A forgotten gem about life in Montreal’s Jewish ghetto during the Second World War.
I’ve started to become partial to memoirs and diaries recounting events half a century ago or more. So much has happened since then, and so much has changed. It’s been a busy couple of centuries, and it is no small blessing that the printing press has now been around for over half of a millennium. Collections like Roughing it in the Bush and even more Atwood’s more recent collection of essays Burning Questions remind us of the things we’ve forgotten.
I picked up Mordecai Richler’s The Street at a book store that had been left to an old woman by a younger old man. “Sometimes it pays to be nice to grumpy old men!” she likes to say. I’d had a lovely chat with her while I waited for the rain to pass, and only after finishing the book did I realize that this old woman was probably born around the same time as the author (who was born in 1931).
The Street is a collection of 11 short stories recounting the author’s life in a Jewish ghetto in Montreal during the second world war. I’m generally not interested in books centred on group identities, but the book grew on me as it became apparent that this was more of a pervasive aspect of the environment rather than the express purpose of the narrative.
The nature of the tribalism in Canada even this short time ago is represented as starkly different to the landscape I grew up in. One is given the distinct impression that in Mordecai’s social circles growing up, anyone that wasn’t Jewish was simply an outsider, and for his family there didn’t seem to be a way to see past that. Everything seemed to be seen through the lens of the relationship between the Jewish and everyone else (although there is an interesting subdivision and commentary about the different types of people that are not Jewish, and network of relationships between all of these communities, and their own intolerance towards different factions of their own community). It’s also interesting that he often mentions how poor his community spoke English, without ever seeming to talk about how well they spoke French (but they were in Montreal, so…)
One of my favourite stories in the collection (Pinky’s Squeeler) recounted his friends stealing a sign that indicated that the beach was for the exclusive use of ‘gentiles.’ At first consideration, this seemed to be the kind of sign that would strike me as an impossibility today, until I remembered that only a year ago there were similar signs in Canada excluding a large portion of the population from various public places based on their medical status – with the endorsement of a large swath of the population and the government itself. Sometimes it’s startling to see how quickly a society that is so severe in its judgment of historical wrongs can justify the very same offences under slightly different circumstances. “History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Indeed, Mr. Twain.
One of my favourite aspects of reading old accounts like this are the exotic minutiae of daily life back then. For example, the nature of war rations for families at the time. Here’s an excerpt that I found especially interesting:
‘You know you’re not allowed to drink coffee,’ my mother said. ‘You’re still a child.’
My sister grinned and took a long sip from her cup.
‘As far as the legally elected govefrnment of Canada is concerned I am, as of yesterday, allowed to drink coffee.’
‘The government is full of anti-semites,’ my father pronounced compulsively.
But I could see that my mother’s resolve was weakening.
‘One Cup,’ I pleaded. ‘Would it break your heart?’
‘Your mother’s right. Coffee is bad for a growing boy.’
Staying up late, according to Bambinger, would also stunt my growth. As did evenings spent at the Park Bowling Academy.
‘This is family business, so keep your big nose out of it.’
‘Apologize to Mr. Bambinger immediately.’
‘Either I get my legal ration or I destroy my coupons.’
‘You will do no such thing. Now apologize to Mr. Bambinger.’
Bambinger smiled mockingly at me, waiting.
‘Well, the hell with you,’ I shouted, turning on Bambinger. ‘Why’d you run away from Hitler, you chicken? Couldn’t you have stayed behind and fought in the underground? Wouldn’t that have been better than running out on your wife and kid to save your own skin?’
My mother slapped me.
‘Okay,’ I said, bolting. ‘I’m leaving home.’
[from “Bambinger” (Chapter 7)]
Now while I don’t think that the Government of Canada has demonstrated itself to be a reliable authority on human health, and I really have no idea if it is harmful for a twelve-year-old to drink coffee, I think you could have an interesting debate about his families’ right to deprive him of his government issued ration. Perhaps, I might say, that his mother may be within her sphere of authority to forbid him to drink coffee, but I would also say that he has every right to destroy the coupons. Which, when you think about it, is a wonderful tactic for Mordecai’s position, since doing so would eliminate any non-health related incentives to his family for forbidding him his coffee.
You may be interested to know that while he did run away from home that evening, it was raining pretty heavily and he came home that night. As for Mr. Barbinger – the one guilty of convincing the author’s mother to deprive him of coffee, shortly after this incident he learned that his wife and child had survived, and were on a boat from Australia to meet him in Canada. It is perhaps indicative of the ubiquity of tragedy during this time in history that a few weeks later Mr. Barbinger would learn that this very same boat sank on its way to Canada, and the impending and unexpected reunion would never come to pass.
There were other precious relics to be found buried in this book. I’d had no idea that the NHL had ever carried a one-armed player (Pete Grey, for the Toronto Maple Leaves – admittedly, I haven’t been able to find anything about him, but I haven’t yet looked that hard), and it’s interesting to know that his family charged $12 a week to rent a room at the time (but only to Jewish folks, it would seem). And you know what? I want to see a picture of Molly Rosen, the most beautiful girl on their street. What did the most beautiful girl in the Jewish ghetto in Montreal look like in the 1940s? I want to know!
And wow, rent in Montreal for less than $50 a month (including meals)… inflation, eh?