Irwin Cotler, left, with Bob Rae. Cotler is one of four speakers who will participate in FEDtalks, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign launch on Sept. 17. (photo from irwincotler.liberal.ca)
Irwin Cotler, one of the foremost figures in international human rights, will speak here next month on global trends impacting the Jewish community. He is one of four guest speakers at FEDtalks, an innovative new opening event for the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign.
When the new Parliament is sworn in after the Oct. 19 election, Cotler’s career as an elected politician will end. He has served as MP for the Montreal riding of Mount Royal since 1999, and as minister of justice and attorney general for Canada. He is not seeking reelection.
His proudest achievements in politics, he told the Independent, include legislation against human trafficking, particularly of women and children. He also cited the legislated equality of marriage for gays and lesbians, which he shepherded through the House. “We were at the time only the fourth country in the world, in 2005, to do so and it was very divisive at the time,” Cotler said of the civil marriage law.
He also takes pride in being the attorney general when Steven Truscott’s conviction for rape and murder was overturned and declared a miscarriage of justice. Truscott was a 14-year-old Ontario boy sentenced to death in 1959 for the rape and murder of a classmate. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he was jailed for a decade before being paroled, but it was another four decades before his name was cleared and he was acquitted by the Ontario Court of Appeal.
In addition to landmark acts, Cotler said his proudest roles in public office have included helping individuals in ways that never make the news. “I think the one [achievement] that remains unheralded and that is true for all MPs is the one in which we try as best we can on a daily basis to act as an ombudsperson for the constituents in our riding,” he said.
After he leaves office, he will devote more time to the defence of political prisoners, he said. In his role as an international human rights lawyer, Cotler has been central to some of the most prominent cases in the world, including those of Andrei Sakharov, Nathan Sharansky and Nelson Mandela. He is currently on the legal team for Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, the Venezuelan political prisoner Leopoldo López and the Iranian Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Boroujerdi. He has been recognized with numerous honorary degrees and other awards, including Parliamentarian of the Year by his colleagues in the House of Commons. He chaired the International Commission of Inquiry into the Fate and Whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg.
“I am even exploring establishing a Raoul Wallenberg Centre for International Justice named after the first [Canadian] honorary citizen, a unique international consortium of politicians, scholars and jurists, human rights defenders, NGOs united in the pursuit of justice, inspired by and anchored in Wallenberg’s humanitarian legacy,” he said. “Those are some of the things I’m looking forward to.”
At the FEDtalks event, Cotler said he will address “mega-trends” affecting the Jewish people worldwide, foremost being what he calls the “Iranian five-fold threat.”
The nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers, “both in the process of arriving at the agreement with Iran and the agreement itself, has overshadowed, if not sanitized, the other four threats,” he said.
Those overshadowed or sanitized threats, he continued, include Iran being the leading sponsor of international terrorism, “the hegemonic threat in terms of its destabilization of the Middle East and beyond,” the danger posed by Iran’s state-sanctioned incitement to hate and to genocide, and the “massive domestic repression” in Iran.
“While the nuclear negotiations have been going on, for example, Iran, which already was executing more people per capita than any other country in the world in the time of [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, has almost doubled the execution rate and yet we hear very little about it, and that’s only one example,” said Cotler. “I’ll be speaking about the criminalization of dissent, the prosecution and persecution of Baha’is and other religious and ethnic minorities.”
The second mega-theme, he said, will be terrorism, security and human rights, including how we combat terrorism without undermining civil liberties, and a third theme will probably address antisemitism in what he calls its old and new forms. “The old, or classic, antisemitism being the discrimination against, denial of, assault upon the rights of Jews to live as equal citizens within any society that they inhabit,” he explained, “and the new antisemitism being the discrimination against, denial of and assault upon the right of Israel and the Jewish people to live as an equal member among the family of nations or, at its worst, to even to live.”
FEDtalks, the opening event of the annual campaign for the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, takes place Sept. 17 at Queen Elizabeth Theatre. More information is available at jewishvancouver.com and tickets are available at ticketpeak.com/JFGV. Interviews with the other speakers will appear in successive issues of the Independent.
Last year, Yad b’Yad, Hillel BC and others joined the Pride parade. This year, they will host a booth at Sunset Beach, which will allow them to engage more in discussion with festival-goers. (photo from Hillel BC)
The Jewish contingent in this year’s Vancouver Pride celebration is inviting everyone to participate. Yad b’Yad, the Jewish LGBTQ organization, will have a booth at the festival site on Sunset Beach, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 2.
The parade runs from noon until 3 p.m., culminating at the Sunset Beach site. Jonathan Lerner, who is coordinating Yad b’Yad’s participation, said the decision was made to participate as a booth rather than to march in the parade, as the community has done beginning in 2010.
“We have messaging we want to get out,” said Lerner. “While it’s great to march in the parade, you only get to pass people by for a few quick seconds and maybe, if you’re lucky, you get to hand them something. For us, we wanted to be able to have conversations with people, meet people, introduce ourselves, tell them where they could come find us, have discussions with members of the queer community and the Jewish community. So, we felt like a booth would better serve that purpose.”
Yad b’Yad will be giving away items, offering face painting, a spinning wheel with prizes and an educational component, he said.
The presence of the group on Pride day has a dual purpose, he added.
