Looking back on the childhoods of our parents is often a double-edged sword; sweetness can be tinged with great suffering, which affects us even into adulthood. On the other hand, it often gives us a greater understanding and insight into how our own characters were shaped.
Media personality, Jeanne Beker, new Style Editor at The Shopping Channel, best known for her ground-breaking work on CITY-TV’s The New Music, host of the internationally syndicated, Fashion Television for 27 years, columnist, author, designer and mother, recently read from her parents’ memoir, Joy Runs Deeper, at a sold-out event at the Museum of Vancouver.
Beker toured through the MOV’s current Rationing to Ravishing: The Transformation of Women’s Clothing in the 1940s and 1950s , prior to her lecture.
Presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre in partnership with publisher, The Azrieli Foundation and the Museum of Vancouver, Joy Runs Deeper is divided into two parts: Bronia’s Story (written 30 years ago, she is now 94 and suffers from Parkinson’s) and Joseph’s Story, (originally written in longhand in Yiddish and translated more recently by Vivian Felsen.) He passed away in 1988.) After surviving the war, they spent three years in a displacement camp in Austria before immigrating to Canada in 1948.
In Joy Runs Deeper, Bronia and Joseph (Josio) Beker paint an idyllic picture of prewar life in Kozowa, growing up in the small shtetl in Poland, falling in love amidst colorful, eccentric characters and their families. However, when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, they spent the war hiding in underground bunkers and barns, constantly on the run, as persecution intensified. When tragedy strikes Bronia and her family “don’t be afraid and never give up,” is Josio’s mantra that enabled the Bekers to survive the war.
It’s also the catch phrase that courses like blood through Jeanne Beker’s veins underlying everything she has accomplished in her own life.
Surprisingly candid, many times close to tears herself, reading and answering questions with a frenetic intensity that captivated the audience immediately, Beker emphasized that her parents were “Adamant about telling their two daughters every detail about their war experiences. So much so that” I remember as a child, hiding under the bed because I didn’t want to hear any more of their ‘war stories.’ ” “But I do believe that it’s more important to talk about it with every fiber of my being. Though painful, it made them more compassionate people,” Beker confided.
On reading Joy Runs Deeper for the first time:
“While my Dad’s part of the memoir played out like a big adventure, my Mom suffered terribly from the loss of her whole family, she being the only survivor in that bunker. It was her complete loneliness that really seared me.”
On going back to Poland with her Mother:
“ When FT was syndicated in Poland (‘go figure,’ Beker laughs,) apparently I was a big star there and they wanted to bring me in to launch it. I asked my Mother if she wanted to come with me but I was worried about her going back to her village. They treated us like royalty and when journalists heard that my Mom was a Holocaust survivor, they interviewed her more than me! She even made the 6:00 p.m. news. You’ve got to remember that as a girl, my mother had never even been out of Kozowa- this was the first time she had been to Warsaw in her life. She was never angry or vindictive. She did most of the translating and at the end of trip said, ‘I feel like Madonna!’”
Early fashion and interviewing influences:
“When we were growing up in Toronto we didn’t have a lot of money and lived in a sort of boarding house where we rented out rooms to all kinds of characters. I remember sitting in our kitchen fascinated, listening to their stories and my Dad would pretend to interview them! It was like a reality show. My mother always wanted a lively home. He bought her a turquoise Brother sewing machine in 1959. She was a fantastic sewer and my sister Marilyn and I had the most fabulous clothes! My Dad would say ‘ you must always dress well because that’s the first thing that people see.’”
What did your daughters, Bekky 27 and Joey 25, (O’Neil) feel about the memoir?
They were obviously very touched by it. In fact, Bekky, has already had a play she wrote based on the memoir, produced in Toronto. She is also an animator and will be working on a project with The Azrieli Foundation to do a poignant animated short based on part of the book.
How her parents impacted her career:
“When something great happens to me I instinctively want to call and share it with my mother. And even though my Dad is no longer here I know that he orchestrated the whole thing! Every time I’d be chasing Karl Lagerfeld around backstage at one of his fashion shows in Paris to catch him for a sound byte, I’d be thinking ‘don’t be afraid and never give up.’
But I live with an enormous amount of guilt – I always wanted to please my parents and be the very best. I had to have a fabulous life because their dreams were unrealized.”
Joy Runs Deeper is available in bookstores across Canada.