tzedeck cemetery, just over the city’s border in New Westminster. This was a grass-roots effort motivated in the middle 1980s by survivor Renia Perel and others, including Robert Krell and Robert Waisman. One of its ingenious elements is the placement of names of as many family members murdered in the war as Vancouverites were willing to register at a fee per name. It was Perel’s responsibility to collect the names that would be inscribed at the monument’s base. For families with many names this raised challenges. The outcome is a panoply of names and death dates inscribed on granite plaques that surround the monument itself. The names present an inkling of the scope of loss endured by local families. Of Twigg’s “leaders,” the book offers a telling photograph of the names of Robert Waisman’s murdered relatives to illustrate his detailed biographical entry.
Twigg’s approach in Out of Hiding reflects his interest in creative, academic and community work and contributes to his book’s sensitive portrait of Holocaust response in BC in the postwar decades.
Norman Ravvin is a novelist and teacher whose books include the Vancouver novel The Girl Who Stole Everything and A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity and Memory. He has forthcoming, in spring 2023, Who Gets In: An Immigration Story, a memoir of Jewish immigration from Poland to the prairies in the 1930s (University of Regina Press). A native of Calgary, he lived in Vancouver, Toronto and Fredericton before settling in Montreal where he teaches literature and Jewish Studies at Concordia University. His work is on view at his website. Editor’s note: Norman Ravvin’s book The Girl Who Stole Everything (Linda Leith Éditions, 2019) has been reviewed by Sheldon Goldfarb.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
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