Sunday, October 23, 2011

Least Expected Heroes of the Holocaust, by Vera Gara

A friend of mine is about to publish a unique book.

Vera Gara's memoir, Least Expected Heroes of the Holocaust: a personal memoir, (Ottawa, 2011, ISBN 978-0-9877789-0-1, soft cover, $15, will be available by November 2011 from

An Ottawa grandmother, Vera (Pick) Gara has authored an extraordinary memoir about heroic people who showed their humanity in terrible times. Mrs. Gara, R.N., a Canadian citizen and Ottawa resident for almost forty years, had her childhood interrupted by the rise of the Nazis and World War Two.

In her book, Least Expected Heroes of the Holocaust: a personal memoir, Mrs. Gara pays tribute to the everyday people who put themselves at risk to try to help her and her parents, first in 1938 when Hitler annexed Austria, and then in 1944-5, when the Jews of Hungary were rounded up by the Nazis.

Gara, who devotes herself to volunteer work and public education about the Holocaust, was instrumental in the establishment of Raoul Wallenberg Park in Ottawa (Nepean) and, as a result, was awarded membership in the Order of the Polar Star, the highest order that the Swedish government bestows upon foreigners. Wallenberg was a Swedish businessman and diplomat who saved the lives of many Hungarian Jews in 1944-5.

"Thinking about my wartime experiences and Wallenberg's heroic deeds, I became convinced that I must do something to honour the people who were not ambassadors or of other high rank, but who tried to help me and my parents during our awful journey in 1944-5," writes Gara. "People in ordinary walks of life showed themselves to be extraordinary by taking risks and acting like decent human beings during those dark days. I cannot honour them all with parks and monuments, though I would if I could. Instead, I have written about some whose lives touched mine, to convey my gratitude."

One outstanding example of such a fine person was the family chauffeur, who tried, in 1938, to save some family furnishings when the Pick meat packing plant and home were ransacked by the Nazis, forcing Vera's mother to flee with her young daughter to Hungary, while Mr. Pick was imprisoned.

Later, Vera's father was released and joined the family in Hungary, but worse was yet to come. Vera and her parents were among the Jews of Hungary whom the Nazis began rounding up for deportation and death in 1944-5.

The Picks were transported, first, to a forestry work camp in Loitzendorf, an Austrian village, and eventually to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. At the forestry camp, Vera's mother went into the village to buy food, and was befriended by an Austrian farm wife, Frau Lagler. Her twelve year old daughter, Mitzl, provided the prisoners with goats' milk (cows' milk being designated for the army). When Herr Lagler was questioned by the authorities as to whether his family was helping Jews, he replied that he was at work in his fields from sun-up to sun-down and knew nothing.

Unfortunately, the adult prisoners in the forestry camp were unable to do the required work, and the Picks, with the others, were moved again. On their sad journey, which ultimately led to Bergen-Belsen where Vera's father died, they were aided in small but important ways by several other good human beings who went out on a limb to be of help. Under the circumstances, the deeds of these "least expected heroes" were remarkable, says Mrs. Gara.

Mrs. Gara continues her story post-war, showing the longterm impact of the Nazi regime on her own and other families, including that of her husband, George Gara. Life in Hungary under communism brought more oppression. Formerly discriminated against as Jews, Mrs. Pick and Vera were now under suspicion as "capitalists." Finally, mother and daughter were able to return to Vienna. Vera studied nursing in London, England, and later, with George and their children, moved to Canada.

Reading Vera Gara's memoir takes you on an emotional roller-coaster ride. Her entire story is remarkable. Her surprisingly positive attitude shines through in every chapter. Though subjected to the worst oppression inflicted by totalitarian regimes, she has emerged as a vibrant person determined to live her life to the fullest, and to tell about past evil so that people will not repeat it.

The most touching part of Mrs. Gara's book is her recent rekindling of her friendship with Mitzl (Lagler) Reithmayer and her family, and with other Austrians who tried to help during the terrible past.

"People like Mizl and her family think it is normal to be good and helpful, and that is why we [George and I] value our friendship with them," says Vera Gara. "Always bear in mind: what may seem like a small act at the time may be the factor that keeps someone alive."

Least Expected Heroes of the Holocaust: a personal memoir, (ISBN 978-0-9877789-0-1) is available from Vera Gara, for $15.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thought-provoking article in Harpers Magazine, November 1911

I was drawn to the article, "Broken Britain: Nothing is left of the family silver" in the November 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine, because of my interest in England. Not only did my late father come to Canada from England as a child, but also my education has involved reading a lot of English literature and works on English history (including social history). This article, by leading journalist Ed Vulliamy (senior correspondent for Britain's Observer and Guardian newspapers) is a troubling tale with implications for Canada.

"Criminality" was the explanation given by both Conservative and Labour Party leaders in response to the August 2011 riots in Britain. Vulliamy contends that the "moral collapse", a phrase used by Prime Minister Cameron, started at the top of society. He notes scandals in which prominent Conservatives and Labour politicians have been implicated. Vulliamy describes his country as "greedy, obsessed with commercialism at the expense of any other value or norm, xenophobic, belligerent and hubristic."

