Short Memories: Thoughts on Complicity

We have short memories.

They are selective. One of the running jokes in my family is my mother’s ability to recall how she dressed me on a certain fall day twenty-nine years ago, but not what we discussed five minutes ago. It is funny, then – innocuous things remembered, or simply gone. We would worry about incipient Alzheimer’s, except that she has been this way as long as I’ve known her.

Family memory works similarly. There’s an old story about how we ended up here, in the US, in an indefinite exile that turned into a permanent one. My great-grandfather’s cousin, or brother, or friend, depending on the rendition, had revolutionary sympathies. He may or may not have been part of a pro-independence organization once known for its terroristic tactics.

He was a kid.

He was pushed up against a wall and shot by authorities trying to protect the population from itself. The rest of the family got on a boat. We have not forgotten being marked, by our religion and accent, name and complexion. The injustice of it all colored my youth. For nearly a century after my ancestral homeland achieved independence, I avoided visiting the former colonial power, convinced that it would be unpleasant for people like me, and shocked when it was quite the opposite.

We remember the wrong of 1900. We remember what it was like to be marked as Other, and killed for the difference. Then we act like it only happened to us. We remember being perversely special, exceptional in our oppression. We forget in an instant that our Otherness was passed to other groups. We gave it to them, gleefully, when we walked into City Halls and police forces, and then we held the difference that we bestowed over the heads of the perversely special. We can’t let it go.

We have short memories.

My father was one of too many children. He was poor. His father was an abusive alcoholic. His mother was a saint. My father remembers being spat upon as a child, because he was destitute, and because he was the wrong ethnicity. His particular family misery was never individual. Too many kids, too much drink, too much abuse, too much foreign.

My mother’s mother had children out of wedlock. Everyone knew it. At school, my mother had to “confess” why she and her siblings needed a turkey from a religious benevolent organization. Her father, in one of her fuzzy memories of him, told her that she was a mongrel. She lived in a public housing project whose brutalities nobody escaped. She worried about making us look respectable, moved us to an all-white neighborhood, and cried when I took a Black boy to my first school dance. When my sisters and I were teenagers, she was always convinced that we might be pregnant – that we would be marked, again, by our origins.

My father almost never drinks. He moved us to a neighborhood where the white people are his white people, so he wouldn’t be the only one. By then, though, they all identified us with the racially-mixed place I’d grown up, and with its people of color – so the kids would hiss “Blackawanna” when I walked past.

My mother frowns at women who have children with different fathers. She shops at the second-fanciest grocery store in town, to appear afloat but not pretentious. She volunteers, like a proper middle-class white lady from the suburbs. When told her that I had found information about her muddy family history, she was overjoyed. When I told her what it was, she pretended not to hear me. When the pastor of the Baptist church where her great-great grandfather had preached told her – gently – that the congregation and its preachers had always been Black, she smiled. “No, we’re white.”

They have short memories. Or long ones. I’m never sure.

I was home for Christmas. My mother was talking about one of the women at the shelter where she works – a Black woman pregnant with her ninth child. My father shook his head. “Those people would be much better off if they’d stop having so many children.” I stared. I called him out. His mother had been one of “those people,” a generation ago. He conceded, that time. But he still doesn’t see it – how we got to be white. How we yanked the ladder up behind us.

My brother, who is affable, works in a prison. He looks like a cop. He believes that the people in his jail put themselves there. He feels bad for them, but he thinks that the justice system works. I want to ask him about our great-great-grand-uncle, and if the system worked when he was shot against a wall because of his religion, and his accent, and his complexion, but I know that he wouldn’t see the connection.

We have long memories, but they only work backwards.

We have short memories. We walk through the streets unmolested, because we know that nobody will shoot us like they shot great-great-grand-uncle. We remember our ancestral injustice and carry it like a banner of protection. It isn’t a very roomy cloak, but we’ll be grateful for it when we see the ones without it being shot in the streets, or strangled. We remember our roots, then get too entangled in them to see out. We forget that our root ball connects to a tree, or a water source, or even the soil. It’s just us, underground, blind to what we’re perpetuating.

Beersick for Home

The recovery drink of champions!

The recovery drink of champions!

I’ve been drinking a bit more beer than usual, lately. I blame the hot, humid, Hudson Valley weather, I guess, but also that, since my partner finally came out as an occasional beer drinker, I’ve been picking up the odd six-pack to keep in the fridge – Allagash, Shipyard… that kind of thing. Now that she’s travelling abroad for a few weeks, I have the beer all to myself and, not incidentally, more inclination to imbible. If you’ve ever been in love, you understand the truth of the old adage, “absence makes the heart grow thirstier.”

Hell, I had three – count ’em – beers yesterday alone! If you know anything about me, you’ll know that that’s a lot more alcohol than I usually drink in one 24-hour period, considering that it usually takes me no more than two beers, two glasses of wine, or two cocktails to get me blind-stinking drunk. Yeah… I’m a cheap date.

All of this boozing has had me thinking about the beers of my hometown, Montréal, especially since today is the Fête de la Saint-Jean, the national holiday of Québec (and although I am a Tête Carré, I am un vrai bloke Québécois de souche!). I really miss the beers of home.



I miss the crispness of a frotsy Belle Gueulle Pilsner on a hot summer night. I miss the hoppy-yeasty-ness of a Boréale Rousse. I miss seeing the bear label in windows of Brasseries advertising Boréale within. I even miss the way the ship on the Molson (Export) label looks like an Armadillo when you see it sideways (for example, with your head on a beer-soaked tabletop).

