Last November Mitch Podolak was leaving one of his favourite Winnipeg restaurants, the Evergreen on Pembina, when he suddenly fell outside. As he lay there somewhat stunned, he realized that this fall was about to change his life. He couldn’t feel the lower part of his body after landing hard on his neck.
Fast forward to September 2017 and I’m sitting with Mitch in his apartment on Sterling Lyon Parkway in Tuxedo. He just turned 70 on September 21st. When I said, “Imagine, Mitch Podolak living in Tuxedo,” he quickly says, “It’s the wrong side of the tracks.” In a way I guess he’s right and you can see and hear the rail line close up from his window and Ikea is across the road. He and his wife, Ava Kobrinsky, moved there after he was released from the hospital in April of this year. They still have their home in Wolseley, but Mitch can’t negotiate the stairs and living on one floor is the way to go for now.
These days, Mitch uses a motorized wheelchair to get around and his apartment has specialized equipment to help him stand and perform his physiotherapy. He admits he loves the exercise. Mitch has come a long way from that fateful day last November and can now stand on his own, walk unaided for a short distance, and has regained much of the feeling in his body. There’s still a long way to go to be considered normal, but he’s confident that by the end of this year, he’ll be more mobile.
For those who know him, Mitch’s name is synonymous with the Winnipeg Folk Festival, the Edmonton and Vancouver Folk Festivals, the West End Cultural Centre, The Stan Rogers Festival in Canso, Home Routes… the list goes on. He’s also well known for his political action and work in trying to bring about change. His efforts have led to his being awarded with an Honourary Doctorate from Brandon University and the Order of Manitoba from the Province.
When Mitch had to attend the award’s ceremonies, he knew that he had to wear something a bit more sophisticated than his usual black T shirt and jeans. He called up friend and magician Brian Glow to be his fashion consultant. After spending $600 on a dapper black suit, black shirt and silver tie, Mitch shocked many by appearing in his new clothes.
So how did Mitch come to be where he is now, a veritable living legend - a man with more stories to tell than a recovering addict at a 12 step meeting?
It all started in Toronto in 1947, when he was born to Rhoda Layefsky and Noach Podolak. His dad was 20 years older than his mum. Mitch is the youngest of three children, after Alice, the oldest, who lives in Cape Breton and his brother Mark, a retired Treasury Board Analyst in Ottawa, who’s known as the white sheep of the family. The Podolak family lived on Major Street, in a neighbourhood full of Jews and Europeans located between Bathhurst and Spadina. His father Noach, originally from Poland, was a housepainter, who also did theatrical sets for the Yiddish Theatre in New York for a period of time and was a friend of the well known Jewish actor, Paul Muni. His mum Rhoda was a strong loving woman who was born in Canada. Her dad, Mitch’s grandfather Avram Liebe, played a special role in his life and was his hero. The two had a special relationship. During the Spanish Civil War, Rhoda was an organizer for the Friends of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.
Both Mitch’s parents were passionate socialists and he grew up in a rich atmosphere full of fervent political discussions. Mitch’s dad was a member of the Communist Party, but pulled out of the organization in 1956, over the invasion of Hungary and anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. It was also the year he died, when he was only 56. Mitch was only nine years old at the time and Rhoda, who was now widowed in her thirties, turned her energy to providing for her three kids. She worked as a bookkeeper and remained a widow until her passing in 2005.
At the age of seven, Mitch started to learn how to play the clarinet. The lessons were classical and he really didn’t like it. Although he grew up in an era when rock & roll was making its debut and was just beginning to move the world in a different direction, Mitch was destined to follow a different musical path altogether. When he was 13, his older sister Alice had two tickets to go to a concert at Massey Hall with a guy who was a no- show. Instead she took Mitch, who thought his sister was going to take him to the symphony. To his surprise, it was to a concert that forever changed his life. The featured performer was folk legend Pete Seeger and young Mitch was simply awestruck, especially by one song. On the way home, Alice explained to him what that particular piece, the “Bells of Rhymney” was about and what the performer was trying to get across to the audience. He connected with the songs in a way that was new and liberating. Since that day, Mitch has become an ultra passionate supporter and fan of folk music, the kind we call “singer songwriter” now. Along the way, he also learned how to play the banjo quite well.
Mitch comes by his musical ability quite honestly. His uncle Philip on his dad’s side was the conductor of the Polish Army Symphony and his dad, Noach, played the clarinet. Growing up in a very socialist family, Mitch was sensitive to the actions of the McCarthy era. He recalled two television shows in the fifties that were anti-communist: “The Man called X” and “I Led Three Lives.” Both seemed to have the communists meeting in basements, with peeling paint and bare wire lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling. The plots were often about how to recruit new members and sabotage buildings. On the walls there were portraits of Marx, Lenin, Engels, and Stalin, and they all spoke in bad Russian accents.
As Mitch’s awareness of how socialism could benefit society deepened, he recalled one event that sticks with him till today. It was seeing a hungry man eat chicken out of a garbage can, an image that’s put much into perspective for him.
In 1961, at the age of 14, he joined what was known at the time, as the Y.S.A., the Young Socialist’s Alliance, in Toronto - a Trotskyite youth movement, where everyone called each other “comrade”. Mitch was the youngest member by only a few months. When he first attended a meeting, much like the TV shows, there were portraits on the wall of Marx, Lenin and Engels, but instead of Stalin, there was Leon Trotsky. His involvement gave him the tools and inspiration to engage in socialism and later the anti Viet Nam war movement. Around that time, he met Harry Paine at a nuclear disarmament meeting - a man who would go on to become one of his best friends.
