Prelude and Fugue

I remember the night that my father came home from work with a copy of the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields’ recording of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. It was a double-LP boxed-set (recorded music came on black vinyl discs in those days) with extensive booklet of liner notes. My father let me read the notes, but insisted that we would only listen to the records when we had time to sit through all four sides without interruption. My next few days were filled with curiosity and anticipation. Today, on Bach’s 332nd birthday, I recognize that this was one of the great formative moments of my life.

My father called me into the living room on the following Sunday for what he called “a concert.” It was a bright winter afternoon of the type that we used to get in early January in Montreal. The sun flooded through the big picture window, reflecting off the snow drifts in our front yard. I was eleven or twelve years old, and had spent the morning skating and playing shinny on a patch of ice cleared on Lac St-Louis behind the Town Hall. We had had the traditional Friedman weekend lunch of bagels, lox, and tomato soup.

Placing the first disk on the stereo turntable, my father promised that I was “in for a real treat.” The tone arm moved, the stylus dropped to the groove on the record… And my life was changed forever.

I am sure that many of us have had moments of artistic revelation – even many of them – that moment when a book, a poem, a painting, a film or a work of music opens up a whole new aesthetic vista. I was no stranger to music. My father had an enormous (for the time) collection of records, ranging from the Deutsche Grammophon bicentennial collection of Beethoven’s complete symphonies, concertos and overtures to jazz and boxed sets from the Newport Folk Festivals. We listened to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts together with the kind of devotion that more religious Jews attended schul, and we regularly attended concerts by l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and the McGill Chamber Orchestra.

My mother played the baby grand piano in our living room brilliantly. In retrospect, I believe that she loved the experience of producing music with the graceful, balletic motions of her hands – music that would fill the house from glassy piano to thunderous forte – more than the music itself. She inclined toward Mozart and Chopin, and would often pull scores from the bench pretty much at random, mixing it up with Scott Joplin and arrangements of songs from Fiddler on the Roof. Her performances were full of delicacy and passion, and I would often imagine her looking through the score to some distant point as she inhabited the sounds.

I had the benefit of a thorough, if unconventional, childhood education in music. My grade school music teacher Andreas Gutmanis imparted musical knowledge with a combination of urgency and enthusiasm. He put my classmates and me through the paces of the Orff Method – tee-tee tee-tee tah-tah on the school’s xylophones and glockenspiels – without great success. His real interest was in getting us to listen to music, however, and he would frequently draw the curtains and have us listen attentively and respectfully to everything from Mozart to Morton Subotnick’s electronic masterpiece Silver Apples of the Moon. In that he was immensely successful, and I am astonished at how many of his students became musicians.

Mr. Gutmanis taught me the violin. I loved the instrument, even though I hated practicing. My first concert performance was in a third-grade recital of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in all of the Suzuki variations. My father introduced me to conductor and pedagogue Brock McElheran when I was five. Dr. McElheran presented me with a baton and a copy of his book Conducting Techniques for Beginners and Professionals and gave me a series of private – though informal – lessons. (I still have both the baton and the book.) I later studied the piano and the flute and, though I never displayed any great talent, I learned to read music and to appreciate its beauty at a very profound level.

The vaults of the Thomaskirche, Leipzig.

The Art of Fugue, however, was an epiphany. It isn’t that this recording was or is the best music that I had ever heard. Make no mistake, however, it is an extraordinary piece of music, and the performance Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields is outstanding. Rather, the experience of listening to this music for the first time, in that time and place utterly transformed me. It was the first time that I heard music from the inside – and saw it too, for this was a profoundly synesthetic experience. The counterpoint rose above and around me like the vaults of a gothic cathedral. Years later, I saw a photo of the nave of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach was cantor and Director of Music for more than half of his career, and said out loud “yes, yes, that’s what I saw!”

Although the beauty of The Art of Fugue is highly architectural, the fugal lines of Bach’s masterpiece are never static. They move, and sweep and dance in ribbons of melody. The music is always serious and contemplative, a product of the Enlightenment, yet it is full of dark depths, ecstatic highs and restrained passions evoking both the religious foundations of Bach’s work and the chromatic future. It is both a palimpsest and a prophecy, and it ends abruptly 239 bars into the last, immense, four-voice, triple fugue – apocryphally at Bach’s death.

If I was to identify the moment when the starting point of trajectory that led me to become a music historian, that would be it. It is the ursprung of my own intellectual and professional genealogy. The process certainly was not quite that simple or predetermined, and I have drifted and dodged in any number of professional and scholarly directions in the decades since. But listening to The Art of Fugue on that afternoon, and every time since, I find myself connected to a nexus of history, art, culture and the genius of an artist whom I never met but somehow know intimately.

That is why music is important. Several years ago, when I sat down with my dissertation advisor to pitch the project that would consume my life and presumably define my academic career, I described those moments – beginning with The Art of Fugue, and following innumerable times thereafter – when listening to music connected me to those networks of meaning, history and feeling. Music is important because through it we can hear both the abstract and the concrete: the composer’s imagination, the performers’ skill and training, the resonance of the luthier’s craftsmanship, the boundaries of culture and knowledge, the expectations and prejudices that obtain at is moment of production and at every subsequent moment of reception. We cannot touch it, but we can feel it. We cannot see the notes as they are transmitted through the air, but we can read them.