Vulliamy blames Britain's "decomposition" on the devastation of manufacturing under Margaret Thatcher's administration, in parallel with drastic privatization of infrastructure, utilities and services. Traditional industries were replaced by retail and service ones, especially financial services "so that the economy came to rest on the whims and needs of supranational banking." Prosperity didn't "trickle-down" to the public; rather, taxpayers' money went to bail out the "very institutions that have looted our economy."

Vulliamy says that dependence on the financial sector has "changed the geography of opportunity." In the past, there were apprenticeships and opportunities all over Britain, but now, he says, "the only real money is in London", and the "ethos of London" governs the way the country thinks.

Although Vulliamy blames Thatcher for "selling off the nation's collective assets", he says that Blair proved to be her "natural successor." The title comes from a 1985 speech by former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, in which he compared privatization to selling the family silver.

Vulliamy mourns the loss of publicly run and owned industries and services like the now-defunct National Coal Board, British Rail, the Gas Board, etc., saying that they were run by people who "knew what they were doing and provided what they promised." In 2006-7 ,Vulliamy's aged father endured a winter without heat, due to a snafu to do with privatization and outsourcing. The family took up the matter, which was not solved until the end of March 2007, the day before his father died.

Privatization, says Vulliamy, has led to increased consumer prices, rewards to civil servants who were "selling off the silver", and loss of jobs. He notes a number of indicators that all is not well in Britain. It rates low among nations when the well-being of children and economic equality are measured and compared. There has been a marked increase in fatal accidents since British rail was privatized, and the new privatized company is still government subsidized. Authoritarianism is on the rise; Britain has more closed circuit TV camera surveillance than any other country in the world.

Canadians who are concerned about our Wheat Board, the spending on the G-8/ G-20 conferences, the suppression of the protests against them, and the growing gap in Canada between rich and poor will find food for thought in Vulliamy's article.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

a writing exercise from this past summer

This past summer, when all the gardens were gorgeous, a writer friend and I issued each other a poetry challenge. We were to try to write a poem, any style, comparing our friends to flowers, and to do it within twenty minutes. We both produced poems, but she felt that hers fell below her standards and decided not to add it to her computer files. (We were writing in longhand at the time.)

My poem fell below my standards, too, but since so many of mine do, what's one more? Here is the poem:

How like a flower garden are my friends.
The poppies and sunflowers stretch so tall.
Impatiens loves the shade. So much depends
upon their natures. I enjoy them all.

A pale wallflower, and a belle, so blue
should dally with the spikes of lavender,
or black-eyed Susan with her gaze so true
will make eye-contact, bending them to her.

Nasturtiums nourish, other blooms surprise,
like purple asters with their orange smell.
Forget-me-nots rate highly in my eyes,
though dazzled by the scarlet pimpernel.

Most flowers bloom and fade; it's what they do.
The pearly everlasting one is you.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Catching up on literary magazines

Once a month or so, Roger and I visit the public library to catch up on all the periodicals that we enjoy reading. To subscribe to them all would cost too much; as well, our house has too many books and magazines already.

While there the other day I read the Summer 2011 New Quarterly because it included an interview with Alice Munro about her novella, "Too Much Happiness" in the book by the same name. She was talking about the influence of Freud, not only on the characters in her novella, but also on women in the 1950s when she was a young wife, mother and aspiring writer.

She said, in answer to one question: "..[W]hen I was a young married woman I learned that educated women wanted desperately to follow and give help to a man. It was not the uneducated women who wanted this. It was the girls who read Freud...In the writing community it was that way too. It was was women who were difficult for me to deal with. They didn't approve of me because they sensed I wanted something of my own... When I got to live in the suburbs I found out, and it was a total surprise to me, that female achievement was so out of style... People accept fashions very readily and intellectual women or men are not immune to this either. The '60s was when I finally began to feel alive..."

I also read the October 2011 Writer's Digest, which includes an article by Les Egerton called "The Four Goals Your Beginning Must Meet." A novel or short story, he writes, must start with a "story-worthy problem." There must be trouble of the sort that alters the protagonist's internal psychological profoundly.

The other rules have to do with the hook, the establishment of your particular story's rules, and forecasting the ending. Read the article for more information.

I also came home with the new Lisa See novel set in China in 1957-8. All in all, it was a useful trip to the library

Monday, October 3, 2011

article about me in Ottawa This Week

This past Friday Ottawa This Week (West Edition) included an article about me by Kristy Wallace. The website is

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A friend sent me a poem

My old friend and editor, Valerie Simmons, sent me this poem, which was read at the funeral of her cousin's wife.

Death is Nothing at All

by Canon Henry Scott-Holland, 1847-1918

Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still.
Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we always enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effort,
Without the ghost of a shadow in it.

Life means all that it ever meant,
It is the same as it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
What is death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you for an interval
Somewhere very near
Just around the corner.

All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again.