A Post-War Masquerade

Displaced persons and identity theft in Jewish Montreal

In the years after the end of the Second World War, Holocaust survivors dispersed themselves widely. Although many of the small number of survivors from Western and Northern Europe went back to their previous communities, very few of the vast majority who were from Eastern Europe were able to do so. Their homes had either been destroyed or taken over by others; they were at risk of further massacres (as occurred particularly in Poland); and there was nothing and nobody to return. Homeless, penniless and often alone, up to 250,000 Jewish displaced persons gathered in refugee camps set up by the Allies in Germany, Austria and Italy. They stayed in those camps, fed and clothed first by the American and British military and then by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, until they could get visas for such exotic destinations as Canada, the United States, Argentina, Cuba, South Africa and Australia or—depending on their political persuasion—find a way to smuggle themselves into the British Mandate of Palestine.

The title character in Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride is one of these thousands of DPs, a young woman named Lily Azerov who has survived incomprehensible losses and who now needs to find a new home and to create a new life. After years hiding in the forests of wartime Europe, she arrives, via a brief stop in Tel Aviv, in Montreal, where it has been arranged that she will marry a young Canadian Jewish stranger named Sol. The wedding is supposed to benefit both parties: cash for him, a Canadian visa for her. Despite Lily’s beauty, Sol has second thoughts as soon as he sees her and refuses to go through with the wedding. However, his younger brother, Nathan, visits her to apologize on his behalf and is immediately smitten with her, so much so that she and Nathan are soon married.

The groom, then, is a substitute, and this substitution is well known to all who attend their traditional Jewish wedding. The bride, on the other hand, is an imposter, a secret she manages to keep from almost everyone. She is not Lily Azerov, even though she has Lily’s identity papers, her diary and her other possessions. Haunted and quiet, she continues to masquerade as Lily until the day, two months after giving birth to Nathan’s daughter, Ruth, that she walks out of their apartment and out of Nathan and Ruth’s lives.

Nathan, Sol and their mother, Bella, almost immediately understand that she will never return. They do not search for her. Instead they come together, along with Elka, the young woman whom Sol eventually marries, and Elka’s mother, Ida Pearl, as a loving extended family in order to raise baby Ruth. The mystery of the bride’s departure and of her true identity weaves itself throughout the rest of this otherwise quietly atmospheric novel that follows Ruth from childhood through school, university, marriage and having children of her own.

Ruth grows up knowing about her parents’ marriage and her mother’s departure. She has the diary and a small stone her mother left behind. She also knows her mother is still alive because every year or so she receives a small package from her: a stone and a postcard describing where in Canada the rock was found and the weather at that time. Her search for her mother begins with these missives, which she carefully keeps in a special scrapbook. However, it is only when, as an adult, she learns the secrets of the older generation that she is able to piece her mother’s story together and find some closure.

While much of this novel’s somewhat complex plot is compelling, its evocation of life in Jewish Montreal is even more persuasive. The small details—Sol and Elka’s date at Miss Montreal, smoked meat sandwiches and Cherry Cokes on the Main, the apartments on Clark, Cumberland, Côte-des-Neiges and Côte-St-Luc Road, the railroad tracks behind Bailey Road—repeatedly ring true. Generations of Jewish Montrealers will find themselves transported by the mentions of dinner at Ruby Foo’s and the foot X-ray machines at Kiddie Kobbler. Whether the reader is a cultural outsider or insider to this particular world, such detailed descriptions give The Imposter Bride a real sense of place, of groundedness in space and time.

In a way, this groundedness is ironic—after all, everyone in this novel is really from somewhere else. Sol, Elka and Ruth are the first in each of their lineages to be born in Canada. Nathan, the eldest of his generation, was born on the ship that brought his parents from Europe. Bella, her late husband, and Ida Pearl all came to Montreal as immigrants, all scarred, albeit in different ways, by their memories and experiences of their former lives. It is Montreal, with its mid 20th-century vibrancy, that brings them, and thousands of others, together as a coherent community.

Like most Jewish communities in the late 1940s and ’50s, this community could be divided by different waves of immigration. Ida Pearl, Bella and their offspring arrived before the Holocaust; despite their own suffering, this separated them from the parents of Ruth’s classmates who were Holocaust survivors. In some cities and countries this separation was quite marked; more established Jewish families, even those who had themselves only arrived a decade or so earlier, looked down on the new arrivals. Although this had also occurred with previous waves of immigration, Holocaust survivors in particular were often regarded by their predecessors with a mixture of horror, pity, shame and even suspicion of what they might have had to do to survive. Indeed, Richler hints at the latter emotion in some of Bella and Ida Pearl’s reactions to the so-called Lily Azerov.

However, despite the particularity and scale of the Holocaust, their common experience of enormous suffering is enough to let at least one of the pre-war immigrants—Bella—overcome her suspicions enough to make a connection with the survivor she knows as Lily, and even perhaps to begin to understand her. Tragically, this connection is rooted in many childhood deaths, including those of Bella’s first three children, who died of starvation and disease during the Russian civil war (the separation of parents and children runs through Richler’s novel like a dark thread, affecting many others besides Ruth and her missing mother). Bella’s understanding is crucial to the rest of the story, for it is Bella who will eventually give Ruth the final clue to unravelling her mother’s past and present.

The Imposter Bride ends with a resolution of its mysteries, both for the reader and for Ruth. The fates of both the real and imposter Lily Azerovs are revealed and Ruth develops some understanding of why her mother might have left. The epilogue brings the closure that Ruth so badly wants,
but perhaps a level of finality that the reader does not need. Despite its tangible setting, the elusiveness of both Lily Azerovs gives an almost magic realist quality to parts of Richler’s novel, and the magic is dispelled with a thud by the concrete nature of its conclusion. Nonetheless, the novel presents an accessible, moving story of loss and survival that brings a much-loved era of Jewish Montreal to life.