The great unfinished final fugue from J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, performed by Pierre-Laurent AImard.

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.

Autumn Leaves

poppies-and-autumn-leaves_3249105I feel closer to my father in early November than at any other time of the year. It was then, in late autumn – when the fallen leaves lay in deep mats, or raked into towering piles in the parks and yards of Montreal, following the first killing frosts, and just before everything would be blanketed in the silent, white shroud of the Canadian winter – when he would open up about the War.

My father rarely spoke of his experiences as a tail gunner in a Royal Canadian Air Force Lancaster bomber during the Second World War. I had grown up seeing his photos, dashing and handsome in his RCAF uniform, tucked discretely in a corner of the downstairs family room. It was a memory my father honoured – an experience central to who he was, and who he became – but it was a part of his life that he rarely chose to revisit, despite my curiosity. “It was a long time ago,” he would say as he brushed my questions aside. “It was another lifetime.”

Yet, at this time of the year, as daylight hours grew short, and the cool breath of autumn turned to a chill that stripped the last leaves from the maples in our back yard, his memories of that other life came back to him. Perhaps it was the poppy on his lapel – we all wore poppies in early November – that jogged his memory, recalling the faces and voices of the comrades and friends he had left in the Commonwealth war cemeteries in Europe. Maybe it was the old soldiers, some bearing the scars of Vimy Ridge, Passchendale, the Somme, who still distributed the red poppies at kiosks at the local grocery store, or on the sidewalks Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue.

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

I felt an intimate bond with my father as he would take me into his confidence. I learned of the terror he felt as his aircraft threaded its way through the blossoms of flak blooming all around; I learned about the sang-froid masking despair with which he and his fellow aircrew toasted the memories of lost comrades on return to their base at Wratting Common; I learned the names Mark Goldwater and Robert Tait Roth. He told me about the night his aircraft went down over Witten, in the Ruhr Valley, about his wounds, his capture, and confinement in a German prison camp. He spoke of duty, of terror, and of the guilt he carried for participating in the slaughter of civilians.

My father was a good man – honourable, charitable, committed to social justice, kind, and gentle. He was the kind of person  I have always aspired to be, though I well know that I have always fallen short of the mark. I could not, however, imagine him as a soldier, an airman huddled behind four .50 calibre machine guns in a Lancaster’s tail turret, and it was in interrogating the disconnect between the father I knew, the steel-eyed young man in his RCAF portraits, and the frightened teenager on his POW index card, that I felt closer to him than I could ever have thought possible.

Although he wore a poppy every November and attended Remembrance Day services at the Cenotaph in Dominion Square every year, my father’s wartime service was rarely a significant component of his public persona. He never joined the Royal Canadian Legion, and never sat at a table distributing poppies. Yet I know that the War was never far from his thoughts. It was only after he visited Europe with my mother, for the first time in 45 years, following his retirement in 1995 that he began to revisit that other life more consistently and more often.

They had visited his old bomber base in Cambridgeshire, and traveled to the Ruhr Valley in Germany. As his closest friends from the old neighbourhood in Montreal – Bill Maulton, Si Yasin, Bill Charad – each died in the following years, my father began to speak more frequently of the War. When my mother, the love of his life, died of cancer in the winter of 2006, he found fellowship and, I think, solace in the company of the old soldiers at the Veterans Centre in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. From then until the last months of his life, he dropped in several time each week to work out in the gym, drink coffee, and chat with his new comrades.

I had the privilege to meet them when my partner and I visited my home in the fall of 2010. They were extraordinary gentlemen. Henry had been a C-47 Dakota pilot flying supply missions from bases in India over “the Hump” of the Himalayas into Burma. Mo, 94 years old when I met him, had been General Bernard Montgomery’s driver in Europe. They laughed, joked, told stories of courage, terror, and ribald adventures. They were fascinating, charming and, like my father, noble. They were all strong, confident, and distinguished old men who, in their 80s and 90s, had retained or rediscovered the vigour of young men. Yet I could not then imagine them as young men any more than I could imagine the veterans of Hill 70, Cambrai, and Amiens who had distributed poppies in my youth as young men.

Henry, Mo, and my father – like Mark Goldwater, Robert Roth, the old soldiers of the Great War, and more than a hundred million soldiers and civilians who fell in the World Wars – are gone now. But this week, I think of my father and his comrades forever as young men, preserved in that moment of fear and resolve, as they faced the prospect of battle and, in many cases, the near-certainty of injury or death. I know they did it; I can’t imagine how they did it.