Some of my real favourites are brewed by the McAuslan brewery down on St-Ambroise street in the St-Henri district in the West End of Montréal. (Yeah… I’m an Anglo. The West End is my little patch of home.) The brewery is just to the right of Courcelle street, when you fly down the hill from NDG and Westmount to the Lachine Canal bike path. So many times I’d be riding back with my buddies Marlene, Henry, Gustavo and Tim from a metric, or a century or some other long hot ride to Rigaud, Hudson or wherever, and we’d pass the brewery and I’d want a beer. ‘Stavo would invariably opine that “beer is a great recovery drink.” And there would be a Saint Ambroise Pale Ale or Griffon Rousse in my immediate future.

When I organized a cyclo-cross team at Martin Swiss Cycles in 2001 (the Martin Swiss Cyclo-cross Experience), McAuslan was one of our main sponsors. They didn’t give us money — they paid their sponsorship fee in beer. That was fine with us. There is a long and storied relationship between cyclo-cross and beer, and since we would probably have spent a fair bit of the money on beer anyway (the shop’s Friday night closing time in the pit… with beer…), it was a fair bargain.

We did a few races in the US, where we arrived with our sponsor’s product, and afterward, many of our rivals would ooh-and-ahh over the cases of IPA and McAuslan’s absolutely brilliant oatmeal stout. (I will go on record here and say that it is far, far superior even to Guinness.) If we had distributed the beer before the races, we might have had a better record.

As it turns out, one of the hardest things about living in exile (“un Canadien errant…”) is missing all of the comforting flavours of home, whether it’s Montreal bagels, poutine, those nasty maple-sugar cones that you can buy at Atwater market in springtime, or Montreal beer. There are sources for Montreal bagels in New York, and we have explored some in Brooklyn. We have even located a source for cheese curds – Beecher’s – at the corner of 20th and Broadway, allowing us to improvise some pretty credible (and creditable) poutine with instant vegetarian gravy. (Incidentally, most authentic Montréal poutine is actually made with instant mushroom gravy.)

But the beer thing is a problem. We (Canadians) all know just how bad American beer can be. Bud, Miller, Pabst… these are all well known among us as “sex in a canoe” (fucking near water). Even at their worst – whach can be pretty bad – the commercial offerings from Labatt and Molson at least have some flavour.

Chamberlain Pale Ale

Chamberlain Pale Ale

Having said that, there are good beers from small brewers, like Harpoon, Stone, Allagash and pseudo-small brewers like Sam Adams, of course. A tour of the Shipyard Brewery in Portland, ME, last summer was an eye-opener. Monkey Fist was a bit too hoppy for me (it’s an American IPA, after all), the Chamberlain Pale Ale, with the likeness of Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain on the label, was (as my father would say) the stuff. My partner was charmed by Pumpkin Head and, in season, Apple Head. Clearly, the canoe has beached.

Like any ex-pat, however, I do miss the libations of my homeland. I’m not talking about Molson, or Labatt Blue, or any of that other foreign-owned, homogenized, industrial swill. As an old drinking buddy once affirmed – Labatt is fine for your third beer, when you can’t taste it anymore, and the point is to get shteezed. (Suffice it to say, I rarely get to the point when Labatt 50 becomes acceptable.)

I’m talking about the small brewery beers. The ones with a griffon, bear, or buraq (look it up) on the label. You can get the Chambly beers here – La Maudite, Fin du Monde, etc. – but they’re from Chambly! Besides, I never really cared for them, anyway (too strong… too sweet… too self-consciously Trappist). But that’s it. For some reason, no other small, Canadian and Québecois brewers have penetrated the American market. It is a measure of my unrealistic expectations that I walk into almost every beer-retailer I pass at least once, hoping to find what I need to quench my homesick thirst. All I see are La Maudite and Fin du Monde – good in a pinch, I guess – but they’re not my beers. They are not the ones that make me think of Balconville and bonfires in June and the Jazz Festival and rides across the Estacade.

Bonne Fête1

Bonne Fête!

So here I am, on Saint Jean, missing beer. I am as beersick on this holiday as I am homesick. As a great Canadian singer once noted, “you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.” So, my Montréalais(e) friends — tonight, please raise a glass of one of our beers to salute the holiday. Think of me, and every other exiled Montréaler. Sing a song in French and toast our eventual returns.

Bonne Fête, mes amis. Je vous souviens!

On Shaming Seven-Year-Old Fame-Sluts: A Rant on Rape Culture, Revisited

I don’t know what kind of a person Woody Allen is. Actually, I don’t even believe in “kinds” of people – you know, racists, sexists, rapists, good, bad, ugly. I have seen people I otherwise like engage in awful behavior, and people I find difficult have impressed me with unexpected acts of kindness. So let me rephrase it like this: I don’t know what Woody Allen has done, aside from his work in cinema. I find some of it compelling, and some of it boring, and some of it self-indulgent.

Allen’s talent was initially a large part of what some internet commentators are disingenuously calling a “controversy” over his daughter Dylan Farrow’s accusations of sexual abuse. (If you are somehow unaware of this, come out from under your rock and do a quick Google search.)

At first, the issue was whether one can appreciate the films of a sexual predator. (We’ve been here before, with Roman Polanski and similarly ambiguous conclusions). We were asked to contemplate whether Woody Allen deserved his Lifetime Achievement award at the Golden Globes, following tweets from two members of the Farrow clan excoriating the decision to honor him. The world seemed focused on the moral conundrum of praising a flawed genius, or supporting the work of a likely criminal, who was investigated but never charged. It was about the man and his actions. For some, it was an assault on his character, whether it was merited or not.

Then, after Dylan Farrow wrote an open letter to the New York Times, the dialogue turned from Allen-shaming to slut-shaming. The problem is, one can’t easily slut-shame a seven-year-old, even when she becomes a grown woman. So it is open season on her memory, and her maternal family’s visibility.

