Faculty of Arts
Helen Waldstein Wilkes wins the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction
Dr. Ute Lischke, English and Film Studies Department
The winner of the 2011 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction is Helen Waldstein Wilkes for her memoir Letters from the Lost. A Memoir of Discovery (Athabasca University Press, 2010).
In 1997, at age 60, Helen Waldstein Wilkes opens a small box that was left by her father in their southern Ontario homestead. The box holds “letters from the Lost” – letters from family members left behind in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Addressed to “Mr. Edmund Waldstein, RR3 Glanford Station near Hamilton Ontario Canada” the author subsequently follows the letters' trail back to Europe over the course of several years to discover that “the Lost” – homeland, past, and family – are part of her self. Letters from the Lost weaves letters, imaginary conversations, and the author's search for answers into a narrative of what it means to be a Jew, a survivor of the Holocaust, and a family member without a family. This testament ranges across continents and decades to affirm what one family lost to atrocity and what the survivor in Wilkes finds in her family, past and present. Letters from the Lost is a ‘memoir of discovery’ as its subtitle promises. But there also is a tremendous absence. It is also a memoir about the pain of knowing some stories can never be fully discovered. For those who perished in the camps, there are no graves to visit. This book is their memorial. The penultimate paragraph in the book says it best: “They live on in me, those family members whose lives were so prematurely interrupted. I have inherited something of their essence along with their stories. They flow through me and, to some degree, they shape me.”
Waldstein Wilkes, in her remarks after the presentation, emphasized that she has written this book with the hope that everyone will read it, but especially young people, students, in order for them to gain a better understanding of what happened not only in Europe but also in Canada, and also to think about what is happening around the world today. As she told me, “we tend to close our doors to other people—we have to remember the past to achieve a better future--we all need to have a sense of humanity.”
The Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction was launched in 1991 and is administered by Wilfrid Laurier University, the only university in Canada to bestow a nationally recognized literary award. The $10,000 award encourages and recognizes Canadian writers of a first or second work of creative non-fiction that includes a Canadian locale and/or significance. Winning books are distinguished by first-hand research, well-crafted interpretive writing and a creative use of language or approach to the subject matter. Previous winners include authors Linden MacIntyre, Wayson Choy and Elizabeth Hay. 2011 was a special year for this award, celebrating its 20th anniversary, coinciding with Laurier’s centennial.
A special centennial ceremony for Waldstein Wilkes took place Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m. in the Paul Martin Centre on the Waterloo campus, with author readings also on the Brantford campus. Along with remarks from the author, the evening included a video presentation by Lawrence McNaught on Edna Staebler, and a presentation of the award to Ms. Walstein Wilkes by the President of Laurier, Dr. Max Blouw and Dr. Mike Carroll, Dean of Arts. The evening concluded with a lively discussion from the audience and an author signing. Jury members included Dr. Tanis MacDonald, Dr. Ute Lischke, both from the Department of English and Film Studies, and Dr. Michael Imort, Geography and Environmental Studies.