An Opa's secret war journal sends Calgary writer on a journey of self-discovery

Naomi K. Lewis. Photo submitted.

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It was a 73-year-old, typewritten document, yellowed with age and hidden at the bottom of a box.

But for a writer, it was like finding a gold mine or striking oil.

A few years back, Calgary writer Naomi K. Lewis’s parents discovered the hidden diary. It was 60 pages, 30 in Dutch and 30 in English, written by Lewis’s maternal grandfather and kept a secret from the family. It detailed his escape from Nazi-occupied Netherlands in the summer of 1942. 

“It was like ‘Wow, this is the type of thing I always hoped would happen,’” Lewis says with a laugh. “I think any writer would have immediately be like ‘whoa … cha-ching! I have to do something like this!’ It was exciting on a personal level and I felt like I really needed to write something about this but I didn’t know what.”

In fact, it took three years before Lewis settled on the idea of retracing her grandfather’s journey. But then, as is perhaps the risk when writing a memoir at a relatively young age, life happened.

Among the major changes was a sudden divorce. Then, in 2014, Lewis wrote a first-person story in the Calgary Herald’s now-defunct magazine, Swerve, about her nose job. A Bridge Too Far: The Story of My Big Jewish Nose proved controversial in some circles and the response, both good and bad, had her deeply pondering her own identity and thinking about how she might be able to expand the account.

“All these things kind of came together,” says Lewis, who will be appearing at a Wordfest event on Oct. 18 at the Central Library’s Patricia A. Whelan Performance Hall. “The fact that I was all of sudden unexpectedly single gave me a bit more of a push to go do this trip by myself. So it all came together in a way that I never expected.”

So Tiny Lights for Travellers, which was shortlisted last week for a Governor General Literary Award, became an interesting hybrid. It’s about a writer connecting with her long-dead grandfather. It’s a travelogue by a lone traveller who hates travelling alone. It’s an exploration of a secular Jew’s relationship to religion, family history and cultural expectation. It’s a personal account about the end of a marriage.

But the discovery of her Opa’s diary was the catalyst. At first, Lewis intended to publish her grandfather’s account in full, juxtaposing it against her own two-week experiences in the places he had been 73 years earlier on his journey from Nazi-occupied Netherlands to France. Passages from his journal are still included in the book, but Tiny Lights for Travellers would eventually take on much wider scope. The discovery of the journal had a huge impact on Lewis that might have started the ball rolling towards larger questions. She had intended it to be a book about her grandfather, but it gradually became more about her, Lewis says.

Her Opa, Jos van Embden, passed away in 2003. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s for a decade before he died. But even before that, Lewis says her grandfather was stoic, quiet and aloof, particularly with children. He never spoke about his war experiences or much else with his granddaughter, who was a teenager when he first became sick.

“It was a story that I vaguely had been aware of; that this was how he survived the war,” Lewis says. “But it was very, very much something you didn’t ask about, something you didn’t talk about. None of us knew the details. So to find out that he had written down all the details and then kept this journal but not told anybody about it was mind blowing. It was this childhood fantasy of finding an old journal where you finally get to find out what really happened. This person who is gone and can’t speak anymore, suddenly they are telling you the story you always wanted to hear. Suddenly there’s this gift from beyond the grave.”

But while the journal answered questions she had about her grandfather, it also seemed to exacerbate others Lewis had been asking about her own identity her whole life. Her 2014 magazine piece for Swerve about her nose job led to a scathing op-ed from a conservative rabbi in Calgary, who accused Lewis of spreading the anti-Semitic myth that “one can identify a person’s religious or cultural affiliation by their physical attributes.”

“Was I an anti-Semite? Was I?” Lewis writes, anguished over the accusation. It all made her think back to her own family’s complicated relationship to being Jewish.

“My father’s Jewish, my mother is half-Jewish but my sister and I were brought up totally secular,” she says. “We always had this thing ‘Am I Jewish or not?’  It’s just a weird identity thing. To other Jewish people we don’t quite seem Jewish. We hadn’t gone to Hebrew school, we didn’t know the cultural touchstones. There was this weird lack of knowledge that made us seem like we weren’t Jewish, even though culturally and ethnically we were.”

Both of Lewis’ parents were children of Holocaust survivors, although they rarely acknowledged this as having an impact on their lives.

“There was a weird tension in my family,” she says. “When a family has had that kind of trauma, there are effects. So there was this weird feeling in my family that something was wrong but without any explanation.”

For Lewis, dating and eventually marrying a Jewish man, who she names Lev in the book, was a “huge rebellion.”

“I was really infatuated with the idea of being Jewish and it was more complicated than I expected,” she says. “So that was part of the story for me as well. ”

Lewis’ marriage ended, largely because she did not want to have children and her husband did. While she didn’t feel obligated to dwell on her reasons for not wanting children in the book, the issue does seem to fit nicely with the book’s bigger questions about identity and cultural expectations.

While Lewis says she in no way clearly answered all of these questions about herself, she is more at peace with them now.

“In terms of Jewish identity, I have settled on ‘I’m somewhat Jewish and that’s fine,’” she says. “Having articulated it by writing the book was helpful. There’s a lot of different ways to be Jewish and people tend to find that identity something to grapple with. But there’s a lot of different ways to be Jewish and I’ve kind of accepted what my way is.”

Naomi K. Lewis will appear at the Central Library’s Patricia A. Whelan Performance Hall on Oct. 18 at 6:30 p.m. alongside Emma Donoghue and Anosh Irani as part of Wordfest Imaginairium. WordFest runs from Oct. 14 to 23. Visit