Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Born in the Holocaust — Miriam Rosenthal & Her Miracle Baby

It's easy to miss the shop if you're not looking for it. It blends into the other storefronts, one of many Jewish businesses along that stretch of Bathurst Street. It's been standing there for more than 50 years, just two blocks south of Lawrence Avenue, on the corner of Caribou Road. A plain blue sign lists the wares inside — books, sephorim, gifts — and displays the name of the store itself: Miriam's Judaica. 

At a glance there doesn't seem to be anything particularly remarkable about it. It's a store like any other store. But the story behind that little Jewish shop on Bathurst Street is one of the most extraordinary stories you'll find in Toronto — or anywhere else for that matter.


Miriam & Bela on their wedding day
The Miriam in Miriam's Judaica is Miriam Rosenthal. Her story begins in the town of Komárno, where she was born. It stands on the banks of the Danube River, in what's now Slovakia, right on the border with Hungary. She had a good childhood, the youngest of more than a dozen children in an Orthodox Jewish family. "I was spoiled," she once remembered. "I had a beautiful life."

When she was 22 years old, her family allowed her to get married — something she'd long been looking forward to. She went to a matchmaker and picked her husband out of a catalogue: Bela Rosenthal was the handsome son of a cattle broker; he lived on the Hungarian side of the border. Before long, they were engaged to be married.

But this was April 1944. Darkness had descended on Europe. The Slovaks had been allied with the Nazis since the early days of the Second World War; the persecution of the country's Jewish population began immediately. Two years before Miriam and Bela got engaged, the first trainload of Jews had left Slovakia for Auschwitz. Komárno had been turned into a major military hub for the Germans; as the young couple planned their wedding, all of the Jews in Miriam's hometown — nearly three thousand of them — were being deported. Some of her brothers had already been sent off to labour camps.

Still, she was determined to go through with the wedding. She used false papers and wore a cross as she slipped across the border, taking a train to meet her fiance in Hungary. They were married just a few hours after she arrived. As the rabbi performed the ceremony, German bombs began to fall; the wedding party rushed underground, finishing the ceremony in the basement. "The rabbi insisted," Miriam explained years later, "bombs or no bombs." The young bride wore a red rose pinned to her lapel to cover her yellow star.

The newlyweds barely had any time to build their new life together. Just two weeks after the wedding, they were rounded up into a ghetto and separated. A few weeks after that, the Nazis came for them again. Bela was sent to a slave labour camp. Miriam was sent to Auschwitz.

More people would die at Auschwitz than at any other Nazi concentration camp: more than a million were killed in the four years the gas chambers and the ovens were in operation. As Rosenthal and the other new arrivals were herded off their trains, Dr. Joseph Mengele — "The Angel of Death" — was waiting for them. By then, they were already weakened by their journey: untold hours spent crammed together in cattle cars without room to sit or food to eat. Many died along the way. Now, Dr. Mengele scrutinized them, his eyes coldly assessing them from beneath the brim of his black cap, the skull and crossbones of the SS emblazoned on the front. He divided them into two groups, their fate determined by a wave of his gloved hand or a flick of his cane: left or right. Those he deemed unfit for work — more than 80% of them — were sent to the left: straight to the gas chambers. The others, to the right: to a life of slavery inside the concentration camp. Rosenthal watched as her mother, her sister, and her one year-old niece were all sent to the left, to death. But she made it through.

And it was there, just a few weeks later, trapped within the horrors of Auschwitz, that Miriam Rosenthal realized she was pregnant.


Children at Auschwitz, 1945
The Nazis didn't spare Jewish children. They killed more than a million of them during the Holocaust. The leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, repeatedly justified and defended the slaughter in chilling speeches to his fellow party members.

"I believe, gentlemen," he once told a group of generals, "that you know me well enough to know that I am not a bloodthirsty person... on the other hand, I have such good nerves and such a developed sense of duty... that when I recognise something as necessary I can implement it without compromise. I have not considered myself entitled... to allow the children to grow into the avengers who will then murder our children and our grandchildren. That would have been cowardly."

At Auschwitz, many children were immediately gassed, but a few were allowed to live. Some were kept as fodder for horrifying medical experiments carried out by Dr. Mengele and his staff. When he was done performing his bizarre tortures, he would kill some of them himself, injecting chloroform into their hearts and then dissecting them to study their organs. On other occasions, death came more casually: Mengele is said to have once drawn a line along the wall of the children's barracks about five feet from the ground; any child shorter than that line was promptly sent to the gas chambers. Sometimes children were thrown straight into the ovens, burned alive.

