ADOPTION BY A COLD LAND

But a postwar Hungarian immigrant finds warmth, too. He calls it love

JOHN HIRSCH April 1 1973

ADOPTION BY A COLD LAND

But a postwar Hungarian immigrant finds warmth, too. He calls it love

JOHN HIRSCH April 1 1973

ADOPTION BY A COLD LAND

JOHN HIRSCH

But a postwar Hungarian immigrant finds warmth, too. He calls it love

I am driving up Churchill Drive along the Red River. The sun is on my right, still up at six o’clock, now and then shining straight into my eyes, blinding me, throwing the shadows of bushes on the tilled earth. First there is a green island of grass, clumps of bushes with their red leaves still on the branches, and a lone tree; a bunch of charred wood on the black earth, coming to an end where the great expanse of still green grass runs down to the bushes along the river bank. Past the Convalescent Hospital, past the bungalows, every one with its fenceless garden, one lawn running into the other. The shadow of my rented Volkswagen runs dark on the sundrenched earth. Home is near the bridge. On the lawn the weeping birch, planted nearly 20 years ago, just two years after we moved from the North End to Fort Rouge. Twenty-seven years ago come next Thanksgiving I arrived in Winnipeg.

First I lived on Poison Avenue. I went to St. John’s Tech. On Saturday nights we went to the College Theatre on Main and Machray. Sunday afternoons we went either to St. John’s Park or Kildonan Park. There were parties and I took out a girl named Betty, whose father had a bakery. Most of the boys worked at Freed & Freed; later I worked as an office boy at Aronovitch & Leipsic Ltd. The others bought themselves sharp suits and shoes and had bicycles. I earned very little and I was sent a big parcel of used clothing by my newly acquired cousin, Marcia from Minneapolis. I wanted to go back to wherever.

I was 17 when I landed in Halifax from Hungary in 1947. A nice lady who spoke a bit of Yiddish mixed with German took me out in a big car to Citadel Hill. She pointed upward and asked me whether I knew what was flying in the sky. I looked at the plane and said yes, expecting some comment from her. None came. She just thought I had never seen a plane before. During the siege of Budapest we were bombed by the Rus-

John Hirsch, a founding member of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, has directed plays in New York, Tel Aviv and cities across Canada. He has lived in New York for the past five years studying theatre and intends to return to Canada.

sians during the day and the Americans at night. The planes came in waves of 50 to 100. She also took me down to her rec room, turned the lights on and off, showed me the refrigerator and flushed the toilets several times. I guess she expected me to applaud.

When we arrived in Winnipeg I was taken to the old YMHA at 91 Albert Street. At the lunch counter a gentleman bought me a Coca-Cola and there I sat, until a round little old man, looking like Rumpelstiltskin, stormed up to me, tore the bottle out of my hand, and began an incomprehensible tirade in Yiddish. After a crescendo of unmistakable invective, he departed, leaving me in a state of shock and thirst. From an onlooker who spoke Hungarian I learned that the old man’s name was Boroditsky, and that he had cursed the day when he contributed to the fund that enabled the Canadian Jewish Congress to bring orphans to Canada. He had called me ungrateful and insolent, all because I was drinking Coca-Cola at the Y. It turned out that Mr. Boroditsky owned a bottling plant whose crowning produce was a soft drink, the staple thirst-quencher of every Jewish household, Wynola, the champagne of the North End. Later on, when I was settled with my new family, the Shacks, at 148 Poison, and I had learned to drink Wynola like a native, I heard that Mr. Boroditsky was related to the Shacks by marriage and was therefore one of my ready-made uncles. This wasn’t surprising; practically everyone in the North End was related to the Boroditskys, and to everyone else.

You could look into the eyes of people in Winnipeg. You didn’t have to feel guilty about being Jewish. The next-door neighbor was a policeman, and a gentile one at that. When he was directing traffic or passing by on his motorcycle as I came home from work, he always said hello; but it took me months to be able to say a loud hello back.

Driving from Brandon to Winnipeg in the middle of February, late in the afternoon. The sun goes down. The highway is straight, my windshield wipers scrape the freezing snow. I

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can’t see farther ahead more than a few feet. Through the frost shields on the side windows of the car the snow whirls against unrelieved darkness. The road runs on — there is no light out there. Not a shape to tell me where I am. The car is warm. There are three sounds; the wind, the motor and the scraping wipers. I don’t have a watch. No more than a bit of visible road; the blackness never retreats. I am not really moving at all, though the wheels are turning. I am in motion but there is no sign of advance. I look desperately ahead for some sign of habitation, a barn, a tree, a house, another car. There is nothing. I could be driving on a plank across the ocean.

Labor Day at the Whiteshell. Paul, John and I are out for a weekend. At night we sit in the cottage by the fire. There is little talk. We get up early, before the sun, row across fields of water lilies in the blue mist of the lake, going fishing. The sky turns pink; for the first time I hear a loon’s cry. The silence is suddenly defined, clean, fresh and clear as the water on my trailing hand. We go past green islands, barely visible — just the scent of rotting wood, moss, ferns, wet leaves, grey mushrooms. The sun is coming up, the mist lifts from the lake; now the tall granite walls of the shore, capped by black pines, green pines, come into view. We pass through fields of wild rice where two Indians are harvesting. The grain falls like water into the bottom of their canoe. We hear the sound distinctly at first; it softens as we pass. It begins to rain. The lake sizzles like a frying pan.

