Ruth Panofsky on how the TV series ‘Little Bird’ also evokes the suffering of Holocaust survivors

I teach a graduate seminar on Holocaust Literature. I’ve taught the course a number of times in our Master’s program. My students have always come from a wide range of cultural backgrounds. Last winter, one student identified herself as Indigenous. She expressed a deep interest in the Holocaust and admitted that she was drawn to the subject for personal reasons. She and members of her family knew the trauma that results from state-sanctioned persecution.

The student’s incisive questions, empathic reading, and heightened understanding of course material had a profound effect on the class dynamic. She connected meaningfully with her peers.

She also left a lasting impression on me.

I was thinking of this student when I began watching Little Bird, a six-part drama available on Crave. The final episode premiered on June 30, along with Coming Home, a documentary about the making of the series.

The protagonist is a woman in her 20s. Esther Rosenblum, as she is named at the outset, is presented as Jewish. Esther lives in Montreal and is connected to the Jewish community. She is studying to be a lawyer and lives with her divorced mother.

Esther is also engaged to be married. In the first episode, during an engagement party held in her honour, she overhears her future mother-in-law in conversation, speaking derisively of her. Esther is adopted; her complexion and facial features set her apart from the Ashkenazi Jews in attendance.

Racism prompts Esther to take action. Fragmentary details about her origins, as well as memories of her early childhood, lead her to Regina to try to find her birth family. The series charts her journey of recovery.

When she adopts five-year-old Esther, Golda Rosenblum accepts what she is told by the government-run Adopt Indian Metis program—that she is rescuing a First Nations child. Eventually, however, the Holocaust survivor is brought to a new understanding of the trauma of loss she shares with Esther, who bears the name of Golda’s murdered sister. Thus, the series brings together the Jewish experience of the Holocaust and the Indigenous experience of the Sixties Scoop, when children were stolen from their families by child protection services and adopted out to white parents.

The drama is based on reality—something which series creators Jennifer Podemski and Hannah Moscovitch make explicit in Coming Home. Among the estimated 20,000 Indigenous children who were apprehended, many were taken from Saskatchewan, where Esther, born as Behzig, lived with her parents and siblings, including a twin brother. Some were adopted into Jewish families.

Like my graduate student who found a moving resonance in Holocaust writing, I couldn’t help but respond to the anguish depicted in Little Bird. The dramatic rendering of the Sixties Scoop—many viewers will know little of this history—is the most striking feature of Little Bird.

The children are seized by a case worker named Adele Halpern. When we first meet Adele, she is young and naive, a sympathetic figure who is wracked with guilt. Later, she returns to the screen as a hardened social worker who has torn many children from their parents. I was particularly affected by Adele’s adaptative capacity—with its deliberate echoes of German acquiescence during the Nazi era—and the series’ powerful portrayal of trauma, which results when primary relationships are severed by the state.

Esther yearns for her siblings and sets out to find them. She locates her younger sister, Dora, who was adopted into a white family and sexually abused by her brother. When her adoptive parents find out, they falsely accuse 15-year-old Dora of seduction and kick her out of the house. After Dora gives birth to her first child, history threatens to repeat itself. A representative from Child Protection Services enters her hospital room, poised to carry off the baby.

Esther encounters her older brother Leo on the same reserve he has lived all his life. Scarred by childhood loss, he is terrified to leave his home out of fear that his own children will be abducted in his absence.

Niizh, Esther’s twin, surfaces last. Niizh’s life in foster care was one of abuse and forced labour. He dies by suicide, soon after he is reunited with Esther and Leo. Esther herself struggles to connect with her siblings, who are understandably suspicious of her relative privilege.

With its focus on Esther, the series would seem to be emphasizing her heartache at the loss of kin, culture, and identity. But she is the nucleus of a family that suffers untold trauma. We also witness the torment of her birth mother. Patti Little Bird is prevented from reclaiming her children. She is denied the chance to speak in court in her own defense and is without legal recourse.

Intense guilt and desolation—her husband dies after being brutalized by the police officers who help round up their children—drive her away from 12-year-old Leo, her eldest and only remaining child. Although Leo is raised by his paternal grandfather, Asin, he harbours the pain of maternal abandonment throughout his life.

Golda, whose family perished during the Holocaust, feels her grief so keenly that she is unwilling to risk losing her adoptive daughter by answering Esther’s questions about her origins. When Esther finally censures her for withholding information, Golda is forced to come to terms with her restraint.

In the end, Esther truly is rescued by her two mothers. In the final scene of the series, they are positioned on either side of her: Patti, newly returned to her reserve, stands facing her daughter and lovingly strokes her face, while Golda, seated nearby, watches over this reunion. Golda’s openness—she embraces the entirety of Esther’s family with her gentle gaze—comes fittingly at the close of the series. Family ties that have been so devastatingly broken are reconstituted in this last episode, which acknowledges heartbreak as it moves through it toward grace.

This is not to say the storyline concludes on a single, hopeful note. Far from it. In a series that associates Holocaust and Indigenous suffering – in a pivotal scene, Golda’s Auschwitz tattoo recalls Asin’s residential school number—it would be irresponsible to do so. Instead, the parallel of those who share the knowledge of loss and the experience of affliction is poignantly evoked.

Little Bird condemns murder and the separation of families—traumatizing crimes initiated, sanctioned, and enacted by obscene governments. It lauds the affirming nature of empathy and the healing quality of solace. It also upholds the force of undying family connections.

Ruth Panofsky is a professor of English at Toronto Metropolitan University.