“You don’t have the vocabulary to understand the suffering”

One of our great ones has gone.

What do you say about a friend who has so many awards, accomplishments and so much acclaim?


My friend and mentor – Ursula Franklin – did not just write books, they wrote books about her. She was a public intellectual, a professor, an activist, an author, a Quaker and a survivor of a Nazi labour camp. The work that most people know her for was the research that helped stop atmospheric nuclear bomb testing. In the 1960s, Ursula demonstrated that the dangerous radioactive chemical strontium-90 caused by the test was present in the bloodstream of children thousands of miles away.

However, what I liked most about my friend was her sense of humour.

I was once invited to her house for lunch. It was at a pivotal moment in my life and she listened and offered sage advice and counsel. Her husband Fred Franklin, the social reformer who spent time every week visiting prisoners in the Don Jail was also there. He was full of fire and vinegar. I forget which worthy cause he was full of fire and vinegar about that day, but it was a worthy one. As he talked, he and Ursula, both in their eighties, sat holding hands at one end of the table.

Her sense of humour and encouragement bubbled over, she told me, “Declan, it is no fun getting old. I go into the bathroom. I look in the mirror and I see my grandmother looking back at me. I have no idea how that happened!”

Last year, I had the honour of speaking to Ursula about her experiences in Germany in the 1930s and 40s. She spoke about the Berlin Olympics and the bombings by the Allied Air Force. Then I asked her about her time in Nazi forced labour camp. She looked at me and replied,

“I am not going to talk about that time. You don’t even have the vocabulary to understand the pain and the suffering. I can talk about those experiences with other people who were there. They understand. But I am not going to make myself miserable for you who cannot understand.”

“Alright,” I said. “But can you tell me about the times before then?”

“The Nazis were very methodical. They had already arrested the communists and the other dissidents. They had arrested all the people who were Jewish. My family was half-Jewish and we knew they were coming. They had taken our passports. The borders were sealed. There was nothing that we could do. So I got two books of poetry and I memorized every word in them. Because I knew that no matter what happened, no matter who they killed or what they did to me. I would always have that poetry in my heart.”

At Ursula’s Memorial Meeting on the weekend, another friend of hers stood and recited:

They told me, Ursula, they told me you were dead,

They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.

I wept as I remember’d how often you and I

Had tired out the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that art lying, my dear Ursula

A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,

Still are they pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;

For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.


From the Globe and Mail,

Ursula Martius Franklin, renowned scientist, political and social activist, an icon of Canadian feminism and pacifism and a profound, wise mentor to generations of young scholars, lived a life shaped by what she labelled her moral mortgage.

Having survived a Nazi labour camp and the Holocaust murder of her Jewish mother’s family, she believed she had a responsibility to live her life in a way that mattered to the world and justified her survival over the survival of others.

She once said: “There were so many people who perished. I didn’t. The basic question is: How does one conduct a responsible life that really has been given by an accident of history? It could just as well have been given to somebody else, but you have it, and you better do something.”

Dr. Franklin committed herself to social justice and to deeply engaged citizenship. Throughout her long life, she promoted the peaceful uses of science and an understanding of the social cohesion of technology – not simply the gadgets but rather how technology affects the ways humans work with each other in daily life.

She was honoured as a companion of the Order of Canada, a recipient of more than two dozen honorary degrees and other awards, designated the University of Toronto’s first female University Professor – the university’s highest academic rank. An innovative Toronto public secondary school, Ursula Franklin Academy, was opened in her name in 1995.

She died in Toronto on July 22. She was 94.

“She knew that our world is shaped by how each of us behaves and how each of us chooses to behave in relationship with others,” said her friend and one-time mentee James Orbinski, chair of global health governance at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, in Waterloo, Ont., and former international president of Médecins Sans Frontières.

