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When I Knew

The title is misleading. The question I still ask myself is not, “When did I know I was Jewish?” but, “How, in God’s name, did I not figure it out sooner?” I blame Captain von Trapp.

I cannot remember a time when I did not know the story of how my grandmother fled Czechoslovakia, weeks after the Germans invaded, with my two-year-old father in tow, to meet my grandfather in London (the story of how he got to London, however, remained a secret until much more recently). She was a great storyteller, and in her version, she was not a bold heroine, but a foolish and somewhat spoiled girl, slightly oblivious of the danger around her. I heard many times about how she charmed the Gestapo at the border into letting them leave, how they had to stay in Versailles, and how my grandmother abandoned my father every morning to the tender ministrations of “la promeneuse” so she could hot-foot it to Paris, and later, of their life in London and Wales, of ration cards, and air raids, and shoes that unaccountably did not get polished when you left them outside your door at night. What I did not hear anywhere attached to the story was the word, “Jew.” It was a word I never heard used by any member of my family, in any context.

And that is where the Sound of Music comes in. I saw it for the first time a long time ago, long enough ago that I remember standing for the national anthem before it began. My grandparents had come to visit in Toronto, and we all went together. And there, on the screen, was their story, their love for their homeland, the evil Nazis, and their flight to freedom. They even lived high on a hill with a lonely goatherd, in a Swiss Chalet. In Quebec. Here it is:

Granny and Gumper's house in North Hat;ley

When the Captain sang “Edelweiss,” my mother says, tears rolled down my grandfather’s cheeks. Bless my homeland forever.

And once again, not a mention of the word “Jew” in the whole movie (Weirdly, when you think about it. Sure, the von Trapps weren’t Jewish. But Max? Max?). No wonder I was confused as the evidence began mounting and the questions started to come. Because I knew, I knew. But I didn’t know. I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and then all the Leon Uris books. I had dreams about being chased by Nazis. I even wrote a short story for school about a young girl, oh roughly my age at the time, escaping. I asked my father where our name came from. He lied (Miners from Lancaster come to work in the Silesian coal fields. I still have not forgiven him for this one!). I asked him why Gumper was smart enough to leave when others didn’t (you can tell I am getting close at this point). I asked my grandfather what happened to his two sisters. He left the room, and my grandmother changed the subject. I knew we weren’t Catholic, like all the other Czechs I knew, though when my grandfather swore, it was by Jesus and Mary (this also threw me off). Did I think they were Hussites? But no, the von Trapps weren’t Jewish. You didn’t have to be Jewish to flee the Nazis. It wasn’t a question about myself that I asked; it was one I had already answered.

Then cousin Frances came for one of the last Christmases before my grandfather and father died, and this time brought with her a family tree. On it were large branches that were missing, unknown relatives marked only “died in the war.” And Frances told us that we had a Jewish background. I didn’t fully absorb it, confused as I still was by the Captain. Maybe Gumper’s mother had been Jewish?

After my father died, my uncle sat me and my sister down with my mother and told us the story of our origins and swore us to secrecy. My mother already knew; my father had told her before they were married in an offhand way, and she regarded it as a matter of complete indifference. We didn’t keep it a secret; we started talking about our background and history with our father’s cousins, and with our grandmother, especially when we travelled with her to the Czech Republic after the wall came down. My sister remembered revealing all to our Kitchener cousins when we visited them for Christmas a couple of years after our father’s death.

For me this knowledge came, not as a revelation but as a confirmation, an “Oh, of course.” It was like I had spent my life doing a puzzle without the picture on the box, trying to piece together the faces I saw from the pieces I had. Someone handed me some missing pieces and suddenly all the sections I had been working on began to fit together. And on the woman’s face, the pieces now formed a smile.

Christmas at the Picks

Christmas 1939

The official part of Christmas with my new family is over, and I have an evening alone, as the rest of them go out to shop, eat, and watch a movie, as is their usual custom on Boxing Day. We have been talking a lot about what our Christmas traditions are over the past few days, as we attempt to merge our practices and rituals, honouring what is most important to all of us. Like most of us, I have had a series of Christmas traditions, depending on where I lived and who I was living with at the time, but if you ask me what I think of when I think of Christmas, it isn’t Toronto in the 1970s or Detroit in the 1990s; it is spending Christmas in North Hatley, for many years at the incongruous Swiss chalet on a Quebec hillside house built my Gumper, my grandfather Jan Pick, and later also at our own cottage. It was always our family and my grandparents; sometimes our cousins from Kitchener joined us, and in later years, my father’s cousin Frances would come from Mexico.

What did it mean to us? It was the light in the darkness of winter. We feasted and burned candles. We skied through the woods and snowmobiled, and chopped down a tree, bringing the freshness of the forest indoors. The ornaments were battered and glittering survivors of those collected by my grandparents in their years as exiles and refugees from their native Czechoslovakia. We ate fish soup, and herring, and salmon, and eel. We ate turkey and plum pudding, and spiced beef. We ate candied orange peel, truffles, florentines, pepperkakor, vanilkove rohlicky, rum balls, Turtles, mince pies, and shortbread.  We opened a mountain of presents (This was the only part my grandfather did not like — he thought we had too many presents, and he was right. And it only got worse when the Kitchener Picks joined us!). And like the Whos down in Whoville what we did most of all was sing. At Christmas Eve dinner, the apex of our feast, we would sing and sing and sing, songs in English and French; Czech, Slovak, Swedish, and Hungarian. Some were toasts and drinking songs, some were folk songs; we sang songs about the black earth of my grandparents’ homeland and about battles fought in far off Herzigovina; we sang songs my grandfather learned as a student in France and songs my mother grew up singing around a Swedish Christmas smorgasbord. We banished the darkness and drew our family together around the table. It was this family we were celebrating as we sang, especially my grandparents, especially my grandfather.

The Picks were Jewish of course, and it may be surprising for some of you to read that Christmas was so important to them. It is one of the curiosities of the ways a culture borrows from another that many Czech Jews celebrated Christmas with as much enthusiasm as their neighbors, albeit with less piety. I remember my grandmother taking about childhood Christmasses, about the carp who would come to live in the bathtub to be cleaned of its muddy interior before it would be eaten on Christmas Eve. And their family was not alone. My grandfather’s best friend from the old country was a man who survived Auschwitz and wrote a memoir of his experiences. “It was a very sad Christmas for the Jews this year,” he wrote without irony about Christmas 1939 in occupied Czechoslovakia.

The grainy photo at the top, which shows my grandmother, Liska, lighting the candles on a Christmas tree, is a still from a movie made by our cousin Frances’s father at Christmas in 1939 in the UK. He and my grandparents and my father, Michael, had managed to escape there. Also in this film are my father’s young cousins, Peter and John, kindertransport children who had been saved by Nicholas Winton, and my great grandmother Ruzena, whose necklace I wore at our own Christmas dinner last night. The people in the film are all people I knew well, so even though the film is silent I can tell what they are saying and even what they are thinking, as they greet Father Christmas, and praise my father for riding his first tricycle. And I can see the moment when the mood grow dark and they raise a toast their friends and family left behind — my grandmother’s parents, my grandfather’s sisters, all to perish, with so many more — and my grandmother knocks back her drink, and stiffens her jaw and smiles again, prepared to defy the darkness for another year.

 

 

Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me

I was tagged by Julianne Douglas over on Facebook to quickly write down ten books that have meant something to me, and then pass along the request to ten more people. I can’t do anything the easy way, so I thought it would be fun to do a blog post about it, and to explain why these books are important to me. Since it is the time of year when many people are looking for gift ideas, maybe even some of what I say will provide some inspiration. I am going to stick close to historical fiction for my list, since I have been thinking a lot recently about what makes good historical fiction in general, and medieval historical fiction in particular.

