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Jesse Vorst: Survivor, teacher, humanitarian

Socialism

Jesse Vorst (1940-2020), Professor of Economics at the University of Manitoba. Image by Canadian Dimension.

Jesse Vorst was a member of the Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba from 1967 until his retirement in 2007, and he continued his affiliation with the university as a senior scholar for several years afterwards. Jesse was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands in 1940 and from his infancy until the age of five, he was a prisoner in the Westerbork concentration camp, where his parents and their four children suffered unspeakable hardship and cruelty until they were liberated by Canadian and Russian soldiers at the end of the Second World War.

It is a remarkable testament to Jesse’s resilience that despite suffering such profound adversity from the very beginning of his childhood, a powerful and unwavering commitment to social justice became the hallmark of his life.

Jesse was a devoted husband to his late wife Alice, and their three sons, Ed, Tommy and Ben and most recently to his surviving wife, Barbara.

Jesse’s training in economics was at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. He was understandably very proud to have had as his mentor Jan Tinbergen who, in 1969, was honoured (together with Norwegian economist Ragnar Frisch) as recipient of the first “Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.” The Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba was very fortunate indeed to secure Jesse’s services. After interviewing at the London School of Economics, Jesse accepted an offer from McGill University, only to discover that a damp winter in Montreal was far less agreeable than a frigid but dry winter in Manitoba. From his appointment in 1967 until his retirement in 2007, Jesse served the department in many capacities, always with great dedication.

He accepted the challenging perennial task of scheduling the allocated courses. He balanced supply and demand. He did so manually, prior to creation of Excel spreadsheets. Based on the absence of complaints, he clearly outperformed computers.

Jesse took special pride in the work he did for the Society for Socialist Studies which he served from its founding in 1967, setting up its national office and acting as its executive secretary. From 1979 to 1981 he was also managing editor of its peer reviewed journal, Socialist Studies. The focus of this journal was to describe and analyze social, economic and political injustice, and in support of Karl Marx’s call to action, to study the practices of struggle, transformation and liberation.

Together with colleagues in the economics department, Cy Gonick and Paul Phillips, Jesse was a founding father of the successful Labour Studies program that was housed within the Department of Economics. Julie Guard will attest to the warm welcome that Jesse extended when she joined Labour Studies.

At University College, Jesse’s home away from home, he immediately befriended a compatriot and kindred spirit, Tony Brouwer, the very popular college bursar and his wife.

Jesse was ahead of his time environmentally as he rode his sturdy all-season bicycle to work daily. Although there was no more than a negligible risk that his antiquated bike would be stolen, Jesse would take no chance and as is customary in the Netherlands, he always secured his bike with a lock. His treasured bike was, after all, his sole mode of private transportation.

Following the death of Henry Theil, a renowned economist in the Department of Economics at the University of Chicago, who was his friend and compatriot, Theil’s wife asked Jesse to be the literary custodian of her late husband’s unpublished papers. The painstaking task of sifting through and organizing Theil’s voluminous work was, for Jesse, a labour of love. The task required that Jesse travel on several occasions to the Netherlands and Michigan, where retired professor Theil and his wife had lived.

Although a vast ocean separated Canada and the Netherlands, throughout his life, Jesse’s heart remained in Holland. He remained a devoted fan of the top-tier Dutch professional football team, Sparta Rotterdam.

Jesse was proud of Canada for sheltering Queen Juliana during the Second World War and for the central role played by Canadian troops in the liberation of the Netherlands at the end of the conflict. He was equally proud of the Netherlands’ expression of gratitude to Canada by sending one million tulip bulbs to Ottawa each year in perpetuity. Jesse was especially grateful to the Canadian and Russian soldiers who rescued the surviving prisoners, including his family and himself, from the dreadful concentration camp at Westerbork.

In 1776, a Scottish moral philosopher, Adam Smith, wrote a monumental book titled An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. This book laid the foundation for modern economic theory. The central tenet of the book, and indeed of mainstream economics since its publication, was encapsulated in the following famous passage that appears in Volume 1: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.” It is no small irony that Jesse’s profound humanity and his selflessness belied the central tenet of mainstream economics.

Generously endowed with charisma, kindness, decency, wit, wisdom and above all else, his passionate pursuit of social justice, Jesse inspired generations of students at the University of Manitoba. Countless former students have expressed their deep admiration for the enormous positive impact he had on their lives. The ultimate compliment to Jesse was a posthumous tribute by a former student who described Jesse as “a mensch among mensches.”

This tribute was written with assistance from Jesse’s sons and colleagues.

