Category Archives: Blog

Holocaust Memorial Day

Something I wrote a while back and have posted here before, but which I’ve edited for today.

A Series of Unpleasant Experiences

The first time it happened, I was in Poland. It was shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I had been studying in Paris and working as an au pair. In Paris, I had become friends with a Polish classmate named Magda. We drank wine together and talked about the future, always in French, as I had no Polish and she had limited English (but very good Russian). Magda was intellectual and funny and when she returned to Poland I missed her company. A few months later, I experienced some drama or other and decided that a change of scenery was in order. I booked a ticket to Warsaw.

Once there, I bought some Solidarnosc paraphernalia, which, after the fall of the Wall was easy and safe to purchase. I tried the delicious “Wuzetka” of “WZ” cake: I still remember it fondly. Magda’s family welcomed me, putting me up on their couch. They talked a lot about their fear of a potentially-united Germany. “We get rid of the Russians; we get the Germans again,” her mother said. The family had suffered recent deaths from cancer — Magda’s father and brother — which they were sure were due to Chernobyl. I felt for them and appreciated their openness.

Magda and I made plans – visiting Krakow was a priority. What else did I want to see in Poland? Well, I told her - unaware I was engaging in brinksmanship - Auschwitz. I suppose “wanted” is a strong word. I felt that I should. I had to. I would. I told her as much. She rolled her eyes. “They made us go there in high school.” I pointed out that she need not come with me. That didn’t seem to improve her mood. “Why do you want to go there?” I pointed out the obvious. It was history. It was horror. It was the very least I owed the victims.

“Polish people died there too,” she said. I had never suggested they hadn’t. “Yes, I know, many of the Jews in Auschwitz were Polish…” I began, only to be interrupted with, “I mean Catholics died there,” she said. Oy. There we had it. I pointed out that I had never said or thought otherwise. Most of the victims at Auschwitz, however, and of the Holocaust, were Jews. She shook her head. “No.” she said. “There weren’t nearly as many as they say.” And there we had some more of it. I was stunned. I was quite young and had never been exposed to this kind of revisionism and trivializing. Now, sadly, it is old hat to me.

I went to Auschwitz without her. She was cool to me for the rest of my visit and made political comments designed, I think, to pick a fight. I resisted. But it got to the point that I — pathologically introverted and never able to handle conflict well — decided to retreat. I booked into a hotel. Another day of dealing with the fury I could feel simmering off of Magda would have been too much.

After that, I got the odd Christmas card from her, one with the news that she had married and was expecting a baby. The only long letter she sent was a plea for help when she and her husband wanted to immigrate to Canada. I wrote back with the truth — there was nothing I could do. They would be wiser to contact the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw.

I sometimes regret that I didn’t call Magda out more on her comments. I told myself that if any such thing happened again, I wouldn’t be so peace-able.

(I realize I have not written here about my actual visit to Auschwitz . Suffice to say it marked me. Suffice to say I would like a chance to go back, now that I am older, and I hope, have a better understanding of its significance.)


It was 1999, during the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia. I was back in Toronto and had been invited over to dinner at the house of friends, a couple I had met at university. They were now married, with two very young kids and living in a leafy, lovely and expensive part of the city. The TV was on as we enjoyed pre-dinner chat and somehow, what was unfolding in Kosovo caused the wife to say, with a certain contempt, that we wouldn’t be hearing about the atrocities that had been occurring in the former Yugoslavia 50 years from now. Lest there be any doubt about her meaning, her husband chimed in that this was because the Bosnians had no equivalent of a “rich Jewish lobby” and “Jewish-owned media” to “force us” all to hear about the Holocaust “all the time.”

I remember feeling like I had been jackbooted in the stomach. I had known these people for over a decade — we shared similar WASP upbringings — and, until that night, I had always felt at home with them. Admittedly, there were long periods during which we had no contact other than a birthday card, but I had never heard them speak such nonsense. Were these views newly acquired? Had they held them for years? It wasn’t as though we often talked politics. I managed to stammer out that I believed we would be hearing about the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia decades from now, and that if we still learned and talked about the Holocaust fifty years after the war, it had nothing to do with any lobby, and everything to do with its importance — what Norm Geras would later call its uniqueness and its universality (a quote I wish I had had at the time). I requested a change of topic and made a mental note to trust my gut, which generally tells me staying home is the safest bet.


It was the summer of 2003, and I was asked out by a very handsome fellow. Khaled had immigrated to Canada from Jordan 20 years earlier and was an engineering professor at a Toronto-area university. He laughed easily and often. On our first two or three dates, I tried to avoid any discussion of politics, as 2003 was also the first summer of the war in Iraq. I was living by Basil Fawlty’s Don’t Mention the War mantra.

But there was a war I inadvertently mentioned. Khaled had studied in Amsterdam, and given that I had visited the city myself, I asked him about its many museums. He reeled off a list of those he had visited — Rembrandt House, the van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum. “What about Anne Frank House,” I asked. I wince at the cliché of it all, but the mouth that laughed so often and so loudly stiffened. No, he said. No, he hadn’t visited Anne Frank House because it represented “something that is exaggerated and gets too much attention.” I asked him what he meant, though I didn’t need to. I knew what was coming.

The Holocaust wasn’t “that bad,” the numbers “can’t be trusted,” there may have been deaths in camps but actual “death camps” could not have existed, “Jewish financiers” started the war anyway and various other calibrations. He told me the story of his great lost love, a German woman (a piece of the puzzle) whose father had been sent to Stalingrad. German soldiers suffered as much as any Jew, he said, “but there is no Anne Frank House for them.” I let him know how unimpressed I was with his theories, and he quickly attempted a bit of back-pedal, conceding that the Jews had been done “an injustice,” but that it was “not as bad as current injustices perpetrated against the Palestinians.” He protested that as “a scientist,” it was normal that he should doubt the numbers — most of us dopey non-scientist people weren’t trained to do so, he argued, so we gullibly accepted what we were told by generations of Jewish-controlled media and blah blah blah. I tuned out the rest and things ended before they began.

For a few years after that, I would occasionally run into him and he would inevitably mention that he was going to do something with his “Jewish friends.” “I’d love to talk,” he’d say. “but I have a bridge game with my Jewish friends.” “I’d invite you for coffee, but my Jewish friends have invited me for dinner.”

Whatever you say, fella.


In April 2015, I attended the Festival Internazionale del Giornalismo in Perugia, a city I know well. After the first day of lectures and workshops, I went for a walk with Mauro, an Italian acquaintance, and we happened to pass by one of my favourite plaques in the city. It honours local young men who died fighting what Italians call Nazifascisti. It was erected in 1945 and refers to Teutono Bestiale or ‘the beastly Teuton,’ and Turpe Fascista or ‘filthy/vile Fascist.’ Yes, the Nazis were beastly and the Fascists vile, but I can’t imagine such language being used today, even in Italy, where the threshold for politically incorrect blunt-speaking is rather higher than in the Anglosphere. I think that is why I find the sight of that particular plaque rather refreshing. The choice of words almost makes me laugh.

I directed his attention to it, and the conversation turned to the war, with Mauro asserting that the Shoah was bad, but why do we always have to hear about it? What about Rwanda? I pointed out that we do hear about Rwanda, as well we should. It isn’t either/or. He tried another tack: Jews have a lot of money! They’re rich, and that’s why we have to hear about the Shoah “all the time.” For good measure he added that what the Israelis were doing to the Palestinians was “the same” as Auschwitz. When I dismissed that last comment as patently absurd, he didn’t respond, instead carrying on about Jews being rich and powerful and diamonds, diamonds, diamonds. They’ve got lots of diamonds!

I should have dropped it right there and gone back to my hotel. But I persisted, which — other than the work-out it gave my Italian — was a sorry exercise in futility.


These unpleasant incidents are by no means the only such unpleasant incidents I’ve experienced. But they’re the ones that surprised and upset me the most, that woke me up, that ended some relationships and nipped others in the bud. Sadly, there seems to be an on-going supply of them.

