Left to right: Debby Altow, NCJW Vancouver past president; Cate Stoller, NCJW Vancouver president; Shelley Rivkin, vice-president, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver; Kasari Govender, B.C. human rights commissioner; Ezra Shanken, Jewish Federation executive director; and Etti Goldman, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. (photo by Rochelle Garfinkel)
Newly installed B.C. Commissioner of Human Rights Kasari Govender spoke to members and guests of the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada on Nov. 21 at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. Govender discussed a wide range of topics, including the connections her office will be making with similar bodies across Canada, her focus on the systemic issues affecting human rights in our province, and her welcoming of ideas for implementing forward-thinking and creative approaches to human rights issues. Govender’s presentation echoed the values and focus of NCJWC Vancouver section, which has a long tradition of innovation and creativity in the sphere of social action. For more information about upcoming events and programs, visit ncjwvancouver.org.
Irwin Keller will share some of his eclectic interests at Limmud Vancouver in March. (photo from Limmud Vancouver)
Irwin Keller is the kind of person most of us would like to be: curious about everything, smart, creative, always learning, always teaching. As one of the invited presenters for Limmud Vancouver ’20, he’ll be sharing some of his interests with the local community.
Keller’s first career was a long stint as a human rights lawyer specializing in AIDS and HIV-related discrimination. But, as a lifelong amateur musician, he also co-created the drag group the Kinsey Sicks. In 2006, he ended up serving as a lay leader for his congregation, which finally pushed him to go to rabbinical school, where he is now finishing up his training.
“I had always wanted to be a rabbi. When I had finished my undergraduate and was looking at applying to rabbinical school, in those days, there were no seminaries that accepted openly gay students,” Keller said. “I couldn’t do it unless I was willing to go back in the closet that I had just come out of – the closet was still warm – and I wasn’t willing to. It felt wrong. It was important for me to be in the rabbinate as who I was.”
Within just a year of deciding he couldn’t be a closeted rabbi, the AIDS epidemic began to tear through the gay community, and Keller began working on civil rights cases.
“Things can happen to people whether they’re legal or not. Often through some sort of ruse, or subterfuge,” he said. “As long as people didn’t want people with AIDS renting from them or working for them, they were going to find some way to get rid of them. That was our work.”
This work, which Keller describes as both holy and harrowing, led to the creation of the Kinsey Sicks. “Our community needed to laugh, needed to be delighted out of what we were experiencing every day.”
Momentum built and, after a few years, the group had an offer to produce their show off-Broadway.
“That was the point when we all quit our jobs. That was the last I ever practised law,” he said.
In all, Keller performed with the group for 21 years. Along the way, he taught himself enough Yiddish to be able to bring Yiddish music into the show, to both hilarious and touching effect. He had a recording of his great-grandmother singing the heart-tugging “Papirosn,” about an orphan boy trying to get by selling cigarettes on a street corner. Usually sung by women performers to mimic a child’s voice, Keller performed it in his drag persona Winnie, channeling the spirit of his great-grandmother and Yiddish theatre divas of a bygone era. You can watch it on YouTube: Keller playing a much older Jewish woman playing a young boy – gender collapses à la Victor/Victoria.
“Over the course of the maybe 18 years that I performed it, it was the most commented-on piece of music that we performed,” he said. “People were so moved – including non-Jews – that they were getting a window into Jewish culture that they were not getting from modern American culture.”
Keller’s U-turn into the rabbinate is perhaps long in coming, but not surprising. He describes both his civil rights law career and his drag performing career as holy work: the yin and yang of what a gay community needed at a devastating moment in its history. Moving onto the pulpit only took that energy to a different place.
“I moved to Sonoma County and joined a synagogue whose rabbi was in the process of leaving and there was a lot of turmoil. I volunteered to do some of the rabbinical work while they were searching,” he said. “But what came out of me was a lifetime of longing.”
And the congregation needed his brand of leadership, too. “I think my being the singing drag queen rabbi gave people a different kind of welcome,” he said.
At Limmud Vancouver, Keller will be sharing two more of his interests: Yiddish poetry, and queer readings of Torah. In a session on the Yiddish poet Itsik Manger, Keller will lead discussion on the playful Bible-inspired poem cycle known as the “Khumesh lider.”
“The way he plays with the looping of time, the anachronisms, in a way that is also invited by rabbinic tradition – there is no before or after Torah, everything can take place in any order,” explained Keller. “So you can get the Turkish sultan visiting Hagar, you can get Ruth and Polish peasants, and it’s still Torah.”
Keller’s other Limmud seminar will examine the story of Joseph.
“I try to identify where there are queer currents running through Torah,” he said. “I don’t specifically mean exclusively gay-themed moments, but moments that seem to suggest a certain kind of outsiderness and outsider outlook and alternative biography from what you’ve come to expect from ancient tales.”
Joseph falls into this category because of his distance from the normative family. Joseph spends most of his life at odds with a family that made him unsafe. His power comes when he is able to be away from this family and incognito, and his unmasking is both dangerous and liberating.