The Cenotaph in Dominion Square

The Cenotaph in Dominion Square

I only attended a Remembrance Day service with my father once. It was a damp, grey Sunday morning and I was not in school. I stood there with him in Dominion Square, holding his strong hand, alongside the men of his generation, and the generation before, in a sea of poppies as the bugler sounded the “Last Post.” After two minutes of silence, the piper played the ancient air the “Floors o’ the Forest.” The wreaths had been laid, the guns had fired their salute, the poppies turned, and my father and I found the car and went for a thoughtful lunch.

We sat quietly at a table at Murray’s at the corner of Sherbrooke and Victoria, and the nice Scottish ladies brought us post-Thanksgiving turkey pie. Men of my father’s generation sat at neighbouring tables, some in groups, some alone, some with sons and daughters of about my age. I remember the silence; it was profound, respectful, and peaceful. We had apple pie for dessert; my father had coffee, and I had tea.

Finally, my father looked at me and said very softly, “more than anything, I hope you never have to go to war.”

It was not an unreasonable hope at the time. By then, Canada had not been to war in a generation. Since the Korean War, the young men and women of the Canadian Forces had only seen action wearing the blue berets of United Nations peacekeepers. Vietnam was then a tragic memory, and the Cold War was warming. Soviet troops were not yet in Afghanistan, the United States had not yet invaded Grenada or Panama, the Camp David Accords seemed to promise the real possibility of a permanent peace in the Middle East. Even media pundits opined that it looked like peace was “breaking out all over.”

My memory of that time seems unreal now; it is more like a dimly-recalled dream, or childhood fantasy. As we approach Remembrance day this year, it seems like Canada, the United States – indeed, the world – has been at war continuously since 1990… for almost a generation. It has not been one continuous war, of course, but many starting and ending and starting again… continuously. When there has been peace, it has been an uneasy peace; of a pause between rounds, as pugilists wipe the blood and sweat from their faces and prepare to enter the ring once again.

War has become so unexceptional that, when the United States, Canada, and their allies commit themselves to “combat operations” – a convenient euphemism that speaks of mechanical, bureaucratic efficiencies rather than blood, bodies, and horror – the questions most of us ask do not interrogate war itself, but how clean it will be, how much it will cost in dollars and cents, whether there will be boots on the ground. War itself is not the question, the ethics of killing are not up for debate; the question is whether we can get away with killing without having to face any serious consequences.

War has become normal; so much so that we almost expect young men and women to don their fatigues, to be ordered by old, powerful men to kill and, if necessary, to die. I was shocked when Corporal Nathan Cirillo was murdered while guarding the Cenotaph in Ottawa last month but, to my shame, I was not surprised. While it is still not clear, all of the pious rhetoric notwithstanding, whether this was a terrorist attack, violence – whether perpetrated by political extremists or legitimate governments – has become so mundane that it no longer surprises us. Not in the United States, and not even in Canada.

That sad, horrific, realization came to me as I prepared to begin my lecture at Rutgers University earlier this week. I looked out at a room full of inquisitive, motivated, idealistic college freshmen and sophomores, and my father’s words echoed  in my thoughts: “more than anything, I hope you never have to go to war.” That hope now seems unrealistic, even foolhardy.

I looked at Stephanie, a part-time soldier, like Cpl. Cirillo, who serves in the New Jersey National Guard. I have had guardsmen in my classes before, and I have seen many of them disappear from the classroom as they have been called up to duty. I looked at Hassan, with his passion for aircraft and flying, and wondered if, should it ever come to it, he might ever find himself on the firing line. I looked at Eric who, seeking me out during my office hours, off-handedly commented that he felt pressure to enter the service to pay for his education. That’s the pitch made by the signs and posters outside the recruiting office on Clinton Street.

I felt a chill in that brief moment as I imagined what it could have been like to stand before the college classes of 1914, 1917, 1939, and 1941, knowing that few of those hopeful, promising faces would return unscarred, if they returned at all. I thought of the plaques on the walls of Macdonald High School, and Concordia University, where I had been a student myself, solemnly listing the names of young men who lie at Vimy Ridge, Boulonge sur Mer, Ypres, Hong Kong, Dieppe, Normandy, and the Reichwald Forest.

I feel horror that “at the going down of the sun and in the morning” we have failed in our obligation to remember.


Georg Trakl

Georg Trakl

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

As part of my Act of Remembrance this year, I offer two poems, composed by poets on opposite side of the Great War.

Georg Trakl was a medic in the Austro-Hungarian Army on the Eastern front. In 1915, following the Battle of Grodek, Trakl was utterly overwhelmed by the number of horribly injured soldiers he had to treat, and sank into a deep depression. He committed suicide several weeks later. The translation of his poem “Grodek” is mine, followed by the original German.

Wilfred Owen enlisted in the British Army in 1915. He saw service in the trenches of northern France, and was killed in action at the Sambre-Oise Canal on the morning of 4 November 1918, almost exactly one week before the Armistice that ended the Great War.

By Georg Trakl (translated by Matthew Friedman)

At nightfall the autumn woods
resonate with deadly weapons,
the golden plains and blue lakes,
unfurl about a darkening sun;
night embraces the dead and dying:
the wild lament of their shattered mouths.