Attacks on the Fallacious Farrows have been most pointed at the Guardian, where Suzanne Moore writes off the social-media discussion of the case as little more than an ill-informed “kangaroo court.” Michael Wolff suggests that entire situation was manufactured by the Farrow family to improve their profile and return them to the ranks of Real Celebrity. Even Dylan’s first-person account, Wolff argues, is carefully crafted to appeal to famous young women who will provide public (read: impersonal) moral support in return for some undefined increase in their own popularity. He says that Dylan’s story has resurfaced at a convenient moment for the careers of her mother and brother, and that her allies are swayed by emotion rather than “outside facts” – whatever those would look like.

Neither journalist is accusing her of lying; they’re just telling her that her story only matters in its ability to make and break public lives.

All of these might well be valid philosophical points, and the extreme culturalist in me wants to acknowledge them. All the while, the extreme feminist in me is trying to scream louder than the cacophony of Allen defenders and Farrow detractors. BULLSHIT. BULL FUCKING SHIT, and please don’t pardon my language.

It is the same routine we see nearly every time anyone comes forward with their story of sexual assault. I haven’t yet heard anyone questioning Dylan’s own morals, but that is a small victory. Instead, they are calling out her mother’s family history, mental health, and public profile. They are finding fault in her brother’s recent ascent to the fishbowl. They can’t very well say that a seven-year-old child was drunk at the frat party, or call her a slut, so they use other words so often used to dismiss women’s complaints to undercut those around her. Crazy. Manipulative. Fame-obsessed. Desperate.

It is another way to silence people we find inconvenient. When we insist that the voices in question are coming from people who are mentally unstable (in itself, another rant for another day), who have another agenda, or who are vindictive, their complaints can’t be legitimate, and we don’t have to listen to them. Telling the Farrows not to mar a supposedly brilliant director’s career because they are barmy third-rate celebrities – or, as it seems now, telling the Farrows that they are lying because barmy third-rate celebrities couldn’t possibly have real grievances against a supposedly brilliant director – is part of an old refrain. Don’t talk back to Holy Father. Don’t ruin the young man’s life. Don’t destroy his football (lacrosse, soccer, hockey, accounting) career. Don’t hurt your mother. Don’t you know what kind of pain this would bring upon your family? Don’t tell anyone, and if you do, nobody will believe you anyway.

It takes a good deal of courage to speak up. I imagine that it takes even more to do so knowing that every word will be subject to media scrutiny, amplified by Facebook and Twitter.

If you have a vagina, or your parts don’t conform to your soul, or you are brown, or you act in any way that the herd finds difficult, you probably know what I am talking about. (I am not saying that normative white men can’t understand this, because I know many normative white men who are compassionate, caring, and capable of great empathy… but they also tend to be aware that they’re playing with a stacked deck.) I am sure every person reading this has experienced a moment in which your words were taken with a heaping tablespoon of salt because you were  _________ (insert adjective describing other-ness here). Those with vaginas and melanin and non-normative gender identities don’t get a free pass here, though, because we vagina-wearers and non-normative folks are often as guilty as anyone else of slut-shaming, crazy-calling, and manipulation-card-waving.

This is not about determining whether Woody Allen raped his daughter. There were two people in that room. There are no other witnesses. There are no “outside facts.” This is about allowing people to recount their stories of victimization (which is not the same as victimhood) AND TAKING THEM SERIOUSLY.

We could have a long academic conversation about memory and celebrity, or the relationship between narrative and political investment. We could interrogate the idea of consent. But today those things make me feel like we’re running around the problem and allowing its perpetuation. When we question Dylan Farrow’s narrative, we’re not just circling the wagons around the perpetrator. We’re telling another generation of women (and many men) to sit down, shut up, and hide their pain. Don’t ruin a beloved person’s life. Be a good girl and take it.

We can’t know what happened in that room. We don’t know what happened in a billion other rooms on a billion other days to billions of other people. But we can at least try to create a safe space for telling, because while silence is painful, pushing back against the crushing, relentless public doubt that greets a broken silence is much, much worse.

Joe: A Remembrance

 I marked Remembrance Day in 2010 by sharing the story of my father’s experiences in the Second World War with my friends on Facebook, in the form of a day-long series of status updates. I shared the whole narrative again in 2011, and I present it here, revised and expanded. Through this story, I remember the generation Canadian men and women who served, their sacrifices and their valour. I believe that we serve the cause of peace by remembering the horror and hardships of war and the courage of the men and women who served.

This is my act of remembrance.


Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

Early in 1943, Joe Friedman informed his parents that he was going to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. There was a war on, with opportunities for excitement and glory, and as far as he was concerned the question was not open for debate. However, as he was only 17, Joe needed his parents’ permission to enlist. His mother refused.

Joe did what any headstrong teenager would have done: he lied about his age at the enlistment office. Dorothy Friedman, horrified at the thought of losing her son to the war and in any event never inclined to take challenges to maternal authority lightly, was livid. She was determined to set things right and expose his lie to the Air Force recruiter.

Undaunted, Joe announced that if he could not join the Air Force he would enlist in the merchant navy instead. Having lost more than 100 ships in the North Atlantic convoy in 1943 alone, the most dangerous service was desperate for manpower and would be willing to overlook the fact that Joe was only 17. His mother gave in.

Joe’s enlistment in the RCAF was actually something of a foregone conclusion. Canadian resolve had not weakened after four years of war. The CBC’s Lorne Green – the “voice of doom” – intoned that “there is a job to be done,” while Nelvana of the Northern Lights and Johnny Canuck showed how good old Canadian pluck would ALWAYS defeat Nazi villainy, at least in the comic books.

