Records of the Past and Future
- Jeffrey Shandler (Editor)
Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland Before the Holocaust. Yale University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Yvonne M. Hébert (Editor)
Citizenship in Transformation in Canada. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Norman Ravvin
The approach to European Jewish history in Awakening Lives provides a welcome counter-narrative to much Holocaust-related scholarship. The subject of the 15 autobiographies included in the volume is pre-war Polish Jewish life, about which the common reader knows too little. This situation renders the commonly repeated injunction to remember the dead an empty cliché. If we have little appreciation of who the dead were, how can their memory be invoked at all?
The source of Awakening Lives is a fascinating set of contests run by YIVO (The Vilna-based Institute for Jewish Research) in 1932, 1934 and, miraculously, in 1939. Competitors aged 16 to 22 were asked to submit autobiographical manuscripts, “in the language most convenient,” detailing their
family, war years, teachers, schools and what they gave you. Boyfriends, girlfriends, youth organizations, [political] party life, and what they gave you. How you came to your occupation . . . . What events in your life made the greatest impression on you.
This call for autobiographical writing was largely motivated by YIVO’s sociological and statistical aims, and by an effort to understand a generation of youth “that either assimilated, emigrated, or flocked to political organizations, particularly Zionist ones.” The motive behind all this was to contribute to an understanding of the difficulties experienced by the era’s Jewish youth, and to find ways of affirming “Jewish rootedness in Eastern Europe.”
Of the 627 autobiographies received— most in Yiddish—Awakening Lives includes 15 varied documents. All are striking in their detail, uniqueness, and the variety of experience they portray as indicated in two summaries offered by the editor:
S. Etonis. Invasions during the World War. Traditional kheyder vs. the progressive shule. Mother’s death. Smuggling goods at the Russian border. Yeshiva. Homesickness . . . . Reading forbidden literature . . . . Eter. A rabbi’s daughter. Polish elementary school. A community feud. The commercial gymnasium. Work as a tutor. Self-education. Zionist politics. A poem by Julian Tucwim.
Anthropologist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, in collaboration with Marcus Moseley and Michael Stanislawski, provides Awakening Lives with an excellent ethnographic introduction, accounting for YIVO’s goals, and the contribution these autobiographies make to our appreciation of pre-war life. As the introduction asserts, the “audience for works on the destruction of Polish Jewry still far outpaces the audience for works on the history and culture of this community before its demise.” Awakening Lives is a singular contribution to the effort to right this imbalance.
Whereas Awakening Lives presents a picture of a society before its near complete destruction, Citizenship in Transformation in Canada addresses society on the verge of renewal. According to Yvonne Hébert, the volume’s editor, citizenship is “in transfor- mation, its meaning is expanding, and interest in the subject is exploding.” In this collection of essays, sociologists, historians, educators, community activists, and government officers put forward their notions of what citizenship in Canada has meant, and which social and educational policies best promote a healthy model of citizenship.
Citizenship in Transformation in Canada presents the impact of different constituent groups on this discussion. Veronica Strong- Boag’s essay focuses on the impact of early feminist and First Nations challenges to the Canadian political mainstream. Historian Harold Troper contributes a characteristically readable and sensible discussion of Toronto’s post-war transformation into “a patchwork of contiguous ethnic villages.” This transformation is all the more impressive for the fact that before World War II there was “little or no room in the dominant Canadian public imagination for urban-bound immigrants, especially non- Anglo-Saxon immigrants.” Troper examines a number of contributors to this transformation, including human rights legislation, which gained worldwide momentum after 1945, alongside the articulation of multicultural policy in the early 1970s. Troper’s general view is upbeat, as he argues that “immigrants and immigration are central to the emerging definition of ‘Canadian,’ especially in urban Canada.”
A darker view of Canadian citizenship is offered by Marie Battiste and Helen Semaganis in their “First Thoughts on First Nations Citizenship: Issues in Education.” From the Aboriginal perspective, they argue, “citizenship education is another manifestation of cognitive imperialism, another artificial category that renders the Aboriginal peoples and their perspectives invisible.” An alternative vision of society, they suggest, would put the stress upon “wholeness and relationships, particularly the responsibilities among families, clans, communities, and nations.” Citizenship in Transformation in Canada succeeds at bringing a broad range of divergent views into counterpoint.
- Narratives of Community by Brad Neufeldt
Books reviewed: kwayask ê-kî-pê-kiskinowâpahtihicik / Their Example Showed Me the Way: A Cree Woman's Life Shaped by Two Cultures, told by Emma Minde by Freda Ahenakew and H. C. Wolfart, Voices From Hudson Bay: Cree Stories From York Factory by Flora Beardy and Robert Coutts, and Winisk: A Cree Indian Settlement on Hudson Bay by Vita Rordam
- National Pasts, Posts, and Futures by Robert Zacharias
Books reviewed: Canada: Images of a Post/National Society by Gunilla Florby, Mark Shackleton, and Katri Suhonen, Global Realignments and the Canadian Nation in the Third Milennium by Karin Ikas, and National Plots: Historical Fiction and Changing Ideas of Canada by Andrea Cabajsky
- Breaking Out of the Lens by Deena Rymhs
Books reviewed: Hollywood's Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film by John E. O'Connor and Peter C. Rollins and Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing by Simon Ortiz
- How to Be Here by Allison Calder
Books reviewed: Goodlands: A Meditation and History on the Great Plains by Frances W. Kaye and Man Facing West by Don Gayton
- Performances by Charles Barbour
Books reviewed: Norman Bray in the Performance of his Life by Trevor Cole and On Human Nature: A Gathering Where Everything Flows by Kenneth Burke
MLA: Ravvin, Norman. Records of the Past and Future. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #187 (Winter 2005), Littérature francophone hors-Québec / Francophone Writing Outside Quebec. (pg. 168 - 169)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.