But silence gathers in the pastures.
A red mist, where dwells an angry god,
gushes blood into the lunar chill,
opening all roads in black decay.

Under golden boughs of night and stars
the sister’s shadow flits through the silent grove
to greet the shades of heroes, their bleeding heads,
as the music of autumn flutes rises softly in the reeds.

O prouder sorrow! You shameless altars!
The searing flame of the imagination
nourishes an unthinkable agony:
the generations yet unborn.


By Georg Trakl

Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen
Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne
Düster hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt,
Das vergossne Blut sich, mondne Kühle;
Alle Straßen münden in schwarze Verwesung.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
Zu grüßen die Geister der Helden, die blutenden Häupter;
Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunkeln Flöten des Herbstes.
O stolzere Trauer! ihr ehernen Altäre,
Die heiße Flamme des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,
Die ungebornen Enkel.


Anthem for Doomed Youth
By Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.



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!

Image of Madiba

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

I cried.

I cried when my mother died in the winter of 2006. I cried when my father died in the spring of 2012. I cried when Nelson Mandela died this week. I felt as if I had lost a close friend, a mentor, a member of my own family.

At first, I was puzzled by the intensity of my grief and my sense of loss. Mandela’s death, though sad, was hardly a shock. He was 95 years old. He had been gravely ill since last June, and had passed into a coma in July. Part of me hoped, as I did when each of my parents fell ill, that the great man would come through, that he would defy the odds, his age, and medicine, and make a full recovery. The world needed Madiba, and I could not imagine it without him. He didn’t, of course, and his death on Friday was simply the last page of a months-long denouement to an extraordinary life.

I never met Mandela. I watched his release on television in February 1990. Though I did not attend the rally in his honour at Jarry Park in Montreal the following summer, I listened to it on the radio and watched the extended coverage on the news. I never shook his hand. He was not a personal friend, a colleague, or a comrade. Yet, in so many ways, I felt closer to him than I do many of my friends, colleagues, and comrades.

Mandela raises a fist in defiance as he walks to freedom, 11 February 1990

Mandela raises a fist in defiance as he walks to freedom, 11 February 1990

Nelson Mandela has occupied a place at the centre of my politics and sense of justice since my father told me his story. I was in grade school, and I had been assigned South Africa for a United Nations day. The night before the exercise, my father sat me down and told me about apartheid, the Bantustans, the pass system, Sharpeville, Soweto, Stephen Biko, the African National Congress… and the long years Mandela had spent in prison because of his struggle for freedom and democracy. “You will be South Africa tomorrow; I know you will do the right thing.”

My first acts of activism were against the apartheid regime. I helped organize demonstrations in CEGEP; I stood along with thousands calling for Mandela’s release, and to protest the Canadian government’s continued engagement – like the uranium shipments from the port of Montreal – with Pretoria. I boycotted FBI orange juice, and any other product remotely tainted by its connections to the Rembrandt Group.

When I danced the high-step to the Special AKA’s “Nelson Mandela” in some long-forgotten punk club in 1985, or to Johnny Clegg and Savuka in the streets at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 1988, it was with passion and determination. I was not dancing alone; I danced with my friends and comrades, and with Mandela in our imaginations. It was an ecstatic act of musical and political solidarity.

Madiba has always been there with me. I guess I thought he always would be. Now that he is gone, I feel the weight of his absence.


What puzzles me more, however, is the representation of Mandela in the news and social media over the last couple of days. I have had an eerie feeling that I have been watching the “Savage Curtain” episode from the 1969 season of Star Trek played out over and over again. That’s the episode where the ever-intrepid Kirk and Spock do battle with some of the worst villains of galactic history, aided by the two greatest paragons of justice and courage: Abraham Lincoln and the Vulcan philosopher Surak. They’re not really Lincoln and Surak, but mysterious doppelgangers. Spock insists on addressing “Image of Surak.”

It seems as if so much of the media have been addressing Image of Mandela, rather than the man himself. In fairness, I recognize that the Mandela who I lost this week is as much an image as anyone else’s. Yet what puzzles me is how many – though not all – of the Mandelas depart from any reasonable reading of the man’s life and work.

The most common is the whitewashed or right-washed Mandela. This is the one on display in the American corporate media, shorn of his radicalism and revolutionary politics. Most of these reports emphasize his courage, strength and his insistence on peace and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. These were essential parts of his politics and character, to be sure, but when his radicalism is mentioned at all – he was a life-long socialist, close to members of the South African Communist Party, and committed, even after his release, to the armed struggle – it is as an afterthought.

It is as if few people in the media want to ruin their celebration of the great man’s life by mentioning that he was on the US government’s terrorist watch list until 2008, and remained an incisive critic of US imperialism, and close some of the great villains of the American Right’s worst fantasies. In fact, one of the few remotely-mainstream American commentators who has mentioned any of this is the repulsive reactionary gasbag David Horowitz – and then only to denounce him.