The Air Force gave a youth from the dirty streets of Montreal’s Mile End district the opportunity to seek adventure and see the world. For a Jewish teenager, it also offered empowerment – a chance to get back at Nazi anti-Semitism. 20,000 Jewish Canadians served in the Second World War, a number exceeding their proportion of the Canadian population and in numbers far outstripping the national average.

In any event, Joe had the examples of his older brothers Melvin and Jack, and his older sister Ruth to emulate. By 1943, all three had enlisted in the RCAF. A photo of all four ran in the Montreal Star with the caption, “The Fighting Friedmans.” By the summer of that year Joe, like his brothers and sisters and hundreds – if not thousands – of young men and women who had attended Montreal’s Baron Byng and Bancroft schools, was in uniform.

The Fighting Friedmans in 1943: Melvin, Ruth, Jack and Joe

It’s remarkable how quickly the RCAF molded teenage toughs like Joe into disciplined airmen. After a few weeks of basic training, Joe was assigned to RCAF Mont-Joli Station as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan for training as an air gunner. He excelled in his training, and by the winter of 1944 was sent overseas to Newfoundland with the rank of corporal to join the bomber crew of an Active Training Unit.

Shortly after his 19th birthday, in the summer of 1944, Joe was shipped to Britain for two months of operational training before finally being posted to a No. 195 Squadron, a composite RAF/RCAF unit based at RAF Wratting Common, as the tail-gunner in an Avro Lancaster Mk I bomber.

Mark Goldwater, an old schoolmate from Montreal who had dropped out of Sir George Williams University to join the RCAF, joined the crew as mid-upper gunner. The Flight Engineer was 19-year-old Sergeant Douglas Cullum from Waddon, Surrey. Flying Officer Norman Waring, from Caernarvon, Wales, joined the crew as bombardier. Sitting in the position behind the cockpit was the wireless operator Sergeant Bernard White of New Southgate, Middlesex. Flying Officer Richard Barry, a school teacher from Fredericton, NB was the navigator. Of the seven crewmen, four were still teenagers. The skipper, Robert Tait Roth, a graduate of Queen’s University in Kingston, ON,  was the “old man” at 24.

RAF Bomber Command suffered the highest casualty rate of any allied service in the Second World War. A bomber crewman had only a one in four chance of completing a 30-mission tour of duty without injury. He was almost twice as likely to be killed in action. Joe’s life expectancy when he joined his operational squadron in England was six weeks.

Bomber Command’s thousand-plane raids were organized partly in response to the bombers’ vulnerability to fighter attacks and the horrific casualties among bomber crews. There was strength in numbers, of course, but more importantly, with an expected 50% aircraft loss rate, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris reasoned that huge raids could still deliver massive destruction, regardless of the cost in aircrew lives.

Joe Friedman (bottom left) with his training unit crew, including Tait Roth (second from left, top) and Mark Goldwater (bottom right).

The tail-gunner’s turret was the most vulnerable position aboard a Lancaster. Although Joe was armed with four .303 machine guns, his odds of actually hitting a moving target from his unstable position were infinitesimally small. However, seated at the point from which the vast majority of German fighter attacks came, he was by far the most likely crew member to be killed or injured.

By November 1944, Joe had come out of three raids unscathed and was promoted to sergeant. The Luftwaffe was running out of fuel and had made the strategic decision to not deploy fighters to defend cities like Essen, Duisberg and Dusseldorf. They had already been repeatedly carpet-bombed into kindling and no longer had any value to the German war-effort.

The briefing for Joe’s fourth raid identified the target as Witten, a city of 50,000 in the Ruhr Valley which, to date, had not been bombed. However, there were very few cities of substantial size left unscathed by late-1944 and, in the interests of keeping up the war effort, Bomber Command chose to send almost 500 aircraft to obliterate the town’s small arms factory.

The raid began uneventfully as 500 Lancaster and Halifax bombers of more than thirty squadrons executed a flawless rendezvous en-route to the target. Each aircraft carried 14,000 lbs of high explosive and incendiary bombs and a crew of seven men. 3,500 Canadians and Britons were sent to drop 3,500 tons of explosives on 50,000 German civilians in the early hours of the morning of 12 December 1944.

The bombers encountered increasingly heavy anti-aircraft fire  as they approached the outskirts of Witten, flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet and a speed of 200 knots. As wave after wave broke from the main force and reduced speed to begin their bombing runs, they encountered unexpectedly stiff opposition from four Luftwaffe fighter squadrons.

Joe could see nearby bombers break formation, shudder, and sport plumes of black smoke as they were hit by enemy fire. Within minutes, his own ship banked into its bombing approach. The chatter on the intercom about incoming fighters was so thick and incomprehensible that the old man called for quiet. Joe scanned the brightening sky. He stopped breathing when he saw the fighter.

The Focke-Wulf 190 approached the Lancaster from behind and slightly to starboard. Joe squeezed off one burst of machine gun fire after another, but his target was too fast and too nimble. His turret suddenly dissolved in a cascade of broken glass and shards of steel as bursts of the fighter’s tracer fire and exploding 20mm cannon shells crashed into the bomber.

Joe felt the aircraft shudder. He could just make out the old man on the intercom over the howl of the wind order the crew to abandon ship.  The fighter’s attack had cut the hydraulic lines  so he had to laboriously crank the gun turret manually, climb into the fuselage and make his way to escape hatch. As Joe crawled along the gangway, he felt the Lancaster nose down and begin its death spiral.

The Lancaster’s tail-gunner was isolated half an aircraft away from the rest of the crew, and Joe had no idea if any of his comrades had bailed out successfully. What he did know was that the aircraft was ablaze and minutes from crashing to earth when he finally made it to the escape hatch. At that moment, he realized that he had forgotten to strap on his parachute in his panic.

