Sunday, September 20, 2015

Not Just a Jewish Voice but Jewish Eyes: Henry Balinson and the Jewish Voice of Hamilton.

a panel from the exhibition

I was honoured to be able to write the text for this exhibition and to give the talk below at the opening of the exhibition, The Jewish Voice of Hamilton about Hamilton's Yiddish language newspaper and its publisher. It was an amazing event with members of the publisher's family speaking also. The exhibition itself was excellently curated by Courtney Link and managed by Wendy Schneider at the Beth Jacob Synagogue in Hamilton. This morning's opening was very well attended


This is an exhibit about the Jewish Voice of Hamilton, the Yiddish language newspaper that was published in Hamilton in the 30s and 40s. It’s also the story of its publisher and editor, Henry Balinson. But it’s more than that. It is the story of how immigrants—Jews specifically—contributed to Hamilton and all of Canada by bringing with them their own culture, perspective, skills, language, learning, and values.

I don’t know what “an old stock Canadian” is, to use Stephen Harper’s recent questionable phrase, unless it refers to the indigenous people, but modern Canada would be a pretty watery broth without our immigrants. And Henry Balinson, as we say in the exhibition, was the same as every immigrant: like everyone else, but uniquely himself.

So let me tell you a bit about him. In 1911, the ambitious and well-educated Henry Balinson, an aspiring writer, poet, and playwright who spoke seven languages, moved from Odessa to Hamilton. A socialist and a unionist, he had a fervent belief in fairness, workers’ rights, mutual support and justice. Asked whether his father was Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, his son, Morley replied, “Labour.”

This reminds me of a joke. It was the depression and Hershel, a young immigrant to America complained to Rockefeller. “It’s not right that you have more than your fair share of money.”
“So Hershel,” Rockefeller asked, “How many people live in America?”
“100 million,” Hershel replied.
“Well, that’s a coincidence I have a 100 million dollars, “ Rockefeller said. “Here’s a dollar, Hershel It’s your share.”

Balinson moved to Hamilton trusting that life would offer opportunities to an enterprising young man passionate about knowledge, healthy debate and the power of ideas. As his daughter-in-law, Joan, put it, “This was a man who really wanted to understand the world.”

He soon established International Press which printed the newspaper and myriad other items for the Jewish community as well as the Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Latvian, and other communities. He would eventually write, typeset and print his own Yiddish publication,  The Jewish Voice of Hamilton newspaper. At  age, Goldie knew the word collating as tThe whole family helped put out the paper, even the kids.

In Canada, both Yiddish newspapers and printing began at the end of  the 19th century, becoming more permanently established in centres such as Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg at the beginning of the 20th century. International Press and The Jewish Voice of Hamilton were Hamilton’s first and only Yiddish printer and newspaper. The newspaper was published between 1933 and 1943 with issues generally appearing once a month.

So this reminds me of another old joke, one that I think Henry Balinson might have enjoyed. Abie walks up to Moishe, the editor of a monthly newspaper, “So, this is a newspaper? Why isn’t it a daily—It takes a whole month to print each issue? God himself needed less than week to make the whole world.”
 “Feh,” Moishe replies. “Look at what a mish mash the world is. But look…look at my newspaper!”

Balinson’s Jewish Voice of Hamilton was the only source of local news and commentary from a Jewish perspective. As he wrote in one issue, “It is the Jewish Voice, not a garbled account as interpreted by a gentile reporter.” On the front page of each issue, Balinson wrote a column entitled, “My Stroll Around Hamilton,” in his inimitable style where he thought over “our kingdom of Hamilton,” and wondered “how Jews live, and how Jews don’t live.”

Reading Balinson’s columns today allows one to stroll through 30s and 1940s Hamilton, kibitzing with a charismatic and opinionated observer of the city, seeing local businesses and community leaders, talking about shul politics and universal issues about family and society, about the rise of the Nazis and the war in Europe.

But why is important that the newspaper was in Yiddish? Because language is a library, a storehouse of knowledge and experience, an entire shtetl of philosophy and feeling. It’s a truism that Inuktitut has 100 words for snow. What does Yiddish have? 100 words for fools, shmeckeleh, and a kind of ironic resolve that—though of course, what did you expect? rainbows and roses?—we can keep going through these hard times. Like always. And however little the immigrants were able to carry with them, they always brought their language. As the Yiddish saying goes, “the tongue is not in exile.”

It’s interesting to look at issues of the paper or posters printed by International Press and learn not only about the Jewish community but also the relationship between Jews and the wider non-Jewish community. A call to boycott the German Olympics, a rally at the Royal Connaught Hotel to fundraise for the Red Cross’s war efforts, a paid ad for the 1937 election where a candidate exhorts, “If you don’t want a Hitler in Canada, vote O’Hanley! The advertisements from local businesses also provide a rich window on the civic life of Hamilton. And it’s amazing to see ads for businesses with Irish or Italian names with text written in Yiddish.