Rick Santorum has even gone so far to enlist Mandela – a socialist and a vocal advocate for government-run, free, national health insurance – in his ongoing campaign against the Affordable Care Act. According to Santorum, his efforts to deny affordable health care to the majority of Americans is just like the great man’s resistance to the brutal, racist, genocidal, apartheid regime. You can’t make this stuff up.

A Mandela meme

A Mandela meme

More common is the kind of embroidered sampler sentimentality that bloomed all over Facebook, Twitter and other social media sources. We’ve seen this kind of thing before with Martin Luther King, jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama – a focus on the kind of comforting, unchalenging platitudes that can be printed over a soft-focus photo on an Internet meme. It’s the kind of thing American and Canadian liberals go in for in a big way; quite like all those pictures of a gentle, smiling Louis Armstrong over the text “What a wonderful world it would be.”

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong

In this, white liberals are able to domesticate Mandela – the revolutionary – like a fuzzy Lolcat in a profoundly racist dynamic. He has become, to so many doubtless well-intentioned people, a kind of “magical Negro.” This is a recurring media figure, closely related to the “Uncle” and “Mammy” of the blackface minstrel show, whose whole purpose is to nudge white characters toward spiritual salvation and reconciliation. He is virtually always portrayed as a wise, gentle usually older Black man who is somehow in touch with a deeper, mystical reality. Think of the John Coffey character in The Green Mile, or Morgan Freeman in virtually anything. While it might give middle-class white people – like myself – the warm-and-fuzzies, and a momentary respite from interrogating our privilege, it robs a man like Mandela of his agency and his power.

It makes him safe.


The young Mandela

The young Mandela

On the other side, I have noted puzzling critique emerging from the radical Left. This first became apparent in an exchange on my Facebook wall where a friend – a committed activist whom I deeply respect and admire – suggested that, for all his radical efforts as a young man, the post-release Mandela was simply a “bourgeois pacifist” and what, in “Marxist circles,” might be called a “revisionist.”

I’m not so sure about Marxist circles; Communist circles, certainly. “Revisionism” suggests that there is an explicit and pure party line, and that to deviate from it in any way is a revision of the original intent. Considering that (a) Marx’s analysis and critique apply to a radically different form of capitalism than exists today and (b) he called for a “ruthless criticism of everything existing” including his own work, I would have to say that any “Marxist” who condemns anyone as a “revisionist” should go back and actually read Marx.

The most common Left criticism goes something like this: While we should respect the Mandela’s revolutionary work up to his arrest and trial in 1962, the man who emerged from Victor Verster Prison on 11 February 1990 was no longer a revolutionary committed to the armed struggle. He had been tamed. His efforts to seek a peaceful transformation of South African society, his insistence on reconciliation with the White population and his willingness to engage with neo-liberal, global capitalism as president are all evidence of “capitulation.” The whites did not feel the force of African vengeance nor did Mandela immediately transform South Africa into a workers’ paradise. Instead, he played the game of bourgeois liberal democracy and betrayed the Revolution.

Western/Northern/Euro-American (hereafter “Western”) radicals are impatient people. We want The Revolution to be made right now. We want to storm the barricades and, considering that we are virtually all bourgeois intellectuals, we can’t understand why the oppressed proletariat doesn’t rise up right now. We can’t understand why Mandela, a Marxist, allowed himself to be “coopted” and “capitulated” when he finally had the power of the state in his own hands.

Mandela, the radical leader

Mandela, the radical leader

This kind of criticism of Mandela is deeply colonialist. It presumes the universality of a Western revolutionary agenda rather that acknowledging that a revolution in another part of the world might address other kinds of issues and look quite a bit different. Mandela’s “failure” to live up to the revolutionary standards of comfortable bourgeois intellectuals like us in the United States and Canada is characterized as a betrayal.

I am sure that Mandela felt that he had some larger issues to contend with than sticking to the Western revolutionary playbook. Like maybe dismantling a century-old regime built on systematic racism and racial violence. This was a society where the minority White population held a monopoly on political and economic power. It was a place where non-whites did not have the right to vote, where Blacks could not legally own or manage businesses, where the education system spent ten-times-more teaching white children than Black children. It was a place where Afrikaans writer Breyten Breytenbach was arrested and imprisoned, in part for violated miscegenation laws, when he returned to his country of birth with his Franco-Vietnamese bride in 1975. I suppose that, if you ignore all of that and more, you could argue that Mandela’s “failure” to bring about an immediate and complete social revolution might look like “capitulation.”

Could Mandela have acted differently? More “radically?” Maybe he could have expelled the entire white population, like Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe. We can see how well that turned out. Perhaps, when he spoke from the steps of the Cape Town city hall hours after his release, Mandela could have called for a mass uprising in the streets, and simply accepted that the hundreds of thousands who would inevitably have been slaughtered by Africa’s largest, best trained, and best-equipped army had died in the cause of revolution.

Perhaps, when elected president, he could have used the powers of his office and his phenomenal political capital to nationalize all industries and economically disenfranchise non-Black capitalists, as Mugabe is doing in Zimbabwe right now. He would have then had to accept the embargo that the Western democracies would inevitably have imposed. Millions would have starved, of course, and it would have been impossible for Mandela’s government to fund desperately-pressing programs to address basic needs like housing, food, and education.