Joe crawled back along the gangway. The aircraft was hit by another burst of cannon fire, which sent razor-sharp shrapnel into his head, arms and shoulders. Bleeding and in pain, his hands freezing, he clipped on his parachute, made his way back to the hatch and pushed. The steel door was bent and wouldn’t open. He pushed again and finally kicked it open with all of his strength and bailed.

The next day, Joe’s brother Melvin, stationed in Britain with the RCAF, received an Air Ministry telegram informing him that “F/SGT Friedman, J.A. has been reported missing in action.” The week that followed was extraordinarily difficult for the Friedman family. While they knew there was hope (about 10% of aircrew reported missing were later found in POW camps) the hope was faint and the waiting was agony.

Joe remained missing for several days and was officially presumed dead until a Red Cross inspection team located him in a German transit camp in late December, 1944. His mother received the welcomed news in a telegram that arrived on 19 December 1944. The last day of Chanukah.

Neither Rose and William Goldwater, nor the families of Joe’s other crewmates would learn until 1946 that their sons were buried outside of Dortmund. They would be re-interred later that year at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Reichswald Forest War Cemetery in Kleve, Nordrhein.

POW index card, 1944.

Joe had parachuted to the outskirts of Witten. Badly injured and bleeding, he made a rough landing near a road. He dimly noticed two groups of Germans rushing toward him – a crowd of survivors from the city he had just bombed wanted revenge. A platoon of Wehrmacht soldiers approached from the other direction. The soldiers arrived first. By a matter of seconds.

Following his capture, Joe was taken to a German field hospital near Duisberg to have his injuries – shrapnel in the head and shoulders, multiple lacerations and burns – treated. From there, he was transferred to a Dulag Luft transit camp for interrogation. It was probably during this time that he contracted tuberculosis and was spotted by Red Cross officials.

Joe was finally transferred to Stalag Luft I, a Luftwaffe prison camp outside of the town of Barth, Pomerania that housed 9,000 captured allied airmen. The winter of 1944 was one of the coldest in memory, and Barth was two miles from the Baltic coast. On a rare clear day, you could see Sweden across the straits from the beach north of the camp. Assuming, that is, that you were outside the wire.

The camp was divided into four compounds, each housing around 2,000 prisoners. Joe was assigned to the West compound, in a 16’x24′ barracks room with 23 other POWs. The barracks were uninsulated clapboard shacks, and each room was heated with a single wood-burning stove – when there was wood to burn. With the nightly temperatures dropping below zero Fahrenheit, Joe learned to sleep in his clothes, like the old timers.

Roll call at Stalag Luft I.

The prisoners at Stalag Luft I were constantly hungry. The German government claimed to the Red Cross that every POW was fed 1200 calories per day, but in the last months of the war, with endemic food shortages throughout the Reich, expending even that level of resources on enemy airmen seemed excessive to German officials. In reality the prisoners at Barth were fed no more than 1000 or even 900 calories per day.

Meals usually consisted of bread heavily adulterated with sawdust, thin turnip or cabbage broth and, very occasionally, boiled potatoes. Joe developed a lifelong aversion to turnips. Prisoners could supplement their prison rations with their Red Cross packages – but only when those packages arrived without having been first pillaged by the starving German guards… or when they arrived at all.

German discipline was harsh. Virtually every infraction, from failing turn up for the many daily roll calls, or showing inadequate respect to a guard would result, at minimum, in a week or month in the cooler, a block of unheated brick and stone cells. Other infractions, like crossing the first line of fences, or remaining in the compound when ordered into barracks, were usually grounds for summary execution.

The line of fences at Stalag Luft I.

In many ways, however, the worst part of life in Stalag Luft I was the boredom. Young men like Joe found themselves removed from a life of daily peril, with bursts of intense excitement, to a carefully controlled and disciplined sedentary existence. By the time Joe arrived at the camp, the prisoners were under orders from their own offices to not event attempt escape.

For the most part, Joe played cribbage on boards fashioned out of wood scraps pulled from the walls of the rickety barracks buildings. He read, mostly late-romantic and Victorian poetry in books provided by the YMCA. Under the title “my favourite poem,” he copied Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the pages of his journal. A fellow prisoner drew an illustration.

The camp was also home to the POW WOW, the largest-circulation underground newspaper in Germany. Distributed with the warning “TO BE READ SILENTLY, QUICKLY AND IN GROUPS OF THREE,” the newspaper contained news gleaned from German newspapers, camp PA announcements and especially from BBC news broadcasts heard on the secret radio, built from smuggled parts and hidden in the North compound chapel’s altar.

POW WOW correspondents would secretly listen to the radio, transcribe news onto sheets of toilet paper, and hand them to a “compositor” who typed up the daily issue on legal-sized tissue paper, duplicated with carbons on a stolen typewriter. When carbon paper became scarce, the editorial team improvised their own by holding sheets of paper over kerosene lamps to coat them in oily soot.

Joe was always thinking of food. West Compound organized an Easter feast, collecting part of every man’s rations and Red Cross packages to make a corned-beef and liver-paste soup and bread pudding with raisins. But that was rare. Mostly, Joe copied recipes in his journal for imagined luxuries like Welsh rarebit, and daydreamed of the delicacies back home in Montreal, like the Laurier BBQ’s coconut cream pie.

The 14 April 1945 issue of POW WOW, reporting on Patton’s push into Saxony.

The prisoners at Stalag Luft I were in unusually good spirits by the middle of April 1945. Part of that might have been due to delirium caused by the reduction of prisoner rations to 800 calories per day. But the main cause was news – published in POW WOW – that Patton’s 3rd Army had driven into Saxony and the Western allies held a 100-mile front along the Elbe. The war, it seemed, would soon be over.

