Alma Forge was the last remaining sign of the park. She began running her tours back in July of 2010. She led visitors through the south Saskatchewan fields where the park once stood, telling the story of the birth of Shoahville and giving her take on its untimely demise.
I was doing research for a series of poems I planned to write from the perspective of Alma’s father, in an attempt to give life to the man reduced to a cartoon by the mainstream press, when I discovered an article about Alma’s tours. I got in touch with her and we spoke by phone twice in March of 2011. She sounded skeptical about my interest in her father but was forthcoming nonetheless, sharing her version of the park’s rise and fall and discussing what she saw as her father’s motivation for backing the Shoahville project. At the end of that second conversation, she said that if I really wanted to experience the truth I needed to take her tour. I agreed. I booked a spot with her for late April when I planned to fly to Saskatchewan anyway to visit my folks.
Engrossed in the bounty of material Alma had given me, I got to work on my poems about her father and didn’t end up calling her again until I arrived in the prairies. I tried her a few days after getting settled on my parents’ farm, first at home and then, after a woman’s recorded voice told me the number was disconnected, at the diner where she waited tables. The man on the other end told me she was gone. Like, vanished. Alma had disappeared.
The time I had intended to spend with family went to Alma instead. I talked to everyone who knew her, which ended up being mostly former co-workers from the diner, the university, or the park. They all had a rumour. Alma was holed up in a cabin she owned in northern Manitoba, or maybe it was the interior of B.C., and she was finally writing that book in defence of her dad. She was living in Nova Scotia with long-forgotten relatives from her mother’s side. She had at last taken off for South America to teach English, which had always been her dream. The guy who washed dishes at the diner said powerful government forces wanted the park to go away forever and had snuffed her out. I ran this story by some of the waitresses and they laughed it off. The dishwasher also believed there were catacombs west of town flush with lost Cree gold and that the Yanks were using guillotines to off criminals because beheadings allowed them to effectively harvest organs for our extraterrestrial masters.
As the rumours about Alma’s whereabouts became more discordant, offering less promising leads, I realized an equally significant pattern had emerged. The plethora of rumours was matched by the abundance of references to Alma’s dedication to maintaining the local memory of her father and the park. And with each story about her missing a shift at the diner to take a single curious visitor on the tour, with each mention of her pouring the few pennies she had into this venture, I became more and more absorbed. I began to ask what Alma must have asked: after creating a truly global sensation, and after destroying her father, how could Shoahville be completely erased from its prairie home? What struck me with as much force as the mystery of Alma’s disappearance was the thought of what had been lost with her loss. I had no choice but to pursue it.
I began my work on Wednesday, May 11th. I tracked down and interviewed—in person, by phone, via email and Skype—locals and tourists who had taken Alma’s tour. I probed them for details about what Alma had said and done, where she had led them. I searched for a sense of how she had sought to shape their experience and why. When I had as clear of a picture of the tour as could be expected, I took the tour myself. On Saturday, June 4th, I set out on an overcast morning with my father and nephew and we visited the sites we would have visited had Alma still been present to be our guide.
The work that follows is my attempt to preserve Alma’s attempts at preservation. Drawing on my numerous and extensive interviews, I have composed a speculative transcript of the words Alma might have spoken while performing her tours. Interspersed with my rendering of her voice, you will find a selection of the photos we took on our own makeshift tour, snapshots of the land where Alma no longer leads her charges through the immensity of what no longer stands.
Daniel Scott Tysdal
The land where Shoahville once stood (as seen from a road just off HWY #2).
The brickworks founded by Alma’s great-great-grandfather.
One of Alma’s homemade buttons (discovered by my nephew) with the Shoahville logo.
Tour Stop #1: The Land
Learn this: my dad was not an evil man.
Put yourselves behind his eyes for a minute. This is where he stood that damp, windy morning in April of 2006. Wednesday the 19th to be exact. Imagine the land is as flat and far-reaching then as it is right now. Imagine it’s just as vacant. The Mikalski Brothers are on either side of you. Look to your left: there’s Zygmunt. Urban’s on your right. Just up ahead, their camera crew films your every step.
Now imagine that you can’t help but feel sorry for these Polish boys as you navigate the undeveloped soil your family has farmed since settling in Saskatchewan in the spring of 1891. Partly you pity them because they truly are a pair of fish out of water. Zygmunt stops every few paces to scrape the mud from his crocodile leather loafers with a rolled up newspaper, while the metallic sheen of Urban’s suit is a hue that doesn’t seem native to this planet, let alone the prairies. Mostly, though, you feel sorry for them because they are too young—late 20s biologically, but mid-teens in terms of their business acumen—to know how to deliver a winning pitch. The Brothers have definitely got a one-of-a-kind vision for your land, but they spend more time mugging for their camera crew than they do bringing this vision to life. Urban falls back on empty abstractions like “revolutionary,” “indispensable,” “groundbreaking,” his Slavic accent maneuvering the syllables into new regions of cadence and intonation.
Zygmunt stops scraping at the mud on his shoes just long enough to look up at you and ask, “Mr. Forge, is this not the perfect home for Shoahville?”
Before you answer, “No,” folks, imagine, like my dad, that you’ve got their story coursing through you like it’s your own blood. It’s the story of two Polish Jews who want to create the first truly 21st century holocaust memorial. They were spurred to action by the recent death of their great grandfather, a survivor of the Belzec extermination camp. Imagine you are painfully aware—though not at all surprised—that their monumental vision has not been grasped by the other cities they solicited for support: Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Saskatoon. Imagine knowing in your bones that you are their last hope. Having built a specialty crop empire, and having made a killing during the Alberta oil boom, you’re the only one with the land, the financial clout, and the government connections to get it done. More importantly, you are a student of history, of this century, what it wrought and what it ruined, and you know well and good the suffering you have been spared. Imagine that what eats at you more and more with each passing year, with the withering of the number of seasons left to you as you near seventy, is how little you have done to give your thanks for all your blessings, to give back to those who were not spared. And now imagine the camera crew that’s been documenting every second of Urban and Zygmunt’s fruitless mission has you in its grip. The lens seizes you.
Zygmunt stops fooling with the mud on his shoes and asks, “Is this not the perfect home?”
Let your head fill with the thought my dad’s head filled with. This memorial is your chance to finally give back, your chance to finally leave a lasting mark for the Forge family name, for the prairies, even for every soul that lives and breathes in this very era and needs the future to remember that, yes, we remembered. Because Shoahville is the natural, necessary evolution. That’s how the Mikalskis put it. What was once oral transforms into print. What was once made for the stage speeds to the small and the big screen. The atrocities of the past need a new form of witness or Nazi hate will be free to repeat. The museum is not enough.
Zygmunt asks, “Is this not perfect?”
Say it with me, folks.
What my dad said.
Pop Quiz: Was he evil?