Remembering Zmievskaya Balka

August 11, 2017 § Leave a comment

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the massacre at Zmievskaya Balka, a ravine in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.  The literal meaning of Zmievskaya Balka is ‘ravine of snakes.’  It was here on 11-12 August 1942 that the Jewish men of Rostov were marched out to the ravine, just outside the city, and shot.  The women, children, and the aged of the Jewish population were gassed, and their bodies dumped at Zmievskaya Balka.  Communists and some Red Army soldiers met the same fate, along with their family.  All told, 27,000 people were massacred.  At least 20,000 of them were Jewish.

This massacre is one of the forgotten ones of World War II and the Nazis.  My guess is no one reading this post will have ever heard of it.  Soviet and Russian authorities have done their best to make sure the massacre, or at least the Jewish fact of it, is forgotten due to the on-going anti-Semitism of the state.

In 2004, activists managed to get a memorial plaque erected that identified one of the massacre sites and noted the Jewishness of the victims.  In 2011, approaching the 70th anniversary of the massacre, this plaque was removed. It was replaced with a more banal commemoration of the “peaceful citizens of Rostov-On-Don and Soviet Prisoners of War.”  This erases the primary act of the Nazis in Rostov 75 years ago: the eradication of the city’s Jewish population.  And, it obscures the Nazis murderous anti-Semitism.

This morning, organizers held a march to the sites of the massacre in Rostov, to remember this brutal massacre.  We owe it to them to hold the memory of these victims in our

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(Not) Commemorating the Irish Famine in Montreal

May 25, 2017 § 6 Comments

The Irish Famine was one of the great humanitarian disasters of the 19th century. A blight upon the potato crop, combined with British malfeasance, brought about a crisis that saw Ireland lose around 25% of its population between 1845 and 1852.  One million people died.  Another million emigrated.  This was the birth of the Irish diaspora as we know it today.

 

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Famine refugees in Ireland (woodcut)

Montreal is one of the great cities of the diaspora, even if most of the Irish world doesn’t know this.  Something like 40% of Quebecers have Irish heritage.  And the Irish have long been recognized as one of the ‘founding peoples’ of the city.  The flag of the Ville de Montréal features the flowers of each of the ‘founding peoples’ of the city: the French, English, Scots, and Irish, and a cross of St. George.  The landscape of the city is littered with remembrances of the Irish, from rue Shamrock by Marché Jean-Talon in the North End (where the old Shamrocks Lacrosse Club stadium was) to Loyola College (now part of Concordia University) and rue Dublin in Pointe-Saint-Charles.

 

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The flag of the Ville de Montréal

During the Famine, the city was inundated with refugees.  Even with a quarantine station on Grosse-Île, up the St. Lawrence River near Quebec, the sick and the dying still made it downriver to Montreal. They ended up in fever shacks on Pointe-Saint-Charles, just across the Lachine Canal from Griffintown.  Upwards of 6,000 of them were dumped in a mass grave that went largely unmarked and forgotten until 1859, when a bunch of Irish construction workers, building the Victoria Bridge, unearthed them.  The workers erected a huge black rock to mark the grave.

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The Black Rock

Don Pidgeon was the long-time historian of the United Irish Societies of Montreal, until he died last year.  He liked to argue that the rock was the birth place of Irish Montreal.  It was largely due to him that the Black Rock has been preserved and cared for.  For as long as I can remember, the Irish community of Montreal sought to create a proper memorial park to commemorate the Famine dead.  The Black Rock currently sits on an island in the middle of Bridge St., the Montreal approach to the Victoria Bridge, near where Goose Village once stood.  During rush hour, Bridge St. is congested and car-heavy.  It is no way to commemorate the dead.

