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mensch: memories of incarceration in a Jewish deli

I used to work across the street from a Jewish deli. As one of the newer, more hip-looking establishments in a quickly changing working-class neighbourhood, I held some reservations about the place. It was a bit pricier to eat at and a little aesthetically out of place, filling in the storefront between two of my favourite lunch spots: a 24-hour convenience store/donair shop and a cramped Filipino restaurant with sticky floors, kitschy bamboo walls, and often playing loud musical reality shows on the TV.

The first time I walked in, I ordered a half-size pastrami on rye. The shop was empty and the butcher was eager to welcome me inside. “We’re new,” he explained, as he went on to carefully describe how he brined, smoked, and hand cut the meat himself. Jars of pickled goods and loaves of fresh rye lined the shelves behind him – I wondered if he had canned those himself too. Keeping with a minimalistic look, the white walls were simply decorated with a chalkboard sign to display daily specials at the door and opposite to that, a framed photograph of a young boy sporting a newsboy cap. I sat upon one of the low wooden benches, adjacent to the floor-to-ceiling windows, and waited.

The young assistant at the counter, the only other person in the deli, was excited to point out my red Asahi baseball t-shirt. It was the shirt I’d recently earned from the tribute game at Oppenheimer Park, an annual community baseball game to honour the legacy of the historical Japanese Canadian Vancouver-based team and the role they played in bringing segregated communities together across difference.

As I waited for my food, she continued to chat with me about the baseball team, asking where I’d gotten my t-shirt from and if I had gone to the tribute game this past year. (She’d been to a tribute game in Kamloops before.) She’d learned about the Asahi baseball team in a university course on the history of concentration camps. The professor had covered camps both in Europe and in North America during World War II and the history of the team really interested her, “y’know because the Japanese Canadian internment camps split up the team,” she said before pausing.

“Ah - oops, maybe this is a sensitive topic to bring up in a Jewish deli.” Her voice trailed off as she noticed the shifting body movement of the butcher working behind her. Lips pursed, he grimaced and kept his head down, focussed, as he swiftly brought a knife down to sever my sandwich in two.

“Your food is ready,” he announced, quickly putting an end to our conversation. He looked up and handed me a brown box with a pastrami sandwich on rye and a homemade pickle on the side. “Thanks for giving us a try,” he said with a nod, pointing his stoic and earnest face in my direction.

“Of course,” I replied and lingered for a moment or two, “thank you.” In that second, my heart twinged and throat gaped as I stood stiff and stilted in place.

A part of me wanted to tell him I knew how hard it was to talk about the past - how even if I didn’t know his story, I had stories of my own. I wanted him to know my family carried deep and hushed pains from the war, too. But the moment had passed and it felt awkward, forced, to speak of such wounds again.

Not knowing how to acknowledge our overlapping clashings of memory and grief, I walked out the door, wearing my Asahi baseball t-shirt and with my Jewish pastrami on rye in hand. I thought about our people, on different sides of the ocean, across differing imposed borders and different margins of history. Such different silences and yet, unknowingly, a deeply intertwined sadness.

*Mensch is a Yiddish word for a person with integrity and honour.

* * *

Author’s note:

While there are clear differences between the histories of the holocaust of Nazi Germany and Japanese Canadian incarceration in Canada, there are also many similarities in the impacts and legacies of our fractured communities and families, intergenerational trauma, and assimilation and survival amidst anti-Semitism and anti-Asian racism. Both of these experiences are a result of systemic racism as enabled by white supremacy and compliance of bystanders.

These discriminatory issues that once so predominantly impacted our families and communities still exist. In the wake of 9/11, the Trump election, and rise of the alt-right, we are witnessing the explicit rise of discriminatory policies and violence targeted at brown and black communities, particularly racialized migrants and Muslim people.

As communities who have survived such harsh impacts of these histories, I believe we have a responsibility to stand together, support other marginalized communities, and speak out to say we will not allow this to happen to anyone else. More than ever, I believe we need to be critical and vigilant of the media we consume and the leaders we entrust with power and influence in our society and communities. Through inaction and silence, we remain compliant with what wrongfully happened to our people in the past. We have the chance to stand on the right side of history every single day and say, “never again.”


* This story first appeared in Nikkei Images, vol. 22, issue 1.


© 2017 Erica Isomura; Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre

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