The Jewish family that owns a Winnipeg restaurant deny police allegations that they staged an anti-Semitic attack at the establishment last week.
Often in tears and struggling to speak, BerMax Caffé and Bistro owner Oxana Berent pleaded with members of her community not to judge her and her family after police announced they had charged them with public mischief.
“What is happening yesterday and today, it’s completely broke our family, our business, everything. It just broke us,” she told Ismaila Alfa, host of CBC Manitoba’s afternoon radio show, Up to Speed.
Oxana Berent, 48, her husband Alexander Berent, 56, and her son Maxim Berent, 29, are all due in court in May.
Last Thursday, police responded to a report of an assault at the River Heights restaurant. Oxana said she was assaulted, dishes and appliances were smashed, and hateful graffiti, including a swastika, was spray-painted on the walls. She insisted she would never stage something like that.
“We don’t joke about swastikas on our walls,” she said. “My grandmother’s family, they died in the Holocaust. Just her and her little brother survived, the whole family. We don’t joke about that.”
At a news conference on Wednesday, Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth said he is disappointed by the alleged staging and fears it will promote cynicism. The incident took place the night before the start of Passover, a significant Jewish holiday.
“I am disappointed and frankly angry that this family has used hate and racism in such a disingenuous way,” Smyth said.
Against beliefs to stage crime
Maxim Berent said it would go against everything his family believes in to make up something like this.
“We didn’t do it. We had no reason to do it,” he said, speaking alongside his mother. “This is not good for our Jewish community, this is not good for us.”
Walking slowly through the restaurant Wednesday evening, Maxim Berent had his hand on his face before going to comfort his mother as she wept.
Oxana said she was alone in the restaurant after 9 p.m. after her son Maxim and her husband left to go to Home Depot. She was busy in the kitchen preparing for Passover and as she walked through a doorway leading from the kitchen to a corridor, somebody grabbed her and she fainted.
The next thing she remembers is waking up in an ambulance. She said she knows she was assaulted because she had marks on her skin, her clothes were ripped, and her hand hurt.
“I’m telling you right now, I’m very, very afraid to go home, because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.
Oxana said she spent 11 hours in a police interrogation room on Tuesday, and when she asked why they suspected the family lied about the incident, they simply said that pieces of their story didn’t fit together.
“A lot of the things that they said, it doesn’t make sense,” said Maxim. “You know it’s very puzzling. And [the police] have to do something. OK. They’re being pushed by the city to do something.”
Oxana and Maxim acknowledge that their restaurant has struggled and they had attempted to sell it. In order to pay off loans used to start the business, the family also put their home in Petersfield up for sale. They deny this could have motivated them to stage the attack and vandalism, stating that insurance for the damage would not pay very much.
A vigil planned for Thursday night in response to the incident has been cancelled. A crowd-funding campaign launched to support the family by Be’TLV, a Jewish non-profit group working to empower LGBT people, was shut down after news broke about the charges against the family.
Jai Siwak, director of community outreach with Be’TLV, said the group is in the process of returning all donations.
Siwak said the group was appalled when they heard police believed the attack was staged.
“We were shocked. We were beside ourselves. We were completely floored,” she said.
“We need to heal. We need to step away. We need to come together as an organization and just move forward through Pride.”
The organization had an office on the restaurant’s property, and an exchange with Maxim Berent in the parking lot grew heated Wednesday evening.
As Siwak asked Berent to give one of her group’s members a moment before speaking to him, Berent could be heard repeatedly asking, “What did I do to you?”