History is a word with a fluid meaning. I can recall, as a young child, finding my mother in tears after John F. Kennedy was assassinated; I can remember, just before I entered my teens, watching Pierre Trudeau being elected leader of the Liberal Party. To my children – and many of my colleagues – these events are distant history. I know them as fragments of my life.
But those events date from the 1960s. Imagine my surprise when I began to read a manuscript last winter and found its author recalling – with vividness and terse grace – life in a far earlier period: the early 1920s. “My father came home, as usual, but we weren’t called to dinner. I asked my mother what was happening, and she said, ‘There’s a terrible shortage, not even bread.’”
The author’s mother would actually have expressed that thought in Russian, not English. In 1923 the family name was Letichevsky, and those food shortages were occurring in what is now Ukraine. The family immigrated to Montreal in 1927, and after studying at both McGill and Queen’s universities, Jack Letiche eventually moved to the United States. He would become one of the most distinguished economists at the University of California.
It was a privilege for me to edit (lightly and gently) the recollections of a man who knew in his heart and soul what I had always read on the page merely as history. In Crises and Compassion: From Russia to the Golden Gate, Jack Letiche describes life as a boy in the young Soviet Union; he evokes the Great Depression through the eyes of a teenager in the gritty neighbourhoods of Jewish Montreal; and he tells of his encounters with world leaders such as Richard Nixon, Kwame Nkrumah and Haile Selassie.
Working with Jack on this memoir was a great pleasure. I only hope I can be so patient and attentive to detail when I’m 92 years old.