Katya is eighteen in Tainted Amber. She’s all grown up. She’s independent. She’s naïve and a bit insecure; tenacious and curious. I am my mother’s daughter and in the compost pile of my writer’s mind, our lives become one. While it’s her stories that I’m reducing, reusing and recycling, it's my imagination that feeds them. The result? Tainted Amber. A love story created from the leftovers of my shared experiences with her.
Perhaps I spent too many years reading books and writing critical essays during my university years. Dead authors don’t care about my critiques and I explored, with honest intentions, how the characters dealt with their relationships and how they interpreted the events in their novel world. I loved digging in between the lines of my favourites like Heinrich Böll, Robert Musil or the short stories of Gabriele Wohmann. But I digress.
Writing a book and getting it traditionally published, in today’s competitive world, is a miracle. It’s a success story, no matter what a niggly reviewer might say.
If I ever come across too harshly in a review, I want to apologize in advance. Never take what I say too seriously . . . and never take it personally. I like being the devil’s advocate. I like controversy. I like a conversation. I don’t like cheerleading.
That said, Rah, Rah, Rah. Canadian writers amaze me with their fascinating stories. Never stop! We're a small community here in Canada and we need all the support we can get.
Like Thumper said in the Bambi movie: If you don't have somthin' nice to say, don't say nuthin' at all.
Ah, so much for the energy of controversy.
We're a tenacious, curious bunch, us fiction authors. We find power in words . . . mere marks on a page. Lives past, present or future. All from our imagination. We've got to be crazy. God knows we can't help ourselves.
We'd have it no other way. Thank you, Ronsdale!
Some might consider eugenics an invasive practice belonging to the evil politics of the dictatorships in the first half of the twentieth century. However, forced sterilization was not banned in Canada until 1972.
In the 21st century we take a less political or institutionalized approach to eugenics. Our contemporary society offers “genetic counselling” or “family planning” and gives the individual or couple an educated choice.
In Tainted Amber, I explore the consequences of losing that freedom to choose whether or not to have children. What is a perfect human anyway? Is perfection even a worthwhile goal? As Leonard Cohen so poetically chanted, “There is a crack in everything . . . that’s how the light gets in.” We don’t want any government to impose discriminatory laws about what makes a perfect citizen. Canada is now dealing with the consequences of its own disturbing attempts to create perfect Canadians through residential schools.
Hitler had it all wrong when he tried to create a perfect race. It’s our imperfections that define our humanity and make us perfect. A paradox to ponder.
With the blogger Feedburner subscription service ending in July, I've switched to a new subscription service via Mailchimp. (Top right corner of this blog). I'm hoping that you'll continue to read my blogposts here and follow my novel adventures.
I'm not too active on social media but try to make an effort. I'm a bit more of an earthworm than a social butterfly. I'd rather meet you for coffee or for a walk than in this cyber world. But the internet has opened many doors and I will not shun this amazing technology.
Only by being social, do I discover new worlds, interesting books, along with the fascinating people who write them. Writers and readers . . . we can't have one without the other.
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After having read Magdelene Redekop’s book, Making Believe, which describes the differences amongst the Mennonites of Manitoba (mostly centered on the Kanadier and Russländer distinction), I reflected on differences amongst other Germans in this province. Germans are the second largest immigrant group in Manitoba, second only to the English and ahead of the Scots. Here’s an interesting fact: according to Alexander Freund, in a 2012 Winnipeg Free Press article, he wrote: “most German-Manitobans were born outside of Germany.”
|Assembly of Volksdeutsche in Lodz|
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J09396 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
These are what is known as “ethnic” Germans or Volksdeutsche. These are people who were born outside of Germany, but continued to identify with the German culture. For example, my mom’s family immigrated from West Prussia (Gdansk area) to Volhynia in Ukraine, in the 1860s. Those Germans built schools, churches, established newspapers and communities in a Russian and/or Ukrainian dominated country. When Ukraine became part of the USSR, my mom ended up going to a Soviet school where she learned Russian, beside her Ukrainian classmates. So, until the age of twelve, Mom could speak in any of three languages without too much trouble. German at home, Russian at school, and Ukrainian amongst schoolmates. After the war, Mom’s language skills helped her survive in the forced labour camps.
|My Volksdeutsche mom |
and Reichsdeutscher dad
One of Hitler’s goals was to repatriate all the ethnic Germans, or Volksdeutsche, into German-occupied lands. This was done, under the slogan, “Heim ins Reich.” For the Nazis, it was all about race. To be able to establish that you were a proper Aryan, meant that you were one of the them. (Unless of course, like my character, David, in Tainted Amber, you have an inherited disease. Then you were not such a perfect Aryan, after all.)
It goes without saying that the Nazi policies regarding race were flawed and it’s incredible that they could flout such an idea in a place like Europe which had such fluid borders. After all, even Nazis saw Aryan features in some Polish children and deemed them as trainable subjects for the Third Reich.
The Heim ins Reich motto allowed one of my older friends here in Winnipeg to leave the Soviet Union before Operation Barbarossa—the June, 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. As a young girl, she lived in what the Nazis called Litzmannstadt . . . Lodz in Polish, west of Warsaw. Lodz was part of the Nazi’s Warthegau region (an occupied part of Poland). As a Volksdeutsche, my friend’s mother received a house that had been forcibly taken from its Polish owners.
