Class of '64 meets and memories of mass murder emerge unexpectedly

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Jewish children, fleeing postwar antisemitic violence in Poland: Prague, Czechoslovakia, July 15, 1946. Image credit: American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee/The Holocaust Encyclopedia

In the 1970s, when my wife and I lived and worked in a Gwich'in community north of the Arctic Circle, we met many people who had endured and survived the now notorious residential school system. None, however, ever talked in any detail about the horrors and abuse that occurred there.

It took many decades -- and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- before there was an awakening of suppressed memory about the sexual exploitation, cultural persecution, and violence the residential schools had visited on the lives of thousands of Indigenous children.

Until that happened, it was as though we had all conspired to lock those memories away -- either because they were too traumatic for the victims or too shameful for the perpetrators.

Not too long ago, I took part in a Zoom reunion of my high school graduating class, and it became, in a way, our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The 'brain class'

We were the Outremont High School class of 1964, or, at least, part of it.

The school was in the town of Outremont, now a borough of the city of Montreal, but back in the 1960s an affluent enclave surrounded by the larger city. Most of our class, however, lived in working-class lower Outremont, or in the far less chic and fashionable neighbourhoods that lie just to the east and west of Outremont.

In the ghettoized world of early 1960s Quebec, with its denominationally distinct education systems, our class was almost entirely Jewish.

We were the math class, sometimes called the brain class.

In those days, at our school, they did rough and ready streaming based solely on ability in mathematics. Many of us now suspect the school's leaders focused on math because it is easier to score 100 per cent on a math exam than pretty much any other subject.

Outremont High prided itself on its high level of academic attainment. It even devoted a wall of honour to its many academic champions. Those were the students who had scored in the top 10, province wide, in their final exams at the end of 11th grade. Fostering high marks in the four math exams helped produce all those champions.

The school's motto was "Quaerere verum," to seek the truth, and a good many of our class took it to heart.

There were many PhDs on our Zoom call. A large number of our fellow students pursued careers devoted more to the advancement of knowledge -- as university professors and researchers -- than the accumulation of wealth.

Two classmates became dentists, one of whom devoted the latter part of his career to pro bono work, and only two became doctors; one, sadly, died a number of years ago. Today, the other doctor is, in addition to his busy medical practice, an eminent medical researcher, world renowned in his field.

Many of our classmates got into fields related to math, some in industry, some in academe. One who studied genetics ended up as one of the directors at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), as a colleague of the famous Dr. Anthony Fauci.

A few got arts degrees, and two of those became lawyers.

Three of us worked for many years in the world of media. Yet even among our small media group, one moved into the world of academic research. He has a long list of influential research publications to his name, and is now busy working on his newest book project.

Only one classmate worked in the civil service. He did well there, moving high up the bureaucratic ladder, and then into the world of international consulting.

Perhaps surprisingly, only one of our classmates went into the family business, although a few others did well in the business world. One classmate launched a career in high tech, starting up and then selling a series of companies. He then graduated to the rarefied field of investment banking.

One of the women worked in advertising in New York, during the period depicted by the TV series Mad Men. She told us ad agencies back then were indeed sexist, male-dominated environments, with lots of boozing and philandering in the office. After a number of years working for one such agency, she founded her own market research firm, and did quite well.

Another woman from our class started out in teaching, then went into a variety of businesses, ranging from garment manufacturing to horse farming to management consulting. She now owns her own small and innovative business.

Yet another woman -- the classmate who got this reunion going -- earned an advanced degree in health management, when it was still a male-dominated field. She is still waiting for the Canadian government to ask her advice on vaccine distribution. These days she writes novels.

The reunion motivated us to look up some of those who couldn't make it, because they died too young. One old friend and classmate flirted with becoming a professional violinist, then spent years supporting her medical-student-then-doctor husband and raising her kids, before going back to school to study dentistry. She started her practice in 1988 and died in 2009.

There were a few engineers in our group. One worked on the railroad (as a civil engineer, not running the engine of a train). There was one architect and one classmate who got a master's in creative writing and then became a software developer. 

Women's challenges in the 1960s were huge

The chatter on the Zoom call made us boys realize the extra challenges our female counterparts faced nearly six decades ago.

In 1964 there was only one woman in the federal cabinet, Judy LaMarsh (only the second woman to hold such a position), and one in Quebec's cabinet, Marie-Claire Kirkland-Casgrain, the first for our home province.

In the news media, women were rare, and relegated to covering fashion and lifestyles. It would be a decade before Barbara Walters became the first woman co-anchor of a news show in the U.S.

In Canada, we had Joyce Davidson, who co-hosted a chat show on CBC. She was hounded out of the country after she told an American interviewer she "like most Canadians, was indifferent" to the coming visit of the Queen. (She then made matters worse for herself when she said a woman who was a virgin at 30 was "unlucky.")

One of the women at the Zoom reunion explained how the head of Outremont High's math department categorically refused to teach girls. That's why we had two math classes: one, all boys; the other, mixed.

On the Zoom call, and in the autobiographical sketches they shared, the women talked about the challenges they had dealt with over the past 57 years, including single parenthood and having to be better than male colleagues in order to get ahead professionally.

Some of them continue to feel a sense of betrayal that their own high school did not value them as much as it did the boys.

That math department head who refused to teach girls once asked a student: "Are you orthodox?" (by which he meant orthodox Jewish). He believed there was a deep connection between the perfect and symmetrical world of mathematics and the strict dogmas of organized religion.

Some of the great mathematicians, such as Blaise Pascal, a devout Christian mystic, would have agreed with him. Others, such as avowed atheist Bertrand Russell, most definitely would not.

The student's answer, by the way, was a simple "No." His entry in the school yearbook stated: "M--- is not orthodox, but does well in math anyway."

