Archive for November, 2014

A friend and colleague stopped me in the hallway at school this morning. I was frenzied and behind schedule. There was an ice storm last night, so I was late to work. The ice bubble that covered my little Toyota Yaris was like glue. It took longer to bite into it with my scraper than I’d expected. There were swear words and mutterings. I don’t like being late. I berate myself more than anyone else could. I’m my own worst enemy. Anyway, Dan stopped me in the hall and said, “Eva Olsson’s giving her talk tonight in the Valley.” I thought, “Oh, my morning has been horrible. I have lots of marking to do this week and a play to work on this weekend. I have a new writing group starting on Sunday. How will I find time?” But, as the day went on, I kept thinking….”Kim, she’s 90. She is a Holocaust survivor. Your ‘stuff’ can wait.”

So, I asked my sister to come along and we headed out to the Valley for 7pm. The next two hours changed my life and my view of the world. I love history. It was my minor at university. I learned about the Holocaust, but there is something raw about listening to a survivor. Just nineteen when taken to a concentration camp, Eva Olsson’s story is one that shakes you to the core. She speaks to school students each year. She’s 90, but you’d swear she was more like 66 or 70. How she tells her story over and over again is the question. How could you live through that sheer hell, that inhumane and evil torment, and still have a heart that opens and forgives so widely? It amazed me. If she can forgive the Nazis and Hitler for what they did to her, and to her family, how can I have issues about ‘little things’ on a daily basis? Her talk jerks you out of your self-involvement, asks you to question your own thought process in life. Eva says that no one should use the word “hate.” You can say “dislike,” but not “hate.” What she tries to do is to educate and banish hate, person by person, talk by talk. She succeeds.

Visiting schools, she speaks about the scourge of bullying, and of bystanders who are just as bad as the bullies. She calls on parents to raise children with love. She calls on teachers to speak up against bullies and to be role models. She says that, for her, each day is Remembrance Day. She thinks of her mother in the corner of a cattle car, on their way to Auschwitz-Birkenau, weeping. She recalls the women and children who waited, in clumps, outside the showers, not knowing that they were going to their deaths. Hearing these stories, not from a textbook or documentary, breaks you.

Born in 1924, she was a Hungarian Jew. (It makes me think of my uncle, Jeno Tihanyi, who escaped from Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution back in 1956. He escaped from the Communists, and I remember being amazed by his stories of hiding and escaping….but even those stories can’t even compare to Olsson’s horrors.) In May 1944, she and her family were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She lost family members, as quickly as Mengele could direct people either to the left or right, separating the weak from those who were healthier. She spoke of human hair being taken and made into pieces of fabric, and of the ‘surprise soup’ fed to the prisoners and consisting of human hair and bone. Her recollections are far worse and harrowing than anything I had read or studied at university. Her talk was far more potent than any viewing of “Schindler’s List” or reading of Anne Frank’s diary.

Eva says, at the beginning and end of her talk, that she only hopes to reach one heart. From what I could tell tonight, in that old school gym, she touches far more than she expects to….and that ripple, one can hope, will shift outwards to our daily interactions with our fellow humans.

Be kind, she says. Be generous, she encourages. Speak up against injustice. Do not be a bystander….because, if you are a bystander, you are am accomplice. How can we not listen to her story? Recognize her bravery? Applaud her spirit and heart?

I wish everyone could hear her talk….I think the world would be a better place.

Bless her.


You can read more about Eva’s life here….at http://www.evaolsson.ca

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Everyone has an opinion; the media storm over the Jian Ghomeshi story is everywhere this week. It seems to be the topic of conversation in lunchrooms across the nation. The most interesting thing about it all is that social media has played a huge role in the evolution of the story, and the revelation of truth telling. The variety of articles, posted through newspapers and on blogs in Canada, the United States, and England, is staggering. Earlier in the week, after his Facebook post, it seemed more about how a celebrity radio host might have been wronged by an ex-girlfriend who harboured a grudge. Then, when the CBC started literally stripping images of Ghomeshi off its website and walls, well, you sort of figured it had to be much bigger (and darker) than that.