Hitler’s insistence on racial segregation and his perceived threat of all things non-Aryan, had a huge impact on my parents’ generation. In my growing-up years, my dad—once a Luftwaffe pilot—expressed only shame about how he let himself get manipulated by the Nazi vision of world domination.
|Volksdeutsche in Lodz, Public Domain|
So when is a German, not a German? I have a reichsdeutscher father, a volksdeutsche mother, a husband with a Scottish-born mother and a Canadian-born father and 3 Canadian-born children. I live in a country where Indigenous People were pushed onto reserves, not unlike what Hitler did to the Poles. Maybe I’m just another European colonist looking for Lebensraum (living space) and maybe we have something to learn from the Indigenous People: we don’t own the land, we share the land. That could prevent wars.
This blogpost was written here in Winnipeg which is located within Treaty No. 1 Territory, the traditional lands of the Anishinabe (Ojibway), Ininew (Cree), Oji-Cree, Dene, and Dakota, and is the Birthplace of the Métis Nation and the Heart of the Métis Nation Homeland.
I’ve just finished reading Making Believe, by Magdalene Redekop, a book about Mennonites and their relationship to art. It was nominated during the recent Manitoba Book Awards and received the Mary Scorer Best Book Award by a Manitoba Publisher Award. (University of Manitoba Press).
I picked up this book because I’ve always been aware of, and curious about, the Mennonites in Manitoba. This book, along with a few friendships along the way, has given me some insight into this sizeable population of our province.
I was not raised as a Mennonite, but I lived in a parallel universe being raised as a German Baptist. There are differences and similarities between the two faiths. While I no longer consider myself a German Baptist, I get the sense that someone born a Mennonite is always a Mennonite. Mennonites often marry other Mennonites, go to Mennonite schools, live in Mennonite-centric communities and keep in close contact with their extended family and fellow churchgoers.
Redekop’s memories reminded me of the many similarities between her Mennonite upbringing and my own German Baptist one. Dancing, make-up, movies, rock music etc. was taboo. Baptism was not to be done at birth, but as a conscious decision when one grew older. I appreciated her musings on the evangelization of the young. Those big meetings were carefully choreographed scripts and German Baptists are much like the Mennonites when it comes to manipulating the young through music and guilt.
Redekop’s book also showed the complicated (to me) differences within the Mennonite culture. Types of Mennonites depend on the times of immigration. For example, there are the Kanadier and the Russländer Mennonites. Then there are the Mennonite Brethren (more like the German Baptists) and the other Mennonites, like the Swiss. All new to me and a bit confusing.
What I found most interesting is how the Mennonites have continued to be an insular group, easily identified by their names. My own maiden name, Schroeder, could be seen as Mennonite, although my father was Lutheran and from the Hamburg area. As a young woman, I was eager to remove any connection to Germans or Mennonites and ended up with a married surname that has sometimes been mistaken as the Jewish Goldstein. Goldstone might have South African or British connections. A student once called me Mrs. Goldrock and I liked the non-ethnic sound of that.
A huge difference that I noted between the Mennonites of small-town Manitoba and my German Baptist upbringing in the big city, is that our congregation was quite diverse. My church was a ragtag of displaced war survivors from different parts of eastern Europe. Men were at a premium and my mom married a Lutheran. That guaranteed that I’d never be a genuine German Baptist and I grew as an outsider.
Redekop writes about the noticeable ‘renaissance’ of Mennonite writers, specifically from Manitoba. There’s Toews, Bergen, Klassen, Friesen, Wiebe, Brandt and many more. Now there’s a newly minted children's novelist from my writing group with the last name of Driedger. Why are so many Mennonites writing? I’d like to think it’s for the same reason I like to write. Every church service I attended when young was focused on studying the word of God or singing. Since my singing or piano playing was not encouraged, I found power in the written word.
I recommend Magdalene Redekop’s book, Making Believe, to anyone curious about the Manitoba history of Mennonites and art. You need a bit of tolerance for her academic approach and there were some parts I struggled to digest. Mostly, I appreciated the snippets where the author revealed herself. She didn’t hold back and I connected with that authenticity. For the most part, a non-Mennonite like me found it to be a compelling read.
First off, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BEV!
Bev Morton, a friend of mine, owns and operates one of Winnipeg’s little treasure chests and like all good treasure chests, it’s stuffed with precious gems. The Wayne Arthur Gallery—at 186 Provencher Boulevard in old St. Boniface—overflows with Made in Manitoba creativity.
Bev’s passion for art is matched only by her tenacity. She’s had some extreme health challenges over the
|Robert and Bev|
past few years and then she suddenly lost her longtime partner, Robert, (a longtime friend of mine, too) right at Christmas this past year. Without the comfort of friends or the closure (and hugs) that a memorial service can provide, Bev is back at the gallery promoting the art of fellow Manitobans with her intrepid spirit to carry on.
|Bev at the Petersfield Mallard site|
How long has the Wayne Arthur Gallery been operating at 186 Provencher?
The gallery opened on Provencher on November 30, 2002, after first opening in St. Andrews in 1995 when I opened it with my late first husband, Wayne Arthur, and then on St. Mary’s Road in 2000.
Tell me about the name. Who is Wayne Arthur?
|Bev with Wayne Arthur|
What are the challenges of operating a gallery in Winnipeg?
