Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal
Theodore Bikel

The soundtrack of our lives
Beryl Wajsman 12 June 2011  

Some things stay with you. More importantly, some people do. They become part of the fabric of who you are. The memory of their piercing glare, their defiant words, their resonant voice and their courageous acts rally your resolve whenever it weakens. It is not even the stirring of memory, for their images never really leave you. Theodore Bikel is all that and more. For in his case there is music, and what music. It is the soundtrack of our lives.

Bikel is in town giving a magnificent performance in the Segal Centre's musical production of "Lies my father told me." But this is not a review. What I want to share with you is how one man's talent in combining his work and his causes stirred a generation. And in this case a generation of young Montrealers.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Bikel and his wife Tamara Brooks last week. He was everything I expected and more. And I had the privilege to relate to him how much he meant to myself and to so many others.

Bikel is well known to the world as a brilliant actor and musician. What is perhaps less well known is that he has been a frontline activist for civil and human rights from Moscow to the American South. And he has used his music to advance the progress of all mankind. 

Many artists have used their fame and talent for good works. But very few have made the subject of their music the vulnerable for whom they fought. And fewer still put their personal safety on the line by singing that music in the face of power that forbade it.  But what follows is not a panorama of his career and his effect in the capitols of the world. It is a story of his effect here, in our community, on passionate young people who struggled for redemptive change for prisoners of conscience thousands of miles away.    

There was a time, not that long ago, when there was no internet, no facebook, no texting and no twitter. Can you imagine that? If you wanted to get the word out about something you had to use things like the telephone, posters and if you were really lucky you knew someone at a radio or tv station who would do a public service announcement. That was the way it was when Montreal was a world nerve centre in the struggle for freedom for Soviet dissidents. But we needed some tools to stir the imagination and rouse the passion for justice. Sure there were dramatic pictures and some tapes, but we needed more.

The organizations that sprang up in Montreal led the world. At one time they even helped organize New York's action groups. I was involved in them early on because they needed someone who spoke Russian. Montreal was one of the first committees that successfully made phone calls to dissidents inside the Soviet Union. I remember my first. It was called the "Gavriel call."

We demonstrated and rallied through the 1970s. From the time of the Leningrad 7 all the way through supporting the incredible defiance of Andrei Sakharov. We seemed to be constantly in the streets. But the apex was the trial of Anatoly Scharansky. The Group of 35 as i believe they were called here, understood that this trial had the historical significance of the Dreyfus trial. And it called for spectacular action beyond anything we had done before.

It was decided that we would demonstrate in large numbers every day of the trial. We would not be moved from in front of the Soviet consulate buildings on Ave. Du Musee. The vigil would be every hour of the day every day of the week. Some of us even slept on mattress in the street at night.

This kind of demonstration required large numbers. One of my jobs was to rally young people, particularly those at McGill which was right next door. But how to do it? Even though I had been president of Hillel Students' Society, I knew a special spark was needed. As much as i talked and organized groups of students there was something missing. And then I discovered Bikel.

I don't mean for the first time. I had seen his movies and heard his great folk songs. With Pete Seeger and George Wein he had organized the Newport Folk Festival. No, i discovered a special Bikel album. It was called "Silent No More!" it was a collection of protest songs that were either written by Bikel or that Bikel recorded from underground works smuggled out of the Soviet Union. The album was a revelation.

Bikel himself had sung them in the Soviet Union in the face of menacing police presence. Some of the recordings were done in secret. The quality was not great. But it did not matter. From the first profound bass notes and defiant words of "Let redemption come!" you heard a combination of old testament prophet and Martin Luther King. The songs stirred the soul and pierced the heart.

I played that album over and over for groups of young people small and large. And as each heard the songs from "Let my people go!" to "I fear nothing and no man" they were moved to act. They came onto that little street in waves chanting slogans of freedom in the face of the crimson bannered Hammer and Sickle.

For the last day of the week long demonstration we wanted a spectacular turnout. Three of us gerrymandered a tape player attached to a bull horn mounted on a Jeep and drove through quiet neighbourhoods of Montreal early on a Sunday morning announcing the need for a massive turnout later that afternoon. Interspersed with our calls we played Bikel's songs. Later that day some 7,000 people filled that little block on du Musee. Le Devoir's title above it's picture said it all: "Non au justice du Goulag!" And Theodore Bikel's spirit was there as much as anyone's body. As I told him when we met, his work, his passion, his music were as responsible as anything for the success of that week.

During our conversation Bikel recounted to me how he and his family had actually seen Hitler. Viennese Jews, they watched in horror as Hitler drove through the streets of that most civilized of cities after the Anschluss. By the late 1930s the Bikel family was one of the fortunate few who escaped Europe making it to Palestine. But Bikel told me that what has always bothered him through all these years - despite his work with the SCLC and putting his life at risk for Soviet dissidents - was "Why me? Why did I survive and so many didn't?" Hopefully this column will serve as both tribute and answer. You survived Mr. Bikel because you were meant to inspire a generation. And you did. Honor is due.