Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Dirty Dozen, with Annette Libeskind Berkovits

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The Dirty Dozen, with Annette Libeskind Berkovits

Annette Libeskind Berkovits thought she'd missed the chance to write about her extraordinary father's life. She had asked him to record some of his memories of so she could share his remarkable stories, but he never got the chance before his death.

Or so she thought. Several years after she and her brother, Daniel Libeskind (whose design work includes the Royal Ontario Museum's iconic Michael Lee Chin Crystal), lost their father, Annette stumbled across a box of tapes, containing years of recordings.

The stories were amazing: a narrow escape from the 1939 Nazi invasion of Lodz, imprisonment in a Soviet gulag, living in Israel as a young father, and finally a new start in the Big Apple and unexpected success as a modernist painter. With the discovery of the tapes, Annette was able to write her father's unusual life, with its touchstones of twentieth century history, as In the Unlikeliest of Places: How Nachman Libeskind Survived the Nazis, Gulags, and Soviet Communism (Wilfrid Laurier University Press). Her brother Daniel provides a foreword.

Today, we speak with Annette as part of our Dirty Dozen series, where authors and artists are invited to share 12 unexpected facts about themselves, giving readers a peek into the people behind the books.

Annette's list takes us on a journey that includes a boa constrictor in a NYC taxi, a banana from Paris and a wallaby named after her father.

  1. The color red is my earliest memory.

    The red, undulating poppy fields at the foothills of the Himalayas, is one of the earliest images in my mind’s eye. My parents, Polish refugees in the Soviet Union during WWII, managed to get as far south as Kyrgyzstan when they were released from brutal Soviet gulags. With war still raging they could not return to Poland, but sought anyplace that was warm. They had suffered from extreme cold in the gulags, so physical warmth was of paramount concern.

  2. My brother, the acclaimed international architect Daniel Libeskind, was born in a very unusual place.
  3. Our family’s return to Poland from the Soviet Union in 1946 was traumatic. On day one of our arrival my mother went into labor. We had no home, no money, and no family in Lodz. My mother and I found ourselves in an overcrowded refugee shelter where she gave birth to a sickly infant. Readers of my book will discover why my father wasn’t there and how baby Daniel acquired his name.

  4. I spent hours in a sterile room for a year.
  5. My first job out of college was doing research at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Research Center in New York. For a young woman with a degree in biology and interest in medical school it was a coup to land this position. Soon, however, I became disillusioned with the isolation of working in a sterile, irradiated room (so the cell lines could grow uncontaminated in petri dishes) and with the tedium of examining the minutia of chromosome photos.

  6. I got thrown out of a taxi with a boa constrictor.
  7. After my children were born and old enough to be left with a sitter I landed a job that ultimately became a 34-year career. Though I retired as the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Senior Vice President, my first job there was as a zoo instructor. I have recently completed a manuscript on my wild and crazy animal adventures and the boa incident is one of them. Some NY taxi drivers aren’t fond of passengers with serpents wrapped around their waists. (I was heading down to a television studio to do an animal show.)

  8. A wallaby was named Nachman after my father, and was the first Bronx Zoo animal with a Yiddish name.
  9. Nachman Libeskind, was a man of many interests. Music and art were his primary loves, but he was also extremely fond of all kinds of living creatures. As a boy in pre WWII Poland, living in a crowded city tenement, he was the only child of all his friends to have a dog. He took great interest in my zoo job and made friends with many zoo employees. In the zoo universe naming an animal after a person is a great honour. Nachman, the wallaby, became a celebrity photographed with presidents, famous actors and athletes.

  10. I have a strange history with fruits.
  11. When I was a young girl living in Communist Poland commerce was very stunted. I first tasted a banana when a visiting aunt from Paris brought them to us. When I came to Israel at age 13 I tasted an orange for the first time. It was a delightful. But tasting my first olives was a terrible experience. I couldn’t fathom why people ate such hard, bitter marbles. I have since gotten used to them. Olives may even be my favourite fruit.

  12. I have been married to David, my high school sweetheart for 50 years (almost!).
  13. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have found my life partner at the Bronx High School of Science, a special school that is almost a tradition in our family as not only both of us, but my brother Daniel, attended it. David became a very close friend of my father’s. Not many son-in-laws have as great a relationship as the two of them had. David gave me his insights, critical reviews and moral support while I wrote this book, in part because of his great admiration for Nachman.

  14. My daughter was a military lawyer (JAG).
  15. Anyone looking at the cover of my book can see that my father served in the Polish military. In pre WWII Poland, such service was unusual for Jews due to the high level of anti Semitism, but my father believed that military service was a responsibility of all citizens. I am happy that my daughter followed in her grandfather’s footsteps, choosing to serve in the United States Air Force as an attorney in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Her service was a point of great pride for Nachman.

  16. My father painted over 200 paintings after age 72.
  17. For someone who first put brush to canvas at age 72, my father was a very prolific artist. His motto: “It's never too late.” I have taken this to heart as I began writing after retirement.

  18. My sister-in-law is Canadian and my nephew was born in Toronto.
  19. My sister-in-law, Nina Lewis Libeskind, is an extraordinary woman: savvy, funny and warm, yet never too busy to listen despite her myriad worldwide projects. Not only is she my brother’s partner in their architecture firm Studio Libeskind, she provides unwavering support to her extended family and has been my confidante in many matters and a strong advocate for my writing career. My brother and I are lucky to have her in our lives.

  20. My brother has designed buildings and memorials in Canada.
  21. I believe many Torontonians have an opinion about the ROM’s Michael Lee Chin Crystal designed by my brother after he won the international competition, but few can say they haven’t noticed it. Since 2011 in Halifax, The Wheel of Conscience memorial designed by Daniel serves as a reminder of the time in 1939 when Canadian, Cuban and American governments refused admission to 907 German Jews fleeing the Holocaust on the MS St. Louis. The ship returned the refugees to Europe where nearly a third perished. Soon Daniel’s L Tower will rise in Toronto’s downtown.

  22. I love the sound of the surf, but hate the beach.
  23. I spend winters in my Florida beachfront condo. The roar of the surf is music to my ears and psyche. My desk is positioned so I can look at the ocean, swaying palms and the occasional flock of brown pelicans overhead. I know why this was the place that inspired my father to paint. I rarely sit on the on the beach because I am not a swimmer and dislike the sensation of sand invading bodily crevices.

Annette Libeskind Berkovits was born in Kyrgyzstan and grew up in postwar Poland and the fledgling state of Israel before coming to America at age sixteen. In her three-decade career with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, she spearheaded the institution’s nationwide and worldwide science education programs. Her achievements include the first-ever agreement to bring environmental education to China’s schools. The National Science Foundation has recognized her outstanding leadership in the field.

Daniel Libeskind is an internationally renowned architect, known for the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and the Dublin Performing Arts Center in Dublin, Ireland. His practice is designing commercial, residential, and cultural buildings around the world. His Master Plan for rebuilding the World Trade Center site in New York City was selected in 2003 and has served as the blueprint for the entire site, including the Freedom Tower, the Memorial, the Museum, and the PATH Terminal.

Check out all the Dirty Dozen interviews in our archives.

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