Pregnant women weren't given the chance to give birth. They, just like young mothers, were usually declared unfit for work and quickly murdered.

There was no question: Rosenthal would hide her pregnancy for as long as she could. "Not a word," one of her fellow prisoners advised her. "Not a single word. If not, you'll end up at the crematorium."

One day, the SS called for all the pregnant women to step forward. They were, the officers told them, going to be given double their usual ration of bread. But it was a lie: a trap.

"Can you imagine?" Rosenthal asked a reporter from the National Post just a few years ago. "Even women who were not pregnant stepped forward." But she stayed put. "Two hundred women stepped forward and 200 women went to the gas chamber. And I don’t know why I didn’t step forward... I have asked rabbis. I have asked some big people and no one can give me an answer... I have asked myself this question so many times as I lay in bed upstairs."

Declared fit for work, she was soon transferred out of Auschwitz and eventually sent to a factory in Augsberg where she was forced to make airplane parts for the Luftwaffe. Things there were slightly easier: the prisoners were given clean clothes and a little more food, allowed to grow their hair long for the first time since they'd arrived in the camps.

But all the while, Rosenthal's pregnancy was progressing. She was beginning to show. It was only a matter of time before the SS would notice.

The dreaded day came during the winter of 1944. Two SS officers arrived at the factory with angry German shepherds; they demanded that any woman who was pregnant immediately identify herself. This time, there was no hidding.

"I had to raise my hand," she explained. "I was showing, and if I didn’t put up my hand all those other women would be killed. How could I not put up my hand?"

The SS officers were furious. "You bitch!" they barked. "You're coming with us — to Auschwitz."

"I said goodbye to my friends," she remembered, "who were crying, but it was a relief for me. The suffering would be over, as well as the fear of what would happen to my baby." Rosenthal resigned herself to death.

She was taken out into the snow with nothing to protect her from the bitter cold but the dress she'd been wearing in the factory. The SS loaded her onto a train. This time, strangely, it wasn't a freight train packed full of prisoners, but a regular passenger train. There were civilians on board, seemingly oblivious to the genocide taking place all around them. One woman was shocked to see Rosenthal in her emaciated state. "Frau, what is with you?" she asked the prisoner. "You don’t have hair. The clothes you are wearing. What are you, from a mental hospital?"

"She didn’t have a dream, this German woman," Rosenthal remembered, "of all the horrible things the Germans were doing. I told her I am not from a mental hospital, I am going to Auschwitz — I am going to the gas. She looked at me like I was crazy, opened her purse and gave me some bread. I ate it so fast. I was so hungry."

She was 22 years old and seven months pregnant.


Mass grave, Kaufering III, 1945
Now that the Nazis knew Rosenthal was carrying a child, Auschwitz would mean almost certain death. But that's not where the SS took her. The Russians, they told her, had just bombed Auschwitz, so instead they were headed toward another one of Germany's most notorious concentration camps: Dachau.

By then, the war was going very poorly for the Nazis. The Allies had landed at Normandy six months earlier and begun their push across Europe. That year, the British and the Americans dropped more bombs on Germany than in the entire rest of the war combined — hundreds of thousands of tons of them. In response, the Nazis were moving their facilities underground. Near Dachau, in a town called Kaufering, they established eleven smaller sub-camps and used the slave labour of the prisoners to build giant subterranean airplane factories. There, they were put to work making Hitler's new "miracle weapon": the Messerschmitt, the world's first fighter jet. 

Rosenthal was taken to one of those sub-camps: Kaufering I. It held thousands of prisoners, the vast majority of them Jewish, half of them doomed to die. The guards took her below ground and left her there in a dark room. It was hard to see. Only a single bulb cast dim light in the subterranean prison. But there were voices: other women, speaking Hungarian. "Where are you from?" they asked. "What happened to you?" There were six of them, they told her. And they were all pregnant.

"We started to cry and we just cried and cried," Rosenthal remembered. "It was like we were all sisters. We had no one else in the world. We hugged each other. We kissed each other."

With the end of the war approaching, it seemed as if some of the Nazis were beginning to realize there would be consequences for their war crimes. They were starting to worry. The killing was far from over, but it seemed as if some things were beginning, ever so slightly, to change — if only so the Nazis could save their own skins.

The seven pregnant women were eventually taken above ground, to a small wooden hut that would serve as meagre shelter against the most terrible winter Europe had seen in the last fifteen years. What little heat they had came from a stove smuggled in for them by a fellow prisoner — one of the "kapos" who agreed to help oversee the camps in return for special treatment. She had taken a great risk by getting it for them. When the guards discovered the stove, they took it away and beat the kapo bloody. The next day, she brought it right back. 