Joe also noticed that the camp guards were becoming increasingly tense and restless. The prisoners could faintly hear artillery fire and explosions from the east of Barth as the Red Army advanced into Eastern Pomerania. Most Wehrmacht units in the area had already been withdrawn toward Berlin, leaving the camp’s garrison to face the inevitable Soviet attack virtually alone.

On 30 April 1945, Oberst Warnstadt, the camp commandant, called the Senior Allied Officer, Col. Hubert “Hub” Zemke (USAAF) and his senior officers to the camp headquarters. Warnstadt had been ordered to evacuate the camp several hundred miles to the West to escape the advancing Red Army. Realizing that he was in an untenable position, the Oberst requested the prisoners’ cooperation.

Zemke refused. He knew that, after months of half rations, and with allied bombers pummeling every road in the Reich with bombs and rockets, the evacuation would be a death march. After conferring with his officers, Zemke informed the commandant that the prisoners would not leave the camp willingly. If Warnstadt insisted on an evacuation, he would have to use force.

The prisoners expected force. Facing capture by the Red Army, the camp guards had become increasingly aggressive and brutal in their treatment of the POWs. Zemke had secretly organized a prisoner strike force and had been stockpiling homemade explosives and knives for several weeks in the knowledge that German officers had been ordered to execute allied prisoners if necessary.

Ultimately, Warnstadt secretly agreed to surrender the camp to the POWs. At 8:00 pm, 30 April 1945, all prisoners were confined to barracks. At 10 pm, every light in the camp was turned off. The garrison quietly mustered at the West gate, and marched out of camp, leaving the gate unlocked. When Joe awoke on the morning of 1 May he and the other 9,000 prisoners found that they were alone in an unguarded camp.

The senior allied officers ordered the prisoners to remain within the camp to await liberation by the Red Army and set up a Military Police unit to maintain order within the camp. Crews tore down the barbed wire fences and Col. Zemke sent scouting patrols to the East to make contact with the Soviets and inform them that the camp was now in allied hands.

Col. Zemke (centre) with Gen. Marozil (second from left) and staff on 8 May 1945.

In the next few days, advanced units of Marshall Rokassofsy’s First Ukrainian Army entered Stalag Luft I. None stayed but Col. Zemke used the opportunity to send his officers back with them to locate the Soviet commander. Short of food, the POWs were becoming impatient. About 700 left the camp on their own, about a dozen were killed in the crossfire of the dying days of World War II.

Red Army Gen. Marozil officially liberated the camp on 4 May 1945. The Russians provided the POWs with flour, potatoes, eggs and about 100 head of cattle expropriated from nearby German homes and farms. The POWs ate well. The Russians provided entertainment and vodka. Overwhelmed by the sudden intake of food and alcohol, Joe and his comrades were quietly, violently sick… but ecstatic nonetheless.

Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945. The next day, B-17s of the 91st Bomber Group of the United States Army Air Forces began ferrying the liberated POWs to Britain as part of Operation Revival. Each aircraft carried a dozen passengers, and the evacuation took almost a week. Joe was one of the last Stalag Luft I POWs to be evacuated to Britain on 15 May 1945.

Malnourished and suffering from the lingering effects of tuberculosis, Joe was hospitalized in Britain before being debriefed by RAF Intelligence in June. Due to the scale of demobilization, he would not be able to return to Canada until September. Released from hospital in time for his 20th birthday, and retroactively promoted to Flying Officer, Joe relaxed in London, spending his back-pay.

He was repatriated to Canada in early September 1945. Joe spent a few weeks recuperating at a sanatorium in the Laurentians before returning to Montreal. He would be in uniform until the end of 1945. During that time, few Montreal restaurants would let him pay for his meals. Not even for the coconut cream pie at the Laurier BBQ.


As readers of this blog know, Joe Friedman died in the spring of 2012 in Montreal at the age of 86. He is buried in the National Field of Honour in Pointe Claire, Quebec, in the company of veterans of the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. There is a monument to peace a few metres from his final resting place.

Robert Tait Roth, Mark Goldwater, George Barry, Douglas Cullum, Norman Waring, and Bernard White are buried at the Reichswald Forest Cemetary in Kleve, Nordrhein, Germany.

To quote the lines from the “Ode of Remembrance:”

Sgt. Mark Goldwater, 1925-1944

F/O Robert Tait Roth, 1920-1944

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.



Originally posted 11 November 2012

Pressing Flowers

[I wrote this several months ago, as I was preparing to leave Paris. I had only accomplished a fraction of what I had planned to do during my year abroad, but the imminent digitization of many of my archives promised to make my academic life easier once I returned to the United States. It will be a convenient way to conduct research, but the prospect of working that way makes me unspeakably sad. I love my field in part because I get to interact with old things. Digital collections, for all their accessibility, just aren’t the same.]

I’m sitting in an archive. Today is one of those rare days when everything works – I arrived on time, the building was open, my documents were available. I have not had many of those days, here in France.

My documents are spread out in front of me, on a too-small table, threatening to crowd out the elderly researcher to my left. He’ll do the same to me as soon as I move.

With these pages, bits of information, figures, photos, and other flat things, I am trying to create a three-dimensional, living world. Some of the information jumps off the page – things related to China. Porcelain. Lacquer. Sometimes I go back to look over what I’ve read before, and the characters are dead again. I don’t always know how to revive them. Sometimes they haunt me. Maybe I haunt them.

Someone’s short brown hair is in the fold, almost one with the binding. I wonder how long it has been there, whether it is a relic or just the body-print of another researcher.

I suppose that’s a relic, too.

The document is a palimpsest of bodily leavings.

When they digitize it, I won’t see the hair.

