Eric Koch, a broadcaster and prolific writer who died in Toronto on April 28 at the age of 98, was interned in Canada during the Second World War as an “enemy alien” despite the fact he was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.
He went on to publish 15 novels in English, one in German, a play and five non-fiction books, including Inside Seven Days, perhaps the best description of the rise and fall of the revolutionary CBC program This Hour Has Seven Days.
The bulk of his fiction dealt with Germany and Canada, the places he knew best.
“His literary mission was twofold,” said Howard Aster of Mosaic Press, the publisher of his last eight novels. “He wanted to make sense of German history and his part in it. And he wanted to explain German history of the first half of the 20th century to others.”
He also published a series of short stories in which he fictionalized the lives of famous Canadians, from the politician Tommy Douglas to the opera singer Maureen Forrester and Maurice Duplessis, the nationalistic premier of Quebec. Others included the media thinker Marshall McLuhan and René Lévesque, the separatist Quebec premier and the two warring prime ministers of the 1950s and 60s, Lester B. Pearson and John Diefenbaker.
Erich Koch was born in Frankfurt on Aug. 31, 1919. His father, Otto, a veteran who served four years as a junior officer in the trenches in the First World War, died during routine surgery while Mr. Koch was still an infant. The boy was subsequently called Otto in his father’s honour.
Mr. Koch’s family were affluent, jewellers to the German aristocracy and Mr. Koch was raised in comfort, spending weekends and summers at his grandmother’s country place in Kronberg. He said the Depression didn’t affect the fortunes of his family, whom he described as assimilated secular Jews. The Nazis, however, classified all Jews as the enemy.
“After the Nazis came to power in 1933, it became increasingly clear that the future for Jews in Germany was dark, though no one predicted the Holocaust,” Mr. Koch told The Globe and Mail earlier this year.
In 1935 the teenager was sent to Cranbrook, a private boarding school in Kent, outside London. Mr. Koch recalled that he was treated well there and enjoyed his time at Cranbrook. A man with a droll sense of humour, he described Cranbrook as ”an excellent training ground for becoming an Englishman.”
He went to St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1937, studying economics, then law. At Cambridge, in a production of The Marriage of Figaro, he played the violin, which he had learned as a boy in Germany. His idyllic life at Cambridge was interrupted just before his final exams in May, 1940, when Germany invaded France. Mr. Koch and 80 other German and Austrian students were arrested as “enemy aliens.”
Almost all of those interned were Jewish refugees from Nazism, but they were loaded onto a prison ship and sent to an internment camp near Sherbrooke, Que. Mr. Koch wrote about this episode in his book Deemed Suspect – A Wartime Blunder, published in 1980.
“Eric Koch was the ultimate chronicler of the Sherbrooke Internment Camp. His book is detailed and highly accurate, and it is the standard text not only on the Sherbrooke camp but the entire internment process,” said Fred Kaufman, a retired judge of the Quebec Court of Appeal. Mr. Kaufman was a teenager when he was interned and attended a school set up by the internees.
Mr. Koch’s grandmother was murdered in the Holocaust, but his mother had escaped Germany just before the war and contacted the Birks family in Montreal, jewellers who knew Mr. Koch’s jewellery family. They arranged for Mr. Koch to be entrusted to their care.
“On the morning of November 10, I exchanged my POW uniform for the clothes I had worn in Cambridge eighteen months earlier,” he wrote in his semi-autobiographical novel Otto and Daria.
“Colonel and Mrs. Birks were at Windsor Station to pick me up. The driver took my suitcase. The driver was also the valet. He had special instructions to make me comfortable in my suite on the second floor. It was not difficult to make a man comfortable who, the previous night, had occupied the lower half of a bunk bed in a hall shared with eight hundred others.”
Then followed the story of how his name changed from Otto to Eric.