The SS officers brought them a doctor, too: one of the prisoners in the camp had been a gynecologist in Hungary before the war. But there was only so much Dr. Vadasz could do for them. He broke down in tears when he first saw the seven women, all of them now very far along in their pregnancies. He begged the Nazis to give him the equipment he would need for the deliveries. "I have no instruments! I need hot water! Towels! Soap!" But he would have to make do.

Within days, the first of the women went into labour. And in the weeks to come, the others would follow, one after another, suffering terribly as they gave birth on a hard, wooden bunk without anesthetic or the necessary medical equipment. Dr. Vadasz, terribly weakened himself, was given nothing but a bucket of hot water to use.

Still, one by one, the first six mothers did what seemed to be impossible: they gave birth in a concentration camp. Six new babies were brought into the world. Six new lives in the middle of all that death.

Eventually, it was just Miriam Rosenthal who had yet to give birth to her child. She finally went into labour during the last week of February. But as she struggled through the contractions, it was clear that her delivery wasn't going as smoothly as the others had. There were complications. She became frightened that she couldn't hear the baby's heartbeat anymore. And she was growing weak.

Dr. Vadasz urged her on. "Miriam push, push, you must help me. I can't do it on my own. He's going to die." Her strength was failing her. "Miriam please try, try try try..."

"I couldn't keep going any longer," she later remembered, "but all of a sudden the baby is out... And what a beauty. With blond, beautiful hair; big, blue eyes. The other women were crying. Dr. Vadasz was crying. Everyone was crying."

On February 28, 1945, Leslie Rosenthal was born. 


The seven mothers & their babies, Dachau, 1945
It was a miracle. But they weren't safe yet. The Allies were still fighting their slow, bloody way across the continent. The war against Germany wouldn't end for another ten weeks.

And those ten weeks would be hard weeks. An outbreak of typhoid tore through the camp. Prisoners were still dying everywhere. And even as they recovered from the strain of childbirth, the new mothers were forced to keep working, washing prisoners' clothing and unloading dead bodies.

Rosenthal was in especially poor shape. After the delivery, her placenta had never emerged. It was another life-threatening complication. "After a week I started to bleed," she remembered. "The blood was flowing like water from a tap. Terrible. So much blood." Dr. Vadasz warned the others that Rosenthal wasn't going to make it. "If you die," one of them promised her, "I will take Leslie."

Rosenthal kept fighting, and eventually recovered. But death was still a constant threat. When Leslie was still just two weeks old, the camp's head physician signed an order to have all of the new mothers and their babies sent to Bergen-Belsen to be gassed. His order, for some unknown reason, was never carried out.

Meanwhile, the Allies were getting closer: by the end of March, they were across the Rhine, marching through Germany itself, pushing on toward victory. Soon, the Soviets were on the outskirts of Berlin, shelling the capital. Hitler had retreated into his bunker, never to emerge again. In just a few days, he would put his gun to his head and end his own life.

As the Third Reich collapsed, the SS officers at the Kaufering camps were debating what to do with their prisoners. Some were determined to kill as many Jews and destroy as much evidence as they could before the end. As the Americans approached, the Nazis set fire to some of the barracks. Hundreds of prisoners were too weak to escape the flames. They were burned alive.

Thousands of others — including the seven mothers and their babies — were evacuated, forced into a death march from the sub-camps of Kaufering toward Dachau itself, nearly sixty kilometers away. "Anyone who was unable to keep walking was shot on the spot," one of the other mothers remembered. "People were sick, weak and malnourished. We had to march without shoes."

Rosenthal could barely keep moving, but if she stopped she knew she would killed — and Leslie with her. At one point, as she struggled to carry on, one of the Nazi officers offered to help. More than sixty years later, she was still moved to tears by the memory of that small, unexpected act of humanity. "I couldn't believe it: an SS man says, 'Let me carry your child.' You see, there are good people in this life. They were SS but this man had a heart. He took the child. I could hardly keep walking and he said, 'I'll carry him.'"

"Some Germans helped," she once told the Toronto Star, "maybe not enough, but there were some."

Rosenthal kept going, struggling on long enough to get loaded onto yet another train. But even the train wasn't safe. The American air force didn't realize it was filled with the people they had come to save — so they bombed it. As prisoners fled the wreckage into the surrounding woods, the SS opened fire. The forest was filled with bodies.

"I kept saying, 'Leslie, we're going home. God will help us... Please God, please God. Help me, help me.'"