Montreal is the only major diaspora city that lacks a Famine Memorial.  This is shocking and so very typically Montreal in many ways.  Montreal exists as it does today in large part due to the inundation of the Irish in the early 19th century.  This is true both demographically, but also infrastructurally.   The Irish built the bulk of the city’s 19th century infrastructure: the Lachine Canal, the railways, Victoria Bridge, the buildings and factories, and their muscle dredged the Montreal harbour, expanding it for bigger and bigger cargo ships.  They were also a key constituency of the industrial working classes in the 19th century.  They were present at the beginnings of the Canadian industrial revolution in Griffintown, and they helped power the city into the industrial centre of Canada. The influx of Irish also meant that for a brief period in the second half of the 19th century, English-speaking people were the majority of the population in the city.  And while the Famine is not the means by which all the Montreal Irish got there, it is a central story to the Irish in Montreal.

This is true of both the Famine refugees, but also the Irish community that was already there.  St. Patrick’s Basilica opened its doors on 17 March 1847, at the very start of the worst year of the Famine, Black ’47.  But that the Irish could construct a big, handsome church on the side of Beaver Hall Hill in 1847 also signifies the depth of the roots of the Irish in Montreal.  Even as early as the 1820s, there was a firmly ensconced Irish population in the city.  But when the flood gates opened and the refugees began streaming in later that spring of 1847, the Montreal Irish got to work.  They donated large sums of money to the care of their brethren, they volunteered to work in the fever sheds, they helped the survivors set up in Montreal (it is worth noting that the same was true of the rest of the city’s population, whatever its ethnic background).

In short, the years of the Irish Famine were central to the development of Irish Montreal.  And perhaps more to the point, following the Famine, Irish emigration to Montreal (and Canada as a whole), dried up.  Thus, in many ways, the Irish of Montreal were able to integrate and assimilate into the wider city.  They shared a language with the economically dominant group, a religion with the numerically dominant.  And the growing stability of the population aided in this process.  In short, in some ways, the Irish experience was not as fraught in Montreal as it was in other diasporic locations, where nativism and anti-Irish sentiment held sway.

 

The Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation kicked into gear last year, with its plan  to build a proper memorial.  The goal, according to the Foundation’s website, is to create a memorial park that would include playing fields for Irish sports, a theatre, and a museum on the site.  This park would be strategically located, and presumably would be connected to the Lachine Canal National Historic Site nearby, which is itself a heavily-used park.

The Foundation appears to have had all of its ducks lined up, with support from the Irish community, corporate Montreal, and the Mayor’s office.  The Irish Embassy in Ottawa was also supportive, willing to kick in some money (as it had with the Toronto Famine Memorial).

And then, a few weeks ago, the land that it proposed to acquire for the park was sold by the Canada Lands Company (a Crown corporation that deals with public land) to Hydro-Québec, which wants to build a sub-station there, ironically due to the massive redevelopment of Griffintown.  And while there is allegedly a clause in the sale requiring Hydro-Québec to build a monument to the Famine dead, that’s cold comfort.  Who is going to go look at a monument along a busy road next to an sub-station?

And so, at least for now, the dream of a proper memorial to the Famine refugees in Montreal is dead.  This year marks the 375th anniversary of the founding of Montreal, but it is also the 160th anniversary of Black ’47.

I have a hard time believing that something like this would happen in any other city.  A project with community, corporate and political support got derailed by two Crown corporations.  I don’t quite understand how this could have come as a surprise, as in, how did the Foundation not know that Canada Lands was negotiation with Hydro-Québec?  Then again, this is Montreal, so that is also entirely within the realm of possibility.  And this entire affair is so typically Montreal.

Remembering the Victims in Charleston

June 23, 2015 § 7 Comments

Sometime last week, someone in my Facebook world posted a Morrissey video.  I haven’t thought about Morrissey in a long time, other than when he says something profoundly stupid and embarrassing in public.  And then I think, “Oh yeah, there was a time when Mozzer was my favourite pop star.”  And then I feel slightly embarrassed.  But.  This video was “The Last of the International Playboys,” from Mozza’s 1990 classic, Bona Drag. 

The lyrics:

In our lifetime,
Those who kill,
The newsworld hands them stardom

have really caught my attention in the past few days.

