Dozens of Vancouverites who survived the Holocaust were joined by their children, grandchildren and hundreds of others in a solemn, powerful commemoration for Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The catastrophic impact of the Holocaust on individuals, families, communities and the world was made evident through words and music, as stories of survival and loss, and their impacts on the living, were interspersed with Yiddish songs that recalled the civilization destroyed by the Nazis.
The annual event took place at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on April 15, the eve of Yom Hashoah.
A procession of Holocaust survivors passed through the hushed auditorium, taking their places at the front of the hall and placing candles on a table before Chazzan Yaacov Orzech led the Kol Simcha Singers in a poignant El Male Rachamim, the prayer for the souls of the departed. Chaim Kornfeld led the room in the Kaddish.
Hymie Fox, a member of the second generation, told the audience that his parents, Jack and Freda Fuks (Fox), struggled to keep their experiences from their children, but the Holocaust permeated the family’s life in unanticipated ways.
“During the day, my mother could control her thoughts, her words, her stories,” Fox said. But at night, he would be awakened by his mother’s screams.
He wanted to ask about the trauma that caused the night terrors, he said, but his mother had devoted herself so completely to sheltering these memories from her children that to inquire would suggest that all her efforts to protect her children were for naught.
Fox’s father came from an extended family of more than 70 and was one of 11 children. Just Jack and one brother survived.
Though unspoken, his family’s Holocaust experience was especially present at holidays, when the small family of four would celebrate alone.
“Death was a part of our everyday life,” he said. “Yet, there was nobody to die.”
Kornfeld was the survivor speaker for the evening. He recalled his childhood in a village on the Czechoslovakian-Hungarian border, his early schooling and the strict adherence to Judaism with which he was raised, one that forbade the touching of an egg laid on the Sabbath until after sundown.
In March 1944, when the Nazis occupied the town, they rounded up the intelligentsia, Kornfeld assumes because it would be easier to control the masses if the heads of the community were removed.
A ghetto was established for the surrounding areas and, inevitably, Kornfeld was loaded onto a train car destined for Auschwitz.
An older inmate pointed out Josef Mengele and warned the young Kornfeld to tell the evil doctor that he was 18 years old and a farmer. A week later, Kornfeld was transported in a railcar destined for Mauthausen that was so packed people could only stand.
Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp was a huge constellation of slave labor facilities, intended for the most “incorrigible political enemies of the Reich.” There, Kornfeld was put to work digging caves in a mountain where the Nazis constructed munitions and equipment, unassailable by Allied bombing.
At one point, he developed an abscess on his leg and was unable to walk. He was taken to the infirmary, which was an extremely dangerous situation in a dystopia where only those capable of work survived. One day, all patients capable of walking were ordered to leave the infirmary and a Polish man carried Kornfeld on his back, fearful of his fate should he remain in the infirmary. A German soldier ordered the man to put Kornfeld down. The officer put his hand toward his holster.
“I pleaded with the officer,” he said. “I begged for my life.”
He reminded the Nazi how effective he was as a worker and his life was spared. He was liberated from Mauthausen on May 5, 1945.
After a time on a kibbutz in Israel, Kornfeld came to Canada and learned of an opportunity as a Hebrew school principal in Saskatoon that allowed him to work evenings and study at university in the daytime. He became a lawyer, married and has four children.
Claire Klein Osipov sang and interpreted Yiddish songs that, while often melancholy in themselves, had added resonance as evidence of the people, culture and language that were almost completely extinguished in the Shoah. She was accompanied on piano by Wendy Bross Stuart who, with Ron Stuart, artistically produced the event. The Yom Hashoah Singers – a group of Jewish young people including members of the third generation – delivered a message of both mourning and hope with such songs as “Chai” and “The Partisan Song,” the defiant anthem of Jewish resistance that is an annual tradition on this day. Lisa Osipov Milton also sang, and Andrew Brown, associate principal viola with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, performed excerpts from Milton Barnes’ Lamentations of Jeremiah and Ernest Bloch’s Meditation.
Corinne Zimmerman, a vice-president of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, which presented the event with support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, the Jewish Community Centre and the Province of British Columbia, also spoke.
Moira Stilwell, member of the B.C. Legislature for Vancouver-Langara, said the day is a time to “learn, mourn and pledge, ‘Never again.’
“Yom Hashoah is not only about learning from history, but about passing those lessons on to the next generations,” she said.
Pat Johnson is a Vancouver writer and principal in PRsuasiveMedia.com.