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The Knowledge That Others Will Carry On

In her final hours my mother, Ethel Rosenberg, wrote, for her and Julius: “[W]e were comforted in the sure knowledge that others would carry on after us.” Many years later, these words sparked the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC).

Last weekend I spoke in Toronto at a reception to re-launch the Mary Pitawanakwat Fund (MPF). The MPF is similar to the Rosenberg Fund and was, for a number of years, an RFC Canadian sub-fund. Now, after being taken under the tax-exempt wing of the Toronto-based Winchevsky Centre of the United Jewish People's Order, it was finally 100% Canadian.

Mary Pitawanakwat, a First Nations Ojibway woman, was hired by the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 1979. In 1984, she filed suit because, among other things, her boss called native people’s “savages” and sexually harassed her. In response, her supervisor claimed he was only testing the “smaller personal space” of natives. In 1986 the Commission fired her for “incompetence.” She spent the rest of her life battling to vindicate her rights. By the time she won her legal claim she was dying of breast cancer. She continued to organize on behalf of others until she died at the age of 45, confident that the struggle would continue.

Her fight took a toll on her teenaged children. Mary did what she could to protect Brock and Robyn, including applying for RFC support. Although we do not normally give grants outside of the United States, the RFC made an exception in her case.

Mary was already quite ill when I met her, but she left me inspired with her powerful spirit of resistance. In the 18 years since, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Brock and Robyn, as they became an important part of the RFC community.

Speaking before many supporters last Sunday, including Brock, Robyn, their partners, and their five children (Robyn has three, Brock has two), my mother’s final words echoed. Those words are rich in political, social and personal meaning. Some view them as a political prediction, but I read in them an expression of faith that a community would protect and guide my brother and me. She was expressing her trust that despite the great loss their deaths would cause us, we would find our own way and ultimately benefit from our parents’ resistance.

I believe that the lives of my brother and me, of our children and now our grandchildren, bear witness to that trust. Visiting with Brock and Robyn, and their families gave me a profound sense that it was happening again. Mary’s family still lived with the great pain of her loss, but Brock and Robyn have benefited from her legacy, just as I have benefited from my parents’. Mary’s children are leading loving and productive lives, and raising wonderful children. They are proof that Mary’s spirit survives.

Whatever else is wrong with human society, this one thing is decidedly right. I thank my parents, Mary, Robyn and Brock for this priceless gift.

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