“It’s incredibly important for LGBTQ Jews to see us there and know that resources do exist for them,” Lerner said. “It’s also important to show that the Jewish community supports the queer community. There are a lot of other ethnic and religious groups that participate. It’s important for us to have a presence there and show that we stand in solidarity with other minority communities and support them when they need it.”
Yad b’Yad is Hebrew for hand in hand, which is meant to symbolize the two communities working together and the two identities that many people have, Lerner said. Yad b’Yad is just about a year old and represents a solidification of the community’s approach to LGBTQ issues, which until now was more ad hoc.
The community’s first participation in the Pride parade, in 2010, was spearheaded by Hillel BC, with support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and other community groups, including synagogues. Lerner, who is director of operations, administration and finance for Hillel BC, explained Yad b’Yad’s mandate.
“We started out to provide resources to queer members of the Jewish community and to advocate for the Jewish community within the LGBTQ community, because we still see a lot of antisemitism within that community,” he said. “Once we established the group, Yad b’Yad, it was a decision among the organizations that had been involved before – including Federation, CIJA [Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs], Hillel – that Yad b’Yad as a group should sort of lead the charge” in organizing Pride day events.
“We encourage all the agencies to come out to the booth, be part of the celebration,” Lerner added. “If an organization wants to come and be part of the booth, maybe bring with them a couple of pamphlets about their organization, they are absolutely welcome to do so.”
Potential volunteers, or anyone seeking additional information, can email [email protected].
A screenshot from Gad Aisen’s documentary, which has its Canadian première at the Rothstein Theatre June 28.
After the Holocaust and the Second World War, the British government that controlled Mandate Palestine severely limited Jewish immigration, continuing the restrictive policies from before the war. But the Jewish underground in pre-state Israel was operating a steady movement of illegal transports bringing Jews – mostly Holocaust survivors – from Europe to the Yishuv.
In November 1946, the ship code named Rafiach set off from Yugoslavia with 785 passengers. Twelve days into the voyage, a storm forced the ship to seek refuge in a bay on the tiny Greek island of Syrna but it ran aground and, within an hour, sank. The vast majority of passengers survived, crawling from the water onto the island, which is little more than a craggy rock, or jumping from the ship before it was fully immersed. It is not known exactly how many passengers drowned.
Among those who survived and eventually made it to Palestine were Lili and Solomon Polonsky z”l. Their daughter, Tzipi Mann, lives in Vancouver. She knew that her parents and some of their friends had been on the ship, but she had never delved into details. By the time her curiosity was piqued, her parents had passed away. But her quest to uncover the story of the Rafiach and its passengers has led to a documentary film that will screen here in its Canadian première on June 28.
Code Name: Rafiach is directed by Israeli filmmaker and television personality Gad Aisen, but he credits Mann as being the driving force behind the project.
Aisen is the creator of a TV show on Israel’s Channel 10 called Making Waves, about nautical topics. He served seven years in the Israeli navy before obtaining an MFA in cinema from Tel Aviv University. He had never heard of the Rafiach before he was approached by a student of Mevo’ot Yam Nautical School, who thought it would make a good topic for Aisen’s TV show.
Code Name: Rafiach is a story about Holocaust survivors finding a place in the world and also about the Jewish underground risking their lives to smuggle Jews into Mandate Palestine. There are many narratives of this sort, Aisen acknowledged, but the Rafiach’s tragedy and the rescue make this one especially poignant.
Because it is not possible to produce a story of nearly 800 people, the filmmaker decided to focus on a few individuals. One is Shlomo Reichman. Known to the circle of people around the film as “Shlomo the baby,” Reichman, now a grandfather, was thrown to safety from the ship.
“This man’s story was particularly touching because he was a newborn,” Mann said in a telephone interview. “He was three weeks old and he was tossed onto the rocks, but he wasn’t sure who tossed him. Was it his father, or was it someone else? For Shlomo, this has been sort of the core of his existence – who tossed me onto the rocks?”
The fact that the passengers were Holocaust survivors magnifies the impact of the incident, Mann said.
“If you can imagine Holocaust survivors having to deal with this,” she said. “There were so many personal, emotional issues attached to everything.”
In interviews, Mann and Aisen learned that adults who first made it to shore from the listing ship lay on the rocks to create a softer landing for those coming after.
For Mann, the Rafiach became a sort of obsession.
“In 2010, just one morning I thought, I need to find out more about this,” she said. “My intention was originally to try to write a book and I thought the only way I can do this is by being in Israel.”
She made arrangements to head for Jerusalem and enlisted the help of her cousin, Sara Karpanos, who lives there. They put an ad in an Israeli newspaper and the response was so overwhelming the pair had to rent a hotel space for a reunion of 200 Rafiach survivors and, in some cases, their children and grandchildren.
Unbeknownst to the two women, Aisen was already on the story. After being turned on to the history of the ship, Aisen had connected with an instructor at Israel’s naval high school who had led his students on a dive and recovered a couple of artifacts from the hulk of the Rafiach.
From what had seemed like lost history, Mann saw the story of the Rafiach begin to reveal itself. “A complete mystery was unraveling in front of me,” she said.
For Aisen, the story of the Rafiach “captured my heart, and I feel particularly connected to this story from many aspects, as a sailor, an Israeli and Jewish.”
