Monday, January 26, 2009

Defiance, the Movie and Real Life Heroes

This past weekend, we went to see the new Daniel Craig movie "Defiance" about the Bielski brothers, who sheltered and helped 1,200 Belarus Jews survive the Holocaust by living in the forest for two years.

It is a true story brought to light only recently, about the Bielski brothers' selfless achievement that rivals the more famous one carried out by Oscar Schindler and made famous by Stephen Spielberg. We went to the movie during the same week that the Vatican and Pope Benedict angered some Jewish groups by revoking the excommunication of a Lefevrist priest who once stated that only a few hundred thousand Jews died in the Holocaust, and none in a gas chamber.

I wanted to see the "Defiance" movie for several reasons, one being because Daniel Craig was a great James Bond.

But mainly I wanted to see it because the story of how the Bielskis hid in the forests resonates close to home for me: my dear friend Lidiia Drinfeld, shown here with her husband Ilya at their recent 50th anniversary party, is a survivor of the Holocaust who spent two years hiding in the forests of Ukraine, when she was a pre-schooler, under the Nazi occupation.

Lidiia once told me about her ordeal. She is 72 now. She remembers being four years old, and fleeing from her home with her family to live in the forests. She remembers having lice. She remembers the men sneaking into nearby villages at night to get food and supplies. She remembers the danger. She remembers her grandmother becoming sick, and dying.

Lidiia and her family survived and went on the make a life for themselves in Ukraine, in Harkov, and once she was married, she became a principal of an elementary school where she was in charge of 300 pupils. Her husband was an officer in the Russian military, and they were posted to Nihzny Novgorod (where Andrei Sakharov was exiled to). Sakharov was the outspoken critic of the Soviet Union who spent nearly five years in exile there, until Gorbachov freed him. He went on hunger strikes to help win medical treatment for his wife. Again, the theme of "Defiance" runs through this story.

For Lidiia and her husband and family, as Jews, during the Cold War and in the 1980s and '90s, life in Russia became increasingly hard. The Drinfeld's twin daughters emigrated first to Israel and then to Canada, and Lidiia and Ilya soon followed, as pensionners. Their oldest son remained in Moscow until three years ago, when thanks to the help of Richmond Hill Liberal MP Byron Wilfert, he was granted permission to immigrate to Canada, where the family was reunited.

I first met Lidiia nearly nine years ago, when I was home on maternity leave with my youngest son and looking for a baby sitter. I had posted an ad on a mailbox in the park near my home. She and her husband were out walking one day, and she tore off the last remaining tab with my phone number on it. Ever since she first walked into my home, we agree that it was destiny that caused us to meet. Now those days of changing diapers and warming up bottles are long over for her and for me.

In fact, you might think that since coming to Canada 10 years ago, Lidiia and her husband would eventually want to retire to enjoy being with their daughters and son, and their five grandchildren. But Lidiia continues to work, to study English, she even learned to play hockey, while Ilya researches on his beloved computer and composes new inventions using his math background (he predicted weather patterns for the Russian military when he was an officer) which he patents, including one design of a propeller for parachutes which occurred to him while he was out for a walk watching the seeds of a maple tree twirl to the ground.

While Lidiia and her family were not one of the Bielski survivors, she is a product of "defiance", one of many Jews of Eastern Europe who's strength and courage and perhaps a lot of "destiny" as a forest survivor of the Holocaust, brought her to us, and I am privileged to know her.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Journalists and Objectivity: Is it OK to put an Obama bumper sticker on your office door?

Dislosure: I possess two Obama bumper stickers, one Obama lawn sign, and I did have an Obama campaign button, but I recently gave it to a former student of mine, Abbas Somji, who saw it hanging in my office at Centennial College and coveted it so badly I gave it to him.

Those of you who read this blog will know I got them all when we recently spent time visiting family in Massachussets, where I worked hard to collect these items. And no, I didn't bring home a single McCain-Palin sign, but honestly I didnt try very hard to find any.

I did put the haul up in my office at the journalism department at Centennial College in November, right on the walls along with my other collected memoribilia and media passes from my days as a foreign correspondent: there are press passes to the Vatican, a tag from a NATO Summit, a Royal Tour in New Brunswick, me on location in Africa and Sicily, my family pictures, calendar, and other mementos of my journalistic life.

One day in November, the Obama lawn sign which i'd pasted on the door, was covered over with white paper. I learned from the students it was done by my colleague Malcolm Kelly of (the coordinator of the new Sports Journalism program here at Centennial).

Yesterday, I asked him why he'd done it. He admonished me that reporters need to keep their personal lives separate from their public ones, so what I did with my Obama lawn sign somehow broke the "code".

Malcolm's warning got me to thinking. When I was in journalism school a hundred years ago at Carleton University, I remember clearly being taught that no journalists should be card carrying members of any political organization. That also extended to no posting lawn signs for any one party on your front lawn.

The thinking behind those ethics rules, I'm sure, was so that as a journalist, no one could then accuse you of being one-sided, or slanted in favour of, or against, any political party. Extending that argument, that also meant you could interview anyone from any party, and no one would accuse you of slanting your story to favour the party you were secretly a member of.