Enticing people to come to the gallery.
How are these challenges exasperated by the pandemic and restrictions?
With the restrictions it is now impossible to have artist receptions. I look forward to the day that changes. Also the gallery has at times been totally locked down. In one case I attempted to have my group show in December online. It wasn’t very successful, although I was able to display it on gallery walls near the end of January and into February.
What are the rewards of operating a gallery in Winnipeg?
It is a joy to exhibit Manitoba artists to both local people and tourists when the pandemic doesn’t prevent travel. I also enjoy meeting many artists and introducing them to each other and the public.
How do you promote the shows?
I have a website waynearthurgallery.com and also a gallery Facebook page. Most advertising is too expensive although some organizations have electronic newsletters that list member showings.
How many artists have been on display in the Gallery?
Since opening in 1995, I have had 574 Manitoba artists. In some cases they have had shows and in other cases they have participated in group shows or just have placed work in the gallery.
How does an artist approach you for a showing?
An artist would have to show me their work and when I am booking shows I consider who is available. I also display work on the walls that aren’t on the featured show wall. These pieces don’t change as frequently, but I usually limit them to one painting per artist.
What keeps you returning to the gallery day after day, even during hard times?
It is a joy to sit in the gallery and look at the beautiful art. However it is more fun when customers or friends come in.
Why do you think art is important?
It is important to surround oneself with beauty. Art is one of the beautiful things in this world.
You’re an artist yourself, not just an art proprietor. Tell me about your own work.
In 1978, I had intended to make my first fabric piece. However, it wasn’t until 2009 that I learned how to do it without sewing and I have subsequently been working completely in fabric.
Many of my fabric pieces started as paintings and I have recreated them in fabric. Others are from my photos of vacations, family photos and photos taken in the gallery and at home.
I am focusing on where I live, work and dream: interiors in my home and in the gallery and places I have been to or dreamed of.
I use distinct lines to define form and colour, and include a lot of detail and pattern. I want to enable the viewer to see all that I see. I believe the simplicity of my pieces allows the viewer to complete the experience.
Imagine you’re a magician and you could wave a magic wand, what would you create?
A gallery big enough to showcase the work of more artists.
Thanks Bev. Thanks for letting me meet so many wonderful Manitoba creators over the years. Thanks for showcasing their work and being a conduit to appreciative buyers of art. And thank you to the artists who dare to wave their magic wands and create. Being an artist is a gift but the rewards are often not measured in dollars.
Support local art! Manitoba Proud!
The Wayne Arthur Gallery, located at 186 Provencher Boulevard in old St. Boniface, is just a ten minute walk from The Forks. Make it an outing! We have a beautiful city, vibrant with art, and Bev's gallery truly is a treasure chest.
Open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 11 AM to 5 PM.
|At Whitter Park* in St. Boniface|
There’s been a lot of attention recently about the discovery of mass graves of children near a residential school near Kamloops, BC. Without doubt, it’s upsetting. Having two grandparents (one in a ditch, another in a snowbank), two child uncles, along with other relatives in unmarked graves as a result of Stalin’s collectivization efforts, I appreciate how my mother was damaged by that pain. I appreciate, as well, how the pain of our broken family was passed down to me. I appreciate the potential damage of inter-generational trauma.
|Ditch where my grandfather ended up|
So while we mourn the little children of our Residential School system in Canada, let’s not forget those that didn’t die . . . those who grew up to be confused adults and moved into the ghettos of our modern cities . . . those who had their faith, their culture and their families crushed by us white people . . . in the name of saving their souls.
I can connect, in a small way, with that despair . . . all done in the name of some faith. For my grandparents it was for the glorious anti-religion of communism. For the Indigenous Peoples here in Canada, it was for the glorious religion of Christianity. Re-education or racism . . . it sucks the life out of people.
About the photo: I took this photo of Fort Gibraltor (a replica) about a month ago. After going through my hundreds of photos, I realized that I don't photograph too many ugly things. This is the best I could come up with.
I’ve been following with shock and trepidation the arrest of the 26-year-old Belorussian journalist and blogger, Roman Protasevich, and his 23-year-old girlfriend, Sofia Sapega—a Russian university student studying in Lithuania. This targeted attack of young truth-seekers makes me shudder with fear and sadness. Belarus, soaked in blood from the Second World War, has yet to find peace.Sophie Scholl and her brother, Hans, who were executed (via guillotine, no less) as part of the White Rose movement back in 1943. The siblings, both university students in Munich, were found guilty of treason in Nazi Germany because of pamphlets they printed and distributed throughout the campus. (Today it's blogging and social media.)
My grandfather was also charged with treason and a victim of the Stalin’s Great Terror campaign in 1937. He lived under a pseudonym in the last months of his life but was finally arrested in early June and charged under Article 58. . . guilty of counter-revolutionary activity.
Why were powerful dictators from the past like Stalin and Hitler so ruthless? Why do present-day dictators like Putin and Lukashenko follow in their footsteps? Perhaps it’s true. Perhaps they really are weak and vulnerable.
Perhaps young people like Sophie Sapega, Roman Protasevich or Alexei Navalny have some invisible power that doesn’t need guns and armies. Perhaps words of truth can change the world. We don’t need strength and weapons . . . just courage and words. It’s obvious these dictators have zero courage and a fear of words.
