The following story is about my mother, whom many of you met at demonstrations and public events through the years across the U.S. and Canada. Many of you may have seen her perform on stage and TV, or heard her over the radio. A special memorial fund in her name was established by Homes not Bombs to aid the families of Canada's secret trial detainees and other political prisoners and, sadly, it is still needed 13 years later. (See bottom for more details).
In Honour of My Mother
Bernice Katz/Deborah Cass Behrens
May 31, 1930 -- July 20, 2004
By Matthew Behrens
On my mother's cause-of-death certificate, the doctor wrote "Failure to Thrive." This medical term took me aback, for anyone who met my mother would find the term inconsistent with the woman who, despite a lifetime of barriers, managed in her own way to flower, to shine, to thrive.
Indeed, anyone who sat in the light of my mother's all-embracing love would find it difficult to believe she combated a lifetime of physical, social and psychological obstacles which could easily have left her to wallow in bitterness and anger.
Those barriers included being run over by a car as a child, fighting bulimia all her life, suffering thousands of debilitating tiny mini-strokes and Parkinson's, encephalitis, coronary heart disease, dementia and a host of other ailments. She also faced the systemic barriers of sexism and anti-Semitism. Yet despite all this, my mother managed to find a way to express herself, her ideas, and her ideals in a manner which was passionate, loving, and kind.
She DID thrive, as a student, as an actor, as a partner, parent and grandparent, as an advocate for social justice, and as a special kind of mentor to young people in the arts and in grass roots politics.
If she knew I were saying this, she would stop me in my tracks and say, "Oh, stop your bullshitting," hoping to shift attention away from herself, preferring to redirect any spotlight to those around her.
Indeed, to her dying breath, my mother was a truly radical democrat. After the doctors and nurses explained the process of dying -- a cold would start from her feet and hands as the warmth and blood centred on essential organs -- my mother continued to defy them. All night long before she passed on, those areas which had once been cold were warm again.
Her heart, always about sharing, insisted that the "non-essential" parts continue to receive their share of her precious blood. This amazing ticker, condemned two years ago after a major coronary attack, was the organ which continued to work right until the last moment, pumping at an almost desperate pace, screaming out that there were still things to do, people to embrace, faces to caress, politicians to scream at, and a genuine kindness to be shared.
To her last conscious moments, she was apologizing to those who were caring for her -- her wonderful personal support workers, nurses, her family. It all seemed so silly to her, this attention, as she lay at home in her bed receiving palliative care, saying she could get her own water although she could not walk, much less hold a glass.
The years leading to my mother's passing were not pretty ones. They were stressful for her, for my father, for our family. We were grateful as always for her laughter, her outrage, her hugs and kisses. But as time wore on, something was missing. Her quality of life had reached an all-time low, and the pain which she only rarely complained about clearly consumed her.
Going through such a process with a loved one cannot help but force us to examine the way in which we treat the elderly and those who have no quality of life. When I think of my mother's pain, and the fact that her life literally became one of lying on a couch or in bed all day, usually lost in a confused sleep and losing interest in food, I think of the practice of putting horses who break a leg out of their misery. That process is legal. Yet people like my mother, or terminal cancer patients, are not given that option of a quick, compassionate way out, even if they and their family have given informed consent.
Indeed, in a culture which rewards people for killing (look at those U.S. generals in Iraq), we prosecute those who, in an act of mercy and compassion, enter into an arrangement with someone who is terminally ill but in full command of their senses, to help ease them out of their suffering.
Euthanasia is a concept which my mother fully supported, and I look forward to the day that the terminally ill, their families, and friends will not be forced to endure weeks, months, and years of watching a loved one slowly, painfully waste away.
My wonderful Aunt Jean (known to her nephews as Auntie "Shtink") spoke to me a few moments after my mother passed away. "Now is a time to celebrate her life," she said. And while words are almost impossible to describe the magical person who was my mother, I hope what's written below can give a small sense of the passionate, loving soul who inhabited that frail, pixie-like body.
Deborah Cass Behrens (nee Bernice Katz) was born on the street. Literally. On May 31, 1930, her mother, Helena Katz, squeezed out her first daughter on the poverty-stricken streets of Transcona, Manitoba. The street remained a place for which my mother would have an affinity the rest of her life, whether engaging the homeless on the streets of Toronto, marching for someone else's rights, or travelling the length of North America to "bring theatre to the people."
Her parents were Russian immigrants from a generation which firmly believed, inspired by the events of 1917, that a revolution might sweep the world, eliminating poverty, hatred, discrimination, and the gross inequities which force so many to live in misery for the benefit of a smug few.
