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Marvin Blauer

Family history makes novel- Review of Book by Former Winnipegger Marvin Blauer

by CYNTHIA RAMSAY, Editor, Vancouver Jewish Independent


[Reprinted with permission from the Vancouver Jewish Independent]

In his first novel, Marvin Blauer invigorates and expands upon the generic “boy-meets-girl story” by basing Struggle: A Quest for Life, Love and a New World (Winnetka Press-Publications, 2011) on family and world history. With the social and political commentary that runs throughout the text, as well as the book’s numerous additional features, Struggle is a robust work, not only from a literary point of view but from an archival perspective.

As Blauer explains in one of the post-narrative sections of the novel, Struggle was an idea 40 years in the making, from the time that his father gave him an English translation of his First World War diary. Accompanying the translation was a short note from his father, as it was written:
“Now I am in a new country and a new continent, a new kind of environment. I am busy to learn the new language and a new trade and I am busy to get establisht in this new land and I don’t know why I stopt writing my memories. It would have been more interesting my diary from the time I came here, up till now. The truth is, that nobody to whom I showed my shaby diary ever asket me to re-write it in English, on till my son Marvin, asket me, ‘why don’t you write that in English, I would like to read it.’ That time, it came to my mind, I should do it. And so, I have re-written it in English, I had many more stories about me in war but that time I had no paper to write, so who is interested to know how I have lived thrugh the first world war, can find out by reading my poor speled diary....”
After reading the diary and that note, Blauer writes, “A feeling of satisfaction came over me – satisfaction that I knew a lot more about the two fascinating people that were my parents and satisfied also that, having learned what I had, I would be able to pass it on one day so their memory, unlike that of the world they came from and so much of their families, would not be cut off and lost.”
The existence of Struggle should ensure that Blauer’s parents’ stories, which, as the book’s jacket notes, “typify those of the 700-year-old Jewish community of Eastern Europe,” survive. A quick web search reveals that Blauer has already undertaken many speaking engagements in relation to his novel, despite its recent release, providing preliminary evidence that he will succeed in this regard. He should also be commended, however, on simply telling a good, if long, story.
A native of Montreal, Blauer has lived in Ottawa for many years. He is a retired professor of political science and a former cabinet-level public servant in provincial and federal governments. While he is not an experienced novelist, he is a veteran writer and storyteller. In addition to being a commentator on current affairs for various publications, he has several unpublished collections.
In Struggle, Blauer combines his lifelong interest in Jewish history – history in general, really – with the desire to preserve his family history. The novel is set during the First World War, though it covers periods before and after that, and its narrative crosses several borders, traveling through Galicia and Vienna, among other places, and ending up in Canada. We first meet Blauer’s mother’s family, the Dicksteins, but Blauer is quick to bring his parents together. On page five, their relationship begins:
“In the summer of 1914, Chava (or as she now insisted, ‘Eva’ – a version of Chava that she had learned was all the rage in America) turned 17 and her blossoming beauty added to Freda’s [her mother’s] worries. It also attracted a growing circle of adolescent admirers, including a wiry young country boy [(Henry) Munya Blauer] from the Austro-Hungarian province of Eastern Galicia, who was staying with his married sister on his way to Hamburg and a steamship that would take him to a new life in America.
“Motele [Eva’s father] secretly smiled at what he was sure was a blossoming romance. Lately, he infuriated Freda by repeatedly inviting the bumpkin to their house, by spending hours discussing the Talmud with this ‘nobody from nowhere’ and by remarking on the boy’s spirit and real, if somewhat untutored, intelligence – all the while ignoring the realities that fathers of marriageable daughters should concentrate on.
“Freda restrained herself. If she had not confirmed the boy’s ticket to America via her own sources, more direct action would have been taken.”
As the adage goes, “Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht” (“Man plans, God laughs”). Munya never made it to his new life in America, and Freda would have to come to accept him as part of her family. The First World War intervened, taking both Eva and Munya in separate directions, though they kept in touch via letters, visits and even a spell when they were both living in Vienna.
In a romanticized, though historically loyal, version of their two stories, readers witness the lovers’ bravery and how they cope with the events of the First World War – from some of which they benefited, such as the lack of workers, so that Munya could find jobs and eventually well-paying work in the shmatte business (for which he was trained) in Vienna; but much of which affected them harshly, such as Munya having to join the fighting and Eva, with the others who were able to remain in their villages (i.e. weren’t killed or forced to flee) having to deal with various soldiers, depending on which army happened to have taken over which area that day.
Both Eva and Munya experience great losses in the war, Munya in particular. Not only was there the fighting with which to deal, but also typhus and other diseases, destroyed homes and infrastructure, a lack of clean water, food shortages and other circumstances that accompany such conflicts.