The lilacs in my garden have begun to bloom and they remind me of my grandfather. When visiting Ukraine, I’d accessed the secret police files and read his interrogation by the Troika. Along with his forced confession and signature, the files gave the address where he was living, under a pseudonym, at the time of his final arrest. I visited the location. It was the end of May and the lilacs were blooming like they would have been when he was arrested back in early June of 1937. My grandfather, armed with only a bible—who had already lost his family, his land and his very identity—was viewed as a threat to Stalin’s power.
My heart goes out to the parents of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega. Raising children to do what’s right has never been so complicated. It might be spring in Belarus, but it’s a dark and dangerous time for freedom.
What do Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann and Helen Keller have in common? All three authors had their books banned and burned during the Third Reich’s campaign to control ideas through literature. Back in May of 1933, more than 25,000 books were burned during a one-day blitz by university students across Germany. Thousands more were pulled from circulation. Why were these writers so dangerous?
Hemingway? His book, Farewell to Arms, showed the tragic side of war. For the Nazis, war was only positive.
Thomas Mann? Mario and the Magician warned about the dangers of dictatorship. Hitler saw democracy as weak.
Helen Keller? Her book was How I Became a Socialist. The blind and deaf activist supported the weak and the disabled. Nazis could not tolerate anything less than their idea of perfect.
Crazy? It happened in my parents’ lifetime. Nazi Germany was dominated by a culture of fear and mere words on a page could be dangerous. It shows the power of books . . .
In Tainted Amber, Katya reads Thomas Mann, inspired by the idea that he wrote in his summer home on the Baltic Sea not far from where she sat reading his novella.
Here in Canada, books are now being published that tell our own country’s stories of abuse. Ronsdale Press, who’s publishing Tainted Amber, recently released St. Michael’s Residential School by Nancy Dyson and Dan Rubenstein.
Books share ideas. It's up to us to give them power. But sometimes books are only entertainment. Sometimes an orphaned deer is only an orphaned deer.
Reading an interesting book right now . . . a book that’s right up my alley, discussing post-Second World War immigrants, religion, ethnic Germans . . . in short, discussing my very own family. Not only that, but Imagined Homes, Soviet German Immigrants in Two Cities, was published here by my alma mater, the University of Manitoba Press, back in 2007, by a University of Winnipeg scholar. Why didn’t I hear about this book sooner?
As a child, I frequented the neighbourhoods, churches, ethnic grocery stores and bakeries that new Germans built in this city and I appreciate how Hans Werner has laid out the facts and figures in his book. He interviews people that my parents would have encountered in their lives. I recognize the names!
The third section, Reproducing the Community, was particularly compelling. Here, Werner discusses the re-building of normalcy. My dad’s own first family, dissolved because of long-term separation and death, meant he wasted no time establishing one here in Canada. My parents arrived in Winnipeg in 1953 and I was born the following year. My dad was a reichs-deutscher (from Germany), my mom was a Flüchtling (refugee from the east). They’d both been through the Soviet prison camps and embraced the affordable houses and job opportunities that Winnipeg of the 1950s offered.
Endogamy. I had to look that word up. It’s the practice of marrying within one’s faith or culture. Werner writes: “Winnipeg’s immigrants had expanded their social contacts during the war and, because of the scarcity of male partners, endogamy broke down while they were still in Europe.” (page 153). Neither my mom or her two sisters married within their faith. Lack of endogamy defined our extended family.
My parents raised me with a divided sense of self . . . with a foot in two worlds. My father, the Lutheran, from Germany 'proper' and my mom, the Baptist, a daughter of Soviet kulaks. My dad was determined to forget the past, but my mother held onto her Baptist identity like a passport necessary for freedom. The German Baptist churches, guided by William Sturhahn’s missionary zeal and in cooperation with the CCCRR sponsored many refugees and arranged my parents’ boat trip and early employment as farm labourers.
I was subsequently raised in a German Baptist church surrounded by other German Baptist refugees displaced mostly from Poland, Soviet Union, and east Germany (including dissolved East Prussia). The ethnic German Baptists of my childhood church stuck together and my Lutheran dad was like a duck out of water in such a close-knit community. Even as a child I felt the cold shoulders and those of us with ‘non-believer or unbaptized’ fathers soon found support in each other on the sidelines.
No more endogamy in my family and it’s left me a bit of an outcast. Werner writes, “They (ethnic German immigrants) lived in two worlds, both distinct from each other, the one religious and the other secular, without experiencing a significant degree of dislocation.” (page 174) With the divide obvious in my own family, between a more secular Lutheran and a more pious Baptist approach to integrating in the new world, I disagree. There was significant confusion about my identity. Yet, in retrospect, sitting on the fence has given me a great view, as has reading Hans Werner’s book.
Of course, the book tells much more than just the Winnipeg immigrant experience. The author compares Winnipeg’s experience to the German city of Bielefeld’s acceptance of ethnic Germans. I can’t comment much on that, except to say, I’m grateful my parents ended up here in Canada. While growing up as a German Baptist in Winnipeg always made me feel like a bit of an outsider, Hans Werner’s book has helped me understand why.