Her father, Abe Katz, was forced to go underground following the Winnipeg General Strike. Her mother, Helena Katz, joined Abe in supporting the Communist cause of the 1930s, about the only place you could go if you wanted to agitate for peace, civil rights, equality, and the social programs we take for granted today: unemployment insurance, health care, workplace safety, and so many others.
Though never party members, they did take a quirky assignment from a CP overwhelmed with people wanting to help and not sure what to do with all these newcomers. Hence, my grandparents took on the serious task of infiltrating the Shriners. A picture of these two proud Yiddish immigrants in Shriner outfits is a testament to their delicate work for the cause! The slight grins on both of their faces informs us that this was one of the more entertaining of their many tasks.
When my mother told us such stories while I was growing up, it seemed still possible to believe in the purity of social struggle, in the ideals of universal equality and solidarity, in the idea that you could fight for these things all the while there was laughter, joy, dancing, and singing, for if the revolution were to create paradise on earth, it had to be the kind fought with love in our hearts, not the kind that would replace one kind of hatred and oppression with another.
It was a passion my mother carried to her final breath, despite her disappointments at the silliness which often divides us on the left of the political spectrum. "Why can't we all just get together?" she would plead. She rejected labels, refusing to identify as a Jew or a communist, insisting that she was first and foremost a Human Being.
At the height of the Depression, her parents established an institution which stands to this day in downtown Windsor: the Canada Salvage store, a place where you can buy almost anything at a decent price, started originally as a place to reclaim the castoffs and remnants of an economic system which produces far too much "crap," as my mother would proclaim.
My mother grew up in a thriving, progressive community along with her older brother Buddy and younger sister Jean. These past few weeks, as Jean sat by her sister's bedside, she would ask my mother to recall the events of the 30s and 40s, when members of the community (Chaverim, or comrades) would join May Day Parades, raise funds for Spanish and later Russian War relief, and gather in a women's reading circle who would meet at their house, arguing politics and screaming in laughter.
Wedding Day, 1961, with Bunny and a drunken justice of the peace
It was a time where good and evil were pretty clearly defined, and it was clear to a Canada suffering through Depression that capitalism was an evil (recognized as such even by the CCF, the forerunner to an NDP that avoids using the C word these days). Songs like the "Internationale" and "Which Side Are You On?" weren't lefty nostalgia pieces, but raw, edgy evocations of the struggle necessary to birth a new world.
The raised fist which was one of my mother's personal trademarks was a real, heart-felt symbol of international class solidarity, not an empty display of machismo. It was to the 30s and 40s what the peace sign was to the 60s and 70s--a meaningful symbol not yet bought off to advertise sneakers or sports cars.
Terms like "the people," "the workers," and " the revolution" had not yet been debased by endless debates in the academy, and to the end words like these always brought a gasp of delight and an "Achhhh!" from my mother. Anyone doubting the extent to which such terms were a part of the atmosphere should view Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times," one of my mom's favourite flicks.
And while some members of her generation no doubt looked back with ambivalence surrounding a lot of issues, rhetoric, and actions, no one could doubt their sincerity.
And sincere they were in this wonderfully anarchistic, Yiddish milieu, where so many wore their hearts on their sleeves and their hopes on their brows. After all, they had nothing to lose and a world to win! So committed to the cause were my grandparents that Abe placed red dye, the colour representing communism, into the still-wet concrete when a sidewalk was poured in front of their Windsor house on Lewis Avenue. To this day, a red walkway leads to that house as if it were a welcome to all who shared those ideals of global solidarity.
In the progressive movement of Windsor, ideals were not simply the focus of Saturday evening debates, they were things which needed to be tested, challenged, and put into practice. Among the "Chaverim" in Windsor was a factory owner who, when his workers went on strike, was told by Abe Katz to settle the dispute with dignity and justice, else he would never talk to him again. Such was the power of that circle that those words had their effect, and the strike was won.
As part of the social movements of the 1930s, progressive summer camps were established throughout North America. Among them was one that my mother's parents had a hand in starting: Camp Naivelt (Camp New World), nestled on the banks of the Credit River just west of Brampton. There the children, getting a real break from the sweltering urban environment, spent the summer learning radical songs, swimming, performing dramatic skits, attending endless meetings about everything under the sun.
They carried the flags left over from May Day parades throughout the summer, and were indoctrinated into the CP dogma of the day. My mother thrived here (I have a picture of her dancing under a huge banner which reads in Yiddish, "Tribute to Heroes and Martyrs.") She eventually became drama director for the camp, also attended by her older brother Buddy and younger sister Jean, whom she lovingly called Shtink ("little stinker").
