(photo from Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre)
Many child survivors of the Holocaust did not identify as survivors – and were not deemed so by other survivors, including their parents – until decades after the end of the Second World War. The emergence and evolution of the unique experiences of child survivors was the subject of the Yom Hashoah keynote address in Vancouver by Dr. Robert Krell, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.
Local survivors of the Shoah and their families, as well as the premier, cabinet ministers and other elected officials, joined hundreds more in Vancouver and Victoria to commemorate Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, earlier this month. An event presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre took place at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on April 11 and another took place at the B.C. legislature in Victoria the following day.
In his presentation, Krell spoke about how he was liberated at the age of 5, having been a hidden child in the Netherlands. From the only family he knew, he was returned to the parents of his birth.
“My father and mother’s parents – my grandparents – and their brothers and sisters – my uncles and aunts – had all been murdered,” he said. “I learned about being Jewish at home, hearing stories from survivors who returned. They spoke of Auschwitz and other mysterious places in Yiddish, ably translated by my second cousin, 8-year-old Millie, who had returned from Switzerland with her parents. We heard things no child should hear and, therefore, listened all the more attentively.
“That was my introduction to Judaism, an unforgettable litany of horrors visited upon Jews that imprinted on my mind,” said Krell. “So far as I knew … being a Jew meant death, for everyone was dead, save one first cousin and Millie.”
Finding one’s way through the present with such a burden was an added challenge. “The task of being normal when you know you are not is all-encompassing,” he said. “What I did not realize then was how deeply affected we children were by the events of the Shoah and how intimately the traumatic consequences were entwined with our daily existence.”
While at UBC, in his small private practice, Krell began to see the children of Holocaust survivors. “And, from them, I learned of the impact of the Shoah on survivor families.”
During this period, he was spearheading Holocaust education initiatives in the province, including the Holocaust Symposium for high school students, which will have its 42nd iteration on May 2, and video recording survivor testimonies. “But there was one overriding issue that became the driving force of my preoccupations,” Krell said. “I discovered child Holocaust survivors. That may sound strange…. They did not need to be discovered. But they had disappeared from view. For almost 40 years, child survivors did not identify themselves as survivors. Immediately after the war, children were discouraged from talking about their experiences. In any case, said adults, you were too young to have memories, lucky you. Therefore, you did not suffer like we did.
“Other well-meaning adults urged children to forget in order to get on with their lives. That is not how it works,” said the psychiatrist. “Traumatic memories experienced in early childhood are not forgotten. They remain and they return.”
Throughout the 1980s, child Holocaust survivors began to speak with each other and to the public. In 1991, 1,600 people, primarily child survivors and their families, gathered in New York. “The workshops provided a safe environment in which participants gained self-awareness and much-needed relief,” said Krell.
Yom Hashoah corresponds to the 27th day of Nissan in the Hebrew calendar, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the uprising, which began on April 19, 1943. “The ghetto fighters were able to hold out for nearly a month,” said Vivian Claman, a member of the second generation at the Vancouver event. “On May 16, 1943, the revolt ended and a total of 13,000 Jews died. It was the largest single revolt of Jews during the Second World War.”
Jody Wilson-Raybould, federal minister of justice, also addressed the audience. “I want to say that we hear you, we honour your lived experiences and your stories, and we renew our commitment, and we reaffirm our vigilance to speak out against antisemitism, to speak out against xenophobia, to speak out against any form of racism or intolerance as unacceptable in this country and throughout the world,” she said.
Councilor Raymond Louie, acting mayor of Vancouver, read the proclamation from city hall. Kaddish was led by Chaim Kornfeld, a survivor. Eric Wilson played cello, and singers included Advah Soudack, Kathryn Palmer and Mia Givon. Wendy Bross Stuart played piano and, with Ron Stuart, were artistic producers. The ceremony ended, as is tradition, with “Zog Nit Keynmol,” the Partisan Song.
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B.C. Premier John Horgan quoted Elie Wiesel: “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
“That’s why it’s so important,” said Horgan in the legislature’s Hall of Honour, “that, on Yom Hashoah, we acknowledge, as a society … that this may never happen again provided – provided – we don’t let time and the sands of history go through our fingers and we remember the words of the survivors that I was fortunate enough to hear today and we remember the millions and millions of lives that were lost because of hate, intolerance and because people didn’t stand up fast enough.”
Selena Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing, who is Jewish, emceed the commemoration. MLAs of all parties were present. British Columbia is the only province with a Yom Hashoah commemoration in the legislature.
“We are here today to think deeply on one of the darkest moments in human history so we can remember and, in our remembering, stop it from happening again,” she said.
Opposition MLA Sam Sullivan said, “It is only through knowledge and recognition of humanity’s worst capabilities, including the profound banality of evil, that we can strive for ensuring justice and good in the world and ensure that such heinous acts will not happen again.”
Judy Darcy, minister of mental health and addictions, shared the story of how her father hid his Jewishness with the intention of protecting his family after he survived the Second World War in Europe. Darcy shared the story with the Independent last year. (See the Feb. 24, 2017, issue.)
Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Carey Brown chanted El Maleh Rachamim and an adaptation of the Kaddish, also by Wiesel, which includes the names of camps and other places Jews were interned. Members of the audience spoke out names of places that they or family members came from or experienced.
MLA Nicholas Simons played Kol Nidre on the viola while Holocaust survivors Daniel Wollner, Alex Buckman, Rita Akselrod, Suzi Deston and Edith Matous lit candles. Another candle was lit by Nathan Kelerstein, a member of the second generation. A seventh candle was lit by representatives of other groups targeted by the Nazis, including people with disabilities, who were represented by Meyer Estrin and his mother Tzvia Estrin; Peter Csicsai of the Romani Canadian Alliance; and Jonathan Lerner, in memory of gender- and sexuality-divergent peoples. A group of young people, led by Hannah Faber, sang.
Micha Menczer, a Victoria lawyer who deals with First Nations and aboriginal rights, spoke as a child of a survivor of the Shoah. His mother, he said, spoke frequently of the non-Jews who risked their lives to save or help Jews.
“I learned also that, while Jews were a central target, others were attacked, deported and killed because of their race, political or religious belief, disability or sexual orientation,” he said. “Very importantly, my mother taught me that this does not diminish the memory of the Shoah or those who perished to give full recognition to the pain of other people and to the heroism of non-Jews who helped at great risk to themselves. It takes nothing away from our collective memory as Jews to honour those people and remember others who suffered.”