So I bought a new car recently. It happens. Living in suburbia in Canada sort of makes a car a necessity. It’s not something I’m necessarily proud of, but in spite of living close to a bus route, driving a car has become a convenience I’m loathe to give up. I drive a car to take pets to the vet, patients to the doctor (I live with two non-drivers), and to exit the city and hang out in nature. (Okay, I drive a car for a lot of mundane things too . . . like when I’m too lazy to walk, time-conscious, or too much of a wimp to face the rain, north wind or the darkness of late nights.)
The thing about cars is that they wear out. My little red putt-putt was starting to cost lots of money to keep on the road and so I made what I hope is a smart financial decision and got a nearly new used car . . . big enough to haul lumber to repair the broken fence, to carry my bike, tent, inflatable kayak and, of course, the dog.
I’m a happy soul.
I had a budget and I stuck to it. Now I could have got myself a nice little German import for that price, but my dad—dead now for almost thirty years—stopped me. His resentment towards the Germany that detoured his life for fifteen years, and impacted it for a lifetime, echoed in my ears. “Why would I buy a German car? I’m not supporting that country now, I’m done with Germany.” That country . . . the one he served through military service for nine years . . . joining the Luftwaffe in 1936 at age 18. That country . . . the one for whom he spent an additional five years in a Soviet POW camp. Why would he support that country’s car industry? And why would I? I know, it’s not a Nazi country anymore and yet . . . VW was created in May of 1937. It was to be the people's car and employees had automatic withdrawals from their pay checks to fund this national endeavour. But then Hitler decided to have a war instead.
In my father's memory, I don’t buy German cars. It’s funny how I still hear his voice and feel his influence all these years later. Germans might have a reputation for making good cars, but they’ll forever carry a tainted history . . . at least in my driveway.
This is the day Hitler died in his Berlin bunker. This is the day he finally gave up on his dream of a thousand-year kingdom . . . the final days of the Third Reich. When visiting Berlin in 2019, I toured the surface of the bunker where he died. It’s a nondescript parking lot. And so it should remain. A nothing place for a coward.
|Creative Commons: Hnapel|
What a coward Hitler was, what a self-serving maniac. And all those Nazi elite who saw their hero self-implode, who faced some kind of reckoning and humiliation in Nuremberg, or who ran away . . . may we never forget the stench of your evil. As the generation who experienced . . . who smelled, hungered and cried through those final years . . . as they fade away, we must never forget. We must always be brave and support the vulnerable, so that the weak don’t ever become revengeful bullies. Hitler might be dead, but hate continues to seek life. Even today.
Like many of my fellow baby-boomers, I traveled through Europe as a youth. What started off as a structured university-work-program, morphed into a year-long adventure—a roller coaster experience filled with extreme highs and lows. (Only the young can have so much drama!) Now, upon reflection, with Tainted Amber soon to be released, I realize my experiences in a small Bavarian town helped me gain insight into what my mom might have experienced when she worked in rural East Prussia as an independent, but naïve, young woman.
I didn’t realize Berchtesgaden’s significance when I chose it out of a list of options at the student employment office at 42 Feuerbach Strasse in Frankfurt an der Main. I remember the office address clearly because I was so afraid of getting lost. I could have picked Stuttgart, Heidelberg or other cities, but Berchtesgaden sounded like ‘garden’ and I’ve always preferred nature and the outdoors over city congestion.
|Creative Commons: Colin Smith|
|Kaiser Bun: CC- Kobako|
Does that happen to other writers? It must.
If travel is about meeting people from other cultures, then staying right here in Winnipeg gives me plenty of the positive perks of travel. I love my opportunity to do EAL tutoring. It gives me a chance to travel while staying home. Immigrants from all over the world come to this cold city of Winnipeg for a better way of life. I know, sometimes that’s hard to appreciate.
Besides using Zoom, I’ve adapted to the forced isolation of the pandemic, with a walk and talk. Back in the old days, we’d meet in a café. Now a former South Korean student and I get to meander on local trails. It feels much more like we’re friends, comparing our different cultures and experiences, than in a student/teacher relationship. In fact, that is what we are . . . friends.Russian troops have amassed at the Ukrainian/Russian border (albeit for practice) and a British warship is now heading to the Black Sea and the jailed, anti-Putin crusader, Alexei Nalvalny, is close to death. My Ukrainian student, here in Canada, hears more about events in Russia and Ukraine than her mother does, only two or three hours away from the Russian border. She says her mother is too busy just trying to survive, day to day, to pay attention or worry about troop movements on her country’s border or about dying activists. This caused me to reflect on my mom’s own history and recollections from the Second World War.
I used to question my mother’s ignorance. How could she not know that Nazi Germany was an aggressive state? How could she not pay attention to the build-up of the Wehrmacht? How could she not question the newspapers or the propaganda that spewed out of the radio? How could she not see what was coming? Was she deceived or did she not want to see? How was her news manipulated? Read more about that here.
It makes me realize that even today we need to question what we glean from radios, TV (is that still a thing?), newspapers and the ubiquitous social media. Can we see our world, today in 2021, for what it really is? I am white, educated, retired and vaccinated. I have a vehicle and a single-family dwelling. Through these lenses of privilege, I view the rest of the world. Can I really see it? What threatens the borders of my life? Or perhaps I’m too busy spending, consuming and entertaining myself to even notice? I hope not. I seriously hope not.