“Now, look here,” the Colonel said. “Otto is a terrible name. There’s a war on. You can’t call yourself Otto in Canada, in wartime. Don’t you have another name?”
I explained that when I was born, I was named Erich. When I was three months old, my father died. His name was Otto. So I was named Otto after him.
The colonel was delighted.
“So you’re saying you were called Erich at birth?”
“I imagine it’s spelled the German way. We’ll drop the ‘h’ and launch you as Eric Koch. That’s all there is to it.”
“Goodbye, Otto,” Mrs. Birks beamed. “Hello, Eric.”
Cambridge had granted him his degree in absentia and Mr. Koch earned a law degree at the University of Toronto. He paid for his tuition in part by writing articles for an encyclopedia. The only job he could find in 1943 was as a teacher at a private school, Appleby College in Oakville, west of Toronto.
“It was a disaster. My subject was French. My French hadn’t improved since my school days in Germany and I was only a little older than my oldest pupils. After two terms I was fired for incompetence,” Mr. Koch told an interviewer in 1969.
He then worked for a short time as a reporter for Saturday Night magazine, where he wrote a short story and did several articles, including one on the Canadian writer Morley Callaghan. That introduction to the CBC led to a job for Mr. Koch, doing German-language broadcasts for its International Service in 1944.
The broadcasts continued after the war and Mr. Koch became head of the German section. The idea was to do soft propaganda, and during the de-Nazification period of the late 1940s, the service did two newscasts a day in German, broadcast to Germany on shortwave radio. The broadcasts were never heard in Canada. Along with news, there were documentaries and discussions.
In 1953 he moved into English-language radio in Toronto, then television, where he was a producer at the daily program Take 30. He hired Adrienne Clarkson, the future governor-general, who made her reputation as a reporter for the program. Later when he was in charge of current affairs, he hired the writer Barbara Amiel and David Suzuki.
“With Suzuki, I thought I was hiring a science reporter, but instead I hired an evangelist,” he told The Globe.
In 1964 he became the supervising producer of This Hour Has Seven Days in its first year and in 1986 published a book about the show called Inside Seven Days.
“It was the most daring television program of its time. It was the Sixties and it defied the establishment. The person who hated it most was Alphonse Ouimet, the president of the CBC. He didn’t understand the satire,” Mr. Koch said. “People think the government shut down the program. But it wasn’t the Liberal government; it wasn’t Judy LaMarsh [the Secretary of State], it was the CBC. Alphonse closed it.”
In 1971, Mr. Koch was sent to Montreal to head the English-language services in Quebec. As a European who could speak French, he was acceptable to the French-language executives of Radio-Canada at a time when Quebec was going through political upheaval. He was almost a diplomat from English Canada to French Canada.
Mr. Koch was sympathetic to his French-language colleagues, but his experiences in Germany made him wary of nationalism in any form. On the night of Nov. 15, 1976, when the Parti Québécois won power, Mr. Koch was at home in Montreal with his family watching the victory celebration at the Paul Sauvé Arena.
“When the crowd started to sing, it made his skin crawl, reminded him of the rallies in Germany in the 1930s,” his daughter Madeline said.
Mr. Koch retired from the CBC in 1979. In his long retirement, he taught a course at York University on the politics of broadcasting. He taught into his 80s and was proud to be the oldest contract professor at York University. There is a scholarship named after him. He also helped organize the Couchiching Conference at a lake of the same name near Orillia, Ont. The meetings discussed the world from a Canadian-centric viewpoint. It was an important part of his postretirement life.
Mr. Koch published his first novel, The French Kiss, about Charles de Gaulle and Quebec, when he was 50. For the next 48 years, he wrote every day and played the violin almost as often. For many years he played in a string quartet. His mind was sharp to the end, and the day he died he was scheduled to host a book signing for his last novel, Beethoven’s Locket.
Mr. Koch leaves his wife, Sonia; three children, Tony, Monica and Madeline; and granddaughter, Jessica.