  1. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdattir. It is maybe cheating to begin with this because I have about fifty more pages to go, but it was reading this book that got me thinking about medieval historical fiction in the first place. Somehow Undset managed to write here a novel that continues to speak immediately to contemporary themes and problems, while at the same time maintaining a perfect period voice. I have not discovered one jarring note (though specialists in medieval Scandinavia might feel differently). I am thinking of how I could work it into a course.
  2. Cecelia Holland, Great Maria. This novel is another of the first that comes to mind when I think of other books I have loved that, for me, capture the Middle Ages and its values perfectly. Its heroine is awkward and difficult, and unsympathetic at times. This is because she thinks and feels and acts differently than we would do. This is because she lives in a very different world, and Holland does not allow us to forget it.
  3. Margaret Elphinstone, The Sea Road. This one will be less well known even to my book-reading and medievalist friends. It is the eleventh-century tale of Gudrid, as told to a cleric and scribe in Rome, of her role in the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic and her own journey to North America. Gudrid’s world is pagan and Christian, civilized and wild and once again, Elphinstone gets her voice perfectly. I should also say that everything Elphinstone writes is an instant hard-cover buy for me.
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. This isn’t historical fiction, most would argue, but rather fantasy. I am going to argue that it belongs on this list of books that made me think about how to write historical fiction. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is not some fantasy realm in some imaginary world, however it may appear to a casual reader. He binds it to the geography and language of the word that we know, the world that is ours, by creating stories told about stories told about stories, layering the past upon the past.
  5. Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Shadow of the Wind. I saw that Julianne had The Angel’s Game on her list which I unaccountably still have not read, though I went to an author reading when it first came out, and got a signed copy. This one is a book about books by a man who loves books. More than that, Ruiz Zafon casts a spell on the reader from the very first page. We are in post-civil war Barcelona with all its beauty, menace, and danger until the last page when he lets us go again.
  6. Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This is the perfect book for someone raised on Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. Like Heyer, she captures that Regency voice without anachronism, and at the same time manages to work in the magic in a way that seems seamless and plausible.
  7. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel in her best historical fiction, here and in A Place of Greater Safety, about the French Revolution not only writes a historical novel, but constructs a historical argument. Here, her argument is a revisionist portrait of Thomas Cromwell. Usually he is depicted as the most hated of Henry VIIIs servants, but Mantel gives us a view of him from the inside to present him as a more sympathetic character. Her depiction of Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More were equally daring.
  8. Sarah Dunant, Sacred Hearts. Most people would think that a story that takes place entirely within the walls of a tightly enclosed sixtenth-century Ferarrese convent would not be interesting. Those people would be wrong. I read this shortly after teaching a class on Terese of Avila’s autobiography and felt it gave flesh to some of the bones of what Teresa describes.
  9. Markus Zusak, The Book Thief. I have already discussed this book on my blog, so I won’t say too much here except that this is another book about books (I am detecting a theme here…), and it made me have sympathy for characters I thought I could not feel sympathy for.
  10. Simon Mawer, The Glass Room. The story of the twentieth-century told through a modernist house built in what was once Czechoslovakia, this one hits close to home. Not only does it depict the world of my ancestors, the world into which my father was born, and the pain of going into exile from that world, the characters themselves reflect elements of members of my family. This may, then, seem less strictly “historical” than the other works on my list. But whether a book takes us to Tang China or Renaissance Italy, surely we love it because we see parts of ourself in it?

TBR Pile

New Books --- Madrid 2013

New Books — Madrid 2013


I never posted my stack of books from this year’s used book sale, so by way of compensation, here is a photo of the damage I have done as of my second day in Madrid. All come from Marcial Pons, except the bottom one on Velazquez, which is the catalogue for the special exhibit I saw at the Prado yesterday.

Thoughts on Leaving my Son at O’Hare This Morning

When Outward Bound tells you that their programs are supposed to teach maturity and independence, they forget to let you know that they mean by that also the maturity and independence of the parents who have to let their children go and trust that the universe will move them along on their journey and bring them back safe and sound when it is over.

Anyway, I was reminded of a passage from one of my favourite books, A Big Storm Knocked it Over, by one of my favourite authors, Laurie Colwin, taken from us much to soon. And taken from her own small daughter much too soon too, as I recall more often than one might expect. Jane Louise has just left her baby, Miranda, alone with her husband for the first time and is returning from spending time with a friend:

It was nearing the end of the academic year. Everywhere she looked students were lugging boxes of books, clothes, and standing lamps out of their dorms. She stood on the sidewalk and watched a serious young boy load two duffel bags into the trunk of his father’s car and dash into a building. His father, a gray-haired man with a wide chest and a linen sports jacket, was loading the trunk. Jane Louise stood perfectly still, blinded by the sunny glare. Hazy light poured down around her.
Some day Miranda would grow up and go to college. day would follow day: She would lose her baby teeth. Her adult teeth would come in. She would go to school, learn to read, go to high school, have boyfriends, leave home. To her amazement, jane Louise found herself in tears. Her throat got hot, and tears poured down her cheeks. She felt powerless to brush them away.
The gray-haired man walked past her, carrying a pair of suitcases. When he saw her, he stopped and set the cases down.
“Are you okay?” he said.
“I was just thinking about my child going to college,” Jane Louise said.
“How old is your child?” the man asked gently.
“Just five months old,” said Jane Louise, and she began to sob. “You must think I’m a nut.”
The man looked at her thoughtfully. “When my kid went to sleep-away camp for the first time, I wanted to lie down in the driveway and eat dirt,” he said.
Jane Louise looked up at him. He filled her vision entirely. The hazy sunshine swirled around them. She grabbed his wrist, and kissed his hand. He was wearing a beautiful gold watch.
“Thank you,” she said. “Oh thank you.”
Then she collected herself. The man picked up the suitcases.
“It’ll be all right,” he said. “You’ll grow into it.”

Happy Birthday, Canada

A lot of friends say to me, in moments of darkest despair, “Wow Lucy, you’re so cool. I think that’s because you’re from Canada. Can you tell me how to be Canadian too?” Friends, here is your chance. The hat is optional.