Last week, something horrible and heinous happened in Charleston, South Carolina.  If you live under a rock and don’t know what happened, follow this link.  This act of domestic terrorism appalled, sickened, and depressed me.  This was just one more example of why #blacklivesmatter.  I felt hopeless, powerless, and lost. It doesn’t matter if you’re American or not (I’m not, I just live here).  And the tut-tutting from Canadians, Brits, and others about American violence is equally pointless.  On the other hand, President Obama is right: this doesn’t happen in other advanced nations.

And now, I am completely inundated with images of the racist jackass who committed this terrorist act in Charleston. I can’t escape it. I can’t escape him (I will not name him, I refuse. Why? Read this about the Montréal Massacre of 1989).  My Facebook feed, Twitter, the basic internet: All I see is this terrorist’s stupid, smirking face. I don’t want to.  I don’t want to see him, I don’t want to hear from him, I don’t care.  Others can care, they can worry why he committed an act of terror in African Methodist Episcopal Church (a Church! A place of sanctuary!) in Charleston.

This terrorist is being given a form of stardom for his heinous acts.  What should matter is the victims.  They are:

  • Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, 54. She was a manager of the Charleston County Public Library system; her brother is Malcolm Graham, a member of the South Carolina Senate.
  • Susie Jackson, 87. A member of the church choir and a veteran of the civil rights movement.
  • Ethel Lee Lance, 70.  She was the church sexton.
  • Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 59. A school administrator and admissions co-ordinate at Southern Wesleyan University.
  • Clementa Pinckney, 41.  She was the church pastor and a South Carolina State Senator.
  • Tywanza Sanders, 26.  He was Susie Jackson’s nephew.
  • Daniel Simmons, 74.  He was a pastor at the Greater Zion African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Awendaw, South Carolina.
  • Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45. Also a pastor, she was a speech therapist and track and field coach at Goose Creek High School.
  • Myra Thompston, 59.  She was a Bible studies teacher.

That’s nine people.  Think of the constellations of their relationships, partners, aunts, uncles, parents, kids, nieces, nephews, co-workers, students, friends, etc.  Think of all the people who are grieving.  That is more important than the terrorist who killed them.

The Spanish Civil War: On Memory and Forgetting

March 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

photoI have just finished reading Jeremy Treglown’s fantastic Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936.  Treglown is a literary critic, so he approaches history and memory in a manner rather different than a historian, nonetheless, there is definite overlap in methodologies.  I must say, I was originally concerned when I picked up the book and read this on the dust jacket: “True or False: Memory is not the same thing as History.”  Um, yeah, true. No kidding.  But, the whims of publishers are rather different than the arguments of authors.

Treglown does a fantastic job of dealing with the complexities of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9 and then the long Francoist dictatorship from 1939 until the Generalisimo’s death in 1975 and the transition to democracy that followed.  Treglown works very hard against the myth that Republicans = Good and Nationalists = bad during the Civil War.  He also works hard against the myth that Franco’s régime was purely repressive and oppressive vis-à-vis art and artists, noting that a great amount of art (film, literature, music, visual art, sculpture) emerged in Francoist Spain.  This is not to say that Treglown paints a rosy picture of Francoist Spain.  He doesn’t.  He doesn’t glorify Franco, but he seeks to complicate the dictator and the community of artists in Spain during and since the Civil War.  He also deals with the complexity of characters like Camilo José Cela.

Cela was a nationalist soldier during the Civil War, and later worked as the censor for the Francoist state.  And yet, he was also himself a novelist, and remarkably blunt and sensitive in his work. He began a literary journal in 1956 “as a way of countering cultural officialdom and giving space to the ideas of Spanish writers living abroad.” A noble sentiment, given that most of those expat Spanish writers were expatriates due to the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship.

Treglown points to Cela’s most famous work, San Camilo, 1936.  While San Camilo, 1936, has been criticised for a lack of morality, both due to the amount of time the characters spend in brothels and Cela’s avoidance of the larger issues of the war, it is in the details that the novel works.  Cela shows the moral and actual ambiguity of war, in Treglown’s words:

Above all, San Camilo, 1936 grieves for Spain, gazing at a graveyard full of flowers of all colors, ignoring the shouts of “¡Viva la república!” and “¡Viva España!” because “it is no use being too enthusiastic when melancholy nests in the heart.