Ursula Maria Martius was born in Munich on Sept. 16, 1921, the only child of Albrecht Martius, a Lutheran archeologist, and Ilse Maria Martius (née Sperling), a Jewish art historian.

Because her mother was Jewish, Ursula was pulled from her university studies toward the end of the war and interned in a forced labour camp at the age of 22. She had held on to her freedom until then because the Nazi regime was so methodical.

First, they interned families who were all Jewish, then families where the father alone was Jewish, then families where the mother alone was Jewish.

“In the hierarchy of terror, we were relatively at the low end,” Dr. Franklin said. She and her parents survived (they were confined separately, her mother in a feeder institution to the Auschwitz extermination camp), although members of her maternal extended family were killed.

But for long periods of time, she had been forced to work outside in the cold and, as a result, suffered from frostbite to her feet and legs for months at a time. It damaged the lymphatic drainage system of her legs and left her in constant pain that afflicted her throughout her life.

In the war’s aftermath, she completed her doctorate in experimental physics at the Technical University of Berlin. Although she had deep interests in history, law and literature, she chose to study physics and math because “the only things that couldn’t be censored [by the state] were mathematics and physics.”

Having embraced pacifism, she joined a group of intellectuals exploring Germany’s future but soon concluded: “There was no place for people who wanted a radical, profound change that would make a repetition of the past impossible.” Thus, with the help of a friend of her mother, she won a postdoctoral scholarship to study in Canada that came with the promise of immigration. She came to this country in 1949, with the full intention of being an activist.

She met her engineer husband-to-be, Fred Franklin, also a German immigrant, soon after her arrival. They joined the pacifist Society of Friends (the Quakers) and married in 1952.

Once on academic staff at the University of Toronto, she refused to do teaching or research that could ultimately benefit the military. Instead, she did pioneering work in the new science of archaeometry, the examination, analysis and dating of ancient materials revealing how people in the past used tools and occupied landscapes.

Research she did into the presence of the radioactive isotope strontium-90 in children’s baby teeth was credited famously in the 1960s with helping to persuade the U.S. government to cease atmospheric nuclear testing. “This understanding [of what was turning up in children’s teeth],” she said, “re-emphasized that peace and public health are collective; they involve all of us. Whether friend or foe, we are dependent on each other. Survival is collective.”

Her expertise in metallurgy and crystallography and her knowledge of how materials have been used throughout history provided the backdrop for her seminal work on technology – exploring how tools used in certain ways shaped human organization, culture and mindsets. She distinguished between the holistic technology of creative artisans and the prescriptive technologies of large corporations and bureaucracies that discouraged critical thinking and created a culture of compliance.

She brought the same intellectual rigour to her activism that she brought to her science, Dr. Orbinski said. “Engaging in an issue was never a matter of [simply] standing up on a soapbox and being heard. What always struck me about Ursula was her utter commitment to reason, her commitment to rigorous scientific methodology in all things. She was one of the most deeply intelligent people that I have ever known.”

As a member of the Science Council of Canada during the 1970s, she chaired an influential study on resource and nature conservancy well before environmentalism became a popular cause. Working with the Canadian Voice of Women, she presented meticulous briefs to Parliament on Canada’s military trade agreements and its chemical and biological weapons research.

She continuously consulted with friends such as former senator and United Church moderator Lois Wilson about women who should be named chancellors of universities and women who should be nominated for the Order of Canada. “She was particularly aware of minority women who were accomplished but nobody recognized them,” Ms. Wilson said.

Among her mantras was: “Peace is not the absence of war but the absence of fear, which is the presence of justice.”

She likened her approach to activism to what she called the earthworm theory of civic engagement:

“From earthworms we learn that before anything grows there has to be prepared soil. When we talk about the endless process of bringing briefs and information to government, the only thing that can keep us going is the notion that it prepares the soil. It may not change minds, but it will provide the arguments for a time when minds are changed. Unless there is that prepared soil, no new thoughts and no new ways of dealing with problems will ever arise.”