To tell the history of the Rafiach in a documentary, he decided to use animation, which allowed him to be more creative than merely showing interviews with survivors.
“It enabled me to present the film in the present tense and not as a memory from the past,” he said. “It took me about six years to create the film, five journeys abroad, months in the archives, 300 hours of footage and a year’s work of three animators. But one of the more challenging things was to get to the wreck of the Rafiach and to dive and film inside.”
In a way, Aisen said, making the film let him vicariously live the life of an underground commander of an immigrant ship.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Centre presents Code Name: Rafiach on June 28, 7 p.m., at the Rothstein Theatre. Tickets are $10 and available at vjff.org.
Canada is not a referee in the game of geopolitics, said John Baird, Canada’s former foreign minister, it’s a player.
Baird, who will be honored at the Jewish National Fund’s Negev Dinner in Vancouver on June 7, spoke of his admiration for Israel and Canada’s close connections with that country in an interview with the Independent Sunday.
Responding to criticism that Canada has lost its place as a middle power or neutral broker, Baird insisted that is not Canada’s role in the world.
“We are a player,” he said. “We are on the liberal democratic team. We make no apologies for that.”
He cited the Conservative government’s role opposing Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons and regional dominance. The impact this has had in the Arab world is misunderstood by many Canadians, he said.
“Our standing in the Arab world today is stronger than it has ever been,” said Baird, speaking from Ottawa. “When I was foreign minister, we built good relations with the new government of Egypt, with the government in Iraq, with the UAE, the Saudis, the Bahrainis. We are widely respected among the political leadership. Yes, we have an honest difference of opinion with respect to our position on Israel. But when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood, when it comes to Hamas, when it comes to Hezbollah, when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s material support for terrorism, when it comes to the Iranian-backed advance in Yemen … Saudi Arabia, Israel, Canada: we all share the same view. That’s not understood very well in this country.”
Baird said Canada is a world leader on child and maternal health, opposing forced marriages of girls, and supporting the rights of sexual minorities. Opponents of the government may have difficulty squaring their ideas of how a Conservative administration should behave with the record of the current Canadian government on issues of gender and sexual equality, but Baird says, “Look at the facts.”
“Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper personally has championed child and maternal health,” he said. “We’ve seen record investments not just in Canada but around the world because of his leadership. If you look at the leadership that I undertook with respect to young girls being forced into marriage, we became a leader in that. Canada followed the United Kingdom’s lead on sexual violence in conflict, not just on policy but on programming. When you look at [United Nations’ projects supporting] women, peace and security, we’ve taken a big role in North Africa. So, if you look at the facts, it’s undeniable, particularly on the issue of women and girls. The Day of the Girl resolution was championed by Canada at the UN.”
Advancing the rights of women worldwide is both a human rights matter and a determinant of societal health, Baird said.
“It’s in our own interest to do so,” he said. “It’s not just about human rights. The stronger role that women can play in government, in parliament, in civil society, the more we can combat extremism and promote pluralism.”
Reminded of a comment he made several years ago that, were he to leave politics he would probably go work on a kibbutz in Israel, Baird explained his respect for the Jewish state.
“I just have a passion for Israel, for its people, its culture, its history,” Baird said. “For everything the Jewish people have accomplished in the last 67 years. It’s really remarkable.”
What the Jewish people have built from the ashes of the Holocaust, he said, is admirable.
“The strength and ingenuity of the Jewish people, what they’ve accomplished in science, technology, agriculture, the huge history, it’s a remarkable accomplishment. What they’ve accomplished politically – a liberal democratic state in a pretty dangerous part of the world. The values that underpin the state of Israel, it’s just a remarkable, remarkable achievement.”
While Canada’s foreign policy, particularly under Baird, has turned Canada into what is frequently called Israel’s best friend in the world, the global attitude toward Israel remains highly negative, Baird acknowledged.
“We see far too much moral relativism,” he said. “It has stunned me the amount of criticism that Israel gets in so many international arenas, whether it’s the UN in New York or in Geneva … the UN Human Rights Council … others. On occasion it can be disappointing. It can be difficult to stand up against the rest of the crowd but it’s important to do what’s right. Canadians can be very proud that their government’s taken the path less traveled. We’ve never been afraid to stand up and support our liberal democratic friends.”
The former minister, who left politics earlier this year, speculated on where the animosity toward Israel comes from.
“I don’t think everyone who is against Israel is an antisemite,” he said. “But all antisemites are against Israel. I have great concern that we’ve seen, instead of people targeting the individual Jew, they’re targeting the collective Jew, the Jewish state. These things cause us great concern.”
Although he is moving into the private sector – he is working as a member of Barrick Gold’s advisory board and last week was elected to the board of Canadian Pacific – Baird promises to continue to be an outspoken supporter of Israel and a critic of Iran’s nuclear program and its support for terrorism.
Asked if he might return to public life as a candidate for the Conservative leadership when Harper retires, Baird deflected the idea with a flat “no” and refused, with a laugh, to elaborate.
Ilan Pilo, shaliach and executive director of Jewish National Fund, Pacific region, called Baird “a man of integrity and a true friend to Israel.”