In the end, it took two days for the prisoners and their guards to make the journey from Kaufering to the main camp. Thousands of prisoners died in death marches around Dachau in the final few days of the war. But Rosenthal, the six other mothers, and all seven of their babies survived.

The morning after they arrived, they were lined up for one last roll call. A few hours later, the Americans arrived.

It was over. They were free.


Bela, Leslie and Miriam
He was there, in the distance, running toward her. Somehow they had both survived — and they had both made their way back home to find each other. Bela was stunned to see Leslie in Miriam's arms. He couldn't believe she'd gotten pregnant so quickly, in those two brief weeks before the Nazis tore them apart. He was overjoyed. "I can’t describe that feeling of when he saw our baby," she remembered, "when he saw Leslie for the first time. We cried and cried and cried."

With the war over, they decided to leave Hungary behind and to set out in search of a new life: they travelled through Bratislava, Prague, Paris and Cuba before they finally reached Canada. For a while, Bela worked at a mattress factory. And then as a rabbi in Timmins and Sudbury. But in the end, they settled in Toronto, where they would spend the rest of their lives.

In 1965, they opened a shop on Bathurst Street at the corner of Caribou Road. They called it Miriam's Fine Judaica. They ran the store for more than 40 years, and raised their growing family: three children, and then grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. They would both into their 90s.

At first, Rosenthal didn't tell her story to very many people outside her own family. She was still haunted by nightmares of SS officers coming to steal her newborn child. But in her later years, she began to share her extraordinary tale. "I believe," she told the Star in 1997, "as I get older I think more and more about the Holocaust and my family... I feel my memories more, but still I am not bitter."

In 2010, she was interviewed for an award-winning German documentary about the seven mothers and their children called Born In A Concentration Camp. A couple of years after that, a journalist from the National Post interviewed her for an article about her remarkable life.

Leslie was there, too. By then, he was nearly 70 years old. As he arrived, Miriam proudly introduced her son: "Here is my miracle baby now."

"And here," Leslie answered, "is my miracle mother."


You can watch the documentary, Born In A Concentration Camp, online here. And you can read the National Post interview here. And if you've got a Toronto Public Library card, I think you should be able to read the Toronto Star article here (Page E1, April 21, 1997). The website for Miriam's Fine Judaica shares Bela (William) Rosenthal's obituary from the Canadian Jewish News here.

Haaretz wrote about the mothers and their babies here. The Canadian Jewish News wrote about the Rosenthals here

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shares more information about the Kaufering camps here and Auschwitz here. The Guardian has some more information about Auschwitz here, as does the London Jewish Cultural Centre has some more information about Auschwitz on their "The Holocaust Explained" site for students here

You can learn more about the Jewish history of Komárno from the Slovak Jewish Heritage Center here

PHOTOS: Miram and Bela's wedding photo comes from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum here, which also shares their story. The photo of the children in Auschwitz comes via the Globe and Mail, which shares the story of one of those children here. The photo of the mass grave at Kaufering III — and the German prisoners being forced to uncover it at the end of the war — comes from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum here. The same site has the photo of the seven mothers and their babies here 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Toronto's Founding Purpose: A Haven For Refugees

More than two hundred years ago, the city of Toronto was founded to serve as the new capital of Upper Canada — a province created to be a home for Loyalist refugees forced to flee from the chaos and persecution they faced in the United States after the American Revolution. Today, as our neighbours south of the border turn their backs on the world, it seems especially important to remember Toronto's founding purpose. Many of our city's greatest moments have come when we've opened our arms to welcome those in need of shelter: from the victims of the Irish Famine, to those fleeing the Soviet crackdown after the Hungarian Revolution, to the Syrian refugees of today. And many of our darkest times have come when we've shut our doors on those who needed our help.

I shared some thoughts about refugees and the history of Toronto on Twitter recently, and have turned them into a Storify post here:

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Tragic Final Days of Lucy Maud Montgomery

This is where Lucy Maud Montgomery died: the house she called Journey's End. It's on Riverside Drive in Swansea: the west end of Toronto. Montgomery spent her last decade living here, perched high above the Humber Valley as she grew old and wrote the last few sequels to Anne of Green Gables.

Those were dark years for the beloved Canadian writer. "There has never been any happiness in this house — there never will be,” she confessed in her journal. "The present is unbearable. The past is spoiled. There is no future."

She had been suffering from depression for years — and it deepened near the end of her life. She was plagued by mood swings and waves of crippling anxiety, haunted by nightmares and painful memories, beset by headaches, vomiting, shooting pains, and trembling hands. She had difficulty sleeping. At times, she couldn’t concentrate well enough to write. The pills the doctors prescribed only made things worse, and before long she was hooked on them.

