Canadian Holocaust Writings Haunted by the Dark Past

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The first generation of Canadian writers who responded to the Holocaust will be familiar to some readers: the poets AM Klein, Irving Layton, Eli Mandel and Leonard cohen, and the novelists Mordecai Richler and Adele Wiseman.

Witnesses far away, they wrote nazi genocide views of Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg – Canadian cities with the largest Jewish populations – and English, a language that sets them apart from European Jews.

Less well known are those who have written from their lived experience, whether in Yiddish or in English as an adopted language. They wrote as survivors and to commemorate the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.

Literary exploration of the Holocaust grew in proportion as the children of the survivors reached writing age.

As new research shows, there is a rich body of literature on the Holocaust in Canada that deserves to be studied as a separate area of ​​the literature. To mark this Holocaust Education Week, let’s take a look at the key works of Canadian Holocaust literature.

Chava Rosenfarb

Chava Rosenfarb (1923-2011) was born in Lodz, Poland. she survived Auschwitz, Sasel and Bergen-Belsen, immigrated to Montreal and wrote in his native Yiddish.

Rosenfarb was a prolific author of prose, poetry, and drama. Much of his work has been translated into English by his daughter, Goldie Morgentaler, including the epic trilogy, Tree of life (1972). A rare work of fiction written by a survivor, the trilogy follows the lives of 10 Jewish figures from the start of World War II in 1939 until the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto in 1944.

Goldie Morgentaler talks about “The Tree of Life”.

Rosenfarb has also written short survivor stories, some of which take place in Canada. One of the seven appearing in Survivors (2004) is “Edgia’s Revenge”. The story is about the relationship between two Jewish women, one a former kapo (an inmate of a Nazi camp, appointed guard), and the other his former manager, who reconnect after settling in Montreal.


Henri kreisel

Henri kreisel (1922-1991) wrote the first Canadian novel on the Holocaust. Kreisel was born in Vienna, before escaping to England and Canada. There he would be interned as alien enemy in New Brunswick, where he began to write in his adopted language, English.

“The Rich Man”, by Henry Kreisel.
(Red Deer Press)

Kreisel The rich man (1948), which takes place in 1935, takes place against a backdrop of impending cataclysm and points directly to the terror of Hitler’s reign. It opens as protagonist Jacob Grossman decides to take an extended leave of absence from his presser job at a Toronto garment factory. After 33 years, he returned to his native Vienna to visit his family, whom he had not seen since immigrating to Canada. Presumed to be a “rich man,” Jacob continues the facade, but faces defeat when he is unable to offer financial assistance to his desperate family.

Kreisel The treason (1964) is set in 1952 and also focuses on moral responsibility. When a man who escaped the Nazis discovers his alleged “traitor” in Edmonton, history professor narrator Mark Lerner is forced to confront questions of guilt and revenge.


Bernice eisenstein

The memorialist Bernice eisenstein, who was born in Toronto in 1949 and raised there, is the first Canadian to publish a graphic memoir on the Holocaust.

Cover of a book showing a little girl and her shadow.
“I was a child of Holocaust survivors” by Bernice Eisenstein.
(Random Penguin House)

I was a child of Holocaust survivors (2006) combines story and illustrations to convey what it was like to grow up in the shadow of the Holocaust. It tells the story of a girl struggling with the legacy of trauma as she struggles to understand its lasting effects on her parents and their surviving friends.

The narrative perspective is a blend of the adult and his adolescence and childhood, while the illustrations range from bold black and white drawings to soft Chagall-style portraits. Adapted for cinema by the National Film Board, the brief evokes the confusion, despair and grief often experienced by second generation.


Isa milman

Book cover showing a person reaching out to the light.
“Prairie Kaddish”, by Isa Milman.
(Coteau Books)

Isa milman, born in 1949 in a displaced persons camp in Germany, grew up in the United States and moved to Canada in 1975. She is the author of a memoir and three volumes of verse.

Milman’s memories of his surviving parents and his love of the Yiddish language setting Prairie Kaddish (2008), which she conceives of as “history in poetic form”. Anchored in Canada, the work commemorates the Jewish pioneer settlers of Saskatchewan. It comes back to Lipton Hebrew Cemetery, where many are buried, and also honors the Cree and Métis who forged relationships with early Jewish settlers.


Lilian nattel

Cover of a book showing
“Girl at the edge of the sky”, by Lilian Nattel.
(Random Penguin House)

Novelist Lilian nattel was born in 1956 in Montreal to Holocaust survivors. Nattel is the author of four novels. Girl at the edge of the sky (2019) recreates the true story of Lily litvyak, Soviet fighter pilot during World War II.

In life, little Litvyak flew over occupied territory and shot down Nazi planes. On August 1, 1943, at the age of 21, she was shot down in action and disappeared. In fiction, Nattel imagines the woman Litvyak could have been and brings her to life through her commitment to the cause of freedom and her relationships with the people she loves.


Alison pick

Cover of a book showing a butterfly landing on top of long foliage.
“Between Gods” by Alison Pick.
(Random Penguin House)

The catastrophic event of the Holocaust is no less important to a later generation of writers whose grandparents were survivors.

Alison Pick was born in Toronto in 1975 and raised in the Anglican community of Kitchener, Ontario. As a teenager, she learned the truth about Czech Jewish origin from her father. As an adult, she embarked on a personal journey to uncover her deleted history.

This leads her to the shocking revelation that European parents were lost in the Holocaust and the eventual decision – even though she claims she is already Jewish – to formally convert to Judaism. In the memories of Pick Between the gods (2014), this story is recaptured by a discovery that is both heartbreaking and redemptive.


Gary Barwin

Cover of a book showing the silhouette of a cowboy in front of a swastika.
“Nothing like it, everything is haunted: the ballad of Motl the cowboy” by Gary Barwin.
(Random Penguin House)

Gary Barwin was born in 1964 in Belfast and immigrated to Ottawa in 1973. Prolific author of poetry and prose, Barwin’s novel Nothing similar, everything is haunted: the ballad of Motl the cowboy (2021) mixes humor and tragedy to recount the life of Motl, a Jew from Vilnius, Lithuania, the birthplace of Barwin’s grandfather.

The novel opens in July 1941 in Vilnius, when the Nazis invade Lithuania. He follows Motl as he crosses Europe on a savage quest to escape death. He is determined to stay alive and start a family. It ends in 1984 in Canada, with Motl and his granddaughter Gitl on a life-affirming road trip, driving west from Toronto to Fort Macleod, Alta.


The past of the Holocaust still haunts the present and challenges Canadian writers. Their works of poetry and prose are forms of remembrance that hold our attention.


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