ETA: If the video doesn’t tell you enough about What it Means to Be Canadian, you might want to check out this post by the Yarn Harlot. Fun fact: she quotes someone I went to university with. Because everyone in Canada knows everyone else. True.

Viktor Frankl

Anyone who spends time on Facebook knows all about those tests: “What European country are you?” “What decade are you,” “Which deceased female poet are you?” etc. Most of them are pretty unenlightening, not to say badly spelled (though I did admire the wisdom that correctly identified me as “Garden Party Barbie”) but today’s test, “Which psychotherapist are you?” reminded me of a name I hadn’t thought of in years. Evidently, I am Viktor Frankl, and I am a logotherapist.

Logotherapy, the therapeutic method developed by Frankl, teaches that human beings are primarily motivated by, not power or pleasure, but the desire to find meaning in their lives, and that we achieve peace when we find this meaning. We find meaning by doing a deed (work?), experiencing a value (truth, beauty, love; of nature, art, or a person), or, when all that is positive fails, through suffering.

If you have read my “About me” page, you will recognize that these are the views I share. Anyone who writes history is searching for meaning and is actively constructing it out of the chaos of data left by passing humans. Writing stories is a construction of meaning within the fiction/not fiction of the beginning, middle, and end of a tale. I don’t know if I believe that it is our primary impulse, but I believe it should be, that it is the only way to deal with the turmoil caused by all our other primary impulses.

I read Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in high school, I believe in religion class at he Convent of the Sacred Heart. I was interested in anything to do with the Holocaust at the time, and I remember appreciating it, though not drawing any especially lasting lessons from it. At the time I did not know that my grandfather’s sister died at Theriesienstadt, where Frankl spent so much time or that, like him, my great-grandparents and my grandfather’s sister were transported to Auchwitz, though with worse fate. What I wonder now is how much Frankl’s book might have stuck inside me without me knowing it all these years. It seems that reading an account of the Holocaust is a rite of passage for high schoolers these days (rightly so). I also believe we are made up of all the books we have read, as well as the experiences we have had and the people we know. I wonder if I would have been different if we had read Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel or Anne Frank instead of Viktor Frankl at the Sacred Heart all those years ago?

In Praise of Historical Fiction

Those of you who like to read it or write it may be interested in this staunch defense of the genre by Sarah Dunant, in anticipation of the award of the first Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction:

Historical Fiction is the Genre of the Moment

I must say that I personally missed the moment when it was not a prominent genre, having moved straight from Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer, to Dorothy Dunnett and Colleen McCullough, and then on to Dunant herself along with her other peers without a break.
Why read historical fiction? Dunant defends the genre against the tiresome accusation of “escapism,” a charge that means nothing more than someone is enjoying their reading a little too much for some else’s taste, in my opinion. If we read to learn the truth of ourselves and our world, historical fiction will always have a place, because it is sometimes only by peering deep into the past that we can see ourselves truly, as if in Tuchman’s distant mirror.

By coincience, I finished Dunant’s Sacred Hearts this very evening. It was wonderful, and took me deep into the sixteenth-century convent world that I had explored earlier this year with my students in our class on Teresa of Avila. I can scarcely believe that 2010 has brought me such treasures already as it and Mantel’s Wolf Hall, also on the Scott prize shortlist. I don’t envy the judges.
And now I am off to read the rest of the shortlist

Summer Plans

Idea shamelessly stolen from Sarah Eve Kelly. I thought it would fun and maybe even useful to make a list of some of the things I hope to accomplish this summer as a way of keeping myself on track and honest. The original title of this post was ‘summer bucket list” but I realized once I was done that most of these things are not bucket list worthy (though some are). I am confining the list to those things over which I have some degree of control…

First are some things that are work related, but don’t feel sorry for me. I actually find working on my own research projects fun (which is why I have the job I have):

  • Finish and submit at least two articles for publication. They’re both nearly ready to go and there is no excuse not to get them out there.
  • Write another article on Cluny and Spain.
  • Write a paper presentation and article on Rodrigo Jimenez de Rada and Islam
  • Decide whether I want to spend a good deal of time working on Michael Scot and not feel guilty if the answer to that question is “no.”
  • Figure out what I want to write next.
  • Okay, now here are the fun bits:

  • Visit Kelmscott
  • Do “some” or maybe even “most” of the long walks around Oxford that I have printed out
  • Lose ten pounds. Okay maybe that won’t be “fun” all by itself But if I do it by walking (see above) then it will be pretty fun.
  • See my sister and my cousins.
  • Eat at Moro and Ottolenghi
  • Visit North Hatley, maybe in time for the Ayer’s Cliff Fair this year.
  • And last but not least, meet Sarah herself!
  • What are you trying to accomplish?