The old-man smell, too, will disappear. I’ll forget that real people touched the paper. The dust won’t invade my nostrils.

Someone – a student, an overworked librarian – will scan it, too quickly, and fail to notice the black blotches and white patches that even technology can’t rectify. I will see it and skip over those parts. I’ll mourn their loss, but nobody will re-scan the original, because it will be “incommunicable,” locked in a temperature-controlled vault so that it can’t decompose too quickly.

The democratic, easily-accessible version won’t be legible.

Much of what I work with is illegible anyway. There are days when I can decipher one out of every hundred words, and when I come to the moment when the secretary changes, when suddenly the letters are shaped carefully and lovingly, as if to call my attention, I want to hug this being with the lovely handwriting.

Monsieur De La Tour had good penmanship. Monsieur Edan did not. Guess whose work I’ll be using more frequently.

I’m collecting pressed flowers. There is nothing essential here. Gather the dust, add water, shape it as I like, knowing it might fall apart, disintegrate, blow away.  Sometimes the documents themselves do. The archivist looks at me suspiciously when I return the book with its cover half gone and the pages crumbling. This is partly why they’re digitizing everything, to keep my American hands from destroying French patrimony.

It’s a strange irony – I’m trying to preserve this, or at least tell a story with it, and I’m killing it in the process.

Social Networking and the Ethics of “Friendship”

Social networking is a powerful medium. It has allowed me to reconnect with old friends with whom I had lost touch, even though we would never, or would rarely, have the opportunity to encounter each other in “real life.” It has also allowed me to connect with people whom I have never met but who, through the networks of friendship and acquaintance, I have found both delightful and interesting.

However, social networking friendships can be quite unlike off-line friendships in many ways and I am always a little uneasy about calling my Facebook contacts “friends.” Our affinities are sometimes somewhat superficial, and even if they go deeper I find that the modalities of social networking are such that we are sometimes willing to tolerate differences that would seriously strain what most of us would consider “friendship.”

I’m sure that most of us have, at some point in our lives, discovered that someone for whom we have great affection and respect holds opinions and convictions that we consider repulsive and reprehensible; not disagreements on religion, philosophy, politics or taste that we recognize as reasonable opinions, but serious differences. For example: think of the coworker who has always been kind and friendly, but who has deep homophobic views, or the relative who lets slip a bigoted comment at Thanksgiving, which you later learn is only the tip of a racist iceberg.

This is a profound ethical problem. Is it possible to call someone who holds repulsive beliefs a friend?  Even if that person is otherwise a decent, caring person? What is our responsibility; does our personal relationship legitimize our friends’ beliefs?

Like all ethical questions, these ones are not easy to solve and, for the most part, it’s common enough to find ways to simply not solve them by avoiding the issue: You don’t invite your racist friend to a dinner party where there will be Black or Asian guests. You don’t watch a John Waters movie with your homophobic cousin. You don’t talk politics with your reactionary uncle. Everyone I know has done this at some point. There might be an initial moment in which you assume your friend was just “kidding” or mistaken. Then, confident that reason will work, you try to engage with your friend to convince him that he’s wrong.

Hell, sometimes it even works. But not always – in fact, rarely. And then you are confronted with a choice: do you find a way to tolerate your friend’s intolerable opinions, making excuses along the way, do you minimize contact with your friend so you don’t have to think about it, or do you end the friendship? This can be an extremely thorny situation in “real life” because our connections are usually more than superficial. Your coworker is not going to go away, and your cousin will still turn up at Thanksgiving. Moreover, because of the complexity of our (real) social networks, how you answer the question will inevitably have consequences in your relationships with mutual friends.

On the other hand, we are ethically responsible for our friends’ beliefs. Our endorsement of our friends legitimizes them in the social gaze: “If Fred is a staunch anti-racist, but he’s friends with Bob, who always makes those comments about ‘kikes,’ then maybe Bob isn’t so bad.” We add our social capital not only to our friends, but also to their beliefs.

Moreover, by failing to confront or denounce repulsive beliefs we legitimize the false notion that everything is equal in the marketplace of ideas and that it all comes down to a question of personal preference. I’m not comfortable with that. While I can accept that which sports team you support or which political candidate you endorse might be a question of personal preference, I’m not willing to extend that to all other ideas.

At the end of the day, no one is hurt if you prefer the Yankees over the Mets and I won’t be offended if you take a little dig at me if I’m a Mets fan. (After all, Mets fans are used to it.) But that is not the case if you think that people with dark skin are inferior, that people who love differently are abominations who do not deserve rights, that women need to keep in their place, or that it is ever, ever okay to inflict violence on another human being. These are beliefs with very real human consequences and we are responsible for them through our relationships.

Social networking simultaneously diminishes and amplifies the ethical problem. On one hand, most of us recognize that our online “friends” are somehow not quite the same kind of friends as those we have offline. I have something like 300 “friends” on Facebook; I am fairly sure that I could not list 300 friends that I have in real life, even if the majority of them are on Facebook. And of those Facebook “friends,” I only ever pay attention to what a couple of dozen of them are doing and saying. Every now and then I look at my “friends” list and marvel at how many of them are people I don’t really know that well at all.

Yet, they are “friends” on Facebook, with my explicit endorsement. Their “friends” – particularly ones that we do not share – can connect them to me simply by paging through their “friends” lists or reading my occasional comments on the Timelines, or theirs on mine. Sometimes, this leads to serendipitous connections, like when a “friend” of a “friend” discovers that we have certain affinities.

However, there is also peril because a billion Facebook users can see that I have a “friend” who believes that Barack Obama is a communist, or that Global Warming is a conspiracy and its okay to foul the environment, or that it is perfectly legitimate to inflict violence on people you don’t like… and then conclude that I’m okay with it.