Meanwhile, her literary legacy was under attack. Once upon a time, Montgomery's stories had been enjoyed by men, women, boys and girls of all ages — even the Prime Minister of Great Britain sang her praises. But now her work was being dismissed by a new generation of male, modernist critics who claimed her books were too "sugary" to be enjoyed by anyone but little girls, and that her stories were too regional — too Canadian — to have any appeal for a worldwide audience. "Canadian fiction," according to one of Montgomery's harshest and most influential critics, "was to go no lower."

And yet she still kept fighting. Even as her depression deepened, her family life crumbled, and the Second World War broke out, Montgomery acted as a passionate advocate for Canadian authors: giving speeches and readings, imparting advice to young writers, insisting that Canadian stories were worth telling and that Canadian voices were worth hearing. 

It was on a spring day in 1942 that it all finally caught up with her. On the very same day the manuscript of her final sequel to Anne of Green Gables was dropped off at her publisher's office, her maid found Montgomery dead in bed. There were pill bottles on the table next to her along with a sheet of paper that read:

"I have lost my mind by spells and I do not dare think what I may do in those spells. May God forgive me and I hope everyone else will forgive me even if they cannot understand. My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best."

Her family kept Montgomery's depression and her apparent suicide a secret for more than sixty years, until her granddaughter finally revealed the truth in 2008, hoping to contribute to a more honest conversation about mental illness.

“I have come to feel very strongly,” she wrote in the Globe, “that the stigma surrounding mental illness will be forever upon us as a society until we sweep away the misconception that depression happens to other people, not us — and most certainly not to our heroes and icons.”

Depression — far being from being a sign of weakness or of failure — plagued even one of the most celebrated Canadian authors of all-time.


The Globe and Mail has more about Lucy Maud Montgomery's depression in articles by Irene Gammel here and James Adams here. There's also lots more in Mary Henley Rubio's biography of the author, "Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings," which you can borrow from the Toronto Public Library here

A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead

Coming September 2017 from Dundurn Press
Available for pre-order now

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Come To The Ex! Watch Us Slice Open A Pet!

The Ex had never been more popular than it was in 1962 and ’63. More than three million people walked through the gates during those years. The crowds set new attendance records for Canada’s biggest fair — less than half as many visit these days. Many of those flocking to the Exhibition Grounds were about to see one of the most bizarre exhibits the CNE has ever displayed.

It was called Vetescope. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association organized it. They wanted to show Canadians that vets were more than just “horse doctors” – that they were a vital part of modern society, using cutting edge technology to keep our animals healthy. They billed it as “the biggest public relations venture that organized veterinary medicine has undertaken on this continent.”

It was huge. The full exhibit sprawled over 9,000 square feet in the gorgeous Hydro Building (they call it the Music Building now) and cost $1 million to prepare. There were more than 250 vets on hand to answer questions from the public, manning 18 displays about their profession. There was information about “radiology, anatomy, embryology, histology, pathology, bacteriology and parsitology”. But that’s not all. They also featured some attention-grabbing displays about the modern innovations in veterinary science.

You could, for instance, learn about the role of animal medicine in space exploration. And as part of the Large Animal display, members of the public could meet “Maggie the magnetized cow”. It seems she was equipped with one of the latest breakthroughs in bovine science: a cow magnet. It rested in her gut, collecting all of the metallic odds and ends a cow accidentally consumes over the course of her lifetime, thus preventing troublesome “hardware disease”. It was a brand new development back in the early 1960s; today the use of cow magnets is commonplace.

But it wasn’t the space age exhibit or the magnetized cow that grabbed the biggest headlines. The organizers of Vetescope had put together an even more dramatic demonstration of their profession. They had veterinarians perform live surgeries in front of crowds of curious onlookers.

People loved it. Thousands upon thousands of Torontonians and tourists showed up to witness the surgeries. So many, in fact, they couldn’t all get close enough to see through the windows into the operating room. Those who were too far away to see inside watched on a closed circuit television system.

For some of them, it was all a bit too much. As the doctors made their incisions into the tiny, furry patients on the operating table, many of those who were watching grew dizzy and weak in the knees. In one day alone, at least a dozen people fainted. One man passed out twice. Another recovered only to walk straight into a tree. One American newspaper called the operations “too realistic,” reporting that an average of three audience members were fainting during every surgery. “More than 50 visitors have been carried or helped out, and a few have required hospital treatment.” The organizers, fearing for public safety, made sure there were “fainting assistants” on hand to help those who did keel over.

