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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.