Writer discovers Jewish heritage

Joan Sullivan
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Novelist Alison Pick to speak at Holocaust Memorial Service

Figure: Alison Pick

Alison Pick is the featured speaker for this year's Holocaust Memorial Service, and she has a fairly intimate story to tell.

Pick, whose award-winning books include "The Sweet Edge" and poetry collections "The Dream World" and "Question & Answer," was born in Toronto - where she now lives and teaches - but she spent several years in St. John's, writing and studying. She was also part of the city's Jewish Community Havura.

When Pick was growing up, she learned that her paternal family had been Jewish, and the knowledge eventually led to her writing "Far to Go," long-listed for 2011's Booker Prize and praised for its "clean, crisp, unencumbered" writing.

It also led to her own conversion to Judaism.

Her presentation is titled "A Personal Journey: The Holocaust as my Starting Point."

"I'm going to talk about my family's experience following the Holocaust," Pick said on the phone from Toronto. "My dad's parents were Czech Jews, and they lived in Czechoslovakia before the Second World War. They were able to get out. They bribed for exit permits. They came to Canada."

Pick's grandparents "had been secular, assimilated, essentially non-practising" and they made the decision to raise their children as Christians, because of the conditions in Europe and the anti-Semitism in Toronto at that time.

"So he grew up not knowing he was Jewish, and I grew up not knowing I was Jewish."

There was a secret history, events that were veiled and needed to be uncovered.

Pick made the discovery as a pre-teenager, "from a comment made when I was 10 or 11. It went over my head."

But it was enough to get her started asking questions. Was she upset?

"I wouldn't use the word angry. Until I was 15, 16, it was something I struggled to understand. The world around us was relatively tolerant, so why make such a decision? But there wasn't space in the family for such questions, and that was frustrating. As I grew older I could understand more the kind of Jews my grandparents were and the historical context for their decision.

"When my grandmother died in 2000 there was a major change in the family atmosphere, because she was the one who didn't want to talk about it. She was a young woman when she'd arrived in Canada. And her extended family, which stayed in Europe, all died at Auschwitz."

This sad inheritance is part of the genesis of "Far to Go," which explains "what it was like to be Jewish in that time and place."

At the same time, "Far to Go" is not autobiographical, "because I wanted the freedom to write the best story possible, to keep the reader turning the page. If it had been my grandparents' story I would have felt my allegiance was to them."

And yet her research was not completely archival, but also familial - for example, using her father's still-existing contacts with the Czech community, which brought her some unpublished memoirs "full of the little gritty details that are a novelist's dream. What a light switch looked like. What houses at that time had plumbing. That was all part of piecing together the big picture."

Next she will work on a memoir expressing her grandparents' experience of the war, and her experience of learning the truth of her family, which then led to her writing "Far to Go."

"It was a hard book to write in the best sense. I am a writer that likes to write. Although that was before I had my daughter, so I may be idealizing that time, when all I had to do was write."

All the same, Pick suffered a fairly severe depression while writing "Far to Go," which she considers was, in a way, a symptom of repression across the generations.

"And I think it's part of a writer's personality. I am moody and brooding," Pick says with a laugh. "But it is difficult material, and I was hands and face into it every day. Writing the novel is what saved me a little bit at that time. Putting it on the page was redemptive."

And this creative work did dovetail with her own conversion to Judaism.

"I was in Toronto, which has a big Jewish community. I went to classes, first as research, but it resonated with me in a very profound way, recognizing what I already was."

The Holocaust Memorial Service, hosted by the Jewish Community Havura of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Atlantic Jewish Council, takes place Wednesday April 18 at 7:30 p.m. at the Engineering Lecture Theatre (EN-2006) at Memorial University.

Pick will also read with Edward Riche at The Ship Pub Tuesday, April 17 at 8 p.m.

Organizations: Holocaust Memorial Service, Jewish Community Havura, Atlantic Jewish Council Engineering Lecture Theatre The Ship Pub

Geographic location: Toronto, Canada, Europe St. John's Czechoslovakia Auschwitz Newfoundland and Labrador

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  • Michelle
    April 07, 2012 - 23:15

    What a fantastic tale- it gave me the chills. What a great gift to her ancestors to have embraced her lost faith. I'm sure they would be very proud of her.