Map: Ukrainian border with Russia by Aleksandr Grigoryev
Welcome to winter. Three or four inches of snow cover everything. Of course. It’s April in Winnipeg, so we’re not surprised. The German’s have a word for this fickleness of nature. Actually, a few words . . . it’s a poem.
I didn’t teach my kids German. I know, it’s a shame. But . . . I did teach them this poem and I think it should be mandatory for any Winnipeger.
April, April, kann machen was er will. Bald Regen und bald Sonnenschein, bald ist die Luft voll Schnee. (April, April, does want it wants. There’s rain and then sunshine, and then the air fills up with snow.) It’s by Heinrich Seidel from Mecklenburg (1842-1906). In German, there's a catchy cadence to it.
Seidel was an interesting fellow. During the day, as an engineer, he designed the roof of the Anhalter train station in Berlin. He was also a sort of guerilla gardener (if I understand that term correctly), scattering seeds he collected on various trips, throughout his hometown of Berlin. Theodor Storm was one of his critique partners, and Seidel’s most popular book Leberecht Hünchen, a light-hearted series released between 1880 and 1893, is still available today.
Seidel’s sense of humour and appreciation of nature comes through loud and clear in this simple April poem that any child, once they hear it, remembers for life (even my second-generation kids here in Canada).
Experiencing weather invites a sort of a universal language, wouldn’t you agree?
My aqua pot has come along on many a camping trip and at times gets charred black by flames. It’s tough and now has enough character that I suppose I’ll be pouring tea from it for a few more mornings yet.I’m also grateful for the plants that have chosen to thrive in my space. I don’t consider myself a gardener. A plant has to be tough to hang out with me. But the English ivy is actually climbing and the humble spider plant loves it here.
In Tainted Amber, my protagonist, Katya, is more of a shade-loving violet, but she yearns to be a sun-loving rose like her friend, Minna. Me? Perhaps I’m more of a carefree spider plant, able to adapt to almost any growing condition, preferably surrounded by books and good light.
I finished reading The White Rose Resists by Amanda Barrett this past week. The novel, based on the actual White Rose resistant group whose young leaders were tragically executed, via guillotine, in 1943, piqued my interest because of the extreme reviews it had on Goodreads. I’d only had a vague knowledge of the real event which involved Munich university student siblings, Hans and Sophie Scholl, along with fellow students, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf, among others. These five were convicted of treason and immediately killed. Their crime? Sending out propaganda leaflets suggesting that the war was a lost cause.
Another irritant, which I put in the editor’s court, was the constant reference to vater and mutter, ja and nein, etc.. We get it, it’s a German story. But the words here seemed gratuitous and jarring. As well, by inserting the fictional characters, Kirk and Annelise, into the plot, she creates an artificial love story and only weakens the historical fact. I'm grateful to other reviewers who articulated much better than I can some of the issues of this mostly five-starred book. (Go to Goodreads to follow the discussion).
Enough of my criticisms. While the re-telling by Barrett might be flawed, there’s no weakening of the actual tragic incident. I found the narrative most compelling when it shared the final hours of Sophie Scholl’s life.
So while I’d been warned by other Goodreaders not to bother reading, I’m grateful I did, after all. Sometimes reading what doesn’t work can be as useful to a writer as reading what does. Here’s what I will try to apply to my own writing: I will be careful with my use of foreign words; I will try to establish credible points of view; and I will not insert characters that don’t add to the overall plot. I don’t mean to disparage this novel. The author told a deeply felt version of an important event and she includes great references at the end which can lead readers to find the true story in between the fiction, if they, in fact, care. Writing historical fiction deserves truth. But in the end, as authors, we can only try our best. Editors, we need you!
Photo: Creative Commons, Bust of Sophie Scholl by Wolfgang Eckert
I very much enjoyed Jessica Lee's memoir, Turning, about swimming over the course of a year in fifty-two lakes in the Berlin area. Having visited the city for too brief a time back in 2019, I didn’t see much beyond the historic downtown, where I'd tried to retrace some of my dad's steps at the Luftwaffe headquarters and the Tiergarten. I'd tried to imagine him eighteen and in love with the promises of the Third Reich. But Berlin is more than the Second World War.
I'd been aware that the city had many lakes but had not realized how huge Berlin in fact is. (Population: 3.6 million and about 900 square km. That's about five times more people than Winnipeg and twice as spread out.) During (yet another!) covid-March, by googling the fifty-two lakes that the memoirist swam throughout all four seasons, I've extended my experience of Berlin.Jessica Lee interwove her personal life, environmental issues, and history with the actions of cycling and swimming. While I love swimming, I’m quite certain I could never break ice to swim in cold water. Lee is a much tougher swimmer than I could ever be, but I understood her need to prove something by swimming, having myself almost drowned as a youngster. I look forward to reading her newest book, Two Trees Make a Forest, which was on the Canada Reads list this past year and received the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Award for Nonfiction. Maybe if, or when, I visit Berlin again, I'd like to check out some of the lakes in Berlin and the surrounding Brandenburg area. She refers to a hiking trail, called 66 Seen Wanderung, that demands more research, too.
The book offered up a personal connection for me when her friend, Anne, starts singing, “Pack die Badehose ein.” (page 245). It’s a 1950s hit about swimming in the Wannsee, and was my dad’s favourite tune as we headed out to beaches here in Manitoba back when I was young. Such a nostalgic earwig!