“JNF is grateful to honor him for his leadership on the world stage, for years of devoted service to the citizens of Canada, his dedication to the Jews of Canada and to the state of Israel,” said Pilo. “Thanks to Baird’s outstanding leadership, Canada has become Israel’s most unwavering ally.”
Baird returned the compliment.
“Canadian supporters of JNF can be very proud of the work they’ve done over the years,” said Baird.
This year’s Negev Dinner, which takes place at the Four Seasons Hotel, supports a project in the city of Sderot, adjacent the Gaza Strip. The city has been under bombardment by Hamas missiles for the last several years. The park and fitness facility will enhance life for the citizens and provide a “green lung” for the city.
The community has always enjoyed a good contest, JWB, December 1948.
Paging through 85 years of this newspaper reveals a stunning consistency of recurring phenomena, repetitious concerns, familiar family names, perpetually unresolved issues across decades and a solid tradition of community-building from generation to generation. The reporting across the decades reveals a comfortingly familiar refrain of the paper rallying the community to support the UJA Campaign, the Home for the Aged, Israel Bonds,
Hebrew University, Talmud Torah, Histadrut, summer camps, and the full range of communal organizations and causes, many of which continue to thrive today. Individuals are fêted for service to the community, for becoming bar or bat mitzvah, for graduating from university.
So perpetual are some of the issues facing the community and the Jewish world that headlines could be plucked form one decade and dropped unobtrusively onto the pages of the paper many years earlier or later. For fun, try to guess the years when these headlines appeared: “The past year will long be remembered as one of stress and strain;” “Jews must help Israel regain ‘positive image’”; or “Religious storm in Israel.” (Answers: the 1931 Rosh Hashanah issue editorial; 1985; 1950.)
Or these ones: “US won’t accept Likud position on territories”; “The trend of the time is toward the elimination of useless and duplicating organizations”; or “… it has been said that our loyalties are divided. That, in being Zionists, we fail as Canadians.” (Answers: 1977; 1925; 1929.)
Of course, some headlines are unique. On Nov. 3, 1988, the paper’s headline blared: “Israel achieves UN victory.” This was about a failed attempt led by Arab states to have Israel thrown out of the General Assembly.
Philanthropy is a continuous thread joining the decades. As early as 1930, the editorial was acknowledging that “The residents of the Vancouver Jewish Community doubtlessly at times become impatient with the term, ‘A worthy cause’” … before inveigling upon readers to support another commendable undertaking.
Warning of the dangers to communal well-being at the start of the Great Depression, an editorial in December 1930 takes a very Keynesian tone: “The foolish philosophy of tightening the purse-strings during a business depression, although the purse-holder is still well able to spend, becomes a selfish and heartless philosophy when applied to philanthropy. To deny assistance to those who are gripped in the vise of illness or need when the horizon looks darkest, is to display a false attitude to the charitable ideal.”
Pressure, sometimes not at all subtle, urged readers to give generously to the community chest campaign. “Larger Pledges Needed for Success of Chest,” the headline of October 9, 1936 read. “Open Your Door to Your UJA Canvasser,” pitched an issue in 1951.
Also unsubtle, but justifiably so, was the ominous plea for the 1940 campaign aimed at sending aid to the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe: “Vancouver Jewish External Welfare Fund seeks support for Jews in Hungary, Poland, Germany and Romania … Tomorrow may be too late.”
Running in 1930, this headline nevertheless could have been from any decade in the paper’s history: “Bronfman Family Create Scholarship.” In this case, it was for the Talmud Torah and a Jewish orphanage in Winnipeg, but more than half a century later, the Bronfman family was instrumental in the creation of the Birthright-Israel program, which has sent thousands of young Jewish Canadians to Israel.
In decades when Jewish allegiance to Canada was sometimes implied or openly expressed, the paper routinely adopted a highly patriotic tone. From heralding King George VI to lamenting his death with pages of editorial, there were also major assertions of Jewish allegiance to the new Queen Elizabeth II at the time of her coronation in 1953. Meetings of Jewish communal officials with elected leaders, including prime ministers, have been prominently reported, including just weeks ago when Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with Sephardi Canadians in Ottawa.
Emphasizing the responsibilities of citizenship has been a recurring theme. In 1930, the editorialist noted: “Indifferent people are often heard to say, ‘It doesn’t make any difference to me what party is in power, so why should I vote?’ Such a statement is the furthest thing from the truth and reflects an attitude which is to be strongly deplored.”
Although allegiance to Canada has been conspicuous, so too has been this community’s deep connections to the Jewish homeland.
In 1930, the paper reported on the appointment of a commission “to investigate the Moslem and Jewish Claims to the Wailing Wall.”
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, anti-Jewish riots and pogroms in Palestine killed hundreds and shattered hopes of a peaceful existence in the Yishuv.
“As these words are written,” an editorial in 1936 lamented, “Palestine is again the scene of disorders, riots, bloodshed, sniping, isolated attacks and agonized mistrust, fomented hatred and international complications. The land of peace is again being ravaged by hate, and the eternal people of peace is again forced to consider problems of defence and even to raise physical means to ensure its own safety.”
These riots had the intended consequence of leading the British authorities to end Jewish migration to the Mandate. While met with outrage and agitation by Jews worldwide, the catastrophic historical impact of that decision would not be fully recognized until the endangered Jews of Europe suffered the Holocaust.