The land for the Camp was bought by a holding company that did not have a Jewish-sounding name, as this was an era in which signs which read "No Jews or Dogs Allowed" were commonplace. It was not the last time my mother would face the systemic anti-Semitism which was so finely woven into the Maple Leaf.
The songs of Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers, among others, she heard at home and at Camp Naivelt. She sat on Robeson's knee when he stayed at their Windsor house. She sang along with Pete Seeger during his many trips to Naivelt.
Not everyone maintained this passion. Some would remain proud of their association with the camp while others, embittered, would likely prefer to hide their past in the red-baiting 50s and 60s. Following WWII, the RCMP often parked cars outside the entrance to Naivelt, photographing people and taking down license plate numbers of people who went in.
For my mother, politics was not the only the engine which ignited her passions; rather, it was something she had absorbed by osmosis, which informed her every breath, and opened her mind to the many wonders she would discover in theatre school. Indeed, much as the term "the workers" brought her to a reverent, sincere sigh, so too would names like Garcia Lorca, Bertolt Brecht, Jean Anouilh, and William Shakespeare, all of whom produced works which my mother would call "extremely relevant!"
My mother's interest in the theatre developed early. Run over by a car at an early age -- her rib cage was crushed when her distraught father picked her up following the accident -- my mom took dance lessons as part of her physical rehabilitation, through which she developed a passion for the theatre. It was a time of great flowering in the theatre, long before megamusical shlock dominated the stages. Serious drama that could inspire people to change the world was on many people's minds, and organizations such as the left-wing Group Theatre in New York were an inspiration to her.
It was in this milieu that my mother went to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where she was exposed to much of the then underground flowering cultural scene, discussions about sexuality, poetry, and radical critiques of the massive glob of conformity being imposed on 1950s America.
Ever the rebel, my mother posted on the Goodman call board a protest against the strait-laced approach of some of the older teachers to the development of stage characterization. Insisting that certain characters should be fully rounded, her message read: "Kings and Queens are People Too. They eat, sleep, and go to the toilet."
1980s head shot
She went on to do much early CBC television and radio drama, and played everywhere from the Crest and Jupiter Theatres in Toronto to the Stratford Festival and, for five years, toured North America with the Canadian Players, a group of classically trained actors who, during the off season at Stratford, took their shows to communities large and small across the continent.
When the tour bus lurched into the American South, members of the tour kept out a special watch for my mother, the tiniest of the crew yet the one most likely to raise a stink over the racist segregation then being fought by the early Civil Rights Movement.
Despite being cooped up on an old bus with baggage, props and costumes, she loved those years on the road, greeting people after the shows, and entertaining audiences with a variety of roles that almost 50 years on are still remembered by those who saw her, perhaps as Ariel, flying about the stage in "The Tempest," whose enchanting singing of the "Jewish Shepherd's Song" brought an exotic sound to some very WASP communities, or as Aase in "Peer Gynt," or the Nurse in "Romeo and Juliet."
To read the reviews in those days is to learn about someone who, no matter how insignificant the role, made a huge impression on the stage, not for the sake of her ego, but for the sake of the play, to bring to full fruition the humanity of a character. A petite woman, she was often described as pixie-like, with an infectious laugh and a commanding dramatic and comic presence. In many respects, she was both the loopy sister Martha Brewster in "Arsenic and Old Lace" and the Greek tragedian "Antigone," roles she truly cherished.
Like another petite figure who was a volcanic source of passion, Judy Garland, my mother was someone who became a character, an emotion, an idea, 150%. To watch her from behind was to read perfectly her emotional state. She was always in the moment. She knew how to embrace an audience or an individual, to listen to anyone's concerns, no matter how petty, and how to make someone feel like a worthwhile person.
Also like Garland, my mother was also forced by an image-conscious society and profession to take diet pills to stay razor-thin, and developed bulimia which would haunt her much of her adult life. In those days eating disorders were not openly discussed, unfortunately, and the toll it took on her frame and long-term health is no doubt incalculable.
On tour she met my father, Bunny Behrens, and spent almost 50 years with him, raising 3 children. My parents helped found the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, and my mother played a range of roles in plays such as "The Fantasticks," "Romanoff and Juliet" (where she played the show stopping role of Evdokia), and the title role in "Antigone," the Jean Anouilh adaptation which fed my mother's anti-fascist soul.
But ominous headlines appeared in Canadian newspapers in 1963: a star of Canadian theatre had been struck by a mystery illness which had paralyzed one side, given her double vision, and forced her off the stage for a time. Encephalitis took a bite out of her, from which she never fully recovered.
