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Can We Escape Our Past? Trauma and the Art of Listening

Events of the 20th century shaped my DNA and influenced what I’ve watched and listened to for almost 50 years. Can music set one free?

Toronto 1953

The music, movies, literature, and culture that I have absorbed for the past 53 years – all of it has been impacted by the past. We might control what we listen to in the present and enjoy the free will to decide what we absorb in the future, but the past is part of our DNA and it has impacted every aspect of my life.

On January 19th, 1948, my grandparents walked off a train in Toronto’s Union Station and set everything in motion. Both of my grandparents were survivors of Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen; they both spent more than 3 years in the camps and were liberated in 1945 before fleeing Europe for Canada. Tragically, they were the only survivors from their respective families who spent time in the camps. A few siblings survived in France, Argentina, Palestine, and Canada – but generations were systematically murdered in the gas chambers in Poland.

My Zsa Zsa, Avrum Kurtz with my mother in 1948 in Toronto
My Zsa Zsa, Avrum Kurtz with my mother in 1948 in Toronto

My Zsa Zsa (Avrum Kurtz) was a professional soccer player in Poland before the war and was captured by the German Army in 1939 before being transferred to a series of work camps as a POW. After his identity was uncovered by the Gestapo, he was severely beaten by his German captors to make sure he never played again.

Once they had stripped him of his humanity and his ability to play the game he loved, he was put on a train like cattle and transported to Auschwitz. They could never break him. He never spoke of his experience to me as a child but he wore only short-sleeved shirts that he tailored for himself and his number was always visible.

Avrum Kurtz, Toronto, 1953, August Street
Avrum Kurtz, Toronto, 1953, Augusta Street

It is a miracle that they both survived. When they visited Israel for the first time in the 1980s, they attended a reunion of survivors and were showered with pieces of bread; the highest honor for those who did everything they could to feed those in the camps who did not have the strength to steal food from their murderous Nazi guards.

Those who fled Europe before Hitler came to power, established one the first kibbutzim (Yagur) in Israel and fought as part of the Irgun prior to Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Every generation has fought for the IDF since. Zionists to our core. My eldest daughter escaped the COVID-19 pandemic at home by hunkering down in the family kibbutz and spent her days farming on the slopes of Mt. Carmel.

The events of the twentieth century influenced my DNA in a profound way. Everything that I believe, or love was influenced in some way by the murder of 6 million Jews. It has been a form of psychological trauma (even a generation removed), and a source of enormous strength.

I wear my Jewishness and intense love of the State of Israel on my sleeve. The events of October 7th and ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas have altered my DNA once again.

The war has pushed me back towards my roots even though a return to my hometown and the people I call family is unlikely. My childhood was filled with South African Jews, Jamaicans, Greeks, Australians, and the motley crew that have remained my loyal friends for over 45 years.

The movie theaters of my youth have been replaced by ugly condos that dominate the Toronto skyline and have crushed whatever connection to the city there was.

With a parent courageously waging a futile fight against Parkinson’s, I find myself wandering the old neighbourhood and visiting old haunts longing for a better time.

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There are numerous musicians whose music is forever banned in my home because of their support for the BDS movement; even artists that I have seen live multiple times and have spent considerable money on their music before their ugliness became apparent. Roger Waters has blocked me on Twitter more times than I can count.

The music that we listened to growing up was a reflection of my parent’s view of the world; Edith Piaf, Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Simon & Garfunkel, the Beatles, Dvorak, Donna Summer, Neil Diamond, and Duke Ellington.

1977, The Remote Zombie and his little brother, Toronto
1977, The Remote Zombie and his little brother, Toronto

I knew nothing of Hitler’s love of Wagner, Beethoven — or Russian and Jewish composers.

The most evil man in history enjoyed listening to Jewish composers in his bunker, while his men and willing European participants murdered millions of Jews, Homosexuals, Gypsies, Slavs, and the disabled across Europe.

I try to imagine my great-aunts, great-uncles, and their children hiding in secrecy in Paris while the Nazi officers sat, drank, and listened to music outside of their apartment building in Le Marais.

Or my family in Lviv, who couldn’t flee and were shot outside the city.