Even so, the paper recognized surprisingly early on the threat coming from Germany’s far right. In 1930, three years before Hitler took power, the Bulletin was already warning of the threat posed by the Nazis: “The Hitlerites, who, at the recent election in Germany made such tremendous gains, are marching to power on the wave of a dangerous and prejudiced nationalism. Their anti-Semitic policy is definite and has already manifested itself in many outbreaks and disorders of a most distressing kind.”
Concern for Jews all over the world has been constant in these pages. When the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, the paper expressed fears for the Jews in China, noting that … “After Palestine, the United States and Latin America, China was the largest recipient of Jewish refugees in the 1930s.”
Jews and Christians packed Vancouver Lyric Theatre to overflowing after news of Kristallnacht signified what we now understand to have been the unquestioned beginning of the Holocaust.
By 1944, the realization of what had happened to European Jews was widely understood and an above-the-banner editorial held no punches: “To anyone working for one Jewish cause or another it becomes increasingly apparent that there are those among us who are SHIRKING THEIR DUTIES AND RESPONSIBILITIES.
“Yes, there are those among us who are too busy with their own affairs to think of their fellow man.
“Many of our fellow Jews never care to remember that somewhere in the darkness of Hitler’s Europe thousands and thousands of men and women and children are hiding in basements, in walled ghettos and in dismal forests in an attempt to escape certain death, while we abide in the glorious freedom and abundance of Canada.
“At this moment half the Jews in Europe are dead. WHAT IN GOD’S NAME WAS THEIR CRIME?
“You know, and I know, that their only crime is that THEY WERE BORN AS JEWS.
“Do you ever stop to ponder that it is only a curious turn of fate that led you or your parents to leave Europe and that you or your children might otherwise be among those who were exterminated by the Nazi slaughterhouses of Europe. WE MUST LEARN TO FEEL THE PAIN AND SUFFERING OF THOSE POOR BROKEN, BLEEDING PEOPLE AND DENY OURSELVES, IF NECESSARY TO SAVE THEM.”
When the war ended and the camps were liberated, the local community came together, helping in different ways, special prayer services among them.
Awareness of the extent of the Holocaust – and the role of Jewish statelessness in allowing it to happen – was made plain immediately after VE Day in an editorial penned by M. Freeman, president of Vancouver Zionist Organization: “For the Jews who have managed to survive this holocaust, Palestine and Palestine alone stands out as their only refuge. Only in a Jewish fatherland will they be safe. Only in Palestine can they start the broken lives anew with hope of ultimate restoration. We can help make this possible. We betray our own birth-right if we do less. No Jew, whatever his shade of opinion can withdraw from co-operating with the resurgence of his people. If we gave everything we ever owned, it still could not measure up to what they have already paid.”
From 1945, the issue of Soviet Jewry made top news month after month until 1989, when a new revolution allowed Jews across Eastern Europe to emigrate, changing the face of Israel and Vancouver, among other places.
The pages of the Bulletin also show that global events had unexpected ripples for Israel and the Jewish people. In 1973, the paper noted that, with the ceasefire in Vietnam, left-wing and other protest groups were turning their attentions to “Middle East peace.”
The connection between Jewish British Columbians and Israel leaps off the pages of the paper (including before Israel was “Israel”). The passing of the Partition Resolution was reported with jubilance and, months later, the dangers facing the new state were downplayed, declaring “A Nation Reborn.”
In 1954, in an event typical of discussions in the paper and in the community in the intervening years – and continuing today – a forum at the community centre mooted “What does Israel mean for us here?”
After the 1967 war, before the moral and military practicalities of occupying the West Bank took over the pages, the paper celebrated news of a reunited Jerusalem: “After 1900 Years City of David Returned to Israel.”
The paper has also highlighted the achievements of Jews around the world, from the first Jewish governor of Oregon to the appointment of a Jewish American ambassador to Albania. In 1930, the paper hyperbolically declared: “Of interest to every Jew in Canada is the recent election of David Arnold Croll, 30-year-old Jewish barrister as Mayor of Windsor, Ontario.” This item may not have had the universal interest the author believed, but Croll did go on to serve in the Ontario and Canadian parliaments and became the first Jewish senator in Canada.
Closer to home, the chronicling of events and achievements large and small has been the paper’s life’s blood. “Hadassah Chapter has Successful Year,” said a 1931 headline. “Permanent Camp Site Purchased by Jewish Council Women,” in 1937, was the first of many articles about the birth of what became Camp Hatikvah, originally in Crescent Beach, near White Rock, which was deemed by the reporter to be “the finest bathing resort in British Columbia.”
Since its beginning, the paper has been reporting on community-held contests of various sorts, including photo and public-speaking competitions – the latter still held annually despite worries as early as 1966 that, “These days when the custom of watching television has caused sociologists concern over the possibility of mankind forever losing the art of conversation …” began one editorial.
And, through it all, the community and the paper has managed to keep a sense of humor. From 1958:
Scrap collector: “Any beer bottles lady?”
Lady: “Do I look like I drink beer?”
Scrap collector: “Well, any vinegar bottles, lady?”