Irwin Lipnowski is an associate professor of economics at the University of Manitoba.


A son’s tribute

by Ben Vorst

The first thing that captures you is the twinkling eyes.

There is a photo that hangs in our family home of my father, Jesajah Israel (Jesse) Vorst, which captures his inimitable spirit of mirth and community; it is, in fact, a photo that many who knew him will know and appreciate. Thoughtfully engaged in the presentation of a conference lecture, twirling his moustaches in reflection, he happened to glance over at the photographer at the very moment of the click, and—shazam!—the spell of his bright smiling eyes was cast forever more, a perpetual celebration indelibly captured. It was, and remains, a magical snapshot that can instantly immerse those who knew and loved him in remembrance and joy, and sadness for a beautiful man now departed and greatly missed.

For his youngest son, however, there is another telling portion to that picture. My father was a man who wore his feelings on the outside, not only embracing the mind but living a life of ideas that were responsibly shown to the world, inviting discussion, debate, and progress. To that end, he was a great lover of message buttons, bumper stickers (which adorned the front door of our car-less home), and outward exclamations of all sorts that echoed the clarion calls for justice and responsibility. Cast your eyes below that wonderful, loving face and you will see yet another message on his t-shirt, one that was familiar to all who appreciated his informal style: Question Authority.

As a child, this (mistakenly interpreted) message made sense to me: my father was the Question Authority. It was a title, emblazoned across his chest, for all to see and avail themselves of. I, for one, brought all of my many questions to him (and to my mother, another prodigious intellect) and was often satisfied with a thorough explanation. More frequently, I was encouraged to pierce into the mystery myself, employing my nascent faculties for deduction and thereby building a mind-muscle that would serve me well for the rest of my life. My parents’ thoughtful, considered approach to building the ability of their children’s minds and hearts was and remains a great gift; juxtaposed to my adult observation of how many parents attempt to inculcate their children with their own beliefs, I am again grateful for their well-planned approach. To this day, my father’s penchant for inquisitiveness rewards me with a life-long love of curiosity: a pursuit that starts with a question, leads to more questions, and runs short on easy answers… just like adult life.

And so, for many years I laboured under the easily-mistaken belief that my father was parading through life (and the university) telegraphing his status as the store of all answers, inviting any seekers-of-truth to climb the mountain and avail themselves of his wisdom (at 5’4”, the mountain to his wisdom was not an arduous journey). An irony of this perversion of meaning is that it would not have happened at all if the t-shirt had been in any one of the many languages spoken in our household (love of language—and the ideas and encounters that are only possible with being multilingual—was a serious business in our family: 10 distinct languages spoken, 29 aggregated between the five of us, it was easy to be frustrated as a youngster when the dinner table discussion pivoted into another language in order to protect young ears). Most languages spoken chez Vorst included conjugations of the imperative tense; in French, Italian, Spanish, etc… it would have been easy to see that Question Authority was not a moniker, but an exhortation!

Which, of course, makes much more sense. Jesse was endowed not only with an incisive intellect; he also had a heart that embraced the individuals of his community in the belief that they, too, could understand the great, intricate machine of society. His long career as a professor was a natural extension of his attitude that all people had both the right and the ability to peer into the world to which they belonged and that pressed upon them, and to contribute to its structure and principles.

His legacies in this respect are many; to me, he will always be the one who pulled back the curtain and exposed the blustering Wizard of Oz to be nothing more than a regular, somewhat timid man working the controls—and to love and understand that man, too. For all of my father’s ability to lay bare the greed and corruption and hatred of the modern world, he nonetheless refused to fall into the trap of dehumanizing whoever he found at the end of the story—of heart, of mind, of spirit—was an unending duty; never get lazy about compassion, lest you find yourself one day at the controls, rationalizing your actions in the manipulation of others.

That people—with all of their faults, wondrous abilities, and needs—are at the heart of the seemingly faceless obstacles in life was and is an important message that will always stay with me; the challenge and opportunity of this lesson is that one must engage with people to solve problems. There is no shortcut. Questioning authority is always a valuable exercise: authority is not a person (despite what t-shirts may say), it is a cloak worn and easily set aside, handed over, or discarded, in the name of the human project of justice. Exhort those who sport the cloak to set it down and engage person-to-person, and we can conquer the most intractable of problems.

I guess, in the end, the t-shirt may have had both meanings. My dad did have a lot of the answers, even if he knew we had to find our own path to them.

I miss him. I’m sure all who knew him do as well. Let’s continue to keep him alive in our daily actions, questions, and love.

Ben Vorst is based in Winnipeg.

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