Moreover, he could not have done any of this and expect any support in the South African Parliament. The Whites would have opposed it for sure, as would have the South Africans of Asian and South-Asian descent. And despite the fact that, in the romantic imagination of Western intellectual revolutionaries, all oppressed people are a single, undifferentiated mass with a unified hive mind and will, it wasn’t that way at all. Black voters and political leaders would not automatically have agreed. Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party held 43, or 20%, of the seats in the 1994 Parliament, and they were never inclined to support Mandela. Even in the ANC itself, there was – and is – a vast range of opinions. It is highly unlikely that a majority could be could be mobilized to pass such legislation.

But what difference does democracy make to a true revolutionary? The good revolutionary knows that democracy is a sham designed to maintain bourgeois power.

It would be better to ask what democracy meant to a man who committed his life to “one-man-one-vote,” who was prepared to die for the principle (we should ask ourselves what we are prepared to die for), who served 27 years in prison for it. For Nelson Mandela, the simple idea that all people must have free and equal access to political expression and power was the first principle. Everything followed from there. If that was not secured, the nothing could be secured.

Mandela and Joe Slovo, 1990

Mandela and Joe Slovo, 1990

Joe Slovo, Mandela’s comrade, friend, the minister for housing in his government, and the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, no less, said this in 1990:

“Our party’s programme holds firmly to a post-apartheid state which will guarantee all citizens the basic rights and freedoms of organisation, speech, thought, press, movement, residence, conscience and religion; full trade union rights for all workers including the right to strike, and one person one vote in free and democratic elections. These freedoms constitute the very essence of our national liberation and socialist objectives and they clearly imply political pluralism…

It follows that, in truly democratic conditions, it is perfectly legitimate and desirable for a party claiming to be the political instrument of the working class to attempt to lead its constituency in democratic contest for political power against other parties and groups representing other social forces. And if it wins, it must be constitutionally required, from time to time, to go back to the people for a renewed mandate. The alternative to this is self-perpetuating power with all its implications for corruption and dictatorship…”

As for Mandela’s pacifism, it beggars the imagination that anyone would think that it was easy for a man whose friends had been murdered, whose people had been confined in a social prison of racial segregation and forced labour, who had spent 27 years in prison to seek peace and reconciliation with the murderers and jailers. When Western radicals, as well-intentioned as we might be, speak of “bourgeois pacifism,” we articulate a notion that pacifism is an easy way out. A real revolutionary would stand and fight to the bloody death.

It is the infantile – and dare I say it, the bourgeois – fantasy of the Left, a Left of which I count myself a part, that resistance and revolution must be a moment of immediate apocalyptic reckoning, singed by flames and bathed in blood. That is the great romance in seminar rooms and drum circles. That’s how it looks from behind the gas mask and bandanna as we all line up – students, professors, hipsters and bloggers – with our fists raised and our banners flying, ready to take pepper spray in the face, a knock on the head, and a night in jail, to put our “bodies on the line” and fight the power. And sometimes that is how it has to be. But after we’re booked at the police station, or spend a night in jail, we get to go home to our classes, our jobs and our families afterward to lick our wounds.

Neither Mandela, nor any of the other activists of the ANC had anywhere else to go. There was no retreat. Mandela knew that the rubble left after an apocalyptic confrontation would be the rubble of his own home, in the largest sense of the word. He also knew that there could be no freedom for his people unless that included all the people – Black, “coloured,” and White – in South Africa.

Peace, reconciliation, democracy were neither a “capitulation,” nor an easy way out, nor a failure. They were the most difficult things in the world, and they were the only way to ensure that his personal freedom, and the freedom of his people, meant something.


Mandela did not storm the barricades and crush neo-liberal neo-colonialism. He did not establish a worker’s paradise-on-the-Cape. South Africa today remains a troubled land, in many ways, and it seems that, to some people, that is an indictment of Mandela’s “failure.” But that ignores something that the great man knew better than almost anyone: that revolutionary transformation is a process and not an event, that the path to change is rarely short and straight. “I have walked that long road to freedom,” he wrote in his memoirs. “I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” South Africa has a long way to go, but thanks to Mandela, it is on its way.

Despite all the soft-focus samplers and aphoristic remembrances, he was not a saint, but practical man deeply committed to a political ideal. Shortly after Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, George Orwell wrote, “No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.” Orwell, ever prickly, had no stomach for Gandhi the saint, but he expressed deep admiration for the human being.

Although I know that my Image of Mandela is a problematic as anyone else’s, that I never knew the man apart from his mark on history, that is how I choose to remember him: as a human being. But what a human being! He was a great man, the greatest I have ever known. I feel privileged to have lived in his times. If all of our leaders – if all of us – were as committed to peace and decency, as intolerant of oppression, as courageous, as principled – as human – then we would not need people like Mandela to change the world.

Thank you, Madiba.