In addition to the geopolitical elements of the novel, Blauer also provides cultural context for his parents’ love story. For example, in Tarnow – his mother’s hometown – a new shul had been built in 1865, “an enterprise supported by the city’s growing westernized bourgeois elite” but, because, “[i]n a rare moment of inter-communal fraternity, it was agreed that its cornerstone be laid by a Christian general ... several of the more Orthodox rabbis had placed a prohibition on the building that led to a community feud and the synagogue remaining shut for 50 years.
“It finally opened just before the war.
“The Orthodox were convinced that act had caused the war and employed this line of argument whenever opinion matters seemed to be going against them.”
In the preface, Blauer anticipates a few elements of the story to come, but as teasers rather than spoilers, such that when you reach that part in the narrative, the information comes as a revelation – “Oh! That’s how it happened!” Despite his parents’ proclivity to storytelling, Blauer writes of his mother, “Interventions and questions were not always welcomed. The stories were to be memorized rather than understood." As an example of a story left vague, he notes, "My father’s left leg had large, deep scars, ‘wounds’ he had acquired in ‘the war.’... They, too, were left without a full explanation.” Of course, in Blauer’s story, the incidents that caused the wounds are fully described and it is satisfying as a reader to get these answers.
For this novel, Blauer spent much time with his parents, who, he writes, “became more forthcoming” as the years passed and he delved deeper. He also had a lifetime of research behind him, from the many books, commentaries and scholarly work he had read about “the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the life and times of the penultimate generation of East European Jewry and the Great War,” which “helped render the background to this story authentic.”
Blauer’s knowledge of the period and his love of history are evident – it is interesting to note that, in addition to his other work, he is also the coordinator of volunteers at the Canadian War Museum – and, at more than 500 pages, Struggle offers an immense amount of detail. It should probably be on a required reading list for a university history – or politics – course on early-20th century Europe. However, while there is a lot information packed into Struggle, it is eminently readable and there are some imaginative turns of phrase. As but one example, on one return to his hometown, Uscie, Munya speaks with the rabbi there, discovering (and seeing for himself) the hardships that the villagers have had to endure, yet he is left with at least a little bit of optimism, as Blauer writes, “Rabbi Shorr could make a doomed chicken feel good on the way to the shoichot,” or ritual slaughterer.
The epilogue brings readers to the start of Eva and Munya’s life in Canada; they married in 1922 and Blauer’s sister, Ruth, was born the next year, with Aaron (1926) and Haskell (1930-2001) and, eventually, Blauer (1941) to follow.
In addition to the novel and epilogue, there are extensive endnotes. As well, Blauer includes several other “extras,” such as a brief account of his birth – “... a big, strong boy to help you shovel the coal,” as the doctor tells Blauer’s father – and some relevant moments of his own life. One of the most moving sections is one in which Blauer makes an inspired decision to include – original spelling errors and phrasing intact – a letter written by his dad on the 60th anniversary of his father’s arrival in Canada, via Halifax, in 1921. The letter is addressed to “My most Gracious, my Precious, and most beloved Canada!!!” In it, his father shares a bit of his history, how he came to live in Canada and how well he and his family have done in their new homeland, he praises the “Pierre Trudeau Government” and concludes, “I thing I have given you a short outline how loyal you should be to, my, and your Canada.... Canada, Live for  Ever!”
Blauer manages to show the letter to the governor general at the time, Edward Schreyer, who responded appropriately, thanking Blauer’s father for the letter, as well as his contributions to Canada, which “surely should be equally proud to have you and your family as citizens....” It’s a very touching part of the book, in no small measure because it is not only a reminder of just how lucky we are to live in this country, but also it is a reminder that the story we just read is not a work of pure fiction, but based on real people and their real experiences, many of which were heartbreaking.
While this is a true story, to the extent that a factual recounting is possible, you lose yourself in it to such an extent that it hits you hard when Blauer shares more at the end of the book about the “characters” and their families – the real people, many of whom didn’t survive the Second World War. One account in particular – that of Blauer’s parents’ efforts to save his mother’s niece from the Holocaust – vividly illustrates the disgraceful “None is too many” policy of Canada towards Jewish refugees at the time; though they managed to get the niece safely to Canada, despite their best efforts, nothing could be done for the rest of the family, who “was never heard of again.”
Struggle also includes 16 pages of images, including a scan of the cover of his father’s diary, family photos, the relevant portion of the Dickstein and Blauer family trees, a useful map of the region that indicates the locations significant to the story and a painting of the Italian Front, which offers “a scene Munya would have witnessed many times.” There is even a picture of a machine gun (Schwartzlose, 1912) that Munya used in the war, the mechanics of which Blauer meticulously describes in the narrative.
While most of us will not be able to preserve our family’s memories in such a fashion, Struggle highlights the importance of making history accessible and relevant to next generations. In our own unique ways, this is something of which we are all capable.
For more information or to purchase Struggle, visit
Cynthia Ramsay has known Marvin Blauer and his family since she was, so to speak, knee-high to a grasshopper. In reading his novel, she learned much more about him, directly and through the story, including that his nickname is Butch. She’s not sure how she feels about that yet.
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