George Jonas in conversation with Ken Whyte

The late newspaper columnist and documentarian spoke with Maclean's in 2005

The erudite George Jonas was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1935. He grew up under both Nazism and Communism before emigrating to Canada in the exodus of 1956. The high-profile newspaper columnist, poet and bestselling author has also written, directed and produced more than 200 documentaries and dramas for the CBC (including the award-winning series The Scales of Justice), and is widely known for his passion for planes and motorcycles. His latest book is Beethoven’s Mask: Notes on My Life and Times. He talked to Maclean’s Editor-in-Chief Kenneth Whyte last week in Toronto.

Q: The book is a “Life and Times” — your life and the times of Western civilization and mostly European civilization over the last several years. What has changed most about Europe in your eyes?

A: As far as I can tell, it has begun to feel much more like America.

It is when you part from certain obvious architectural things, when you walk in a European street, you can no longer tell that you’re not in fact in North America. You experience a superficial degree of Americanization that is quite astounding. Fifty years ago, America was unique in that you could not tell a person’s occupation by looking at him or talking to him. In Europe, you almost unfailingly could tell the exact social positioning of a person just by the way he moved or he pulled up a chair, the way he talked, the way he was dressed. In America, you couldn’t. The daughter-in-law of Hungary’s regent [between 1920 and 1944], whose diary I quote from in the book, was astounded on encountering the American occupational forces in Germany — it was one of the first notes she made in her diary — that you literally did not know the rank of Americans. You couldn’t tell officers from enlisted men and subalterns from the highest-ranking staff officers and that was quite amazing. So in that sense Europe has become thoroughly Americanized and that is a huge change. Meanwhile, in the sense of how to organize a state, America has become Europeanized. When I came to Canada, there used to be two sayings. When people didn’t kind of agree with what you did, they would say, “Ooh, there ought to be a law.” Now you hardly ever hear that saying anymore because where there ought to be a law, there is a law. That is European to the utmost. I mean, in Europe there were laws about where you could live, which grass you could step on, and so forth. This has become now a property of North America. The other thing that I used to hear — and I certainly don’t hear it anymore — again when people kind of disagreed with you they said, “Well it’s a free country.” It used to be.

You grew up in Europe during a particularly brutal period of its history, yet you talk in the book of compensating advantages of a European upbringing.

I think if I have any nostalgia for Europe, at least the Europe that I used to know, it is the relative ease with which it handled things like alcohol and sex and so forth. I found it vaguely interesting that a country like Canada that would have such a high political contrast to Europe when I arrived here and was so wise in the arrangements of its public affairs and civil affairs was so uptight in sumptuary matters, sexual matters, liquor licences. I was very happy that my background in matters having to do with human relations occurred in Europe, because I thought that it was better.

What are the principal differences?

I described them in part of one chapter where I think that the experimentation between young men and women proceeded — at least in that part of the world, but not perhaps in the whole of Europe — with much more wisdom and understanding. It was not a big deal, whereas in much of Canada and North America, it seemed accompanied with deep complications and guilt and hang-ups which crossed religious lines. Whether you were Catholic or Jewish, somehow the whole thing was a big dark complicated thing and [in Europe] that was largely absent. I was served alcohol when I was about 10 or 12 years old and my father poured me a glass of wine with dinner. Here I had to be 21 in order to get a bottle of beer. It was puzzling because it was so different from the way other matters were handled, and it led me to the conclusion that perhaps every period and every continent has its own form of insanity. I don’t talk about that in the book, but someone has a theory that there is only so much goodness and sobriety and so forth to go around in the world and since this hemisphere cornered the market on political sanity there wasn’t too much left for Europe, and Europe cornered the market on sumptuary and sexual sanity and there wasn’t enough for North America.

But you came here at the height of the so-called sexual revolution, or at least the start of it. Did that change things at all?

The sexual revolution, when that happened in the fifties, erupted with a vengeance, and from a guilt-ridden and furtive existence everyone turned into baboons. I thought it was the natural consequence of the repression. In fact, at the time I was saying it’s not surprising people are behaving like baboons because they were so needlessly repressed.

You begin a chapter on the Holocaust with a quote from Seneca about how chronic grief becomes offensive and deserves to be ridiculed.