Canada is Winnipeg, and Winnipeg is winter, columns of snow rising 100 feet high on a windless night, cutting through the dry, 40-below weather. White headlights of cars. Red, green and amber flash from the monster snowclearing Caterpillars. The soft snow falls. You hear no footsteps, the snow muffles houses and sounds, the silence falls in flakes like the snow and covers everything. The black, scrawny branches fatten with white, fill out like old ladies; everyone grows round and bundled, and their faces look like McIntosh apples wrapped in sheepskin. The sun is up all the long day, the snow sparkles like ground glass, the light bounces, skips, the air is cut sharp with specks of diamond, the sky is a blinding summer blue. Across the snowfields from the chimneys a forest of white smoke and branchless trees.

And the old steam bath on Dufferin. The roaring hoary Ukrainians being rubbed down with bunches of oak leaves, dipped in wooden buckets full of foaming hot soapsuds. Echoing laughter, the splash of ice cold water on the red bodies, the rush of wet scalding clouds escaping from the steam room

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into the tiled showers. The smell of leaves, wet wood, kitchen soap. Around the big linoleum-covered table in the dressing room the men unfold their bundles of newspapers and skin the salt herrings. They chop off the heads and hold the fish by the tail, strip the flesh with their teeth, pulling the skeleton clean out of their mouths with a magician’s bravado. They slice big Spanish onions into crunching wheels. They break off big hunks of rye bread and wash them down with tumblers of rye. The table is an orgy of herring heads and bones, wet newspapers, onion skins, fish guts, crumbs. The men’s bodies drip with brine, bits of scales, rye-bread crumbs. Around their naked feet the cat is in ecstasy. The air is heavy as cloth.

We aren’t interesting enough. Our lives are ordinary lives. We live in cities whose past is not worth preserving. Our present is not unique enough to be recorded. We are only interested in neighbors whose lives are full of glamour, excitement, who live today; and we are interested in relatives who carry all the pomp and patina of yesterday. We can’t see tomorrow as part of our business. It will be decided elsewhere, by others. We are old ladies who live their lives by listening in on the party line.

About 15 years ago, when I advised against going to an American foundation for the money needed to finance the Manitoba Theatre Centre — I was afraid of strings and wanted to have the place entirely Canadian — I was given a lecture by a third-generation Canadian about our American Neighbors and the Uselessness of a European Kind of Imported Nationalism. During the contract negotiations, the chairman of the board of a Canadian theatre, who was also the

chairman of one of Canada’s great industrial corporations, said, “I don’t want to jew you down!” He blushed, for a second. But he did it anyway.

When I went to the city council to ask for a $1,000 grant for Rainbow Stage, the open-air musical theatre out in Winnipeg’s Kildonan Park, one of the aidermen told me that he’d give us the money — “if you can get more people out to see one of them shows than I can get out for a Yo-Yo contest.” We did. At the end of the first season we had more people out there than they had had at the baseball games that summer.

I was among the first group of Canadians to receive the Service Medal of the Order of Canada. I was working in New York then and had just enough time to run from a morning rehearsal to the airport, catch a plane to Ottawa for the investiture, and then race back to New York the same night for rehearsal in the morning. My stage manager in New York got me a set of tails with all the trimmings, and handed me the box as I was getting into a taxi. In Ottawa I rushed to the hotel to dress, putting on the assorted pieces, hoping there might be a set of instructions. I did all right till I came to the shirt. I was able to put the studs in their appropriate places but when I tried to fit them into the button holes I found that they were all worn away and there was no way to keep the shirt buttoned. I struck upon the idea of using a Napoleonic pose, my right arm clutching my shirt to keep it from opening. But as soon as I got down to the lobby and started running into people, I realized that I had made a terrible mistake. I couldn’t shake hands with anyone without exposing my naked chest. So I used my left hand, explaining that I

had pulled a muscle in my right arm. At the Governor General’s residence an orchestra of Mounties was playing. Generals, artists, and government officials moved into the reception hall, greeting each other, shaking hands, more shaking of hands; I kept repeating the right-arm story. Mutterings of sympathy, concern and condolence. When we got into the hall and sat down I turned to my neighbor, a conductor and another Central European Jewish Naturalized Canadian, and told him the truth about my predicament. My name was called, I walked up to the dais and shook the Governor General’s extended right hand with my left, muttering, for the hundredth time that evening, my alibi. I was offered sympathy once more, and congratulations as well. Cameras rolled, flashbulbs flashed. I signed, with my left hand, the morocco-bound book. Clutching my side I walked back to my seat and said to my neighbor, “You see, this is God’s way of reminding me that in his eyes I am still just a Hungarian Jewish orphan.”

In Winnipeg most things are still possible. There are people to talk to at the top. People here still listen. Ideas can be seen through. They are not quite the same they as elsewhere. The dark intuitions — there is no point in thinking of change, of making changes, it is too late, matters have gone too far, we are impotent — are not as pervasive as elsewhere. People here say thank you. They smile, and it is genuine. They ask you how you are, and they want to know.

People used to run away from Winnipeg as soon as they could. There was excitement and life — out there. Here we were isolated. In the middle of nowhere. The prairie was too large, too indefinable. Too much space. The winds blew everything away. No permanence. No tradition. When Mr. Russenholt started his TV weather report with, “In Winnipeg, the heart of the continent,” we cynically substituted another and more apt part of the human anatomy. When people talked about the openness, warmth, friendliness and the sense of community, we laughed and added, “Yeah, the cold is terrible, but it’s a dry cold.” But now the media, the counterculture, the underground, the middleaged fellow travelers on the big band wagon of the greening to come sing the same virtues, and Mr. Russenholt’s rural chauvinism seems like the real thing. Every time I go into Kelekis’ Chips shop on North Main the three sisters greet me, as they greet everyone, with a handshake, a kiss, a warm smile. When I remarked about this to one of the girls — she is at least as old as I am — she said to me, “You know, there is something mystic about this place.” “I know,” I said, “it’s love.” She smiled at me from her shoes up: “That’s it.” ■