But what mostly interests me about Treglown’s discussion about San Camilo, 1936 is the intersection between memory and forgetting.  As Cela writes, “No one knows whether it is better to remember or to forget.  Memory is sad and forgetting on the other hand usually repairs and heals.” Nevertheless, as Treglown notes, San Camilo, 1936, is essentially a “puzzled, angry act of commemoration.”  In other words, Cela and his characters remain ambivalent with what is to be done with trauma, history and memory.

I find Cela’ claims about the virtues of forgetting to be interesting.  We live in an era that seems to believe the opposite in many ways.  In our times, cultural historical memories have been exhumed and examined in public.  Sometimes this takes the form of commemoration, (such as in Cork, Ireland, in the summer of 1997, marking the 150th anniversary of the Famine) or commissions of Truth and Reconciliation (such as in South Africa after Apartheid).  Treglown himself recounts attempts by the caretakers of Franco’s memory to maintain his dignity, three decades later at the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), a huge monument outside of Madrid to honour the Nationalist fallen of the Civil War.  Meanwhile, since the end of the dictatorship in 1975, the Spanish have attempted to exhume the bodies of massacred Republican soldiers and sympathisers.  Indeed, the balance of power has tipped in favour of the Republicans, to the point where the atrocities committed by them during the Civil War have been whitewashed, just as the Francoists whitewashed the Nationalist atrocities.

Cela’s words, however, led me to think about Marc Bloch’s blistering Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940, about the quick Fall of France at the start of the Second World War.  Bloch, a captain in the French Army and the country’s most famous historian, wrote this on the run from the Nazis (who eventually killed him).  Strange Defeat is a searing book, almost painful to read, written by a fierce French patriot stunned and shocked his nation collapsed in defeat at the hands of the Nazis.  Bloch blames France’s political and military leaders for failing to have prepared for modern warfare.  And while Bloch remains an annaliste (the school of historical scholarship Bloch pioneered) in writing Strange Defeat, the immediacy of the events he’s describing and his anger and fury are clear.

Bloch was too close to the events, and too involved, to provide a long-view analysis of the Fall of France (nor, for that matter, did he wish to).  The same can be said of Cela, a Nobel laureate.  San Camilo, 1936 was published in 1969, thirty years after the end of the Civil War, while Franco was still alive and in power.  Cela, like Bloch, was involved in the events his novel attempts (or doesn’t attempt) to deal with, and his view on the past, memory, and forgetting is perhaps not surprising.

My grandfather, Rodney Browne, was 17 when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943. He was a tail gunner, which meant his chances of survival were pretty slim. And yet he did survive, and he came home to Montréal in 1945 with the conclusion of the war.  But he was traumatised, deeply.  He suffered silently, primarily by drinking.  And he was restless, unable to settle into a job or family life, until his late 40s/early 50s, nearly thirty years after the war.  By the time I was born, Rod was settled, married again, and he was a good grandfather.  It is from him that I gained an historical consciousness about the Irish in Montréal.  He didn’t talk about his past much, and he never talked about the war.  I later found out that this was pretty common for men of his generation who served in the Second World War.  He didn’t want to remember, which is why he drank when he got home, trying to obliterate those memories.

So maybe, it is the generation who lives through the worst of the trauma that wishes to forget, to never have to think of the atrocities they saw or committed.  It is their descendants who feel the need to excavate these memories.  Either way, these are not complete thoughts on memory, commemorations, and forgetting.  Memory and forgetting remain incredibly powerful tools in historical scholarship.

Remembering Zmievskaya Balka, Rostov-On-Don, Russia, 1942

February 15, 2012 § 2 Comments

My sister-in-law’s husband is spear-heading this campaign.  Please circulate this widely.  The actions of the Rostov-On-Don city council are disgusting and an attempt to erase history and are thinly veiled anti-Semitism.  Let us ensure they cannot get away with this:

Please disseminate the following press release by the committee organizing the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of Zmievskaya Balka – “Russia’s Babi Yar.”   Scheduled events will commemorate a series of mass executions by Nazis just outside the city of Rostov, Russia between 1942 and 1943.  While grassroots commemorative initiatives have taken place since the early 1990s by Rostov’s small Jewish community, 2012 marks the first major effort to commemorate the Holocaust in Rostov publicly.