Well, I think that Seneca’s quote speaks for itself. The reason I began with the quote is simply because most memoirs of not just the Holocaust but traumatic events, tragic events, inhuman events, and so forth are written from a weakling’s point of view, somebody who was at the receiving end of the traumatic event. Even if they are not self-pitying, just by describing what happened they have a result of overwhelming the viewer or reader in a way that provokes ridicule. You know the old stagecoach story of the woman who tells the genuinely tragic tale of her life and there is no calamity that can befall a person that didn’t befall her, and she is telling the truth and everybody in the stagecoach believes her and they follow her story with great sympathy, but once she gets on the last chapter of her story, when she was escaping from Africa across some river with her last remaining child, and she is almost at the other shore when a crocodile comes out of the river and grabs the child and drags her into the drink and everybody breaks up laughing because it is really too much. This is the fate of the Holocaust stories after a certain time, at least in my mind, so I was fortunate that in telling one Holocaust story, I didn’t have to do that because I could tell the exact opposite of that story. And that is how, for one night at least, not just a Gentile but an anti-Semite saved my life at the risk of his own. That I felt was a far more interesting story to tell after all the other stories have been told, and I was glad to be able to tell that particular story in line with Seneca’s victims.

You argue in the section of the book that we have excerpted (and condensed) in this issue that there was nothing singular about the scope or the barbarity of the Holocaust. You suggest that it looms large in our imaginations for other reasons. You compare it to a society murder. If someone gets killed in a slum, the story gets buried in the classified section. If someone gets murdered in a tony neighbourhood, it’s front page news. What kind of response do you think this analogy will provoke from Holocaust memorialists?

Well, I have a string of answers, in no particular order. I have agonized over the society murder metaphor not because I did not think that it was accurate, but because it was so accurate as to be facile. But I do believe this is one of the reasons why this particular holocaust occupies us more than other comparable holocausts. There were other holocausts of even greater magnitude, and comparable in cruelty, tragedy and unsupportable inhumanity.

But, in this case, the perpetrators had reached the height of human civilization on every level, from social organization to art to science. Humanity had achieved no higher stage of development, yet these people became the perpetrators of an act of barbarity that would have been remarkable among so-called savages. Neanderthal tribes could not have behaved with greater savagery than the Germans. So that was one reason the Holocaust appears to be more singular than it is.

Right. So when you frame the Holocaust this way, suggesting that it was not a singular event in human history, and that it may be getting more than its fair share of attention because of who was involved and the “neighbourhood” it happened in, are you in danger of diminishing the Holocaust?

I firmly believe in my mind that by pointing to the common humanity of the event, I am enhancing and not diminishing it. I would most certainly regret if the result were to diminish it. It’s the very opposite of my intention. I feel that what diminishes the Holocaust is that we remove it from common human experience, as though it happened somewhere on Mars. You distance every person from it. It is a mistake to dismiss it as a product of the unique anti-Semitism of the Germans, which miraculously appeared and disappeared in that relatively small window of time. I have no doubt that I will be misunderstood by some people, either innocently or wilfully. The problem with the Holocaust is that it has an industry built up around it and that industry has certain vested interests in perpetuating it and insisting on its primacy. But I expect this and I am not particularly concerned with this. I am more concerned with some people who innocently accept the singularity of the Holocaust and reach the wrong conclusions from that.

Your father is something of a scene stealer in this book, a very charming man. He was a Hungarian opera singer and unique, I think, in that he was at once a cynical and a happy man, which is a rare combination. Have I got that right?

I think so. He was a happy man in the sense he liked life. He was a tactical pessimist and a strategical optimist. He felt that in the end, things would turn out all right, although he saw quite clearly every single thing that was likely to go wrong in the meantime. He certainly was a scene stealer. This is not in the book, but I didn’t want to bring girls home because, whenever I brought a girl home, the girl ended up talking to my father and paid no attention to me.

I once remember I said to him, “Can’t you lay off?” and he said, “You’re a young man, there are many others out there for you.”

You describe in the book bringing home news of your attachment to a young woman with a particularly high IQ, and he thought that showed bad judgment on your part.

With my father there was always a thin line between being serious and joking, but I thought he was quite serious about this. He thought that people made mistakes in connection with bright women.

They think that they are not good cooks or loving or something. All this is nonsense. The brightest women can be the most devoted, loving, etc. It’s equilibrium that’s the problem. He felt that high IQ was detrimental to the equilibria of men as well as women, but that women were prone to fall apart above an IQ of 130 while for men the bar was higher — above 150.

And is this your experience?


Okay. But nonetheless, throughout your life you have had strong attractions to bright women, Barbara Amiel being one of them. You talk about your marriage in the book. Whose equilibrium cracked in that relationship?

Well, to begin with, I can cope with broken equilibria, and my father would be the first to agree that certain other traits are worth the occasional crack of equilibrium and I don’t really talk about that in the book, but it’s evident for anybody who reads the chapter in which I talk about Barbara that I found the experience worthwhile.

