Monday, April 12, 2010

Remembering Those I Never Met

A simple photo of four sisters around a table, circa 1922. These women are four of my maternal great aunts, who were living in Riga, Latvia at the time. My grandfather spoke little of his past; in trying to earn a living as a musician in Montreal, there was no time to dwell on history. Raising three kids during the Great Depression meant frequent moves, many different jobs, and bills often left unpaid. From the scant details passed down from him and other relatives, life in the Baltic region of Europe was lousy for a number of Jews in the early part of the 20th century. Other than poverty, there was abuse from the state, exclusion from many opportunities afforded other citizens (if they dared consider themselves that way) and when opportunities dried up, exile.

Two of the sisters did just that. Dora, first from the left, wound up in South Afica, while and Lena, third from the left, escaped with my grandfather and another brother to Montreal, creating a branch of Cantors that left its mark musically as musicians in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. The other two sisters, Bertha and Minha, both died at the hands of the Nazi's in the 1940's. As such, they are the closest relatives I have who perished in this way.

Today is Holocaust Rememberance Day. Events will take place in many North American Cities to remember the persecution of the Jews during the Second World War. For a long time, the term Holocaust was almost sacred, referring only to one people and one event. In recent years it has become more common to refer to it as "The Nazi" Holocaust, as history has revealed that the concept of organized genocide is almost as old as organized society in itself.

After the recent death of the Polish president and many of his cabinent and senior politicans in a plane crash, I sent my condolences to my Polish friends on Facebook. What ensued was an angry exchange between the descendant of Polish Jews and a Polish person currently living in England. There was the misguided opinion that all non-Jewish Poles had a hand in the Holocaust, and that these politicians, mostly middle aged men born after the war, deserved their fate. Amidst the acrimonony, it was revealed that both friends had families that suffered horribly during this period. Millions of non Jewish Poles were murdered - as a matter of fact, the whole purpose of the Polish delegation was to commemorate a massacre that had been hidded by the Soviets for decades.

In this respect, I mourn the loss of all people during this period in history - there are likely too many photos like this one, and as we think of those whose stories were never told, it is too easy to ascribe blame to others, when the concept of "other" results from a habit of continuously dividing and categorizing ourselves as human beings.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Our Obsession with Self-Destructive Genius

Serge Gainsbourg lived a fascinating, conflicting life. The son of Jewish parents who escaped Russia during the 1917 revolution, Lucien Ginzburg - ironically his parents changed his name to sound more "French"- wore a yellow star in the streets of his adopted Paris, during the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. After escaping to Limoges for the remainder of the Second World War, Serge would live the life of an obscure musician and artist, until finally gaining fame in the late 1950's. He would spend the remainder of his life outraging and tantalizing the country that once reluctantly agreed to call him a "citizen". There were few subjects dared to avoid - his 1969 song "Je T'aime" recorded with his much younger girlfriend, Jane Birkin, caused a scandal for its blatant sexuality, although forty years later, it would hardly raise an eyebrow. He mocked Nazism, and the hypocrisy of becoming a French icon after the horrors of his childhood in an album called "Rock around the Bunker". He nevertheless became a French icon, and his fascinating life is now celebrated in a film that opens in Montreal today, on what would have been his 82nd birthday. "Gainsbourg - Vie Heroique" traces his journey from childhood painter to legend, complete with his association with famous women like Brigitte Bardot and Juliette Greco, and culminating with his downfall, dying of a hear attack at the age of 62. As an ex-social smoker, moderate drinker, sporadic excerciser, and vain seeker of eternal youth, his path of self-destruction fascinates me. The fear of offending has always kept me in check, violated only occasionally by an off-colour comment meant to shock my peers and superiors. Perhaps my relatively closeted live failed to ingnite the type of outrage that Gainsbourg's early stigmatization surely did. Perhaps it's just a personality trait or lack of talent. Either way, I am forever the voyeur, staring into the public window of lives ended too soon, but which fortunately leave behind a legacy of music, art, and mannerisms that conspicuously safe individuals can appreciate and immitate. I can't wait to see this one.