I spent the latter part of 2016 taking an advanced Italian course at a university in Umbria, and one of my teachers taught us grammar through Italian literature. It was the class I enjoyed most — we got to read Pirandello, Calvino, Manzoni and others in the original Italian, increase our vocabulary and improve our knowledge of verb tenses. But there was one author she never touched, one I had always loved to read in English: Primo Levi. As she was wonderfully approachable, I decided to ask her about it. “Oh,” she said, looking embarrassed. “We try to avoid anything controversial in our classes.” I asked her how Levi was controversial. “We have,” she said, looking embarrassed, “students from Libya, we have Palestinians, Egyptians, and others who might not like it.”

I thought about my classmates, Middle Eastern and otherwise, and I thought she was selling many of them short. Soft bigotry of low expectations, anyone? And why assume only Middle-Eastern students might have a problem with reading Primo Levi? My experiences tell me that anti-Semitism is pan-cultural. And if the risk for “controversy” exists in a classroom, isn’t the job of a teacher to teach? My professoressa implied it was a directive from above; she hadn’t a choice.

About a month after that conversation, the same professor led our class in a discussion of same-sex marriage and abortion policies — or the lack thereof — in our various countries. Nothing controversial there.

Robbie Burns

It’s his day and as such, I will link back to what I put up on this site two years ago – my favourite Burns poem, To a Mouse. (Yes, I realize the actual name of the poem was not simply To a Mouse.) Burns must have been something of an early animal rights guy, because he also wrote The Wounded Hare:

Inhuman man! curse on thy barb’rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart!

Go live, poor wand’rer of the wood and field!
The bitter little that of life remains:
No more the thickening brakes and verdant plains
To thee a home, or food, or pastime yield.

Seek, mangled wretch, some place of wonted rest,
No more of rest, but now thy dying bed!
The sheltering rushes whistling o’er thy head,
The cold earth with thy bloody bosom prest.

Perhaps a mother’s anguish adds its woe;
The playful pair crowd fondly by thy side;
Ah! helpless nurslings, who will now provide
That life a mother only can bestow!

Oft as by winding Nith I, musing, wait
The sober eve, or hail the cheerful dawn,
I’ll miss thee sporting o’er the dewy lawn,
And curse the ruffian’s aim, and mourn thy hapless fate.

Charlie Hebdo

It was three years ago, yesterday.

BHL, as annoying as he can be, sums it up well with this tweet:

Parce que l’islamisme radical est un nouveau fascisme, parce que la liberté de s’exprimer ne va pas sans liberté de blasphémer, parce que la laïcité n’est jamais une nouvelle religion mais la condition de toute religion et de toute pensée, je suis .


And here is a link to my column about those frightening days – I still think it is one of my better ones.


I mentioned Iran in my previous post – I wish I were surprised at the mealy-mouthed reactions of Western Europe and Canada and leftists in general to what is happening, but I’m not. After all the romanticizing and fetishizing of the niqab and the burqa and every other unfortunate aspect of Islamism, after trying to justify or downplay the blatant anti-Semitism of the regime in Tehran, after the weakness and lack of pride or support in what should be our own fundamental values, the only surprising thing would be if the protesters in Iran were given clearly-stated support from the left and from certain heads of state. As much as one finds President Trump unpleasant, his reaction to the protests has been commendable. (I am old enough to remember when that awful regime took over; it would be delightful to see it destroyed.)

Here are a couple of good articles – one is an interview with an Iranian-Canadian activist, the other is from Terry Glavin.

I think Margaret Thatcher said it best:

Forever Missed

This weekend would have been my brother‘s 69th birthday. He should have been here: he should be here now to enjoy the circus of American politics and media; to feel the same frustration I feel at the lack of support from the West (with the exception of the United States) and the left for the Iranian protesters; to discuss the righteousness and the excess of the #MeToo movement; and so much more. Glad to have had him in my life for as long as I did – will never stop missing him or being angry that he is gone.

The Alastair Sim ‘Christmas Carol’ is the only one Worth Watching

“Cratchit, you magnificent bastard! I sent you a turkey!”

Some of you may have seen George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge in 1984’s ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Some of you may have enjoyed it. But none but the very foolish would consider it superior to the 1951 ‘A Christmas Carol’ starring Alastair Sim. Yet, I have heard of people who think the Scott version is not only superior to the Sim version, but the best Ebenezer Scrooge of all. I have seen articles asserting this calumny.