In 1968, Mitch made the move to Winnipeg to study as a mature student at the University of Manitoba and specifically do political organizing. He also established the Vietnam Mobilization Committee. Mitch recalled one particular scene during this period, when he and his friend Joe Flexer organized a major event at the U of M. They wanted to go to the Dow Chemical company’s recruitment centre on campus to demonstrate. At the time, Dow was one of the manufacturers of napalm, a rather nasty incendiary weapon used in Viet Nam against the Viet Cong and innocent people. It would stick to the skin and cause severe burns.
In anticipation, Mitch and Joe went to a hardware store and bought the biggest chains and padlocks they could find to lock the doors to the centre. After entering and insisting they be able to talk to the Human Resources manager, he eventually came out to hear their statement. It was Joe Flexer who yelled out, “Our statement is, get the f_____ off our campus you warmonging c__k s___s!” That’s when the situation escalated. The manager went back into the building and the protesters pulled out the lock and chains to stop people from entering and exiting. Soon there were a thousand people and fights began to break out. As Mitch recalls, it was a crazy time. Mitch recalls that his salary as an organizer was a hundred dollars a month. In 1970, he left Winnipeg and began to do more political work in Halifax. It was during this time, that Mitch first met Winnipegger Ava Kobrinsky, his wife of 40 plus years. They met in 1971 at the Trotskyist Hall in Toronto and were soon married. They returned to Winnipeg in 1972 when Mitch was 24.
Two years later, Mitch co-founded the Winnipeg Folk Festival with Ava and Colin Gorrie and his life took on a completely different dimension. Over the years, his expertise and vision helped establish almost all of the major festivals throughout Western Canada, plus others in Ontario and the Maritimes. He was a bonafide Folk Festival consultant.
As we talked, the subject shifted to music and Mitch showed me how he couldn’t use his left hand any more to play the banjo. Some of the fingers had lost their feeling and were also muscle damaged. He used his electric wheelchair to move over to his desk and grabbed a harmonica. He blew a few fat notes and told the story of how he came to play. One night, while still in the hospital at around 10:30 pm, Mitch was in bed. He was startled to hear a familiar voice asking people outside his room, “Where’s Mitch?” when suddenly well known blues musician, Big Dave McLean barged in. He handed him a harmonica and in his gruff voice said, “Here, learn how to play it,” and quickly left.
His multi-month experience in the Health Sciences Centre has taught him several things. He can’t say enough about the doctors, nurses and staff who touched him through their professionalism, dedication and caring. He reflects a lot about what will happen with the impending cutbacks and what will happen when more baby boomers enter the system.
Back in January, Mitch’s good friend - singer songwriter and artist Heather Bishop, organized a crowdfunding initiative to help finance necessary renovations to his home. It’ll allow him to live there eventually. The goal was $20,000 . It went live on Thursday and by Friday, the goal had been reached. Mitch was deeply touched by the outpouring of good wishes, stories and funds. It’s something he’ll never forget.
I asked Mitch if he had any regrets so far in his 70 years and his response was an immediate “None.” I then asked what he was most proud of and he said, “The work we did to help stop the war in Vietnam, the West End Cultural Centre,” and he added, the numerous Folk Festivals he established. Then, pausing for a few seconds, he smiled in his chair and said, “I’m proud of my relationship with my wife, our partnership and my children.”
“Ava is an unsung hero, brilliant at organization, without her, none of this would have happened,” he added.
It’s not difficult to see what drives Mitch Podolak in terms of inspiration. Basically, it’s two things: politics and music -in no particular order. It’s where it started for him and where he continues to flourish and contribute as a human being. The power of a moving lyric tied to a melody never fails to move him. Pair that with his love of freedom, justice and menshlechkeit and you realize, that his family and with what they inculcated him is ever present.
Mitch is constantly thinking of where to go next. His medical problems have given him plenty of time for introspection and he wards off any negativity by staying focused on his projects. His body may have slowed down, but his brain doesn’t rest.
He has three major projects he’s working on right now. One of them is a book entitled “Passing Through.” It will consist of 71 essays of people he has known throughout his life, including: his Uncle Meyer, who jumped off the train on the way to Auschwitz, but whose family refused to follow him; his Zeida Avram Leibe - his mum’s dad whom he idolized and who taught him how to play gin; plus Mitch’s very close friends, Joe Flexer and Harry Paine, among 67 others.
Throughout the years, Mitch has kept in touch with his siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces. He appreciates family and the connections it brings. He calls it the core Podolak: people caring about other people.
I ended our conversation by asking Mitch how he feels about being a Jew. His Hebrew name is Melech which, of course, means king - and he likes the name. His mum Rhoda often used it: “Melech Ben Noach”, a.k.a. Mitch Podolak. Suffice to say, you’re not going to find Melech at any of the synagogues on Yom Kippur or on any other holidays. He loves the culture, the food, the music, the humour, but he’s an avowed atheist. He’s well aware of Jewish values and ethics and uses them to form his vision of a better world, especially the aspects of brotherhood and sisterhood. When it comes to Israel, Mitch has hopes of it becoming a socialist country, in the context of a socialist Middle East in which all Semites are equal and united in making a better world. In his way, Mitch Podolak has found a path to peace.
At the age of 70 and having to undergo a traumatic health setback, he’s remarkably selfless, stubborn, surprisingly traditional and ever hopeful and optimistic. In fact, these days, at a time when his injuries won’t allow him to play his beloved banjo, Mitch says, “At least I can sing badly!”
This article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Jewish Post & News.