Despite the queasy combination of cotton candy, corn dogs, roller coasters and live surgery, Vetescope was, by all accounts, a smashing success. Nearly 400,000 people came to see it in the first year alone. “[T]he general reaction could almost be described as one of astonishment,” a supporter later recalled. “It became apparent even to a child that medical care of animals is on par with that of humans.” The veterinary masterminds behind the exhibit were lauded for their public relations success.

In fact, it was such a big hit they made sure to capture it on film:

A version of this post was originally published on August 23, 2010.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Coming Soon: The Toronto Book of the Dead

Things have been a bit quiet on the Dreams Project blog this year — but there's a pretty good reason for that: I've been spending most of 2016 working on my first book.

The Toronto Book of the Dead will explore the history of the city through the stories of some of its most fascinating and illuminating deaths. There will be morbid tales of war and plague, of duels and executions, of suicides and séances. It will cover everything from ancient First Nations burial mounds to the grisly murder of Toronto’s first lighthouse keeper; from the rise and fall of the city’s greatest Victorian baseball star to the final days of the world’s most notorious anarchist.

Countless lives have been lived and lost as Toronto has grown from a muddy little frontier town into a booming metropolis of concrete and glass. The Toronto Book of the Dead will tell the story of our ever-changing city through the final moments of those who have called this place home.

The book will be published by Dundurn Press, who I'm super-excited to be working with. You might know them as the same publishing house behind Daniel Rotsztain's All The Libraries colouring book, or Mark Osbaldeston's Unbuilt Toronto, or Charles Sauriol's books about the Don Valley. Their authors include Austin Clarke and Andrew Coyne and Steven Paikin. And it's also the place where you can find old works by Lucy Maude Montgomery, Robertson Davies and Mazo de la Roche, plus some hugely important historical tomes written by some of the old-timey Torontonians who will pop up in my own book, like Elizabeth Simcoe and Henry Scadding.

The Toronto Book of the Dead will be available to pre-order in October of 2016. And it's scheduled to hit shelves in September 2017.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

John Graves Simcoe's Weird & Complicated Relationship With Slavery

August 1 was both Simcoe Day and Emancipation Day in the City of Toronto. One is meant to remember the British soldier who founded our city; the other marks the day slavery was abolished across the entire British Empire. It's an interesting overlap: Simcoe was responsible for abolishing slavery in Toronto; he passed the first law to end the practice ever passed anywhere in the Empire. But his relationship to slavery wasn't anywhere near as clear-cut and simple as that might make it sound. And so, to mark this year's Simcoe and Emancipation Days, I thought I'd do some tweeting.

You'll find the Twitter essay embedded below. And if you can't see it for any reason, you can read it all on Storify here.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Brexit, Eton College & The History of Toronto

The most famous boarding school in the world has just gotten a little bit more famous. Thanks to the shocking result of the Brexit referendum, Eton College has been popping up in the news. The posh boarding school is where two of the architects of the mess spent their teenage years. Prime Minster David Cameron and Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London, both graduated from Eton in the early 1980s.

So if you want to understand the breathtaking, aristocratic entitlement that led the United Kingdom into self-inflicted disaster, it helps to understand Eton. And in understanding Eton, you can also better understand the history of our own city — because it's not just where Boris and Dave went, it's where the man who founded Toronto went, too.

Eton sits on the banks of the Thames, not far outside London, just across the river from Windsor Castle. It was founded all the way back in the 1400s; King Henry VI started the school as a charity meant to provide free education to the poor.

But oh how things have changed since then. In recent centuries, Eton has made its reputation by catering to the children of the rich and powerful, helping to perpetuate the strict British class system. Yearly tuition can cost as much as the equivalent of $60,000 in Canadian currency. For a long time, the school's official uniform was literally a top hat and tails. (They finally ditched the top hat in the 1960s, but they've kept the tails.) The school is synonymous with the idea of British entitlement: that the children of the country's ruling class should naturally become its next generation of rulers.

Nineteen British Prime Ministers have been students at Eton. Both Prince Harry and Prince William went there, too. So did George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and Percy Shelley and John Maynard Keynes. And if you're counting fictional characters, then so did James Bond and Captain Hook and Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey

Eton College
And so, it's not surprising to find that two of today's most powerful Conservative politicians both went to Eton, too. The outgoing Prime Minster, David Cameron (inept champion of Remain), and the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson (Leave-supporting buffoon), both graduated from Eton in the early 1980s. They say you can trace the roots of their rivalry all the way back there — and with it, some of the very beginnings of the Brexit disaster.