You describe working at the CBC at the same time as a young Adrienne Clarkson and a young Barbara Amiel, and it seems from the book that they were both obviously going places from a very early age. What was the principal difference between them?

Poise. Poise. They were both very young but Adrienne had a poise that I thought was almost unseemly for someone as young as she was.

She behaved like something of a society matron long before she reached a mature age. Whereas Barbara was the very opposite of measured and poised. She was mischievous. I don’t describe this in the book, but she did the cover photo on what I think was the first issue of Toronto Life. It wasn’t a see-through dress, but if you walked in a certain way or in a certain light it seemed to be see-through. I took her to lunch after the cover shoot. We went to a restaurant on the Lakeshore [Boulevard in Toronto] and the hostess who seated us, after having looked at Barbara’s dress, did not want to lead us across the dining room but wanted to go around so we would reach our table as unobtrusively as possible. I meekly followed the hostess but when I looked back behind me, Barbara had boldly gone across the room. And here is the interesting thing.

There was the normal buzz in the dining room with people eating and forks clattering and so on as Barbara entered the room. By the time she reached her table at the other end, there was total silence. That was the difference between Barbara and Adrienne. There were immense differences reaching far deeper on many other levels, but if you wanted to represent the difference in a movie scene that would have been it.

You describe three types of statist assaults on liberalism in the 20th century: Nazism, Communism and the Canadian Way. Does Canada really deserve that company?

Does the Canadian Way deserve to be in the company of Nazism and Communism? If you measure it by the possibility of their success, I would say that it is in first place: other ideologies may be much more brutal and cruder but the Canadian Way may achieve a higher level of success. The Canadian Way is simply statism with a human face. My view has always been that when the chips are down, the methods of any statist entity would become as cruel as the methods of the most barbaric statist entity. It’s just that they have a better chance of avoiding the necessity of building their gulags.

You argue in the book that we should tolerate a certain measure of anti-Semitism. It’s always there, always will be, so to try and stamp it out completely is going to generate more social tension than letting it lie. Have I got that right?

You got it right. I think this is true of anti-Semitism and a number of other noxious beliefs. We have big government-funded campaigns here that are dedicated to stamping out hatred in all its forms.

I think it’s like an attempt to stamp out cowardice. Now how do you stamp out cowardice? What you can do is stamp out or diminish a reaction to cowardice. You can attempt to explain to people that even if they are afraid of dogs, they don’t have to scream and dash around the room when one walks in. I’m suggesting that the important thing may not be to stop people from having dislikes, prejudices, but from feeling that their prejudices entitle them to murder.

Explaining to people the essence of the Ten Commandments is both easier and more productive than trying to force upon them a certain opinion of another group which they have or don’t have according to their likes. Most people do not want to murder anybody. It’s easier to get across that you shouldn’t blow up people just because you hate them. Hate them, but don’t blow them up. It’s the safer way, more practical.

You have written a chapter in defence of ethnic cleansing. What could there possibly be to say in defence of that?

I guess what brought me to that particular chapter was that the liberal view takes it for granted that Jewish settlements in Palestine are detrimental to peace in the Middle East. Yet the same people who hold that view would regard it as indefensible ethnic cleansing if Israel, which has about a million ethnic Arab citizens and thousands of Arabs trying to live and work in Israel in spite of the enmity between Israel and the Arab world, viewed its own Arab citizens the way the Palestinian state views Jewish settlers. It would be scandalous and it would be viewed as ethnic cleansing. But absolutely everyone of liberal views in Israel proper is in favour of dismantling the settlements and allowing a purely Arab ethnic state in the Middle East. Now I don’t disagree with that — incidentally I favour dismantling at least some of the settlements myself — but it raises the question of whether it is useful or defensible in certain situations to separate ethnic or religious groups, whether it is more conducive to peace and harmony to come to the understanding that in certain periods of history, it is not beneficial or feasible for groups to exist in one entity, and that putting up fences under strictly humane conditions can achieve the kind of separation that some nations achieve by bloodier means all by themselves.

So the argument is not in favour of violently imposed ethnic separation, but a recognition that in many cases we would be better off acknowledging serious differences among antagonistic ethnicities.

Exactly. When the organizing principles of a given place and a given period call for ethnic separation, we should allow it to occur, and when they call for unification under a different organizing principle, we should allow that to occur, too. In other words, resisting the natural trend is probably the least intelligent thing we can do, and going with natural trends is the most intelligent.

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