And how many Jews spoke Yiddish at the time of the paper’s publication? The 1931 census recorded that the overwhelming majority of Jewish Canadians were bilingual. In Hamilton, almost 90 per cent of the city’s Jewish population were able to speak both Yiddish and English. Across Canada approximately, 150,000 or 1.4 per cent of Canadians spoke Yiddish as a first language. Amazingly, this is roughly the same proportion as that of Canada’s largest language other than English or French today: Punjabi.

Though deeply interested in the local, Balinson was also concerned about the international. Because of his unique and intimate access to the Hamilton Jewish community, he used his paper for vital advocacy, marshalling local action against international crises. This was “Think Global, Act Local.”

Keenly aware of the grave danger posed by the rise of anti-Semitism and Nazism and the outbreak of war, he devoted many pages to rallying the community against Hitler and advocating support for the war effort as well as for the Red Cross.

As the 30s progressed, it became increasingly apparent to international observers such as Balinson that the rise of fascism in Germany marked an emerging political crisis for all of Europe and particularly for its Jews. Balinson wrote that Hitler was “the devil of the civilized world,” and “all intellectuals are his enemies, for he fears the power of thought.” This wasn’t obvious to many Canadians at the time.

For Balinson, his newspaper was a vehicle for “the power of thought” through education, and information and he used it to advocate for the political positions he believed in. In 1935, an English-language article called for the boycott of the Berlin Olympics, exhorting that “the participation by any Canadian athlete in the Olympic Games in Germany should forever remain a blot on his name.”

Balinson also provided a platform for other domestic political opinions against Nazism in the form of advertisements for local elections, such as one Conservative Party supporter advocating against “new and untried parties” because under new political systems, he said, “the Jews have suffered greatly, as witness the situation in Germany.” It is unlikely that Balinson would have agreed with this politician’s politics beyond concurring that the Jews had suffered.

This exhibit tells the story of Hamilton in the 30s and 40s.  It features many items on public display for the first time: many editions of the newspaper, photographs and other valuable historical documents, local letterpress printing artifacts, and video recordings of oral history, all part of the Balinson Family Archive, recently generously donated to the Rosenshein Museum by the Balinson family. Ads in both English and Yiddish for local businesses (some still active today), and their designs and slogans are like walking right into this bygone time in city life.

But it is true that history is not an abstraction but is both lived by individuals and is experienced through their individual stories, and so this exhibition also tells the compelling story of Henry Balinson and his family, and the tragic deaths of three of his children. His four-year-old daughter, Anna Frieda, was playing in the alley with children who had firecrackers. Her dress caught fire, and she was killed. His son, Reuben, died of diphtheria at the age of six. These deaths affected him deeply, however, it was the death of his third son, Alex, in WWII that was the tipping point.

Against his parents’ wishes, Alex enlisted in the Air Force and was posted overseas in 1941. He wrote to his father, “I won’t wait for Hitler to come here.  I will do my duty to eliminate the wild animal.” Flight Sergeant Alexander Balinson died in April 24, 1942 as a result of a bomb attack. In his front page column, his father, Henry Balinson wrote a eulogy for his son.  The entire eulogy is a bitter argument with G-d and humankind and an indictment of war: “Since the time of Adam and Eve, brother has killed brother. And years have passed, and You [G-d] have not found a cure for this plague…When you took away my son, you also gave me a free hand.  I have no more reason to write about my feelings.”

Balinson ended his final column in the final issue of his newspaper: “I swear to you, my son, I will never forget you. Rest in peace. Your beautiful shining face will light my way for the few days that are left of my life.”

Yet that light was not enough to outshine the blackness of his grief. Henry Balinson, the impassioned believer in fairness and justice, ceased writing and publishing and retreated into his own despair and sorrow. As he declared in that final column, “I break off my ties with the world.” This is a powerful expression of one man’s experience of history, one man’s experience of how history is always, ultimately, personal.

But I hope this exhibition demonstrates that this bitterness was not to be Henry Balinson’s ultimate legacy. There is the remarkable record of his Yiddish newspaper which we can view today. And his two sons who were doctors, one of whom served in WWII; and a third son, Morley (who is here with us this morning) who enlisted during WWII, served in Korea and then as an RCMP officer. It seems that Henry Balinson’s vision of support and justice endured. It is certainly celebrated in this exhibition today. His Jewish Voice of Hamilton rings clear with his passionate intelligence and ardent belief in what was right.

Our world is comprised of the stories of a multitude of individuals. Many of these individuals leave records of their stories in the form of letters, documents, or memorabilia. Few leave newspapers. We are lucky that we are able to learn something about one corner of this world and our city through this exhibition about one man and his family, about his unique story expressed in his own unique words.

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