Sometimes the earthworm turned and became very above-surface visible.

In 1997, when the University of Toronto, allegedly encouraged by a prominent benefactor, awarded former U.S. president George H.W. Bush an honorary degree, Dr. Franklin, in full academic ceremonial dress, led a walkout of 27 of her colleagues from the university’s Convocation Hall, waving her cap to a thousand cheering protesters and the world’s media. “I was good television,” she said.

At the university’s Massey College – an interdisciplinary graduate college where Dr. Franklin, as a senior fellow, had an office for most of her last 25 years – she found her true academic home.

She was one of the world’s leading interdisciplinary scholars and thus Massey’s environment suited her perfectly. She likened interdisciplinarity to going fishing with friends – someone brings the boat, someone knows where the fish are, someone has skills at recommending the best fishing equipment and all are friends.

“She was known especially in the last 30 years of her life very much as a public speaker. But that was actually very little of what she did,” Dr. Orbinski said. “She would also convene both formally and informally groups of people and choose individuals very, very carefully that she would nurture in very particular ways.”

It’s little exaggeration to say that there were lineups of students, especially young women, to visit her office in the northwest corner of the college quad.

Dr. Kim Stanton, now legal director of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) and a specialist in truth and reconciliation commissions, was a doctoral student when she first met Dr. Franklin, who immediately invited her to her office for tea.

“I couldn’t quite believe it. She was an icon to me, and it was amazing to me that I had the opportunity to meet her. She read my dissertation. She was very encouraging when I wasn’t feeling confident about my thinking. She was just enormously supportive and gave me confidence to persevere with my work.”

Likewise, constitutional lawyer Mary Eberts, one of the co-founders of LEAF, said: “I have had wonderful mentors over my life but I have never had a mentor I esteemed as much as Ursula. It was as if she let us see how she was thinking and led us into a place where she trusted that we would also be able to consider things from a deeply moral standpoint. For me, it pushed me to try to think more as she would, rather than just in terms of accomplishing certain reachable objectives. It stretched me very much to have her as a mentor. And it stretched me in directions that I have perhaps been inclined to go but had never really gone.”

Few things gave her as much pleasure as the Toronto school named for her. Anne Kerr, who served as principal for much of the past 20 years, described how Dr. Franklin played a huge role in the school’s academic planning, inviting teachers and staff to her house for potluck dinners and discussions. She described Dr. Franklin’s frequent visits to the school as hug-ins with the students.

She had a sharp, sardonic wit and a huge heart for those she invited into her inner circle. She once said she liked the monarchy because it represented “de-fanged power” and after unsuccessful attempts to find a home for her academic library, she observed, “Books are the new Jews; no one wants them.”

She also loved beauty in all its forms.

“She loved the beauty of a good, well-structured argument,” Dr. Orbinski said. “She loved the beauty of crystals and the laws of thermo-dynamics. She loved the beauty of nature and its intricateness.”

She loved her cottage in Ontario’s Muskoka country as a place of spiritual renewal where she gardened and she and her husband took trips to local craft shows and music festivals. She crocheted and knitted until her eyesight began to fail her.

She loved good art, poetry and classical music and she and her husband would often debate what piece of music they would listen to in the evening.

June Callwood once asked her how she acquired “an exquisitely developed conscience.”

Dr. Franklin replied: “You tune it like an instrument. You know, when people start singing they develop an ear. They develop their voice. They begin to hear dissonances that they didn’t hear before. You become attuned to having to make responsible and moral decisions. … [In Quakerism] you don’t have a creed, you don’t sign something; the only proof of your faith or lack of faith is how you conduct your life. Consequently it’s like singing. At every point you say, ‘Am I in tune?’”

Dr. Franklin leaves her husband, Fred; son, Martin; daughter, Monica; and four grandchildren. A celebration of her life will be held in the fall.

Share this post

Comments (3)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *