Freedom was the song he sang
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 11 January 2016)

For many years after the Second World War, Canadians had trouble understanding the immigrants who flowed in from eastern Europe. Their stories of oppression weren't always taken seriously. Ukrainians, Hungarians, Poles and many others were embittered after losing their national homes to the Russian empire but Canadians found that hard to grasp. Newspaper editorials often instructed immigrants -- Displaced Persons, or DPs, they were often called -- that they must not bring old enmities into Canadian life.

George Jonas, a Hungarian who became a distinguished Canadian writer, was sophisticated enough to treat that provincial attitude with an urbane shrug. He remained forever an enemy of the Soviet Union and all other despotisms.

With his opinions uninhibited, he plunged into a six-decades-long career in Canada as poet, playwright, novelist, CBC broadcaster and journalist, ending up with the widespread respect of his profession and membership in the Order of Canada. He died Sunday in Toronto at age 80.

A lifelong belief in freedom ran like an electric current through his poetry, his fiction and his journalism. Longestablished Canadians tend to take freedom for granted, never having known its opposite, but where Jonas came from it was scarce. As a child in the early 1940s, he was made to wear a yellow star on the street, like all Jews. After 1945, he watched the Soviet Union impose a dreary and evil dictatorship on Hungary.

He never gave up trying to protect freedom -- from communists, fascists, Islamists or any other totalitarians. I can't forget the contempt he expressed in the 1960s when describing a Canadian nationalist poet who said that Mao's China sounded like an admirable society. How could those who were born to freedom consider bartering it away, even in imagination? Freedom was the song Jonas sang, in all his writing. He proudly called himself a classical liberal. Many people think that means a conservative but he believed it meant he was an enemy of every oppression, great or small.

Born in Budapest in 1935, Jonas was educated through adolescence at the Lutheran Gymnasium. He worked for Radio Budapest until he participated in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 -- the first organized rebellion against the Soviets, which Soviet troops defeated. Jonas was one of 200,000 Hungarians who fled the country. He emigrated via Vienna to Canada, choosing this country (he once wrote) because, among other reasons, he liked Stephen Leacock's books.

In Toronto he soon proved himself a writer of clear, precise English. He worked as a freelance journalist until the CBC hired him in 1962. He served there for 34 years as an editor and producer.

The Hungarian diaspora brought Canada many literary figures along with Jonas. They included the publisher and author Anna Porter; the novelist Stephen Vizinczey, author of an international bestseller, In Praise of Older Women; and George Faludy, who lived for three decades in Canada, died in 2006 in Budapest, and is remembered by a memorial park in Toronto containing a bronze plaque displaying his portrait and one of his poems, in English and Hungarian.

And of course one of the stars of this particular circle was Jonas. He emerged in Toronto literary circles as a remarkable and rather exciting personality. Margaret Atwood writes in her introduction to his just completed book, Selected Poems, "What an elegant figure he cut! He would have been right at home in the fin de siècle of Whistler and Wilde, in the eighteenth century of Pope and Swift."

His poems were witty, sometimes sly, issuing from a well-stocked, worldly intelligence. Atwood notes that they were (and are), "Direct, formally accomplished, restless, incisive; conscious of death and history and of the meaninglessness of much human activity, but conscious also of fleeting moments of pleasure, and not immune to love."

In 1967 Jonas placed his first book of poems, The Absolute Smile, with the House of Anansi, one of several new publishing houses created in that era. Dennis Lee was its poetry editor until Atwood succeeded him. It was a promising era, a time of stimulating debuts. From 1967 to 2011 Jonas published four more books of poems.

His ambitions broadened when he and Barbara Amiel together wrote the first prose work among his 16 books, By Persons Unknown: The Strange Death of Christine Demeter (1976), an account of a Toronto woman's murder and the trial and conviction of her husband, Peter. The book received excellent reviews and an Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Fact Crime book. In 1984 he wrote a controversial international bestseller, Vengeance, an account of the Israeli killing of the terrorists who were responsible for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. It appeared in 21 editions in 13 languages. In 1986 it was adapted as a film, Sword of Gideon (1986).

In the 1980s he spent much of his time writing about the justice system. His novel Final Decree describes an immigrant who considers himself cheated by divorce lawyers and takes the law into his own hands. Greenspan: The Case for the Defense, is a biography of Eddie Greenspan, the leading criminal lawyer. Jonas wrote or edited other books from the broadcast series, Scales of Justice.

He married Sylvia Nemes in 1962; their son, Alexander, was born in 1964; they divorced in 1968. He married Barbara Amiel in 1974; they divorced in 1979. He was married to Maya (née Cho) from 1986 until his death.

Over the years Jonas contributed to the National Review, The Wall Street Journal, the Hungarian Review (Budapest) and The National Interest. He wrote a column for the Toronto Sun from 1981 to 2001, when he moved to the National Post. He remained a valued regular contributor until his death. At a multitude of international conferences over half a century, Communists preached peace while planning war. Jonas dealt with that theme in his autobiography, Beethoven's Mask: Notes On My Life and Times (2005). His title refers to his father's habit of comparing the contemporary world to a masked ball. As Jonas wrote, "Europe is a carnival in Venice, with assassins dressed up as lyric poets. Butchers lurk in ducal palaces wearing Beethoven's mask. The voice is Beethoven's, but the hand is Beria's." (Lavrenti Beria, the most vicious of Stalin's police chiefs, routinely executed dissidents.) Jonas's best journalism tore away the masks of deception and revealed the menace beneath.

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