Obituary: Erna Paris probed historical memory and passion for truth

Erna Paris (Credit: Helen Tansey)

Erna Paris, whose deeply thoughtful books and articles probed collective memory, trauma, injustice, and the mythologizing of history, died at her Toronto home on Feb. 3 of cancer. She was 83.

Among her best-known works were Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History, which looked at how countries confront their violent pasts and reinvent themselves—or are condemned to fail. “Why is it,” Paris once pondered, “that many countries can’t lay the past to rest?”

The volume examined the United States and its ghosts of slavery; South Africa and its attempts to heal the divisions of apartheid; Japan, France, and Germany and the unresolved trauma of Hiroshima and the Holocaust; and the former Yugoslavia, where Paris exposed “the cynical shaping of historical memory,” as her website describes.

The CJN lauded the book for “intelligently examining [memory] within the context of national remembrance.”

The work won several awards, including the Dorothy Shoichet Prize for History at the 2001 Canadian Jewish Book Awards. The Literary Review of Canada named it among “The 100 Most Important Canadian Books Ever Written.”

Paris’s Unhealed Wounds: France and the Klaus Barbie Affair, released in 1986, examined the then still-raw rifts opened by the extradition to France of Barbie, dubbed the “Butcher of Lyon,” to face war crimes charges. True to its title, the book indeed drew the curtain back on France’s dark war-era record. It was “far above the endlessly rewarmed arguments over exactly who in France was a collaborator and who a Resistance hero,” pronounced the New York Times.

Michael Marrus, a University of Toronto historian and expert on wartime France, called the book courageous.

Paris’s first book, in 1980, was Jews: An Account of their Experience in Canada, which examined the earliest Jewish settlers to this country and the discrimination they faced; 1995’s The End of Days: Tolerance, Tyranny and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, about how Spain transformed from a multicultural, pluralistic society into a tyranny that expelled Jews and launched the Inquisition; and The Sun Climbs Slow (2008), an investigation into the United States’ refusal to acknowledge the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction.

In all, she authored seven well-received books and hundreds of articles. She won at least a dozen national and international prizes for her books, journalism, and radio documentaries, and was a frequent contributor to the opinion page of the Globe and Mail.

Among her plaudits was a National Magazine Awards gold medal in 1983 for a searing article the year before, “Canada’s Jews and the Summer of Lebanon,” published in Quest Magazine.

In 2016, Paris was appointed to the Order of Canada. The citation called her “one of Canada’s leading human rights commentators and activists” who “has never hesitated to address sensitive issues in order to explore the roots of intolerance.”

Paris’s website says Long Shadows inspired a 2002 resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives to create a monument to American slaves on the Washington Mall, and the apology in 2018 from Canada’s Parliament to survivors of residential schools.

In 2013, Paris became a vice-president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

She was an “intelligent (and) circumspect, commentator and scholar on diverse subjects,” and was “a mainstay on the Jewish Canadian cultural scene,” said Canadian historian Frank Bialystok.

Born Erna Newman on May 6, 1938 in Toronto, she was the oldest child of Jules and Christine Newman. The family attended Holy Blossom Temple, where young Erna studied with Rabbi Emil Fackenheim, a renowned Holocaust scholar.

After earning a BA from the University of Toronto in philosophy and English, Paris moved to France for several years, where she continued her studies at the Sorbonne. She began her writing career in the 1970s as a magazine journalist and radio broadcaster and documentarian.

According to her death notice, she “devoted her writing life to understanding what sustains pluralistic, tolerant societies, and why they sometimes succumb to intolerance—or worse. These investigations fuelled her lifelong commitment to justice, historical accountability, and the protection of vulnerable communities wherever they may be.”

In her encounters with the war-era history of Europe, Paris found few examples of denial or outright lies.

“That’s the least sophisticated technique,” she said in a magazine interview in 2001. “The next common technique is mythologizing, creating a heroic story or mythologizing the past, the way the French did, and the French had very good reasons for doing that.”

The French, she went on, mythologize the Resistance. “The truth was that when the Germans occupied France, in collaboration with the government, most of the French—98 per cent—supported the (Vichy) government that collaborated with the Nazis. We know that historically from the research now. One per cent of the population fought in the active Resistance.”

Paris said the “biggest surprise” in researching Long Shadows was “how strongly people will fight to have their story known, and how many generations they will continue fighting, and how crucial this is in the body of a nation; that the truth be told—the depth of the passion, even generations afterwards, when justice hasn’t been done.”

Whether Paris wrote about the legacy of the Nazis, the International Criminal Court, or how the Inquisition happened in Spain after centuries of co-operation between Muslims and Jews, “she was always searching out our common humanity,” her literary agent, Michael Levine, told Canadian Press. “The underlying theme of her life was social justice.”

As recently as last September, Paris, writing in the Globe and Mail, lambasted federal leaders for their acceptance of Quebec’s “discriminatory” Bill 21, which prohibits the display of religious symbols by public-sector workers in the workplace, saying leaders’ acquiescence is “dangerous for Canada as a whole.”

Paris leaves her husband, Thomas Robinson; children Michelle and Roland; siblings Jill Solnicki and Peter Newman; and grandchildren Julia, Simon and Jacqueline.