Fifth- and sixth-generation descendants prepare to enter the gates of the newly restored Jewish Cemetery at Mountain View. (photo by Robert Albanese Photography)
Several generations of Jewish life in Vancouver were represented Sunday afternoon at the rededication of the Jewish cemetery section at Mountain View Cemetery.
The historic burial site was first consecrated in 1892. In recent years, the site had deteriorated. There were more than 150 unmarked graves, many neglected headstones, pathways had eroded, hedges overgrown and the entryway had deteriorated.
Under cloudless skies, young children, all born more than a century after the first burial in the Jewish cemetery, assembled at the new entryway, joined by other generations of families with ancestors buried there, to officially open the gates of the rededicated cemetery.
The project, which took less than three years, was undertaken by a team of volunteers led by Shirley Barnett and assisted by the civic officials who run the cemetery, including cemetery manager Glen Hodges, with the support of the city, which owns Mountain View Cemetery.
Jack Kowarsky, chair of the Schara Tzedeck Cemetery board, noted that the City of Vancouver had given the Jewish community this parcel of land 123 years ago, before which Jewish bodies had been shipped to the nearest consecrated Jewish cemetery, which was across the water in Victoria.
The 450 Jews interred at Mountain View, Kowarsky said, represent the forefathers of the current community.
Raymond Louie, Vancouver city councilor and acting mayor, called the rededication an important day for the Jewish community but also for the City of Vancouver. He credited Barnett, Arnold Silber and Herb Silber for the progress made during two and a half years of work, and he reflected on Mayor David Oppenheimer, the city’s first Jewish mayor, who was pivotal to the creation of the Jewish part of Mountain View.
Louie said the day was an opportunity for Vancouverites to remember ancestors and celebrate our multicultural heritage.
Barnett, who was presented with a book documenting the work that took place, deflected attention to others in the audience, noting that a single individual – Cyril Leonoff – led the community’s fight in the late 1960s, when the city attempted to remove all upright headstones and replace them with flat ones to make maintenance easier.
Barnett expressed gratitude for the happy coincidence that both Bill Pechet, a world leader in cemetery design, and Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, a globally recognized landscape architect, are both Vancouverites.
J.B. Newall Memorials, a memorial and monument company that is also a preeminent headstone restoration company, Barnett said, generously donated a headstone for the previously unmarked 1892 gravesite of the first interment in the cemetery, as well as refurbishing many headstones.
Arnold Silber brought laughs to the audience when he referenced Barnett’s reputation for getting things done. He reflected on the phone call from Barnett three years earlier asking him what should be done about the poor state of the cemetery where her grandfather is buried.
Silber told Barnett that “we would do everything she wanted – as long as she would be in charge.”
Turning to Barnett, Silber said: “Your dreams always become a reality.”
Silber stressed that the Jewish cemetery at Mountain View has an inclusive mandate that “any Jew, regardless of their affiliation, can be buried here at Mountain View.” He added that, now that the renovation and rededication have taken place, funds are being raised for perpetual maintenance and protection of the site.
“All generations to come will understand the value of this great Jewish cemetery,” he said.
With the renovation, several new plots have become available.
Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt and Cantor Yaacov Orzech provided an indication of what the original dedication ceremony might have been like in 1892. At the time, the rabbi said, those assembled would have proceeded seven times around the cemetery as part of the consecration process but, he noted, the size of the assembled people Sunday did not permit such a procession.
The cantor offered some of the prayers that would have been included in that ceremony 123 years ago, including the prayer accompanying a casket to the gravesite.
Rosenblatt noted that the rededication was taking place on Pesach Sheini, a day specifically created, according to rabbinical interpretation, so that those who contract ritual impurity by caring for the deceased should be able to nevertheless celebrate the joy of Passover.
Rev. Joseph Marciano offered the prayer traditionally spoken when leaving a cemetery.
After the generations of descendants of those interred in the burial ground passed through the gates, followed by scores of rabbis, cantors, city councilors, an MP and community leaders, two headstone unveilings took place, one for “Baby Girl Zlotnick,” who died in 1920, and another for Otto Bond, the previously unmarked grave of the first individual interred there.
Duvdevan elite unit veterans who visited Vancouver on the weekend are, left to right, Gilad Waldman, Daniel Kolver, noted singer and actor Tzahi Halevi, who sang at the event, Ariel Rubin and Boaz Faschler. (photo by Robert Albanese Photography)
The historical, contemporary and future impacts of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem were celebrated Sunday night at Congregation Beth Israel.
Several hundred members of the community gathered to mark the 90th anniversary of what has become one of the world’s great academic institutions.
Founded in 1925 by some of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, including Martin Buber, Chaim Weizmann, Chaim Nahman Bialik and Albert Einstein, the university has produced seven Nobel laureates and is routinely recognized as one of the 100 best universities in the world.
The culmination of the evening focused on four young Israeli soldier-students and a scholarship project intended to both reward dedication to the state of Israel and to ensure that individuals who have demonstrated that they are among the foremost citizens of that country will continue to contribute productively throughout their lives.
The young men who addressed the audience are recent veterans of Duvdevan, an elite anti-terror undercover unit of the Israel Defence Forces.
Daniel Kolver was motivated to strive to become a member of the elite unit after being a teenage eyewitness to the Passover massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya, in 2002, at which 30 Israelis were murdered by a terrorist at a seder.