Who could think such a thing?

Most in the Scott camp are Millennials, which explains a lot. They grew up in a cultural Black Hole, they can’t spell, they don’t know where to put an apostrophe, their self-esteem is way too high and they all need to get off my lawn.

But one of the afore-linked articles appears to have been written by a fellow Gen-Xer. Horrifying.


Now, I love George C. Scott. He was a fine actor. I have seen ‘Patton’ more times than a woman should admit. It’s my ‘go-to’ movie when I’m blue. But the Alastair Sim version is the only Christmas Carol worth your time.

What sets it apart? Four things: horror; humour; music; casting.

The Victorians were good at ghost stories, and this version of Dickens’ classic reflects the tradition well, starting with Peter Bull’s sonorous narration and moving along to Jacob Marley’s lamentations and rattling chains, to the toiling, tormented ghosts outside Scrooge’s window, all the way to the grim Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come.

Some of this is present in other versions, but nowhere else is it as effective. Black and white film helps, but it’s more than that – the mood here is dark, and darkly funny. There is much humour in this version, too many witty moments to list. The best, for my money, is when the undertaker, waiting patiently outside the dying Jacob Marley’s room, explains his presence by stating that “ours is a highly competitive profession.” Coming in a close second is Scrooge’s post-redemption conversation with his mortified housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, and the moment when the Irish lady in the shelter says to Alice (in gratitude for her kindness), “Cut me throat, rip me liver from down the line, this is the happiest Christmas I ever had.” (It occurs to me that I should start thanking people like that. )

The use of music in the 1951 version is unparalleled in the panoply of cinematic Christmas Carols. (Why, it’s even better than the music in the ‘Scrooge’ musical, which went something like this: “I hate everyone, la la la!”) From Christmas carols, to the recurring use of Barbara Allen – if that song does not make you weep, you have no soul – to the celebratory clanging of ‘Oranges and Lemons’ when we first see the regal Spirit of Christmas Present, to the fiddlers at Fezziwig’s party, to the traditional ‘My Love’s an Arbutus’ which accompanies Scrooge’s visions of his lost love, it all works perfectly.

The cast is extraordinary. No room to list them all, but it is a measure of how well-selected each actor was that a most poignant moment takes place with no words: when Scrooge visits his nephew Fred on Christmas Day, Fred’s maid answers the door. The small nod of encouragement she gives a hesitant Scrooge is perfection. Of course, Sim’s performance as a weary man who feels “too old to change,” brings everything together.

Yes, I know, the 1951 version isn’t true to the novella. Scrooge’s mother didn’t die giving birth to him and Fezziwig’s Christmas parties weren’t all that and blah blah blah. Phooey! You can insist till the figgy pudding is ready that whatever version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ you prefer – the one with the Muppets, or Reginald Owen, or Fonzie, or Patton – is the best. But you’ll be wrong.

I will still, however, wish you a Merry Christmas, in keeping with the situation.


Almost exactly a year ago I wrote this about Barack Obama’s kick in the heart to Israel just as he left office. I was dubious about Trump then and while I am not thrilled with him now, he certainly made the right decision when it came to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The reaction to the decision was entirely predictable though I could not have foreseen how many people I “know” (on social media) know so little about the history of the Middle East. It’s exhausting, actually, reading some of the nonsense posted, including the innumerable “humour” (term used very loosely here) along the lines of “Palestinians recognize Texas as Part of Mexico” (an, er, “anti-Zionist” relative of mine posted that) or “World to Recognize Moscow as Capital of the United States” (a lefty friend of mine posted that) and so on. Get it? Get it? Hilarious! As though those scenarios were remotely comparable.

As an antidote to such foolishness, I give you links to three terrific columns to read and enjoy (the first two from total NeverTrumpers): John Podhoretz’s take is right here; Bret Stephens’ take is here; and Conrad Black writes about it all here.

For the record, I do think some otherwise sensible people are allowing their contempt for Trump (which he most definitely cultivates) to prevent them from seeing how righteous and overdue this decision was.