As a student, Boris was older, more popular and more successful than Cameron — things that mattered even more than usual at such an aristocratic school. And since Johnson did better at Eton — and then again when both young men attended Oxford University — they say it drives him nuts that Cameron has risen to greater heights since then. Boris might be the former Mayor of London, a current Member of Parliament, and a newspaper columnist who got paid more than £250,000 last year (or "chicken feed" as he calls it) for writing one article every week — but that, apparently, isn't enough.

"Yes," Sonia Purnell writes in The Independent, "the fact that Cameron was two years below him at Eton – a terrifically hierarchical school – rankles deeply. As does the fact that it was Boris who shone there, not Cameron. Masters recall Johnson as a remarkable teenager. They do not recall Cameron at all."

According to countless media reports, Boris made it his mission to topple his old friend Dave and take his place as Prime Minster. If that meant joining the Leave campaign... well, that's what he was willing to do — whether or not he actually believed that leaving the European Union was a good idea for Britain.

Meanwhile, some suggest that Cameron's lifelong sense of entitlement — reinforced by his time at Eton — gave him a false sense of his own superiority. Slate describes him as "an establishment man through and through... the sort of person who gets away with too many things and comes to mistake his privilege for innate luck." When given the chance to gamble the future of his country in return for his own personal political gain, he did so. After all, he's been getting his way his entire life. Why would this time be any different? In order to appease the lunatic far-right fringe of his party, Cameron agreed to hold the Brexit referendum, confident that a Leave vote would never actually happen.

Boris and Dave
But when Boris — who is thought to have personally reassured Cameron that he would never support the Leave campaign — betrayed his old friend the Prime Minister, things suddenly became much more complicated. Johnson's support gave legitimacy to the Leave faction, even while it descended into absurd lies and bigoted violence. The racists behind Brexit never would have won, according to The Daily Beast, "without the fig leaf of Boris's charm."

The result: a stunning victory for the Leave campaign, an economy in disarray, bigotry and xenophobia on the rise, the murder of an MP, the end of Cameron's career, and scenes of Boris Johnson being booed the moment he pokes his head outside his front door. The Old Etonians have suddenly become two of the most hated men in the country they were raised to rule.

And in the end, Johnson's plan didn't even work: betrayed, in turn, by one of his own supporters (die-hard-Brexiter Michael Gove), Johnson has been forced out of the race for PM.

But the power of Eton College hasn't just been limited to British politics. Thanks to the Empire, the school's reach has historically extended far beyond England's own borders. In Toronto, you can trace Eton's influence all the way back to the founding of our modern city. More than two hundred years before Boris and Dave, there was John Graves Simcoe.

Simcoe went to Eton in the 1760s. And he too bought into its aristocratic vision for Britain. Years later, when he became the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, he was determined to make that aristocratic heritage an important part of his new province.

Before he sailed for Canada, Simcoe got in touch with another Eton graduate: the famous scientist Sir Joseph Banks. In his letter, Simcoe asked for any advice Banks might be able to offer, and laid out his vision for his new Upper Canadian capital: the city that would eventually become Toronto.

A strict class system, he insisted, would play a vital role. Simcoe didn't trust the general public; they couldn't be allowed to have real power. As a solider, he'd seen the bloody results of the American Revolution with his own eyes — and more recently, he'd heard the terrifying reports coming out of Paris during the French Revolution. In fact, the Reign of Terror began the very same summer Simcoe founded Toronto. In his experience, when the people gained power, they had a nasty habit of beheading the elites. And so Simcoe was determined that his new city would be free from what he called "tyrannical democracy."

"There are inherent defects in the congressional form of Government," he wrote in his letter to Banks, "the absolute prohibition of any order of nobility is a glaring one. I hope to have a hereditary council with some mark of nobility."

John Graves Simcoe
He would never quite get his wish: Toronto never developed an officially aristocratic system like the one they had back home in England. But Simcoe did make sure that power rested in the hands of a few loyal Tory families. For the first few decades of our city's history, families like the slave-owning Jarvis clan kept all of the best government jobs and appointments for themselves and their friends. The habit would eventually earn Toronto's ruling class a derisive nickname: The Family Compact.

With the backing of their British overlords, the Family Compact dominated the Legislative Assembly, blocked all democratic reform, and cracked down on dissent. Anyone who disagreed with the Tory elite or demanded change quickly found themselves subject to threats and intimidation — sometimes even violence or imprisonment.

The Family Compact had no doubt they were meant to be the natural rulers of the province — a sense of entitlement that would look familiar to anyone who has been following Boris and Dave during the Brexit fiasco.