He explained that Duvdevan members often operate as “Trojan horses,” charged with locating and arresting – or killing – the most dangerous terrorists, those “ticking bombs” who are minutes or hours away from executing attacks.
Each year, about 15,000 17-year-old Israelis apply to serve in Duvdevan and 150 are accepted. After some of the most intensive military training in the world, these soldiers are entrusted with hostage rescues, capturing terrorists in extremely dangerous urban warfare situations and delicate counter-terrorism operations.
Last year alone, the unit participated in more than 400 missions – each one of which involved at least one suspect. Kolver screened dramatic video of an operation in which his unit had two minutes to get through a labyrinthine neighborhood, detonate an explosive to blow the door off the home of a terrorist, identify the man hiding behind his wife and extricate the target and the unit from the premises within 10 seconds.
Another speaker, Ariel Rubin, admitted that he initially sought acceptance to Duvdevan to show off that he got into the elite unit. But the excruciatingly tough training eliminated all ego and superfluous motives.
“You disconnect your head from the physicality and you say, I’m doing this for my country … to protect Israel, to protect the Jewish people, because if we’re not there, nobody’s going to do it for us,” he said.
Fellow unit veterans, Boaz Faschler and Gilad Waldman, spoke of the difficult transition from being in one of the most secretive military units to assimilating into everyday life.
Among the purposes of the presentation was to raise support for the scholarship fund at Hebrew U, which awards 50 scholarships annually to soldiers from Duvdevan after their years of service.
The evening event, organized by the Vancouver chapter of Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, featured two other presentations.
Ambassador Ido Aharoni, consul general of Israel in New York, acknowledged that Israel is not winning the global war for public opinion. Significant to the problem Israel faces is that a huge proportion – 40% of North Americans and Europeans and 30% of much of the developing world – can be defined as “infosumers,” a tech-savvy group of individualists who seek out their own information and share specific traits. Among the characteristics of this growing demographic is that they see themselves as part of an expanding global identity whose national identities are eroding. They are also significantly unfavorable toward force, whether by the military or police. Aharoni’s thesis was reinforced by the fact that riots had been taking place for days in the United States over police brutality and murders of African-American civilians.
Screening a photograph of a presumably Palestinian youth throwing a rock at a tank, Aharoni noted that this is the global image most associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he also noted that polls indicate that in both Europe and North America, small numbers of people identify with either side in that conflict, most falling in the middle. Israel’s contradictory message of being both victim and victor, he said, is difficult to comprehend. And images of tanks versus stone-throwers, however unrepresentative this might be of the genuine power dynamic or context in the Israeli-Arab conflict, is not being successfully countered.
A more successful approach, he said, would be to appeal not to those who identify as opposed to the Israeli narrative, but to the large majority who subscribe to neither narrative. He called for greater emphasis on Israel’s contributions in fields of medicine, science, culture and other areas that benefit humankind.
Following the ambassador’s presentation, Prof. Noam Shoval of Hebrew U’s department of geography, spoke about the geographic realities of the city of Jerusalem.
Using a range of GPS and technological tools, researchers have studied the movement of Jerusalem’s residents and visitors, day and night, over time, to discover that the perception of Jerusalem as a culturally divided city is not accurate. There is an enormous amount of interaction by Jewish, Muslim and other residents of Jerusalem throughout and across areas of the city that are otherwise generally acknowledged as Jewish or Arab.
Shoval acknowledged that he would like to see Jerusalem remain united under Israeli jurisdiction, but he acknowledged that others might see a unified Jerusalem jointly administered by Israel and a future Palestinian state, or unified under some sort of international governance as was proposed in 1947. He concluded that dividing the city is not an ideal resolution.
“A division of the city is an outcome of war – not of peace,” he said.
Filmmaker Haya Newman’s father Ozer Fuks grew up in Wolbrom, Poland. He escaped the town in 1939. (photo from wolbrom.pl)
The town of Wolbrom, Poland, had a population of around 10,000 in 1939; about half of the residents were Jewish. Because it was very close to the German border, it was occupied on the day the Second World War began with the invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.
Haya Newman, a Vancouver teacher of Yiddish and now a filmmaker, has spent the past several years investigating what happened to the Jews of Wolbrom. On April 14, the evening before the community gathered to mark Yom Hashoah, Newman premièred her documentary Wolbrom: My Father’s Hometown in Poland before a packed audience at Temple Sholom.
Newman’s father, Ozer Fuks, came from the town, and trouble began well before the invasion of the Nazis. When Ozer was 4 years old, his father was murdered in front of his leather goods shop. In 1939, Fuks was in the Polish army and he managed to escape the Nazis through the Soviet Union.
The project of assembling information on her father’s hometown began from almost nothing, given that her late father kept his past during the Holocaust secret.
In her attempts to gather information, Newman visited the few remaining members of her father’s family in Israel. When that branch of the family opted to leave Europe for Mandate Palestine, Newman said, the remaining family told them they were crazy, heading to a barren desert. They are the only members of her father’s family that survived.
Newman’s documentary, which was filmed by her husband, Tim Newman, follows her first to Israel and then to Wolbrom, in search of the missing pieces.
The outline of the story of Wolbrom’s Jewish residents is similar to that of Jews in thousands of other Polish villages, towns and cities.