My mother made a huge sacrifice in giving up her career at that time to raise her three boys. While we were growing up, she wasted no time in ensuring we knew right from wrong, in making sure we knew what Vietnam, Birmingham, and American Indian Movement meant. And to this day, the concept of eating table grapes is still very new, given that we grew up with the decades-long grape boycott called by the United Farm Workers.
Like the late Harold Kendall of Toronto, after whom the Harolds are named, my mother remained a vocal audience member -- there with you when things went well, laughing her huge, body-consuming laugh, inhaling quite audibly without a touch of pretense during a moving moment, cursing at bad performances, walking out on execrable ones.
She eventually returned to acting in the 1980s, appearing on stage, and in numerous CBC TV shows. One of her first roles back on the stage was in "The Trojan Women" at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, which had been founded in the 1950s by blacklisted actors including the theatre's namesake, who would win fame as Grandpa Walton.
You Can't Take it With You, 1984, National Arts Centre, with Bunny Behrens, Shirley Douglas
Although no longer acting, she spent countless hours marching the streets in the U.S. and in Canada. The chant of "No Pasaran" (They Shall Not Pass!) which had been the slogan of the Spanish Civil War she chanted again as she worked to end the U.S. terrorist war against Nicaragua.
She was always glued to the radio --growing up, you always knew when the news was on, because screams of "Fucker!" "Jesus!" and "Shit! would fill the air as the news of the war in Vietnam, Watergate, and other events were reported on by her beloved National Public Radio and Pacifica Radio.
One of her favourite days was the Gay Pride parade, and she was a fixture at Church/Wellesley, the heart of Toronto's lesbian and gay community, greeted by name by hundreds of people whose names she could never remember. But she was always there with a kiss on the cheek, a loving caress, and a big smile.
Her last demo on her feet was in December, 1998, at the American consulate in Toronto as the U.S. launched deadly cruise missile attacks on Iraq to distract attention from Bill Clinton's enormous libido. Shortly after that, a fall sent her to an extended hospital stay, where we kept her going by playing Pete Seeger songs, reading her the writings of Paul Robeson, and getting food into her otherwise reluctant mouth with each "Achhh!"
By the spring of 1999, about the same time as the U.S./Canadian bombing of the Balkans, my mother began to enter a serious decline. No longer able to stand on her own, we wheeled her to Toronto's St. Paul's Anglican Church, where three individuals were attempting to remove the sword from the cross on a local monument. Surrounded by riot police monitoring this Good Friday demonstration, my mother was in her element, greeting familiar faces and exalting in the presence of resisters to war and injustice.
My mother's final years were spent in Niagara, close to the Shaw Festival where my father continues to work. She kept abreast of current events as much as she could, though her focus was beginning to go. She raised her fist in support of the anti-war demos last year, and she remained concerned about the plight of Canada's secret trial detainees, whose plight has similar overtones to those of the Rosenbergs, for whom my mother marched in the early 1950s.
I told my mom that many Muslims were fervently praying for her from behind the prison walls of Canada's war on democracy. She delighted in this, and asked about the detainees and their children, whose pictures I showed her. While she could barely remember most things on a day-to-day basis, this was one issue which she never forgot.
Bunny and Debbie, June, 1988, at Toronto rally before march to place citizens' arrest on Reagan, Thatcher and other war criminals
From his solitary confinement cell at Metro West Detention Centre, where he has spent almost three full years, Syrian refugee Hassan Almrei asked me to tell my mom to hold on so that she could see the day Hassan would be free.
But my mother simply could not stand it any longer. The last few weeks, her family gathered around her as she spent her final days here. She had been so desperately tired these past few years, often saying she had had enough, yet that part of her which was the hopeful, nurturing soul kept her going. She wanted to see how things were going to turn out, and hoped perhaps to go out on a high note.
I reported to her when the terrorist and former President Ronald Reagan had finally succumbed, and she raised her fist in the air and exclaimed, "That man was a SHIT!"
As she entered her final stage of palliative care, we lit candles in her room, and played a wide variety of music which she had loved throughout her life. Broadway shows like "The Fantasticks" and "Finian's Rainbow," the Sibelius Symphony #2, a wonderful piece that evokes a revolutionary journey and eventual triumph, and her beloved Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson.
We took calls from loved ones all over, placing the phone to her ear. She was often half-asleep for these calls, but she would smile or weakly say that she loved them.
On July 15, my mother had an incredibly painful day. I tried to console her with the news that my two brothers, Adam and Mark, would be there soon. "They'd better hurry up," she gasped, writhing in pain. We'd been informed by the doctor and nurses that such patients often hold on until the family arrives, and then let go.