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

The White Poppy

poppyNovember 11 is a day of great significance for me, one full of reflection, sorrow and gratitude. At the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month every year, I will stop whatever I am doing and mark two minutes of silence. If I am able, I will do this while I watch the Remembrance Day commemoration at the Cenotaph in Ottawa on the CBC.

I do this, in part, for deeply personal reasons. My late father served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, along with his sister and two brothers, during World War II. My maternal grandfather had been a groom – a soldier who cared for and managed the horses in a Guards regiment – in the Great War of 1914-1918. At that moment of silence every year, I feel connected to them, and to their friends and comrades – so many of whom never returned – across the years. I think of their pain, their loss and, yes, their courage.

Yet I also do this for profoundly social reasons. Remembrance Day, for me and for many Canadians, provides an opportunity to share a moment of communal memory. This was reinforced throughout my childhood and youth by the Remembrance Day assemblies every year. In primary and secondary school, my classmates and I would quietly file into the gymnasium for a somber service of remembrance. There principal would say a few words; there would be two minutes of fidgeting silence. Sometimes a bugler from the local cadets company would play the Last Post and the Rouse. Someone would read the Act of Remembrance:

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.

John McCrae, 1914

John McCrae, 1914

More often than not, a fellow student with a gift for public speaking would solemnly recite “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, a Canadian Army surgeon who died at Boulogne-sur-Mer in the last year of the Great War.

 In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

 Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

We all wore red poppies pinned to our coats in the November chill because of McCrae’s famous poem. In 1918, an American educator and Red Cross volunteer named Moina Michael published a poem responding to McCrae’s exhortation to keep the faith:

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With all who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
In Flanders Fields we fought

The American Legion adopted the red poppy as its official symbol of remembrance two years later. The Royal Canadian Legion followed in 1921, turning it into a badge to be worn on the left lapel, next to one’s heart. Within two years, the gesture had spread to Great Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth.

The red poppy took root, as it were, amid the horror and the grief of the years following 1918. As historian Jay Winter notes in Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, the personal grief of those who lost comrades, friends, lovers, sons and parents in the war became externalized in a common experience of bereavement through public mourning that defined and reinforced the postwar community. And everyone had lost someone; France lost 1.4 million soldiers to the war, Britain almost 900,000. Canada, with a population of 7 million, left the bodies of 67,000 young men in the fields of France and Flanders.

The Cenotaph in Ottawa

The Cenotaph in Ottawa

Everyone mourned and, Winter writes, the “bonds shared by those in mourning, by widows, ex-servicemen, the disabled, the young and the old alike, were expressed openly in ceremonies of collective memory.” Canadians, Americans, French and Britons met every year at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, at war memorials and cenotaphs – the “empty tombs” that mark the collective memory of war throughout the Commonwealth – to remember, and to honour the promise that we will not break faith with the fallen.

The red poppy is an important part of the ritual; for many people it is the act of remembrance. When I was young, the old soldiers of the Royal Canadian Legion, many of whom were patients at the Veterans’ Hospital in nearby Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, and some of whom had even served in the trenches of 1914-1918, distributed  them at a kiosk at the local grocery store in exchange for donations to support veterans and their families. I remember well the feeling of walking up to the table with my father and dropping a quarter in the can with a combination of gratitude and pride. Most of those veterans, including my father, are gone now but the poppies remain.

red poppyI have worn a red poppy every year that I can remember. That became difficult when I moved to the United States in 2005, where the remembrance poppy is much less common. So each year, I have asked friends back home to acquire one for me from an old soldier. Each year, I pinned the poppy to my lapel a week before Remembrance Day, conscious that the symbol is unintelligible to most of the people I pass on the New York subway or the PATH Train, but satisfied that, in a small way, I have been able to maintain a connection to Canada and the historical memory of the wars of the 20th century. I have not broken faith.

Yet, at the back if my mind, I have always felt a little uncomfortable about the red poppy’s symbolism. I can still hear “In Flanders Fields” recited in my grandfather’s booming voice. I can see the poppies in my imagination, blowing gently in the wind at Boulogne-sur-Mer, Soissons, and Vimy, between thousands of crosses marking thousands of shattered corpses. And then, in my grandfather’s voice, the dead enjoin me to “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” They pass the torch to my hands and warn “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.”

Even as a child, the vengeful tone of those lines gave me pause. I felt a frisson of doubt as my grandfather’s voice turned stern and demanding. What if I do not wish to take up the quarrel, to continue the war – this cycle of violence and death? Will I have really broken faith with the fallen? Does the red poppy on my lapel signify not only my remembrance of the fallen, but an embrace of their mission, the war that destroyed them?

According to the Royal Canadian Legion, the red poppy is a “symbol of unity for those who recognize the sacrifices that were made for their freedom.” I do recognize those sacrifices – the sacrifices of my grandfather, my father, their comrades and friends – but I feel uncomfortable marking that memory alone. What of the foe? What of the young German, Austrian, Italian and Japanese men? I condemn their leaders and generals – the starched shirts and ribbon merchants who sent millions of young men to their deaths in two world wars – but not the men themselves. Whether they were patriotic volunteers like my father who answered their countries’ call or, more likely, conscripts compelled to take up arms by their governments, they fell just the same.

