During her writing career spanning seven decades, Lisa Hobbs Birnie, a ground-breaking journalist, has published ten books, most notably Uncommon Will: The Death and Life of Sue Rodriguez, to investigate the societal stigma of suicide and the need for right-to-die legislation in Canada. She has also taken on subjects that include the Canadian penal system, China, the Holocaust, feminism and murder. In Such a Good Boy, she wrote about how 18-year-old Darren Huenemann convinced two friends to kill his mother and grandmother in 1990 in order that he might sooner inherit their estate, while avoiding pat conclusions and sensationalism in the process. Some of Hobbs Birnie's earlier books arise from her years as a foreign correspondent, such as India India (McGraw-Hill 1963) and I Saw Red China (McGraw-Hill 1966). Two autobiographical works pertaining to the emergence of feminism in the Seventies, Love and Liberation: Up Front with the Feminists (McGraw-Hill 1972) and Running Towards Life (McGraw-Hill 1973, describe how and why she left San Francisco to live in a remote cabin near the Alberni Canal in B.C.

After breaking into the newspaper business in her native Australia, Hobbs Birnie was a delegate to the first American/Canadian Newspaper Guild National Conference on Women's Rights, in Chicago, in 1970. Having worked for ten years in San Francisco as a reporter, she wrote for the Vancouver Sun for eight years as a reporter and columnist. She became the first woman associate editor of The Sun in 1976.

A former Contributing Editor to Saturday Night Magazine, Hobbs Birnie then worked as full-time member of National Parole Board for nine years, giving rise to Inside the Parole Board: The Truth About Canada's Criminal Justice System (Macmillan 1990).

In 1994, Sue Rodriguez of Victoria was diagnosed as having Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS, an increasingly degenerative disease of the nerves and muscles. She died in February of 1994. Lisa Hobbs Birnie's Uncommon Will: The Death and Life of Sue Rodriguez (Macmillan 1994) serves as a landmark volume in the ongoing struggles to establish the legal right to assisted suicide in North America, to enable loved ones to die with dignity.

Uncommon Will was followed by Western Lights: Fourteen Distinctive British Columbians (Raincoast, 1996), including profiles of Sven Robinson, L.R. Wright, Vicki Gabereau, Joy Kogawa and Nicola Cavendish.


“Except for the usual suspects—such as photographer Leni Reifensstahl, Hitler’s girlfriend Eva Braun or the wives of Goebbels and Goering—most war stories tend to be about men. The role of women in the Third Reich has been mostly overlooked.” – Maureen Kelleher

At age nine, a Polish Jew named Mania Fishel Kroll was taken to Auschwitz. At age twelve, in a work camp called Reichenbach, she was later protected by a German Christian prison guard named Johanne Clausen Muller who gave her special food, enabling her to survive.

More than thirty years later, Mania was living in Toronto in 1977 when she hired a cleaning woman who struck her as strangely familiar. Mania became convinced her cleaning lady was Johanne, the once beautiful, young German woman who had been passionately in love with an officer of the Third Reich.

The cleaning lady steadfastly denied she was Johanne. Still decades later, Lisa Hobbs Birnie, one of Canada’s most respected journalists, accompanied both these women on a visit to the abandoned site of Reichenbach near the German-Polish border, hoping to unravel the truth. It proved to be a moving experience for all three women. “I'd sailed through life like a tourist,” Birnie recalls, “and now unknown currents had pulled me into new territory.”

The bizarre reunion between Mania and Johanne was recorded for the NFB documentary film, Return to Reichenbach, directed and produced by Maureen Kelleher, supported by BC Film. At age 82, Lisa Hobbs Birnie subsequently published her tenth and final book, In Mania's Memory (Read Leaf 2010), a non-fiction investigation of an extraordinary Holocaust relationship.

"At first Mania's story seemed too strange to be true,” Birnie told an audience at Jewish Book Festival, in Vancouver. “Were they fragments of a terrorized child's imagination? How often did this happen in the world that former prisoners met their tormentors years later? How many secrets are there in peoples' lives? And if this German housekeeper was the guard who saved Mania, why would she not admit it? What secret was she hiding?

"There was one other element that drew me close to Mania's life. I am and had been raised as a Christian. Much of Europe was Christian. In the face of extreme silence as children, families were terrorized and murdered. I felt outrage and shame. The Vatican knew. Yet no voice was raised. Now the present Pope wishes to take the first steps towards declaring Pope Pius a saint. I find this, as a Catholic, an unspeakable outrage.”

The town of Reichenbach was transferred from Germany to Poland in 1945 and re-named Dzierzoniow. In World War II, Reichenbach was part of the Gross-Rosen system of approximately 100 camps in eastern Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia. This system included approximately 500 female camp guards such as Johanne.

Female SS were also used at eight other camps: Brubblitz, Graeben, Gruenberg, Gruschwitz Neusalz, Hundsfeld, Kratzau II, Oberaltstadt and Schlesiersee Schanzenbau. The most notorious was the cruel nymphomaniac Irma Ida Ilse Grese [shown below] who was stationed at Auschwitz and Ravensbruck before her appointment as warden for the women’s section of Bergen-Belsen. One of her lovers was Josef Mengele. When the murderess and torturer was sentenced to death at age 22 by the Allies, she was the youngest woman to die under British Law in the twentieth century.

"Writing Mania's story allowed me a chance to create a picture of an ordinary woman who lost everything but still was full of love and forgiveness” Birnie told her Festival audience. “Mania had one legacy from her mother. That legacy was just a handful of words. Bewildered, terrified in Auschwitz, Mania, nine years old, begged her mother to go on the wire [to electrocute themselves]. She said to her mother, ‘Take my hand, Mama. We'll run onto it together. It'll only take a minute.’ Mania's mother said, ‘Listen, my child. As long as we breathe, we have life. As long as we have life, we have love.’ That was Mania's treasured legacy.”


Lisa Hobbs Birnie is a recipient of a Professional Journalism Fellowship to Stanford University, a gold medal from the National Magazine Foundation (1992), the Hubert Evans Award for B.C. Non-Fiction, and she has served as a writer-in-residence at Monash University, Melbourne (1998). Her book on China received the Kajima Institute for Peace Award in Tokyo, in 1968, and she organized one of the first Christian-Buddhist Conferences in Canada, in Surrey, in 1998.

Along the way she has interviewed the likes of Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Woody Allen, Clare Boothe Luce, William Shatner, Joan Crawford, Burt Lancaster and Timothy Leary. She has met the likes of Mme. Kang Kai Check, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain, Hedda Hopper, Gregory Peck and Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia.

Near the outset of the 21st century, she married the artist John Koerner. Hobbs Birnie edited his memoirs for A Brush with Life (Ronsdale 2005). "There's no such thing as retirement in writing or publishing,"; she has said. Lisa Hobbs Birnie lived with her husband in their Kerrisdale apartment until his death in 2014, whereupon she decided to move to the United States to be closer to her relatives. Her papers are housed at Simon Fraser University Special Collections.

[BCBW 2014] Alan Twigg