In her defence of the winning book at this year’s Canada Reads competition, Jeanne Beker said she recognized her own parents’ courage against unimaginable suffering and the impact such stories have on future generations.
Beker, Canada’s Fashion TV icon, media personality and recipient of the Order of Canada, is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. She will tell how her parents’ experiences intersected with her own life at In Conversation with Jeanne Beker, presented by the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship (CHES) and the Azrieli Foundation on June 11.
“Those of us lucky enough to have heard our families’ survival stories firsthand share a window onto a world of unspeakable loss and profound pain. But it’s these very tales of toughness and tenacity that light our paths and often define who we are,” said Beker, in praising the book Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto, about his grandparents’ torments during World War II.
The lives of Beker’s own parents, Bronia and Joseph (Josio), were thrown into chaos when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Before that, their shtetl life in Kozowa, in eastern Poland (now Ukraine) was warm and loving. By 1941, all the town’s Jews were confined to a ghetto. Jeanne will recount the unique tragedy that befell her mother’s family and how her father Joseph helped his then girlfriend Bronia escape the Nazi roundups that led in one direction – to the Belzec death camp.
What this story doesn’t reveal is how Beker, who lives in Toronto, used her parents’ encouragement and sheer guts to develop a trailblazing fashion and media career, while giving back to the community.
“My parents, especially my mother, instilled in me a love of the arts. As a kid, I had every kind of lesson you can imagine…acting, piano, ballet… luxuries she never had a chance to explore.” At age 16, despite a lack of experience, Beker had the chutzpah to audition for a professional CBC production. “Miraculously I got cast in a recurring role on a CBC sit-com!”
This led to “bits and pieces” in film, acting school in New York at age 19 and, eventually, to a job as entertainment anchor on a local Toronto newscast – and host of Fashion Television (FT), which aired for nearly 30 years in some 130 countries.
“My parents encouraged me to dream big. My father’s motto was ‘don’t be afraid and never give up’ – that’s what saw them through the war,” said Beker.
Among her many accomplishments, Beker first cites her strong community involvement, emulating her mother’s dedication to diverse volunteer work, from supporting hospitals to Hadassah. Beker in turn was active in the fight against AIDS and many other charitable causes. She still emcees about three fundraisers a month. “I feel that, if you get a lot out of life, you have to put back a lot.”
Receiving the Order of Canada in 2014 for her support of the Canadian fashion industry was phenomenal, she says, “and for my mother to see me getting the award was even more spectacular!” (Her mom died the following year.)
Another great source of pride came in 2016, when Beker received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame on Toronto’s King Street, “on the very sidewalk my dad walked every day to his small slipper factory,” where he put in 12-hour workdays.
Beyond influencing her own life, Beker says: “These (survivors’ accounts) are stories of hardship, courage and, primarily, tenacity – the ability to rise up from the ashes and keep going, no matter what.”
She adds that “we need the ability to look at the world through a lens of forgiveness;” not to forget the atrocities, but to accept the nature of the world, including its dark side, since no one escapes from major hardships. “These stories can help others move forward with acceptance and compassion…and resonate with future generations.”
Today Beker is still reinventing her own story, as an author, style editor, mother (of two daughters) and with “so many plans that I’m still hatching!” Her passion and determination will make June 11 a riveting evening. She will be interviewed by Jody Spiegel, Director of the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Memoirs Program, followed by a Q&A with Beker and a reception. All participants will receive an autographed copy of Beker’s parents’ story Joy Runs Deeper, courtesy of the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Memoirs program. The event takes place at 7 pm at Carleton University’s Singhal Family Theatre, Richcraft Hall, 9376 University Dr, Ottawa. Tickets are $25, available at https://carleton.ca/ches/jeanne-beker.
Photo Caption: Jeanne Beker wearing her Order of Canada pin that she received in 2014.