Erna Paris, a long-time Globe and Mail columnist and leading writer on human rights and conflict resolution, was a fortunate woman. On Remembrance Day, 1960, at the age of 22, her life’s work was laid out for her. She just didn’t know it yet.
She had recently graduated from the University of Toronto, and was studying for a year in France at the Sorbonne. Ms. Paris and two friends were hiking in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France and stumbled on the remains of a Nazi death camp – Natzweiler-Struthof – the only such camp built in France. It had been a prison for captured members of the Resistance and for French Jews before many were shipped east to Auschwitz.
A lone caretaker showed them around the site including a crematorium and a large operating table with channels for runoff blood.
Ms. Paris was horrified by what she realized had been carried out there just 16 years earlier and stunned by the fact that in her Jewish upbringing in Toronto she had never really learned about these crimes.
“I simply had to know how such things had happened and under what circumstances,” she wrote in a memoir completed late last year. She would spend most of her writing life in that quest. Ms. Paris died of cancer in Toronto on Feb. 3 at the age of 83.
She was born Erna Newman on May 6, 1938, in Toronto. The oldest child of Jules and Christine Newman, she grew up in the affluent neighbourhood of Forest Hill. The community was largely Jewish, but it was more concerned with assimilation than religion. These Jews “wanted nothing more than to be accepted as unhyphenated Canadians,” she wrote.
As a child, Erna accompanied her family to Holy Blossom (Reform) Temple to celebrate the major Jewish holy days. She also attended Sunday school there. But the lessons of the Jewish genocide were not yet part of the curriculum even though one of her teachers, Emil Fackenheim, would become a renowned Holocaust scholar.
Ms. Paris, a lifelong atheist, did remember Dr. Fackenheim teaching the Kantian world view that “every person has intrinsic value simply by virtue of being human.”
Erna’s home life was interesting, to say the least. Her father was an accountant and, in her words, a high-spirited authoritarian – think of the efficiency-expert father in Cheaper by the Dozen, a favourite book (and film) of his. He often read out loud at the dinner table (Orwell’s Animal Farm for example) and had the children do mime performances.
Raised as a tomboy, Erna would accompany her father on his fishing and cycling outings, as well as horseback riding, which came with a strict rule – if thrown from her horse she had 90 seconds to remount, whether she was hurt or not.
The most important thing she ever learned from her mother, Ms. Paris said, was to read a daily newspaper, advice she followed her entire life.
When Ms. Paris returned to Toronto in August, 1961, she was more concerned with matters of the heart than anything as serious as the lot of wartime Jews.
She announced her engagement to a Catholic French man on her first night back. Her father bolted upstairs to his bedroom. Emerging after several hours, the only thing he said was “I don’t want my grandchildren to speak with a French accent.”
Her fiancé arrived in December, speaking little English. The couple were married in the main sanctuary of Holy Blossom, even though the groom had not converted to Judaism. On New Year’s Eve, 1961, they flew back to Paris and life in a small studio apartment.
It did not work out. Despite giving birth to a daughter, Michelle, and moving to a larger apartment, Ms. Paris felt stifled as a housewife, frustrated as a mother and “dead” as a person. A doctor advised the couple that she was too young to be so far from her family. On Nov. 22, 1963, the tiny Paris family sailed for Canada.
They lived for a time in an apartment over her parents’ garage. Her husband enrolled in a graduate program in urban planning at U of T, and Ms. Paris struggled to make money.
Her first effort was to put into words the essence of her visit to the Natzweiler-Struthof camp three years before and to submit it to the editor of a Jewish publication. However, he brushed it off: “No one wants to think about those things,” he bluntly told her. She put it in a drawer and almost a decade would pass before she took it out again.
Instead of writing, Ms. Paris took the conventional path, gave birth to a second child, Roland, and became a high-school English teacher in a Toronto suburb. All the while, she read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and other liberating books by flashlight in bed as her husband slept.
She once confided in her mother about her frustrations as a wife and mother and took her advice to see a psychiatrist, only to have him turn on her. “You understand nothing,” he said angrily, calling her an inadequate wife and inadequate woman. “You have penis envy!” he hissed, as he showed her the door.
It was at this moment, Ms. Paris wrote, that her eyes were opened to the systemic discrimination against women woven into Western culture. But it would be a lottery that picked her name to be a juror in a rape trial that changed her life forever.
The 1968 trial was a case of a man who violently forced a woman to have sex with him. Ms. Paris was the only woman on the jury and, in their deliberations, she became an expert witness, of sorts, describing what a woman would experience during an assault such as this. Clouding the matter was a last-minute comment from the judge who said the complainant “was not a virtuous woman.” Ms. Paris took this to mean the woman had less right to claim she had been raped. She said it seemed the woman was as much on trial as the accused. Nevertheless, the jury found the man guilty.