The Jewish residents were rounded up by the Nazis and their collaborators. Some were shot on the spot while the rest were forced on a six-day march that circled back to the same town. The able-bodied who survived were forced into slave labor.
In 1941, about 8,000 Jews from the surrounding area were forced into the ghetto in Wolbrom. Eventually, some were transported to concentration camps. But most of them met a grisly fate closer to home.
A memorial was erected in 1988, apparently by residents of Wolbrom themselves, remembering the 4,500 Jews killed and buried in mass graves outside the town.
“This must be carved in Polish memory as it is carved in stone,” the memorial reads in Polish.
Walking to the site, Newman ran into locals who shared some of the stories that had come down from the older villagers.
Three holes were dug in a clearing, they said, and planks were placed across them. The Jews were ordered to undress and as they individually walked across the planks, they were shot and fell into the ravines. When the dirt was pushed over the bodies, one local recounted, the earth cracked from the movement of those still alive.
A story survives of a boy who did not. A youngster managed to escape through the forest as the murdering was going on. Police chased after him, calling out to local boys who were tending cows to catch him, which they did. An officer stood on the boy’s hands and shot him point blank.
Wolbom’s synagogue was turned into a pile of rubble during the war. The Jewish school is now an agricultural supply store – with Nazi graffiti covering the doors. While Newman said she was largely greeted with warmth during her visit, which took place in 2005, she sensed some defensiveness among Poles.
“The fact of the matter is that 90 percent of Polish Jews were killed and a lot had to do with the Polish population,” she said, adding that hundreds of Jews who had been in hiding and survived were killed after the war by Poles. There are 327 documented cases of killings, either individual murders or in pogroms in the immediate aftermath of the war, but estimates are that as many as 2,000 Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust were murdered after liberation.
The reactions from some of the locals caught on video are intriguing.
“There is nothing to look for,” said one man, “You can’t turn back time.”
Another told her, “Take it easy, it’s all in the past.”
Newman visited the home where her grandmother had lived and the woman who resided there at the time was somewhat nonchalant about the property’s provenance.
“When we bought the house, it was empty,” she said.
Other residents spoke of the horror and upset felt by non-Jewish people at the fate of their Jewish neighbors. One woman said her mother picked up Yiddish playing with the Jewish kids in town before the war. Others provided helpful information to direct Newman to the relevant sites of the former Jewish community.
Overall, the people of Wolbrom were open and very willing to speak with her, she said. “It seemed like they were waiting for me there.”
It has been 10 years since the trip that formed the backbone of the film and Newman noted that it is not only the survivors who are passing away, but the eyewitnesses who can add to the fullness of what happened during that period.
“Within five, 10 years, they are not going to be there anymore,” she said.
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz spoke after the screening and referenced the just-ended Pesach holiday to emphasize the need to tell the stories of the more recent past. Just as the Hagaddah marks the narrative of the Exodus, he said, today’s generation should be recording the narratives of this era.
“We need to tell our stories so our children can tell them the way we tell the Hagaddah,” he said. “Go home, write down and tell your story.”
Newman’s next projects include a documentary about Yiddish on the West Coast, a film about her mother’s hometown in Poland and another about Vancouver singer Claire Klein Osipov.
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.
Stan Shawn wants to become the first Sephardi member of Parliament from British Columbia.
The Vancouver realtor is seeking the Conservative party nomination in Vancouver-Centre, hoping to take on Liberal Hedy Fry, who has held the seat for 22 years. Shawn believes changes to the riding boundaries could help his party seize the seat, one of only two the Liberals won in the province during the last election. The riding comprises the downtown peninsula and northern Kitsilano.
“Maybe people have the sense that it’s not that winnable because Hedy Fry has been there since 1993 and people don’t really have a lot of faith in anybody opposing her, but I actually have confidence that I’ll do a pretty good job,” said Shawn.
Shawn is a director of the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver and president of the board’s Westside Vancouver division. He is a graduate of Western Washington University and taught in Richmond public schools for a time.
Shawn came to Vancouver at the age of two. He was born to Iraqi Jewish parents in Bangkok, Thailand. His father was founding president of Beth Hamidrash, Vancouver’s Sephardi synagogue, and his mother was the first sisterhood president. Shawn later became president of the synagogue himself. As a teenager, he attended Camp Miriam. He attended Vancouver Talmud Torah and public schools. He spent two stints living in Israel during the 1970s and ’80s.
He is getting involved in politics now, he said, because he “wanted to do something more significant for the general community.”
“I’m really turned on by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper,” he said. “I think it’s just the best possible government we could have. I like their policies on security, community security, fighting racism and antisemitism … support of Israel absolutely is one of my favorites.”
Shawn hopes people who live in the riding of Vancouver-Centre will join the Conservative party and support his bid for the nomination. The party has not yet set the date for the nomination vote but individuals must be members of the party for 21 days in order to vote. Information is at vote.stanshawn.com.
“The Jewish community has benefited greatly by Stephen Harper’s government and we owe it to them to support the Conservative government because there’s never been anything like them,” said Shawn. “If people know anything about history, there’s never been anything like the Conservative party government insofar as being steadfast in supporting the Jewish people and Israel.”
The Conservative party did not respond to email or telephone messages requesting the names of other candidates for the Vancouver-Centre nomination.