Robert Fulford's column about Modris Eksteins

(The National Post, December 7, 1999)

Once upon a time, as all good stories begin, there was a bright little boy in Toronto, a DP. That stood for Displaced Person. It was what Canada in the 1950s called a refugee, often a refugee from a place most Canadians couldn't find on a map -- like Latvia, where this boy came from. DPs couldn't return home because their countries were run by communist tyrants. Canadians condescended to DPs, as comfortable people usually condescend to the helpless.

Today, successful immigrants from Eastern Europe are familiar figures in Canada. In the 1950s that wasn't yet true. DPs lived on the margins of society and were expected by many to stay there, in rundown districts and dead-end jobs.

But this particular boy, like many DPs, eventually rose to the professional class. What makes his story remarkable is the way he did it -- by jumping straight into Upper Canada College, the citadel of the Establishment, and then vaulting to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship.

In 1955, Modris Eksteins was 12 years old, almost ready for high school.

His mother was working in the book-bindery at the University of Toronto library. A woman she met there, a woman of some means, suggested that perhaps a promising boy like Modris could get a scholarship to Upper Canada College. That idea might terrify some parents of limited means. But Biruta Eksteins had clawed her way across the chaos of mid-1940s Europe with her husband and their son and daughter. She had learned to barter and beg for a morsel of food. She wasn't intimidated by a school for boys, however grand.

Her husband, the Rev. Rudolfs Eksteins, a Latvian Baptist minister and a more spiritual type, saw it a little differently. The job of visiting the school and investigating the scholarship fell to him. As Modris remarked many years later, "My father had to screw up his courage just to go there."

For years afterwards Rudolfs (who died in 1977) liked to describe it as an adventure, an act of daring.

He was shown into the office of Rev. Cedric Sowby, the headmaster. Sowby was sometimes a difficult man, but on that day he was friendly. Yes, scholarships were available; yes, Modris could take the necessary examination. So he did, and in the fall of 1956 the DP became a day boy at UCC.

One morning, after daily prayers, a visitor lectured to the school on the Rhodes Scholarship. He explained that Cecil Rhodes had provided funds for young men (in those days, men only) from the Commonwealth, the U.S. and Germany to attend Oxford for two or three years. Good marks were necessary but not sufficient; the student had to be a sportsman and a leader. He had to be an all-rounder.

Sowby thought maybe he had a potential Rhodes scholar in UCC, so he called in young Eksteins and told him he should think very seriously about working toward a Rhodes. As Eksteins recently remarked, "He invited me into his office and pointed out my future -- and it never left me." For the next eight years or so, Eksteins designed himself as the ideal Rhodes scholar.

At UCC he captained a hockey team and played cricket. He didn't enjoy football (too violent) but he played it anyway. He kept winning the cup for the most points amassed in sports by a member of his house. He was also the UCC equivalent of a student-council member. He went on to Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where he became president of the French club and performed Molière in French.

By then he also played the piano. As he summarizes it today, "If you can wield a hockey stick and tickle the ivories, and get pretty good marks, then you start to look good on paper."

The Rhodes judges for Ontario met in 1964, 35 years ago this week, chaired by Eugene Forsey, the famous constitutional scholar. In Eksteins they could see the perfect all-rounder. A few people also said it was nice to hear an uncommon name among the usual Johnsons, Macdonalds and Harrisons.

Eksteins, in retrospect, says he thinks that "being a DP helped." It can't have hurt, either, that he was tall and handsome, and well spoken.

He stayed five years at Oxford -- three of them courtesy of Rhodes, two more subsidized by the Canada Council. After writing a dissertation on the German liberal newspapers in the last four or five years before Hitler took power, he received his doctorate. He joined the University of Toronto history department at Scarborough College in 1970, and he's been there ever since.

He turned into the sort of historian who can make connections that others don't see: He learned how to explain, for instance, the connection between an avant-garde Paris ballet and the crazy intoxication of militarism. Ten years ago a book of his, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, drew passionate reviews, went into seven foreign translations and ended up on university and high school curricula in Germany, California, Australia and many other places.

Rites of Spring was no doubt enriched by his experience, but in theory it could have been written by someone who had never strayed beyond the municipal boundaries of Toronto. His 1999 book, Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II and the Heart of Our Century, is another matter entirely, a fresh and personal account of 20th-century warfare and mass killing as it was experienced at the margins, in Latvia, a country hardly anyone cared about.

Eksteins wraps the history of his homeland around his own family background, and places both of those stories within the much larger narrative of Europe's monstrous military conflicts. While telling the story, he often flashes forward to the course that his family's life was following, from Riga to Berlin to DP camps in Germany to a new life in Canada.

Eksteins is that rare creature, a genuine intellectual, without an ounce of press agent in his soul. The truth concerns him more than Latvia's reputation. He doesn't hesitate to tell us that the Latvians, who were much murdered, were also often murderous. They were enthusiastic killers of Germans in one period, of Russians in another. In 1917, Latvians made up much of the firing squad that wiped out the czar's family, children and all. In the 1940s, they began to kill Jews on their own initiative, the first chance they got, before the Nazi killing squads arrived. Eksteins says of Latvia: "Holocaust was a state of mind here before it was Nazi policy."

Walking Since Daybreak pulls together all the strands of his life, from his ancestral ghosts through the dead-silent horror of Europe in 1945 to the academic history he learned in Toronto and Oxford. As he did when he was a child DP, Eksteins remains on the margins, but now triumphantly so, an author who can tell us precisely what it meant to be placed, generation after generation, among history's desperate outsiders.

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