Ms. Paris was astounded by what took place in the jury room and what happens to a woman who alleges rape. She wrote it up as a magazine article and The Canadian bought it. She was a published writer at last and had the $100 cheque to prove it.
The article created a huge stir – no one had written about what happens behind the jury room door because it is illegal in Canada to do so. Ms. Paris waited in trepidation for the arrest warrant, but none came.
What did come were offers to write more articles – from Saturday Night, Chatelaine. Mostly the interest was in women’s rights issues; later she would write about Quebec politics as well.
In 1975 (designated as International Women’s Year by the United Nations), Ms. Paris produced an eight-part series of hour-long documentaries for CBC Radio’s Ideas program, titled Sex and Civilization. It, too, was a success, in more ways than one.
It was while preparing this series that Ms. Paris, who was by then divorced, interviewed Tom Robinson, a professor of classics and ancient Greek philosophy. He would become her new partner.
Until Dr. Robinson came along, Ms. Paris was living paycheque to paycheque from freelance writing. With her partner, she could afford to think bigger. The book she wanted to write first was about one distinct group in Canada that had experienced hatred and discrimination – the Jews.
In Jews: An Account of their Experience in Canada (1980) Ms. Paris wrote of the earliest Jews in French Canada: Abraham Gradis, whose ships kept French forces supplied as they prepared to battle the British at Quebec; Alexander Schomberg, a distinguished captain in the British navy who fought alongside Wolfe; and Aaron Hart, a British lieutenant who developed the fur trade that made him the wealthiest landowner in the empire outside Britain.
She also wrote of the discrimination many faced, especially poverty-stricken ones who fled 19th-century pogroms in Russia and landed in Toronto only to live in a primitive downtown ghetto called the Ward.
Anti-Jewish discrimination reached the highest offices in the land when the Mackenzie King government decided it would give no lifeline to Jews trying to escape from Nazi Germany.
It was her third book, Unhealed Wounds: France and the Klaus Barbie Affair, that brought Ms. Paris international acclaim. Published in 1985, it tells the story of the heated buildup to the trial of Klaus Barbie, a Nazi known as the Butcher of Lyon, who was extradited to France from Bolivia in 1982 to face charges of crimes against humanity.
The book blows the whistle on France’s dark wartime secrets that Mr. Barbie would reveal: the innumerable citizens who supported the collaborationist Vichy government; the many who had turned on the country’s Jews, and how postwar leader Charles de Gaulle had lied when he assured the nation almost all French men and women had supported the Resistance and that hardly anyone had turned on the Jews.
“This was a courageous book,” said Michael Marrus, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto who co-authored his own fine book on the subject published two years later.
“Chapeau [my hat is off] to her,” he said.
In her 1988 book, The Garden and the Gun: A Journey Inside Israel, Ms. Paris chose to look at Jews as the victor, not the vanquished, and asked if their policies toward Palestinians could be justified. She said the Israeli government often violated the very kind of justice she had learned from Judaism.
On the other hand, The End of Days: A Story of Tolerance, Tyranny and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (1995) showed the success of a seemingly impossible combination of Muslims, Jews and Christians thriving together for seven centuries – until 1492, when the Inquisition spread south and expelled, first the Jews, then the Muslims from Spain.
Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History published in 2000 was a triumph. Everything Ms. Paris had worked on previously, back to her epiphany at the Natzweiler-Struthof death camp 20 years before that, went into this book. The Literary Review of Canada called it one of “the Hundred Most Important Books Ever Written in Canada.”
In it she set out to find how history is shaped, especially after a time of conflict, and for whose benefit. Are forgiveness and reconciliation possible before a recognition of wrongdoing?
Of all the places she visited, Germany had done the most to make amends for its wartime transgressions, she concluded, while Japan had done the least. France pretended it had done little wrong. South Africa, she found, had tried the hardest to get past its racist history with a less-than-perfect truth and reconciliation process, while the United States, until 2000, had done very little to correct its aftermath of slavery.
The book provided a guide on how to face the past and thereby move forward. In 2007, when the House of Commons voted to apologize to the survivors of Indigenous residential schools, the motion cited Long Shadows as its inspiration. An overjoyed Ms. Paris called that “an unparalleled moment in my life.”
Ms. Paris would go on to write The Sun Climbs Slow: Justice in the Age of Imperial America (2008), the story of the creation of the International Criminal Court, as well as winning numerous awards and becoming a member of the Order of Canada, but it was Long Shadows that crowned her success.
It confirmed what Hannah Arendt said: “The luckiest writers are those who find a subject that is worth a life.”
Ms. Paris leaves her husband, Dr. Robinson; children, Michelle and Roland; siblings, Jill Solnicki and Peter R. Newman; and grandchildren, Julia, Simon and Jacqueline.