During the Zoom chat we reminisced about some of the other funny and outrageous things our teachers said.

One chemistry teacher habitually used the same example when teaching about the element carbon. More than once, he would quote the motto of a local Romanian-Jewish restaurant which specialized in charcoal broiling: "Steaks are best at the Bucharest!" We sometimes (quietly) chanted the motto along with him. He was oblivious to our mockery.

Another, who taught English and Latin, would wait until a student used the word "scream" to describe a person's excited vocalizations, and then pounce. "People yell, they do not scream," he would say, adding: "Birds scream -- or, rather, birds and Jewish boys scream!"

Those were the days.

The Holocaust comes up almost by chance

It was an offhand remark from one of our classmates that turned our Zoom call to darker territory.

Many in our class were born in Canada, some to immigrant parents, and a few even had parents born in Canada.

But an equal number were themselves immigrants, who had arrived in Canada as children. In that context, one classmate told us he was pleased, thinking back to that time, that none of us ever made any distinction between those who were Canadian-born and those who were not.

That led to a conversation, first during the Zoom call itself and then in many emails in the days that followed, about the displaced persons camps in postwar Europe, where so many of our classmates were born. Those camps were in Germany, Poland, Italy and France. Many of our group spent the first five, six or seven years of their lives in such camps, while their families waited to be resettled.

During our school years we never talked about any of that.

And we certainly never, ever discussed the fact that the parents of our classmates who were born in refugee camps were all, every single one of them, survivors of the historic massacre for which we did not even have a name back then, and which had not yet become a subject of general discourse: the Holocaust, or Shoah.

And so, our Zoom reunion, which had started as a lighthearted opportunity to catch up and reminisce about the good old days, became an occasion for sharing the most painful memories imaginable.

Perhaps the biggest question this conversation provoked was: why so many years of silence?

Here's how one classmate put it:

"My parents, who were survivors of the Holocaust but lost most of their families in Poland, stayed silent about what had happened to them for most of their lives afterwards. They wanted to spare their children the agony of knowing. But we knew. We heard the whispers between them and the sobbing as they wakened from nightmares. I avoided asking them about it because I wanted to spare them the agony of remembering. So it remained unspoken."

Others expressed similar thoughts. As one put it:

"My father's entire family, including wife and children, were murdered, disappeared. I have looked unsuccessfully for a long time for family. I only learned about my father's history at the 'shiva' [a Jewish wake] after he passed away, when his friends came to the house and talked to us … Our house was similarly quiet about the Holocaust. I was born in Lodz, Poland. Few know that there were pogroms there after the war, and one in Lodz after I was born. I was told they carried me through the woods at night to escape …"

After the Zoom meeting, another classmate wrote, "I was surprised to hear last night that, like myself, quite a few of our classmates were born in the displaced persons camps. It is something we didn't speak about even among ourselves."

And yet another told us: "I was the only child of Holocaust survivors who also never allowed us to discuss what happened during the Shoah. It was only after my children went on the March of the Living [to concentration camps, including Auschwitz, in Poland] that my mother actually talked to them, not me, about some of her experiences."

That is just a small sample of the outpouring of painful memory from nearly half of our classmates. 

And there was another group of more recent immigrants who had similar life stories to those born in the displaced persons camps. They came from Hungary after the failed revolution against the Communist regime in 1956. Their parents, too, had endured the Nazi regime. As one put it: 

"Both my parents lost their first spouses in the Holocaust and served in the Hungarian forced labour brigades. Sometime in the 1970s, I talked my father into writing down his wartime memoirs because he had been telling me funny war stories as far back as I could remember."

Another related how the experience of Nazi persecution led his family to try to erase their Jewish identity.

"My parents were never sent to any German camps during [the Second World War], but 13 of their direct relatives were killed in the Nazi Camps," he wrote. "So, when I was born in 1946, they declared me to be Protestant -- being a Jew was clearly not a good thing, at that time. That turned into an atheist as I grew up. My parents never talked of their [Second World War] experiences." 

The problematic attitudes of Canada's Jewish community

There was yet another aspect to this sharing of buried memory that did not make the Canadian-born among us feel too proud. 

Some of our number told tales of how some of their own parents and grandparents felt barely concealed contempt for the fellow Jews who had arrived more recently in Canada, as refugees.

"The sad reality regarding the Holocaust is that the Jewish community living in Canada, and the U.S., largely tried to expunge all public commentary," one wrote. "They were self-conscious of what they perceived as their own precarious role in Canada, and I believe there was a secret shame -- besides the mind-blowing ignorance -- that those [who] had perished had, in my mother's execrable words, gone like lambs to the slaughter, without a fight."

Some of our immigrant classmates also offered that while the other kids treated them as equals, they were not sure about their parents. A few noted that they were embarrassed by their own parents' accents and uncool, old-world demeanour. 

As one put it:

"My parents did not feel particularly warmly welcomed by the established Jewish community. Almost all their friends were other survivors, like themselves … For me, my insecurity as a child, combined with the desperate need to fit in, resulted in my being embarrassed to have friends over. It is with some degree of shame that I recall that feeling."

In the decades following high school, a few of the Holocaust-surviving families did open up publicly about their experiences.

Some wrote privately published memoirs. The mother of one classmate was instrumental in founding the Montreal Holocaust Museum in the 1980s. But, as with so many of the Indigenous victims of the residential school system, many others -- perhaps the majority -- remained silent for their whole lives.

A lot more happened at this reunion of the class of '64 so rich in memories going back almost six decades. Our graduation year was a time of major cultural and political ferment and change -- in Quebec, in Canada and globally.

We will have more of that in part two of this story.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image credit: American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee/The Holocaust Encyclopedia

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