The planning process takes place amidst conflict over the recent decision by Rostov government officials to take down a memorial plaque that was erected in 2004, identifying most of the 27,000  Zmievskaya Balka victims as Jewish.  The replacement plaque does not mention Jews, but rather the “peaceful citizens of Rostov-on-Don and Soviet prisoners-of-war.”  Having struggled for decades to battle exclusionary nationalism and anti-Semitism in the construction of public memory of the events at Zmievskaya Balka, Rostov’s  Jewish community and the diaspora it has yielded have been spurred to action and are seeking support as well as information, donations of artifacts and broad participation in the commemorative activities.  

70th Anniversary Commemoration of Zmievskaya Balka – “Russia’s Babi Yar”

Rostov on Don, Russia,  August 12-14, 2012

Organizing Committee Announcement

August 2012 marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of mass executions of Jews by the Nazis in Rostov on Don, Russia, in the  Zmievskaya “balka” – a huge ravine on the edge of this southern Russian city of over one million residents. Here more than 20,000 people were killed. The greatest number of victims, including poisoned children,  died on August 11 and 12, 1942. For Russia, this place holds the symbolic importance of Ukraine’s Babi Yar. There is no place in Russia where a greater number of Holocaust victims lost their lives. Others were also killed here: Soviet citizens of other nationalities, prisoners of war, resisters, psychiatric hospital patients, and others.

In 1975, a memorial was erected at the Rostov “Zmievskaya Balka” and a small museum was built there.

This anniversary of the Rostov tragedy, dedicated to the memory of the victims, deserves attention on an international level, as this place has relevance for many famous people connected with the history of the Holocaust. Among those executed here was world-renowned psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein (about whom several feature films have been made). Both before and after the war Alexander Pechersky lived in Rostov. Pechersky was the organizer of the only successful mass escape from a Nazi death camp — the escape from Sobibor. A British film about his exploits was well received.

Two other prominent Jewish leaders are connected to Rostov: Fedor Mikhalchenko, rescued in Buchenwald as a child and later to become Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Meir Lau, present day chairman of the Board of the museum “Yad Vashem.” Meir Lau, who is planning to attend the rememberance events, will be one of the honored guests. Government delegations, including the U.S. and Israel, are being invited.

Please note that August 11, 2012 falls on a Saturday (the Sabbath), which means that no memorial services will be held on this day.

August 12-14, 2012

Planned memorial /educational activities in Rostov-on-Don include the following:

– A memorial evening in one of the city’s largest halls on August 12th ;

– A ceremony at the Zmievskaya Balka on the morning of 13th August;

– Opening of a new exhibit at the Museum of the “Zmievskaya Balka” (August 13);

– International conference in memory of Sabina Spielrein  on the “Fate of Scientists during the Holocaust” (August 12th -13th );

– A seminar for teachers of Russia, CIS and the Rostov Region, “Lessons of the Holocaust –  the path to tolerance” (12th -14th August);

– A Holocaust Film Festival to feature both documentary and feature films;

We are seeking support from colleagues and interested parties across the globe.

How You Can Help:

–       Join the organizing committee.

–       Donate money to help us hire organizers and researchers.

–       If you have any information about the victims of Zmievskaya Balka or their relatives or descendants, please contact us.

–       Do you read Russian?  When searching for the names of the dead, we found the miraculously-preserved records of the Rostov synagogue circa 1850-1921.  Please help us translate these records, as well as other research articles on the events at Rostov, from Russian into English so that they may be more widely disseminated.

–       Contribute to memorial books or consider donating to the exhibit.

–       Spread the word: disseminate this press release widely. 

Please contact us for more information.

 Ilya Altman:  +79169064998, altman@holofond.ru

Yuri Dombrovskiy:  +79037553043, yuri.domb@gmail.com

Web links:

http://holocaust.su

http://www.rememberingrostov.com/

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