And I have really worked hard to keep to that rule professionally ever since. I've been able to interview Muslims and Israelis, Mozambique rebels and the government they were fighting, refugees and soldiers, aid workers and soccer stars, Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, Greens, Rhino Party members, Joseph Blatter from FIFA, bureaucrats and submarine commanders, even Prince Philip (he grabbed my microphone once and interviewed me during a royal walkabout). No one's accused me of showing bias in my stories.


Because I still politely refuse to put up a political lawn sign whenever the candidate in my riding comes around.
I don't vote on line to add my name to Facebook accounts supporting or opposing anything,
I turn down survey phone calls from polling firms,
I don't attend rallies or protests, even though I'd really really like to. Especially these last few weeks.
I do swear in my kitchen when I hear CUPE's Sid Ryan on the radio calling Israel "Nazis". But I don't add my name to online petitions which are filling up my email box calling for his head.

So why did I put up my treasure trove of Obama in the office at work, and not at home?

Well, partly because I like to collect stuff.

Old typewriters for one thing. They are displayed in my office at work.
So are old pieces of CBC furniture --like the old radio I got, and the old phone operator booth, which is in my office.
It's hanging on to history.
The Obama material was I think there for similar reasons: wanting to be part of something historic and amazing: the phenomenon that was sweeping America with hope for change. Like anyone who collects ticket stubs or brochures to make a scrap book of their travels: you wanted to be able to have tangible evidence that you had been alive when this happened. That's also why I collect front pages of newspapers from when big things happened: 9-11, or when the Canadian constitution was repatriated. I keep them for my kids and for myself. Documenting history. Which I think is what --as a journalist --I've always been doing on air on on the screen.

So I won't take down the Obama memoribilia at work, but I will move them off the window, and I will put the bumper stickers in a less visible spot.

Because I still believe it is possible to be a responsible journalist, despite having personal biases and a certain upbringing, as long as you separate public and private as much as you honestly can, when called upon to do a story.

And just for the record, in my personal life I am: Canadian, Jewish, born in Montreal, Anglo, white, female, from the 60s, soccer mom, who is a fanatic viewer of the Tv show "LOST", is a Leafs fan, loves Juventus and Fiorentina, actually everything Italian, with an extra kidney, who nearly died being mugged in Johannesburg, am a great cook, loves Cheetos, and Luca Toni, and thinks being a journalist is the best calling in the world.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Jane Creba, and Giftland: a Small World in Journalism

What, you ask, does the murder of a 15-year old innocent bystander in downtown Toronto on Boxing Day 2005 have to do with Giftland?

Until this week, there was no connection. But now, here's a story of just how small a world this is.

In late November, I attended Superior Court in Toronto to cover the murder trial of a man known only as J.S.R. -- he can't be named because he was a youth when the Creba murder took place outside the Eaton's Centre.

While at the trial, I marveled at the cool hi-tech digital TV screens, white boards, and the use of laptops, overhead document cameras and other digital technology in the courtroom. I hadn't seen these things used in a trial before, and I resolved that when the trial was over, I would do a story for CBC Radio News about how technology is now making a difference in Ontario courts.

This week, I interviewed J.S.R.'s defence lawyer, Gary Grill, about those technological changes he experienced through during the Creba trial. 

At his Little Italy office, on Toronto's College Street, Grill had his framed law school and undergraduate degrees on his back wall, and I asked him about going to McGill University in Montreal. He said he did his undergrad there, because he  grew up in Montreal. I said I was from Montreal, too.  He said he was from St. Laurent (a suburb west of Decarie Boulevard).

I said I was from St. Laurent, too.

He's a few years younger then me, but I figured it was such a small place, I might have known someone he knew.

"Have you ever heard of Giftland?" he asked.

That's when the penny dropped! 

Giftland was an institution in our neighbourhood. Growing up in St. Laurent in the 1960s and '70s, the store was the go-to place in the St. Louis Shopping Centre for gifts, toys, school supplies. And the man who ran it, Allan Grill, was as famous to us kids and our parents, as the late actor Al Waxman was for Torontonians in the TV show "The King of Kensington".  He even looked like him, if you get my drift.

Then the penny dropped! Gary Grill was Allan Grill's son, and I must have seen him a million times working at Giftland when he was a little boy (and I wasn't much older!)

So we reminisced about the old neighbourhood, Steinbergs (it's now a Provigo, I think), the park across the street from the shopping centre where my folks wouldn't let me hang out because they thought bad kids played basketball there, and even Place Vertu, the big enclosed shopping plaza a couple of bus rides away (the #118 and perhaps another one or two down Cote Vertu) which Grill said is still a hole!

Giftland closed a long time ago, although my mother tells me there is another giftware store in its place, but Gary's colourful father Allan, who used to wear his pants as low riders long before it became fashionable-- is not running it. And Gary didn't go into the family business-- he's a lawyer defending one of the men convicted of being in a gun fight that killed Jane Creba in a crime that shocked the city of Toronto.
One more thing in the Small World Department: As I was researching this high tech court story for the Creba trial before Christmas, at CBC Radio News in Toronto, someone made a point to introduce himself to me.

It was Neil Herland, a reporter just back from New York City now working for National Radio News. He told me he was also from Montreal, and that his mother worked as a kindergarten teacher in St. Laurent many years ago. 

Turns out, she was MY kindergarden teacher at Talmud Torah Elementary School, the same school which was firebombed by anti-Israel suspects a few years ago.