And what of the civilians? Indeed, if the history of 20th century is war is about anything, it is about how it spilled over from the battlefield to every corner of human life. Throughout the last century, the “front line,” as the location of the fighting and dying was once called, ceased to exist. The swath of death began to fall everywhere, with little regard for whether or not its victims wore uniforms or carried arms.

Almost 60 percent of the 17 million dead of the First World War were soldiers, sailors and airmen. They were volunteers and conscripts, hardened professional soldiers and inexperienced, idealistic young men whose bodies littered the landscape of Europe from the Somme to Passchendale, to Tannenberg Forest and the mountain passes at Caporetto. Yet 10 million dead soldiers, and 20 million survivors whose bodies had been shattered by bullets, artillery shells and poison gas were only part of the horror. The war left 7 million noncombatants dead as long range guns launched high explosive shells 80 miles behind the lines, as aircraft dropped bombs on city streets… and as famine and disease stalked the “home front” in London, Paris, St. Petersburg and Berlin.

When the killing resumed in 1939, after an exhausted world spent two decades licking its wounds and produced a new generation of young men to die in sufficient numbers, new practices and technologies of killing had erased the line that separated the front from the home front. Conservative estimates put the butcher’s bill of the Second World War at 60 million dead, but it may have been much higher. And of those dead, the majority – 38 million – were civilians. They died starving on the streets of Leningrad, in the rubble of Dresden and the London Blitz. Ten million died in Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps 100,000 died in an instant in Hiroshima.

The trend has only accelerated since 1945. Wars are no longer fought between armies, but by armies against civilians. Even in our “clean” wars and “surgical strikes,” the “collateral damage” of civilian casualties always outnumber the combatant casualties. What was the “collateral damage” of the Vietnam War? Perhaps five million Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian civilians – a ratio of five noncombatants to every military death – after you tally up the corpses in the killing fields and bomb craters. How many civilians are dying today in an unending war as American robotic killing machines fire missiles at targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan?

The dead are no longer the young men – our young men, or their young men, it doesn’t really matter – who exhort us to take up their cause, but everyone. How do we mark their meimories. How do we keep faith?

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

One of the lessons I learned from my father is that violence is always a failure of humanity and that war is wrong. My father was proud of his service in the RCAF. He had every right to be. I am proud of my father, of his courage, his strength and his sacrifice. He was a brave man who did his duty when called… Yet he was troubled by the memory of what he had been called upon to do.

He first intimated this to me in 1992, as we discussed the controversy surrounding the airing of Brian McKenna’s documentary series The Valour and the Horror. McKenna had come under a firestorm of criticism from veterans’ groups – including the Royal Canadian Legion – for his depiction of the RAF/RCAF bombing campaign over Nazi Germany as a bloody combination of homicidal mania and incompetence. Yet, after my father had watched it, he grimly noted that the documentary had captured “what it really was like… for me.”

I always made a point of calling my father on Remembrance Day. On our last Remembrance Day we talked about what it was like to come home as the sole survivor from his Lancaster bomber crew. “That pains me,” he said, remembering his boyhood friend Mark Goldwater and skipper Robert Roth. “We were all so close. It didn’t really strike me until I got home after the war. There was so much death.” After a short pause, he continued, “I always have to remind myself that I was part of that, too. I was there to help drop bombs on people,” he said. “They told us that we were bombing a munitions factory, but we were bombing people. That’s something I always have to remember.”

I still wear a red poppy on my overcoat. It’s not a new one. In fact, it is the last red poppy that I will ever have. I wear it for my father, my grandfather and their comrades and friends because the symbol was important to them. But this year, I have begun to wear the white poppy of the Peace Pledge Union on my jacket lapel as I teach and go about my day. I wear it closer to my heart. I bought a package of ten this year, and I will do this every year for the rest of my life.

There has been considerable controversy in Canada over the white poppy. The Minister of Veterans’ Affairs, Julian Fantino, has called them “offensive.” He opines that “Remembrance Day is about paying tribute to the valour and courage of those who set the very foundation of the freedoms that makes our country great.” Matt Gurney, writing in the National Post agrees. I can only assume that he has not read McCrae’s poem to the end. Either way, they both suggest that I am somehow dishonouring my father and grandfather. I take profound offense to that.

For me, the white poppy symbolizes remembrance of all wars, and all the death that those wars have produced. It does not bind me to a promise to take up any quarrel and continue the cycle of war. Indeed, it is in committing myself to peace that I do the greatest honour to the courage and sacrifice of my father, my grandfather and their comrades.

By wearing the white poppy, I remember. I remember the death and destruction visited on our young men on the battlefield, on their young men on the battlefield, and on the men, women and children on the battlefields of what was once called the “home front.” It is how I have chosen to enact a remembrance of the cost of all wars and honour the memory and hope of my father, my grandfather and their comrades that their wars would be the last war. The white poppy represents the hope for a time when we will beat our “swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”