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life liver Lilly Barnes

by Lilly Barnes | September 15, 2003

There are two stories told about the time of my birth which I like: that my grandmother, an elegant lady from St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) rode cross-country in a troika-a horse-drawn sleigh-for the last 30 kilometres of the trip, and that my father bought a sheep to celebrate my birth, hung it outside the back door to keep it fresh and the wolves ate it.

I like the first story because it reminds me that I come from a long line of strong women. My grandmother saved my grandfather’s life during the Russian revolution and saved the whole family after they fled to the Caucasus. An aunt fought in the underground against the Nazis. Another aunt was the first Russian woman parachutist.

I like the second story because it shows my father was happy about my birth. My mother quickly handed me over to a nursemaid and went back to being a concert pianist. That was in Beresniki, in the Ural mountains of the Soviet Union. My German father, a mining engineer, was there on contract building mines.

My mother, a recent graduate of the Leningrad conservatory, was “bringing culture to the wilderness” by orders of the Soviet government. When I was six months old, my mother, nursemaid and I were en route to Germany to rejoin my father. At the border, my nursemaid declared she could not leave Mother Russia. Weaned overnight and in the care of my panicked mother, I nearly died. Family legend has it that chamomile tea saved my life. Family legend also has it that my mother tore up her entire trousseau for diapers which she threw out the train window.

In Germany, the Nazis were gathering power. My father procured false papers for Mama and myself, stating we were Coptic Christians. When the war [World War Two] started, my father was transferred to a frequently bombed industrial area to build more mines. We stayed behind in Bad Harzburg, the small ski resort which was bombed only when allied planes returning from a raid on Berlin had some bombs still on board and dropped them on us. Once, 11 bombs fell all around the mine my father built and my girlfriend’s roof blew off her house and landed in the vegetable garden. We sat on it and dangled our legs into the carrot tops. Our basement bomb shelter was fun: whitewashed walls, candles and their shadows, the smell of apples and potatoes from their bins, gossip and stories and getting to stay up all night.

Then, a woman who knew my mother in Russia informed on her and the SS started interrogating my mother. Our food coupons were cut off. Only the family and the parcels from my father saved us from hunger. Suddenly, tanks and jeeps full of soldiers rolled into town and the war was over. And, my parents divorced. My mother, whose war effort had consisted of playing concerts for German officers recuperating from wounds up in the resort hotels, now played in the same hotel ballrooms for concentration camp survivors. And I found out that I am part Jewish.

When I was 11, I was sent to an orphanage. Because, my mother said, it would help us to get out of Germany and into Palestine. All the other children at the orphanage were Jewish survivors of concentration camps. I knew nothing about being Jewish. In a chase around the ping-pong table, I grabbed a boy’s cap off his head and was forever branded “the German girl.”

On the ship going to Palestine, the other passengers were all survivors, too, and not one of them saw the lonely and frightened little girl I was. They saw Nazi spawn. A boy from the orphanage cautioned me not to speak German and suddenly I couldn’t speak at all. For three months, everybody thought that was my permanent condition.

Those of us on the ship who had visas were cover for hundreds of illegal migrants. The ship was moored outside Haifa harbour overnight so that the illegal passengers could swim ashore. When the rest of us disembarked, I had no place to go and stood on a Haifa sidewalk until a kind soul packed me into a bus to an immigrants’ camp where I had my twelfth birthday. In silence.

There was another orphans’ school after that and then the kibbutz Ashdot Ja’akov. The kibbutz had been founded by Russian Jewish intellectuals as a democratic/socialist experiment and it was successful for many years. It taught me the best life lessons a teenage girl could ask for. I was the youngest in a group of 60 hailing from many different countries, and we were self-governing within the kibbutz framework. We lived in a group of huts, chose our work and our school subjects from open lists, ate communally, made group decisions democratically, celebrated festivals of water and of harvest with dancing and singing of our own creation. We valued not clothes (ours were nearly identical) or possessions, but traits and skills: courage, resourcefulness, integrity, humour and true friendship.

When Israel was declared a nation and Palestinian Arabs began fighting for their land, our group was digging trenches and making food runs to the communal kitchen to keep everyone supplied. We missed our favourite storyteller, an old Arab man from across the Wadi. We could hear his dogs barking but we were no longer allowed to befriend him. War of any kind fans hatred and diminishes everybody.

Meantime, my mother decided she’d rather emigrate to a more peaceful country and hauled me back to Germany. During the three and a half years away, I had never spoken a word of German, had pretended my (German) father was dead, and had cut out of my heart all the things I loved as a child – the ski hill, the mountains, the chestnut trees – because they were German. (I remained cut off from nature until many years later when I first went to Muskoka, Ontario, sat by a river and cried for two weeks. Now we own a little old cottage in Muskoka on a lake which is my true home on this planet.)

When my mother, my new stepfather and I emigrated to Canada, I was 16, pretending to be much older. I spoke no English, but took a nursery school course anyway, making notes in three languages, and then worked as a nursery school teacher and saved money for university. To get the necessary high school diploma, I went to cram school for a year, and three days after my last exam, I got married to a Canadian music student, the composer Milton Barnes. After two years at the University of Toronto, we moved to Vienna, where Milton went to the Music Academy and I to the University of Vienna. By the time we returned to Canada, three and a half years later, we had a one-year-old son, Micah. By then, I had been a Canadian citizen for a while, but only according to my passport. Recognizing that I could be Canadian just as I am, one among the many diverse and varied representatives of the human family, I became truly Canadian. And began to contribute to the country of my choice on several fronts.

I joined our neighbourhood association, working to keep living communities viable in downtown Toronto by stopping the Spadina Expressway lest it divide our neighbourhood and bring ever more cars into the city. We also challenged the University of Toronto, which was then buying up houses, allowing them to fall into disrepair and then tearing them down, leaving rubble-covered parking lots. At the same time, I was going out on anti-war (Vietnam) demonstrations and making one room in our rented house available to American draft resisters or deserters who needed somewhere to stay until they found a job and a place of their own. Later, before Nelson Mandela was released, I was a member of a small anti-apartheid group, raising funds for South Africa, mostly for high school supplies. Later yet, I helped organize a fundraising concert for food for the indigenous population of Chiapas, Mexico.

During all that time, I was also engaged in another kind of activism in our own backyard – more subtle, but influential all the same. Back when we returned from Vienna with one child, to be followed by another, Daniel, I had to go to work. But I also wanted to stay home with my babies, so I began writing scripts and making documentaries for CBC radio and television, generally working when my sons were asleep or, later, in school.

After finding out how little Canadian school children learned about the first peoples of this land, I created a series about and with First Nations people. (A documentary recorded with children at Six Nations Reserve won an Ohio Broadcast Award). And, until the first half-hour First Nations Voices began, I dramatized indigenous stories as a alternative to Dick, Jane and their dog, Spot, always with a Cree or Ojibwa consultant.

For 30 years, I wrote scripts for the Mr. Dressup television series, where we (some of the writers, and especially Judith Lawrence, the puppeteer for Casey, Finnigan and a host of other characters), created a world in which neither racism, ageism nor sexism were allowed to rear their heads, and where we gleefully worked to demolish stereotypes.

... we worked consciously and deliberately against all prejudice, against all stereotypes – so that you would never see one single moment of racism, ageism, or sexism on any of our shows.

I am a Canadian by choice and it makes me feel good to have contributed something so in line with the best aspirations of our country.

— Lilly Barnes, 2007 Gemini Awards, in a speech delivered after receiving The Margaret Collier Award for Writing – Outstanding Body of Work

Meantime, there were environmental concerns. When a nuclear power station was proposed for a site 40 kilometres east of Toronto – where one accident and an ill wind could wipe out the entire population – I joined in a Greenpeace action to demonstrate and occupy the site. The result was jail for 84 people, the women all in maximum security, where each of us refused to sign an undertaking that we would never “trespass” again. We were released after just a few days, but the experience is alive in me still.

When the protests in Seattle and Quebec City happened and I was not there on the barricades, I revisited that maximum security jail experience and am now turning it into a play about the democratic right to dissent.

My published books include A Hero Travels Light, a series of short stories for adults, and five books for children. I recently finished a novel, Invisible Borders, as yet unpublished.

I have travelled throughout my life – to countries of central Europe, to Cuba, Costa Rica, Mexico, Trinidad, New York and California, and our Canadian west coast. There can be no better teacher of the joys of infinite variety.

My greatest pride and joy are my two sons, both musicians, feminists, and fine human beings.

There is one more thing I’d like you to know about my life: I’m still living it. Oh, yes!

resources for this story
  • The Female Eunuch, by GERMAINE GREER, Flamingo, ISBN: 0586080554 | 1993
  • Either/Or, by SOEREN KIERKEGAARD, Harper & Row, ISBN: 0060960310| 1986
  • Notes from Underground, by FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY, Dent, CE Tuttle, ISBN: 0460874489 | 1994
  • Revolution from Within, by GLORIA STEINEM, Cassette books, Dave Audio, ISBN: 1558006052 | 1992
  • Fences and Windows, by NAOMI KLEIN, Flamingo, ISBN: 0007150474 | 2002

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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