This past July, the Jewish historian and activist Irving Abella died. His obituary reminded me of None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933–1948, the ground-breaking book he co-wrote with Harold Troper, and especially of Ottawa’s abysmal history of exclusionary immigration policies. Before, during, and directly after the Holocaust — even when Hitler’s intention to annihilate European Jewry was known — the country accepted fewer than 13,000 Jewish refugees, a legacy that Abella described as “arguably the worst of all possible refugee-receiving states.” For the writer Judith Kalman, that record’s underlying message was never far from mind; in countless ways, it shaped her family members’ relationships to institutions, religion, education, and friends — and to one another.
Called to Testify: The Big Story in My Small Life is the first-hand account of how Kalman, the child of Holocaust survivors and refugees from the 1956 Hungarian revolution, deliberately lived apart from the Jewish communities of Montreal and Toronto. And how, at the age of sixty-one, she then felt compelled to participate in the 2015 trial of Oskar Gröning, a ninety-three-year-old former SS official known as the Accountant of Auschwitz, who was charged with being an accessory to the murder of some 300,000 Hungarian Jews.
Kalman’s long path to a courtroom in Lüneburg — a picturesque German town an hour away from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and the site of the first Nazi war crimes trial in 1945 — was a painful one. Indeed, the Holocaust had a profound influence on the children of survivors in mid-century Canada, including those not particularly knowledgeable about or sympathetic to their brutal history. “Being Jewish made me feel set apart,” she writes. “We were special by tragic history. We were the chosen people.”
Although Kalman’s parents spoke of their Hungarian past incessantly, they chose to live in an East Montreal suburb, far from the city’s larger Jewish population. There they did their best to camouflage their beliefs. Every Friday night, for example, Kalman’s father insisted that the Shabbat candles be lit behind tightly pulled drapes. (Her uncle and aunt went further: they converted to Christianity and were active in a French-Canadian Presbyterian congregation.)
A constant sense of danger pervaded all aspects of daily life, and locked doors serve as a powerful metaphor in the book. “They never opened the front door without peeking out through the safety chain,” Kalman writes of her parents. “At my Canadian friends’ homes, only the screen doors swung shut. We’d call out our names and waltz right in.”
Kalman felt otherness as a child and a divided sense of self as an adolescent — especially as her father’s paranoia about the outside world intensified, part of a larger change she describes as a “metamorphosis.” She had relatively little concern for his well-being, however, or for her mother’s: “Even at nineteen, in college and living independently, I had yet to attain much discernible empathy for those who had raised me.” Into adulthood, she tried to ignore how her family and its history in Europe influenced the decisions she was making, including an impossible first marriage that ended tragically.
During the war, Kalman’s mother and her four sisters were shipped to Auschwitz, where Kalman’s father lost his entire first family. (The death of his young daughter, Évike, trickles like a trail of blood throughout the book, which is dedicated to her.) In ways she did not when she was younger, Kalman now defines herself “by my father’s murdered family, foremost his six-year-old daughter whose unlived destiny I’ve left unfulfilled.” She also thinks of her mother and “the bodies of her loved ones, all of whom she refused to memorialize ritually, heaped as they were among the mounds of naked limbs and trunks unyielding in the doneness of their anonymous deaths.”
Considering their past, it’s understandable why Kalman’s parents retreated from open expressions of their faith. Many survivors of the Holocaust and of the Hungarian Uprising did the same. Unlike the shtetl Jews of Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus who fled to Canada, Hungarian immigrants were often more cosmopolitan, still proud of their former Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were largely sophisticated, highly educated, and used to walking the academic, artistic, and commercial corridors of power.
Kalman does not heap blame upon her parents for alienating her from Judaism, nor does she criticize them for their unconventional attitudes toward Canada. For all her digging into her past, however, she often seems oblivious to the full power of intergenerational trauma. Throughout Called to Testify, she hints at the reasons her mother and father behaved as they did, yet she does not thoroughly analyze the long-lasting scars their actions and words left on her psyche. Readers might contrast this approach with the one Marianne Hirsch takes in The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, where she unpacks the effect of inherited suffering, or with Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, her literary treatment of similar issues. Kalman seems to resist her own penetrating gaze until the final pages.
Still, her decision to testify at Gröning’s trial makes for absorbing reading — as does the time she spent with survivors and their children. When she ultimately accepted the power of what had happened, she was able to open herself up to new experiences and new lessons. “In that way,” she writes, “the example of Germany was useful. We could note what had succeeded, initiatives that had proved constructive, and what had gone awry. Germany was the rare example of a nation that had undertaken to come to grips with its history of perpetrating genocide by formal acknowledgement of its role, financial restitution, and education of the new generation as to what had gone on under Nazi rule.”
Kalman describes how “a schism from my childhood reopened” as she watched and participated in the proceedings, where Gröning was ultimately found guilty. “The response on the part of our Canadian acquaintances to my parents’ accents and implicit tragic past had been to look away,” Kalman writes, “as though these were somehow in bad form, not to be acknowledged in polite society. It was hard not to take personally, not to feel that their losses had become embarrassingly non-topical. Being asked here to tell the stories of our families so publicly had a liberating effect on many of us co-plaintiffs.” In total, there were fifty-five plaintiffs who shared stories — twenty-one of whom were Canadian. Yet not a single journalist from this country covered the proceedings. Perhaps the looking away continues.
Although many were disappointed in the severity of Gröning’s sentence — just four years, none of which he would end up serving — Kalman found her time in Germany transformative. She even astonished herself by the kindness, patience, and support she showed elderly survivors — the intensity of emotions she had largely withheld from her ninety-six-year-old mother. The trial helped free her, so she could finally express her love and write this touching book.