The past is a hard thing to shake. It makes you close your mind and heart to a lot of things.

It has deeply impacted how I listen and what moves me emotionally.

Even with all of that history, I’ve spent more than four decades accumulating thousands of books, records, CDs, and movies covering every culture or country you can think of. 

I think my grandparents would have wanted it that way.

You’re more likely to find me eating dim sum or Korean BBQ, than a bowl of cholent (although I do make a really good cholent with kishke, potatoes, soaked beans, and Boylan’s Root Beer). 

Movie night choices can switch between Star WarsThrone of Blood, or Judas and the Black Messiah with the flick of the wrist. 

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Stalag 17, Yojimbo, and Double Indemnity have been my 3 favorite films for as long as I can remember. They don’t make movies like this anymore. Or actors like William Holden or Toshiro Mifune.

I’ll listen to almost anything (except for Roger Waters and Brian Eno) and I own hundreds of CDs recorded in Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, French, Russian, and Yiddish. 

Kurosawa, Wilder, and Lucas ignited the fire in me and I will always love cinema more than music. The battle between darkness and light is real – it may not be fought with X-Wing fighters or Wookiees, but movies are a commentary/warning about our past, present, and rapidly approaching future.

Movies make me long for a more civilized time. Before the dark times. Before Facebook.

Music moves me to tears depending on the day, and even anger or depression. Or moments of great elation where I don’t hate the universe so much.  

I’d like to believe that I’m not alone in that regard.

Being an audiophile can be a lonely endeavor sometimes. 

If you’re in it for the gear as opposed to the music – I can recommend a good therapist. It will make those late-night listening sessions alone less neurotic. 

Put away the fucking anti-vibration cones. Put down the remote. Close your eyes. Get off Twitter.

Listen. Open your mind to the larger world that music can create.

Invest in a better quality stereo system because it’s cheaper than a therapist and will never question your motives.

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Invite a friend over and ask them what they enjoy listening to.

Make an evening out of it.

Just don’t forget to bring the beef tripe in black bean sauce, dumplings, and hot sauce.

There are some things one can’t forgive.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. ORT

    February 11, 2024 at 4:47 pm

    One of my favorite film is “Sabah – A Love Story”. “Stalag 17” is another favorite. “Kingdom of Heaven” is my absolute favorite, especially so the Director’s Cut.

    There is Cinema and then there is “a movie”. I do not mind learning from a film but more often than not, I just want to enjoy myself. “Sullivan’s Travels” needs to be forced down the throats of those that would farce down our throats their divershitty.

    Welcome to The ORTer Limits. And just as quickly we now return control of this site to those with a great deal more self control. Even Richard Dreyfuss acknowledges this. He’s in another of my favorite films, “The Goodbye Girl”.

    I’m listening to my “Shelly Manne & His Friends” station on Pandora. Life, my life is too short to listen to cRap.

    ORT

  2. David

    February 12, 2024 at 1:45 am

    Ian,

    It is quite amazing to me that even in the light of history it can take fewer than the span of two or three generations to forget the evils perpetrated upon those who have been marginalized by the popular and the powerful. Yet here we are, only 80 years removed from the atrocities of World War II, and we are renewing the hate that made such atrocity possible.

    I am neither Jewish nor religious but I appreciate that you are keeping alive the memories of your persecuted family members and of the 6 million others who perished at the hands of unchecked hate. And thank you also for making me aware of the BDS movement and reminding us all that the ugly truths of history can and will be repeated if we are not diligent in our opposition.

    I will have a look at the movies you suggest. I had a former neighbor whose husband was a POW at Stalag 17.

    A few WWII focused movies we have enjoyed (Can that be the right word?) are The Pianist, Dunkirk (incredibly intense soundtrack), Waiting for Anya, Schindler’s List, and Inglourious Bastards. The black comedy Jojo Rabbit from director Taika Waititi is excellent. The recent mini series A Small Light, available on Disney, is also very good as is The Man in the High Castle, an alternate history mini-series in which the Germans and the Japanese carve out their own portions of the United States. Classics we’ve watched recently: To Be or Not to Be (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

    My best to you and your family, Ian.

    David

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