A memorable line comes near the end when she heads to a forest area filled with war memories: “But in Halbe I’m reminded that the landscape remembers even as it grows over.” (page 260). Travel. I remember it fondly, but I’m determined to appreciate the opportunity of not travelling, too. Reading is a great travel substitute.
The illustrations in this book, set on the prairies are full of deep, rich colours, always highlighting that 'land of the living sky' . . . so aptly expressed on Saskatchewan’s vehicle license plates.
The spread with the British flag on the schoolhouse especially resonates with me. What a British-influenced education it was for Canadian immigrant children, even in the more recent sixties. Along with the images, the actual words are emotive and insightful. My favourite ones: "But Josepha's face darkened. Lightless as the window in his family's sod shack . . . " and then, "This was the way for all of them, those older ones. One year, shamed. Maybe two. And then they'd be gone from class. They'd be gone forever." I should pay more attention to picture books. Why should they be only for kids?
Volunteering with EAL students helps me appreciate the vulnerabilities of current immigrants and this picture book reminded me that shaming is current and that it can be crippling. No doubt shame has also impacted the Residential School survivors . . . with a history of being outcasts in their own country and it continues to be felt by newcomers who are, on the one hand, grateful to Canada for a safe life, but then shamed by their ‘otherness.’ Now, with the pandemic, there is a subtle shaming and discriminating against Asians, even here. Our country has opened its door to immigrants but we, as individuals, must be on guard not to let misguided fear close our hearts. The subtleness of shaming makes it a powerful and painful weapon. Some royal watchers might agree.
In their zeal to create a perfect nation, the Nazis not only wanted to control race, but they also wanted to control hereditary diseases. In January, 1934, the Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseases came into effect, with amendments made in 1935, forcing doctors to expose any patients with reportable conditions. A court would then order sterilization.
People with possibly inherited deafness, homosexuality, anxiety and depression, bipolar, schizophrenia and a variety of other 'deviations', including epilepsy, were “to be rendered incapable of procreation.” But Nazi Germany was not the only country intent on forced sterilization. Eugenics was popular throughout the twentieth century in many parts of the world and it has always been the most vulnerable who’ve been at risk.
The consequence of an ill-timed seizure becomes a turning point in Tainted Amber, but it didn’t have to be. After all, the seizures in my family members have not prevented them from living full lives. During Epilepsy Awareness Month, I hope more people stop stigmatizing anyone who’s had seizures. We’re all worthy of life and love, and procreation should be a personal decision, not mandated by the zeal of a government focused on their idea of perfection.
I’ve got a young adult in the house studying advertising and she’s made me aware of how ubiquitous slogans are. The right slogan is marketing gold. I grew up with The Pepsi Generation and its main competitor, It’s the Real Thing. Then there were a variety of catchy phrases for breakfast cereals like Snap, Crackle, Pop and the sexual ones like Strong Enough for a Man, but made for a Woman (deodorant).
Politicians and social movements know the power of slogans too. Obama: Yes We Can; Trump: Make America Great Again; 20th Century communists: Workers of the World, Unite; War Veterans: Lest We Forget; Hippies: Make love, not war; People of colour: Black Lives Matter.
Other slogans were simply cruel. There was the sarcastic: Arbeit Macht Frei (work gives freedom) in most of the death and labour camps or the Jedem das Seine (to each his own) at the Buchenwald camp.
Back in the thirties, Hitler rallied the German people at massive gatherings with pomp, ceremony and with catchy slogans. Can we even remember the energy of a crowd in these isolating pandemic times? Our current slogan is Stay Home if you’re Sick! Still, ideas continue to spread, now through social media. In Tainted Amber, I explore how people became contaminated by the power of the Nazi slogans . . . almost like a virus.
Photo: Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-04481B / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Over the years, I’ve re-watched The Sound of Music as a school musical (one daughter got to know and love the songs), as a dress-up, sing-a-long at the old Globe Theatre in downtown Winnipeg, and as a performance at Rainbow Stage . . . where I got to bring a carload of seniors, excited like teenagers at the evening out. I think that’s what I loved so much about the musical . . . it was for all ages.
I suppose the most powerful Sound of Music experience for me was during the time I waited on tables in the Berchtesgaden area (half an hour from Salzburg) and regularly hiked the hills that the film opens up with. I turned twenty out there during a student work program and spent the afternoon of my birthday walking in Maria’s footsteps, traipsing through alpine meadows and feeling on top of the world.
Hitler’s mountain wasn’t far away. I could see it when the clouds weren’t hanging too low. Back then, I was still too young, too inexperienced, to have more than a glimmer of understanding about how the war had scarred the world and also my own family. But even then, I was quite aware that evil minds appreciate beauty as much as good minds do. In that perfect landscape, where “the hills are alive with the sound of music,” Nazis nurtured plots of world domination and destruction. If evil can lurk in such beauty, the reverse must be true. Goodness can be found in the ugliest corners of our world.
I never found any edelweiss on my meanderings, nor the blue alpine flower called enzian—although I often served the Enzian Schnapps made from its roots. I’d like to go back. In the meantime, maybe I’ll just listen to Christopher Plummer singing Edelweiss. Wait, he didn’t actually sing it, did he? That makes him and the song even more endearing.