To help ensure that the power of the Family Compact would continue long into the future, they even founded a Torontonian version of Eton. It's still around today: Upper Canada College. The school's own website describes it as being "modeled after the great public schools of Britain [what we call private schools in Canada], most notably Eton College." UCC's job would much be the same as Eton's job on the other side of the Atlantic: training the sons of the rich and powerful to become the new generation of elites.

And it worked. As Wikipedia points out, "The school has produced six lieutenant governors, four premiers, seven chief justices, and four Mayors of Toronto." There have been plenty of other rich and powerful graduates, too, like Michael Ignatieff and Norm Kelly. In Toronto, the Old Boys of Upper Canada College have played something of a similar role to that of the Old Etonians in England.

But not everyone in Toronto was happy with the Family Compact. There was plenty of resentment against the ruling class in those early years. The opposition gained momentum over the city's first few decades, building into a reform movement led by the radical newspaper publisher and first Mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie. He was becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of democracy in Upper Canada. He made appeal after appeal to the British government, but his complaints fell on deaf ears — which was maybe not entirely surprising: nearly all of the British Prime Ministers during that period were Old Etonians themselves.

William Lyon Mackenzie
In the end, Mackenzie finally gave up on trying to find a peaceful solution; after a disappointing trip to London, he became convinced that revolution was the only way to break the Family Compact's grip on power. In 1837, he gathered an army north of Toronto and marched down toward the city with the aim of overthrowing the government.

Even the street the rebels marched down was a reminder of Eton's influence. Simcoe named the biggest road in Toronto after another one of his Old Etonian friends: Sir George Yonge.

In the end, of course, Mackenzie's rebellion failed. Democratic reform came peacefully a decade later under the name of Responsible Government. The leading champion of the cause was the moderate Robert Baldwin, who had been educated by the leader of the Family Compact. And Baldwin was able to convince the British of its value thanks in part to the support of Lord Durham, yet another Eton graduate. Change didn't come to Canada until the people advocating for it were members of the old boys club themselves.

More than a hundred and fifty years later, you can still see some echoes of that seminal divide in the Toronto politics of today. We saw it on stunning display recently, when Rob Ford was able to frame his mayoral campaign as a campaign against the "elites" by positioning himself as an outsider and purposefully distancing himself from the traditional, Upper Canada College-style Tories. Those who felt ignored by the establishment voted for Ford in droves. Casting a ballot for an apparent outsider seemed like a rare opportunity to give voice to their anger.

Last week, we saw similar emotions lead to similar results in the United Kingdom. The Leave side denounced the experts and vilified the establishment even though the leaders of the Leave campaign were establishment figures themselves. Boris Johnson has made a career out of playing the blond buffoon, trying to seem like a man of the people instead of a millionaire raised in privilege. The Brexiters, much like Ford, managed to convince vast numbers of people that the real cause of their problems was a dastardly combination of expert opinion and immigration. Not, say, the damaging policies those very same Conservative politicians have been hawking for decades: like tax cuts for the rich paid for by service cuts for everyone else. 

Both campaigns were illusions. Rob Ford was a millionaire born into a political family. His policies were the same old Conservative policies that have been hurting the working class for years. His successor, the aptly-named John Tory, is the most establishment-friendly politician you could possibly imagine — and in general his policies are pretty much in line with those Ford was pushing. Even a vote against the establishment led to establishment-friendly policies; they were just served with a side of crack cocaine.
And now, six thousand kilometers and an entire ocean away, angry Britons have voted in protest against their own elites, unleashing a wave of bigotry and decimating their nation's economy in the process. They have managed to drive their establishment-friendly leader out of power; Cameron, forced to resign in disgrace, will be remembered as one of the worst Prime Ministers in modern British history. But if all goes to plan, even with Johnson out of the race, there will be yet another establishment-friendly Tory leader moving into 10 Downing Street in just a few months time, ready to pick up right where the last one left off.  

The Old Etonian is dead. Long live the Old Etonian.


Via Viv Lynch on Flickr

You can learn more about the connection between the histories of Toronto and England with A Torontonian Historical Map of London here. Read more about Simcoe's vision for Toronto here. And more about Mackenzie's failed mission to London here.

There's a whole dramatized documentary about Johnson and Cameron's early years, "When Boris Met Dave," which you can watch on Vimeo here.

The main image of "Toffs and Toughs" via Rare Historical Photos here.  Photo of Boris and Dave via The Sun. Photo of Eton College by me as part of The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour, which explored the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom.