In the first week of real spring weather in Montreal, on May Day, a Nazi flag blossomed from a rooftop on Hutchison Street, in Park Extension. For a few days it was all over the news, and the original event was then swamped by coverage of a weekend rally protesting the flag and the owner’s right to fly it.
Over the same weekend, I attended a memorial service at a Greek church and, while listening to the familiar prayers and chanting from the priest and the psalti, I yawned helplessly, as I always do, and reflected on how hate is a kind of death, how it always tends toward extinction.
After the service we descended to the basement for the traditional coffee, biscuits (παξιμάδια) and wheat berries (κόλλυβa), spiked with a nip of Metaxa, and discussed the recent irruption of racism in our backyards. Someone at the table remarked on the irony of displaying a symbol of white supremacy in Park Ex, in a neighbourhood of immigrants.
It was a weekend of sad reflection, made more poignant by the daffodils and bright sun. Somehow, something got away from us when we weren’t looking. Something big happened right under our noses that we never saw coming.
And now we study the horizon, interrogate the flight of birds, scrutinize that distant column of smoke.
The dread, and dread introspection, reminds me of Constantine Cavafy’s poem, Waiting for the Barbarians, and particularly its haunting conclusion (from Daniel Mendelsohn’s recent translation):
— Why has this uneasiness arisen all at once,
and this confusion? (How serious the faces have become.)
Why is it that the streets and squares are emptying so quickly,
and everyone’s returning home in such deep contemplation?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some people have arrived from the borderlands,
and said there are no barbarians anymore.
And now what’s to become of us without the barbarians.
Those people were a solution of a sort.
We are busy casting for the barbarians. We dread who will show up for the audition. It might be us…or no one.
I went to high school with a boy — John Lennon glasses, horsy face behind long, dirty-blonde hair, goofy laugh — also from Park Ex, whose parents had emigrated from Germany after the war.
I don’t know where his father served, and in what capacity, but I do remember him in a graduation robe draped with Dad’s Nazi regalia. (I may even have a photo of this somewhere.) We all thought this was funny and mildly transgressive, but we were not appalled. He was not hauled off to the principal’s office and his picture did not appear in the paper. There was no talking-to.
Our school had enough Greeks, Armenians, Chinese and Afro-Canadians for each group to have its own large and very busy club. We got along, went to each other’s dances, did homework together. The German kid, the son of immigrants, like most of us, was on friendly terms with everyone — a nice guy!
We lived in more innocent times.
During this same period, incredibly, one of the most popular TV shows was a sit-com set in a German POW camp. Granted, Hogan’s Heroes was not set in an extermination camp, with its crematoria and other period amenities, so there was plenty of space for comedy. The bumbling guard, Schultz, and the clueless Commandant Klink were no match for the clever American and other Allied prisoners who pretty much ran the place. Schulz even had a catchphrase, “I see nothing,” which absolved him from reporting on the prisoners’ tunnel-digging and easy access to the outside world.
The futility of remembrance
The injunction to remember (all Quebecers drive around with Je me souviens on their license plates, urging remembrance about a totally different matter) seems to me hopelessly naïve. Human progress, let alone perfectibility, will always be laughably out of reach, a chimera. We do not remember and we do not learn. And yet, quixotically, stubbornly, perhaps stupidly, some of us feel the necessity to take sides, because there really is no alternative.
Two weeks ago, in Toronto, an incel driving a rented van careened into crowds on Yonge Street, killing ten people and injuring thirteen. Overnight, we learned what incel means.
Last week the Montreal Gazette revealed that one of the Übermenschen of North American white supremacy is a Montrealer. He marched in Charlottesville last year with his angry brothers (they’re pretty much all men), carrying torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” (whatever that means; they could use a wordsmith, methinks).
The article also reminded me that a member of my family with whom I no longer speak has made a career of providing academic cover for this shabby brotherhood. So, as it turns out, the Nazi flag has not only breached the gates, it is blooming right outside my office window, overlooking my daffodils. I could, like Schulz, pretend that I see nothing, but this is no longer possible.