Brigadoon McGill University

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McGill News
ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
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Following the November 1938 attacks against Jews in Germany known as Kristallnacht, Berlin-born Werner Bruck was secured a place on the Kindertransport by his mother before the full nightmare of Nazi rule took hold. The Kindertransport program resettled approximately 10,000 Jewish children to Great Britain in the nine months between Kristallnacht and the outbreak of war in 1939. In England, Bruck was eventually taken in by a wonderful farming family in Kent. He was later interned and then sent by ship to Canada, where he lived in camps for two more years. His mother and father died in a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Latvia. Bruck later became a Canadian citizen and changed his name -- to his ear, painfully mispronounced in his new country -- to Vernon Brooks.

by Vernon Brooks

This story is about education. There can be many reasons why young people decide they do not want to learn what is offered in school. I dropped out of school in November 1938 at the age of 15 because it seemed pointless to continue with a long-term curriculum when long-term existence itself had become questionable.

I call this tale Brigadoon, after a Broadway and movie musical of the late '40s that portrays the mythical Scottish village of Brigadoon as a timeless place of healing that you find only when you are truly ready for it.

The story is about two troubled men who go hiking in the woods and get lost. They pause to get their bearings and are surprised to hear voices from an area that is not marked on the map. They meet the people of Brigadoon and are invited to the village, whose oddity is signaled by a mist that hangs over the place despite surrounding clear skies.

One of the men meets a woman who takes him on walks that soon help him overcome the troubles and fears that had caused him to make this trip. Her song said to me that she was there only because he was seeking solace: "When the mist is on the gloamin' and all the clouds are holding still; if you're not there, I won't go roamin' through the heather on the hill...."

I have been to such a Brigadoon, a place that appeared when I needed it really badly, and it made my life.

Sixty years ago, McGill University provided an opportunity for a group of teenagers to change their lives by making a small home-grown school near Farnham, Que., into a McGill matriculation exam centre. This came about with the help of the McGill Registrar, and it opened the world to the school's pupils, of which I was one. Eventually most of us went on to academic careers, several at McGill.

What makes the story unusual is that it was war time, and the school was in an internment camp for German deportees who had been rounded up and shipped from Britain to Canada in the summer of 1940. We were in fact refugees from Nazi Germany, but the Canadian government had not been told that -- a muddle that was only sorted out some months later.

Voices in the Woods

Our first internment camp was near Fredericton, New Brunswick, although we didn't know it. It seemed to us to be in the middle of limitless forest. We had settled down to pretty dull routines of roll calls, clean-up duties, meals, and work which consisted mainly of making camouflage nets and felling trees.

Time without end began to stretch forward during that hot Canadian summer. The year was 1940, but since we were not allowed to receive news, even by late fall we still had not heard of the Royal Air Force victory in the Battle of Britain. Our attention was turned to our own concerns.

There were several university-educated men who organized lectures on varied topics at the camp, but although I heard the voices, I missed the music because the material was out of context and too advanced for me. By summer's end, a number of us were moved to another unknown place (that we later learned was near Farnham, not far from Montreal). We were still lost in the woods, but soon we were going to experience life in Brigadoon.

In the Farnham camp, the idea of completing high school first surfaced when a school was formed, with Charles Cahn, DipPsych'51 (later professor of psychiatry at McGill and Director of the Douglas Hospital) as secretary. William Heckscher, a budding academic (later professor of fine art at Duke University and recipient of an honorary McGill degree), became headmaster in November. And there were good, non-professional, volunteer teachers to instruct us volunteer pupils.

At first, classes were given in the crowded mess hut. There was little time to study because we had to work during the day, followed by dinner and early "lights out." There were no textbooks, pencils, notepaper or anything else. But most importantly, we still had no curriculum that would be recognized for university admission.

All this changed as Heckscher won the confidence and support of the camp commandant, Major Eric Kippen, who had been confined as a POW in Germany in the First World War. A McGill graduate, and a Montreal stockbroker between the wars, he soon understood who we were. Kippen was very sympathetic to the needs of the camp school as he had two sons in school in Montreal. He assigned a special hut where we could have classes and study after hours without distraction, and instituted regular physical training periods for us. In addition, he began to keep track of our individual progress to make sure we were keeping up.

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