From Tuesday onwards, the onslaught has been intense. From Twitter to Facebook, to The Toronto Star and The Globe & Mail, and even to CBC and CTV, the horrible stories began. Stories of women being physically and sexually assaulted spread like wildfire. The comments online, though, were startling. So many seemed to question why the women hadn’t reported the assaults. It made me cringe. At the surface, it was a story about a handsome, charismatic radio host who wrote amazing essays and engaged in stimulating interviews. Underneath it all, there are questions of feminism, social media, and how we treat victims of sexual assault in this country.

Back in the late 1990s, I had the honour of working with a great group of feminist activists here in Sudbury, Ontario through LEAF National (The Women’s Legal and Education Action Fund). We organized a yearly event, every October, called The LEAF Person’s Day Breakfast. The funds raising from that event went towards funding ground breaking court cases, nationally, that supported the rights of girls and women. Officially, part of the mission statement is that LEAF “litigates and educates to strengthen the substantive equality rights of women and girls, as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Year after year LEAF is working to gain intervener status at the Supreme Court of Canada. Our history includes intervention on hundreds of cases where interpretation of the law promises to increase or decrease the substantive equality of women and girls. LEAF also advances public understanding of women’s equality rights through education programs administered by its branches and through its speakers’ bureau.” (www.leaf.ca) It’s a full-time job to stand up for, and protect, the rights of girls and women.

This week’s horrid events have proven that. Some of the posts online are horrific. I have heard at least two or three acquaintances wonder whether the women who have spoken up in the Ghomeshi case have alternate motives in coming forward. People sometimes seem overwhelmed by the illusion that Ghomeshi seems to have created. Now there is some talk that perhaps he didn’t even write his own famous essays, that a staffer may have done so instead. The image, the face, the voice, all was seemingly a conjecture of pop culture and social media. It reminds me of the story of the Emperor and his New Clothes, or of the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. So much of what we see in media is smoke and mirrors, a creation of what we think is some kind of perfection. One person online commented “How did we not know this about him?” as if he were a friend or relative when, in fact, he was just a voice and face that was nationally known. If proven guilty within the court system, then the entire thing will show that he used his celebrity as a screen, so that he could hide in plain sight. This is true, sadly, of many people. What we see on the surface may not be the real person. They may portray themselves to be charming and intelligent, but underneath they may not be. What we see in a person at work, for instance, may not be the person they are at home, in their personal life. In this particular case, the result is heartbreaking. The result is a string of women who were hurt, assaulted, victimized, and now might be re-victimized in media unless we speak up to stand with them.

What have we learned, I wonder? I hope that, at the very least, the conversations around this topic will encourage anyone who has been assaulted to report that assault, but I truly fear that the nasty online commentary, from men and women both, the shaming of victims, will drive those women further underground. What they need now, though, is support. Their voices need to be heard. The violence against women has to be stopped, plain and simple. In the darkness of what’s happened this week, in all the sensationalism and rumouring, the kernel of truth is there: men who hit women are criminals, regardless of their name, face, voice, or title. I think, too, that we need to be more mindful of how pop culture creations, in their personas, are just people after all is said and done. They should not be glorified or iconized. They can be just as good, or as bad, as any other human being. In this case, perhaps the distracting glare of celebrity helped to hide so many heinous acts. I’m sure that will all come out in the courts, which is where this case needs to be tried.

This weekend, I’m thinking of all women who have been sexually and physically assaulted. I applaud them for raising their voices, for speaking up even in the face of derisive and truly hateful comments. That takes such bravery. I also think, though, that we need to consider how we are raising boys into young men, and how our culture portrays and treats girls and women, because so much of that will influence where we are headed in the future. Further, we need to teach our girls that they are worthy and strong and deserving of great things….and that it is not acceptable for any man to hurt them.


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