Canada is a country of immigrants and so on I Read Canadian Day, I think it’s important to ask what we’re reading. I know that I sorely missed my own ‘Canadian’ reflection in the books I read as a child. Now, when I volunteer with immigrants, I recognize that there’s an inevitable lag in reading one’s own story in mainstream literature. After all, many immigrants come here seeking economic improvement and becoming an author is no guarantee of financial stability. Others come to Canada as refugees . . . like my parents did in the 1950s. Writing memoirs wasn’t on the top of their to-do list either. They had a language to learn and travel debts to pay off. (Yes, refugees coming to Canada had to repay the boat trip.)
Immigrant parents like mine, regarded literature as ‘brotlose kunst’ (bread-less art). It was beyond my family’s comprehension that I would study literature for eight years at university.
When it comes to reading Canadian there might be a necessary generation gap before telling the stories of the immigrant population that makes up modern Canada. And, the First Nations of this land, robbed of their very identity, have also only just begun to use our book-method of telling stories. I appreciate that I Read Canadian Day is more about the struggling publishing world than it is about the empowerment of readers through stories. Balanced financial books are a prerequisite for a thriving publishing scene. But on this I Read Canadian Day, I want to reach out to those still unpublished, perhaps unwritten or even untold, stories that lurk in our diverse population.
By the way, this week I’ve been reading Marsha Skrypuch’s book, Don’t Tell the Enemy. It’s about how Ukrainians were murdered by Germans. Marsha comes from the Ukrainian background, I come from the German background. Here we are, in Canada, on I Read Canadian Day, telling the stories that our extended families handed down to us. I've also recently read two other books telling stories written by children of post-Second World War immigrant Canadians. Michelle Barker's My Long List of Impossible Things and Secrets in the Shadows by fellow Ronsdale author, Heige Boehm.
This is what Canada has given us . . . on I Read Canadian Day . . . I am grateful for international, intergenerational Canadian stories.
I shared a book once with my mom and serendipity tingled through me when she recognized a face on its cover. “That’s Sofie!” she’d exclaimed, pointing at the pretty little girl in the middle. “She’s my cousin!” That was back in 2004.Sofie and my mom had last seen each other in 1930 when the collectivization process tore their young lives apart. Long story short, the two cousins reconnected through an exchange of letters more than seventy years later.
Sofie had spent years in Siberian exile and finally made Omsk her home and that’s where she died a couple of years after their reunion. By then the two women had caught up on each other’s amazing lives.
My mom had me send her a castoff fur coat and in one of the letters that my mom dictated and I wrote, she said,
“Tell her I have running water—right here in the house. Write that.”
“Mom? Really?” I hesitated. Doesn’t everyone have water?
“Tell her that,” Mom repeated. “Tell her I have hot and cold water. And tell her that I have a warm bed. Write that down!"
So I did.
Now we have a pandemic and we’re grumbling about all the restrictions. And it's cold! Really cold. But hey, we still have hot and cold water. (At least here in the cities . . . First Nations might still struggle for this basic need.) And I’m always grateful for a warm bed. Winters are cold here after all . . . just like in Siberia. Right, Mom? I'm grateful not to be homeless here in Canada.
When those cousins were little girls they had no idea that they’d reconnect through books. Don Miller wrote about the kulak repression in Soviet Ukraine and I wrote a children’s story about a kulak orphan.
Without those photos, I might never have understood my own family history.
For ten years now, I’ve been privileged to belong to a talented, dynamic and diverse writing group. We’ve been a nest of fledglings, each trying to find our writing wings. Until the pandemic, we’d meet in person at our favourite local bookstore, McNally Robinson on Grant Avenue, here in Winnipeg. Now we meet twice a month via zoom. From fledglings to soaring eagles and everything in between we have supported each other as we practice becoming the writers we want to be.
And to carry this bird metaphor a bit farther, if I dare, we’re each turning into unique birds with different strengths, interests and directions. While the early bird might get the worm, we’re not all into eating worms and so we don’t judge or compare. We appreciate how fragile and sensitive birds and writers are to the elements of life and watch out for the sly, bad cat of doubt and defeatism that sometimes likes to stalk us.
Our group fluctuates at eight or nine members—each of us with different backgrounds and writing ambitions. We’ve got a hodgepodge of birds in our nest . . . although we might have all once looked like similar eggs. We’ve hatched, or are still hatching, into bold blue jays, noisy woodpeckers, chipper chickadees, or even shy sparrows.
This February, the month celebrating Canadian books, I’d like to celebrate the birds in my local writing nest. They’ve produced dozens of excellent books . . . from nonfiction to middle grade, YA and picture books, The Anitas have flown high. And we’re still flying. Seems like when one’s down, another is just becoming airborne and so we continue to look out for each other.
During February, this month of hearts, I’d like to share my appreciation to my writing support group. You’ve been there for me through the lows and the highs and I wish every writer the same kind of supporting nest that I’ve been graced to call my writing home.
During I Read Canadian Month, I want to highlight these books by some of my favourite Manitoba authors. Family of Spies, Coop the Great, Lost on the Prairie, Relationships Make the Difference, Enslavement, Hokey Dowa and the Snowflake Girl, Mr. Jacobson’s Window. And a shout-out also to a former member's YA book, Empty Cup.
Mom was into reducing, reusing and recycling long before it became trendy. Clothes were patched and re-patched. Nothing was thrown out. Dres...