As it was, she did hang on until all her sons had arrived, but then continued going on after that, defying each medical prediction about how much longer she had. It was an exhausting, round-the-clock vigil, hoping she would feel no more pain, hoping she would go to sleep peacefully, her family administering her half hour doses of morphine and swabbing her dry mouth.
It was a surreal time, and we spent much of it telling stories, some sad, others hysterically funny, in the presence of my mother, then in a coma. She occasionally made a slight movement in her facial muscles or raised an eyebrow, as if to acknowledge the silliness that was going on, or perhaps to say this whole scene was truly bizarre.
The last night my mother was fully conscious, her sister Jean and I played Pete Seeger's historic 1963 Carnegie Hall concert CD. My mom's eyes, closed for much of the past year, suddenly opened wide, as she stared at the ceiling and breathed in the sounds. She was there, enveloped in the music, celebrating as much as she could in that frail body. Her sister and I sang We Shall Overcome over her bed through a veil of hot tears.
Each day, we were told, should have been her last, given that she'd not eaten in over a month and that someone in her condition could not last more than a day or two without water. But still she kept going, confounding the doctors. Was there a significant date she may have been waiting for? I joked in her ear that she was probably just waiting for July 19, the 25th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution in NIcaragua that was so dear to her heart. And so she did wait, and I was able to wish her a happy anniversary that morning.
My mom was still with us, in a coma, on the 19th, passing away on the morning of July 20 at 10:45 am, just aftrer we placed an hysterical Mother Goose and Grimm cartoon on her pillow. We laughed that morning, and we cried too. And we joined hands around her bedside to say goodbye.
As I reflected back on her last days and nights, I recalled a Pete Seeger song that made my mother stir, even in a coma. It is the song of the 15th brigade, a tribute to those who fought against the fascists in Spain. I had spoken to her about the lyrics, and how it was like she was fighting a form of fascism in the ailments which afflicted her.
"Yes," she had said. "There's fascists in my body."
The final verse of the passionate song goes like this:
Long live the 15th brigade...
We fought against the mercenaries and the fascists;
it was our only desire to defeat fascism.
But on the Jarama Front
we had no tanks, no cannon, no airplanes.
Now we are leaving Spain
but we'll keep on fighting on other fronts."
It made me think of the battles my mother had been waging and how, at age 74, she had had enough of the fascism ravaging her body. Like those who had to make a strategic retreat in Spain, my mother had to make a similar retreat from this mortal form.
Long live the loving spirit of my mother
She fought the fascists all her life
She shared her art and her passions and her unconditional love
But she could not conquer the fascist diseases which wracked her tiny frame
She is leaving this mortal world for now
But she'll keep on fighting on other fronts.
And so she will go on.
Although she passed away in Niagara, her body was taken to Milton for cremation. Milton is just a stone's throw from where the still-alive Camp Naivelt carries on. Perhaps a few of her ashes will drift over this place of happy memories and lifelong hopes and dreams.
Later in the afternoon, a sun shower gently passed over her house. Sensing that she was here as a kindly spirit, we three sons went out looking for a rainbow.
In honour of my mother, Homes not Bombs set up up a memorial fund named after one of her favourite readings, printed below. The aim of the The Bernice Katz/Deborah Cass Behrens "Esperanza Fund" is to meet the significant needs of the families of Canada's secret trial detainees, who, as a result of Canada's anti-democratic (some may say leaning toward fascist) refugee, immigration, and "security" policies, face poverty and lack access to the kinds of summer camps, educational and cultural programs my mother enjoyed as a result of another generation's struggle. My mother recognized that we are not placed on this earth merely to survive; that life should be a celebration of laughter, of theatre and dance and song, of play, of freedom from fear.
To contribute, write a cheque to Homes not Bombs and mail it to PO Box 2121, 57 Foster Street, Perth, ON K7H 1R0. (Note on your cheque in the memo space this is for the Esperanza Fund.) You can also send an email money transfer to email@example.com
"There will come a time, I know
When People will take delight in one another
When each will be a star to the other
And when each will listen to their neighbour as to music.
The free people will walk upon the earth
People great in their freedom.
They will walk with open hearts
And the heart of each will be pure of envy and greed
And therefore all of humanity will be without malice
And there will be nothing to divorce the heart from reason.
Then life will be one great service to humanity!
Our figure will be raised to lofty heights
For to free people all things are attainable.
Then we shall live in truth and freedom and beauty
And those will be accounted the best who will the more widely embrace the world with their hearts
And whose love of it will be the profoundest;
Those will be the best who will be the freest
For in them is the greatest beauty
Then life will be great
And the people will be great who live that life."
From "Mother," by Maxim Gorky