But I’m not. And if I’m not okay with it I have an ethical responsibility to communicate that and refuse to legitimize ideas that I find abhorrent. So I have pruned my “friends” list. This is an awful lot more difficult than it sounds because I do have considerable affection for some of the people I am thus shutting off. I also know that there will be consequences – hurt feelings and insult – and I do feel great regret for hurting my erstwhile Facebook “friends'” feelings – particularly because some of them are also friends in the real world.

And I don’t doubt that some “friends” will return the favour because they find my atheist, socialist, pacifist, postmodernist, postcolonialist, queer beliefs just as offensive. They are entitled to do so, because they should not have to call someone who has beliefs they find repulsive a friend.

No Golden Tickets

Hundreds of thousands of Quebec students and supporters demonstrating Law 78 and tuition increases on 22 May.

On paper, hundreds of thousands of people came out to protest Quebec’s tuition increase of a couple of hundred dollars.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, but my American friends – and many of my Canadian ones – think it’s crazy. Tuition in Quebec is cheaper than anywhere else in North America.

That’s not saying much.

When my father went to the state university in our hometown, he paid one hundred and seventy dollars in tuition. Per year. This is why he could work his way through college, and even have some money left over to support his numerous younger siblings.

That would hardly be possible today. Yes, many students work to support themselves during college (university), but I don’t know anyone who has gone to school full time who has not accrued absolutely crushing student loans. I went to the same institution that my father had. Twenty-odd years later, the tuition had increased to $3,400 per year, not counting fees, which ran another grand or so. Today – in a recession – it costs $5,200 to attend. That increase exceeds the rate of inflation. The school itself has posted on its website that the true cost of attendance FOR COMMUTERS is over $14,000 per year, including books, student fees, and transportation; given the institution’s desire to set its own tuition, independent of state oversight, the figure is likely to climb even higher in the near future. Yet it is far less than a private school would cost.

There are scholarships, but those require above-average success in high school. There are grants, but those exclude middle-income students. There are loans, but there are ever fewer avenues for students, with no credit and little or no income, to secure them, and they have no guarantee that they will be able to repay them when their education ends. I had benefitted from a partial scholarship, but before I returned to graduate school, more than half of my income still went to pay my student loans. The other half paid my rent. I didn’t starve, but only because my then-boyfriend fed me.

One acquaintance suggested that families should simply have the foresight to save for their children’s education. This presupposes an income sufficient to put money aside. My white, urban family looked middle class, but my parents had nothing left over after feeding and clothing us and paying the mortgage. They were not spendthrifts. We wore secondhand clothing. There was simply not enough for a college fund. My siblings and I had no choice but to take out loans, which were, at the time, subsidized and easily acquired. My parents now help us to make our payments. I have friends who are not so fortunate. I’m sure that this is not what society envisions when it thinks of college graduates.

Quebec’s de-facto “user fees” for higher education don’t quite match New York’s, but they set a dangerous precedent. Rather than standing up for educational equality, Quebec is following in the footsteps of a broken American system.

What is it about equality in higher education that people find so troubling?

Based on responses to one of my Facebook posts this week, I’d say it has something to do with faith in a capitalist economy, where one invests in one’s own education and wields it on the job market. A college education, we are told, improves one’s prospects, yields a higher salary when employed, and creates a meritocracy. All you need to succeed are brains and drive.

Except that it’s a lie.

You need money to play, and then there is no guarantee of a job after graduation.

It’s not a question of building roads and bridges OR funding education. We simply need to prioritize.

The”job-creating” wealthiest companies are rewarded with tax breaks and bonuses even as they downsize to maintain their own prosperity.The government will subsidize bombs and jets, glow-in-the-dark corn and GE’s fat cats, but not education for “adult” eighteen-year-olds who still need mom and dad’s insurance. We have pushed, more and more, for higher education to be a commodity, because it is comforting to think that we can buy success with a degree.

We can’t.

So it isn’t about job training. It’s about shaping society.

We earnestly send minor children to school. Even the ones who don’t want to be there. Even the ones who get nothing out of it. Even the ones who would make better artists or welders or tailors. We don’t do it so that they’ll be gainfully employed. We do it, and send our taxes to fund it, because we believe it is good for people. We send money to poorer countries so that all children can benefit from schooling. We pat ourselves on the backs for intervening in Afghanistan, because NOW GIRLS CAN GO TO SCHOOL. It’s the most important thing in the world, until you turn eighteen. Then it’s a white-collar vocational institute, and if you want it, you’d better be willing to pay for it. Or go into debt for it. And then you’d better find a practical job, or the little bit that we – UPSTANDING, TAX-PAYING CITIZENS, UNLIKE YOU ENTITLED LEECH-STUDENTS – put into it will have been wasted.

This disgusts me.

It isn’t an investment. I will never be considered a financial success. That’s not why I’m here. I went to college – and came back for graduate school – because thinking is important. I don’t want people running the world who think that only numbers matter. I think that governments should know about the effects of the wars they start, and bankers should know about the famines of the late nineteenth century. They were caused by environmental factors, but it was human involvement and blind allegiance to ideologies of free trade that exacerbated them.

I want everyone to know what exacerbated means.

Likewise, everyone should know how to fix a car engine and sew a dress. Then we can choose a career path not based on money, desperation, or inertia, but based on what we know and like.

I think that bricklayers’ children should be able to study history. That was possible for my father’s generation. I’m not sure that it’s possible for mine, not without shackling oneself to a lifetime of loan repayment.

Access to different kinds of knowledge, and to critical thinking, and to the arts, shouldn’t end at high school.

We’re not investing in job security. We’re creating an educated population that can make its own opportunities.