“What’s interesting to me here,” said Keller, “is that the rabbinic tradition finds him to be problematic. They have a tendency to locate his problematicity in his gender and sexuality. So, it’s not like we as modern people are for the first time noticing that there might be a queer angle to this story. For 1,000 years he’s been alarming the rabbis.”
Keller speaks of human rights, Jewish drag, Yiddish poetry and queer Torah with unflagging energy. But this isn’t even all. Get Keller talking about angels in the Jewish imagination, and it’s off to the races again: “There is a tradition around angels who densely populate all our mystical texts, as well as running rampant through Torah,” he said. “It’s interesting to me the worldview that holds angels as present in every space and every function. Every natural force is controlled by an angel, every period of time. Every hour of the day has an angel that oversees it.”
Perhaps another year, Keller will share more at Limmud about angels. In the meanwhile, his joyous brand of learning and thinking will be available in two presentations on March 1 at Limmud Vancouver, held at Congregation Beth Israel. Registration is now open at limmudvancouver.ca.
Faith Jonesis a librarian and Yiddish translator in Vancouver. She is a regular teacher and attendee at Limmud Vancouver.
On Oct. 30, members of different cultural groups gathered to discuss issues facing seniors. (photo from JSA)
Aging Across Cultures Dialogue Tables included an Oct. 30 gathering hosted by Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver at the Unitarian Centre.
The B.C. Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture has provided funding for a focused review of services, concerns and challenges faced by organizations providing help to multicultural seniors in the Lower Mainland. In addition to the JSA, Jewish Family Services and the Kehila Society were among the groups represented, which also included ASK Friendly Society, B.C. Community Resources Network, Kitsilano Neighbourhood House, United Way-Better At Home, Collingwood Neighbourhood House, COSCO, 411 Seniors Centre Society, Gordon Neighbourhood House, Marpole Neighbourhood House, Simon Fraser University Gerontology Research Centre, Vancouver Seniors Advocate, Seniors Brigade Society of British Columbia, Seniors First B.C., South Granville Seniors Centre, Tonari Gumi, Vancouver Native Health Society, and West End Seniors Network.
On Oct. 30, Gyda Chud, co-president of JSA, welcomed participants, emphasizing advocacy, reflection and rejuvenation as illustrated in a new JSA video outlining its community services. Grace Hann and Charles Leibovitch, from JSA’s peer support services, were the facilitators for the multicultural dialogue tables. Liz Azeroual of JSA documented on flip charts the ideas and concepts put forth by the participants.
Whatever the needs of seniors in general, discussants agreed that the situation is worse for immigrants and for women; many must choose between either eating or taking their medications. Immigrant women are less likely to be accepted for financial aid. Literacy is an issue, especially when applications for help are online, and navigating the system is more difficult when English is not your first language.
Without family advocacy, many seniors are left to fend for themselves. They need places to meet other seniors who have similar language, customs and experiences. In care facilities, many immigrant seniors are forced to eat unfamiliar foods. Immigrant seniors, especially women, need advocates to get their needs met, but community-based organizations working with seniors often are not well-funded, so help is minimal. The medical system is not structured to treat the multiple problems of seniors.
Loneliness and isolation are among those issues. Family groupings are now much smaller, and young families do not live in the same area as their parents or grandparents. Some seniors are abandoned by their families, or by the death of friends and colleagues. There is a lack of social support, transportation and financial aid to address these problems. Health issues such as depression, fractures that limit mobility, and degenerative hearing and sight increase isolation. LGBTQ+ seniors may also be underserved and isolated. There is a need for better communication all round.
Low-income seniors often move into single-room facilities, if they are available, or some become homeless, living in cars or couch surfing, as they cannot afford higher rents.
Paid caregiver turnover and the deteriorating quality of some care facilities has led families to care for their loved ones at home without adequate financial support. Caregiver burnout is a major concern and accessing certain types of care is a huge challenge: palliative care, for example, requires a physician’s referral.
Population movement and growth, and changes in the healthcare industry, are taking place without adequate planning for the changing needs of the senior population. For all workers, including professionals, who come from a non-English-speaking country, language training is necessary and difficult. Families need paid work in stable jobs and so do seniors. Volunteers are hard to recruit and retain, even though it is meaningful work and can lead to other jobs. In addition to language, many new Canadians need to learn more about technology and Canada’s corporate and general culture. In many areas, discrimination is an issue faced by new Canadians.
All Canadians need to plan for retirement, which is becoming costlier, as the population ages and services become more expensive. Various healthcare agencies need adequate funding to keep the elderly out of hospitals, and the links between different levels of health care and social services (clinics, hospitals and nonprofit agencies) need to be strengthened in order to keep this population from falling through the cracks. Access to transportation is a big part of this, and caregivers should be remunerated for providing home care for seniors. Cultural and ethnic care facilities could play a larger role in reducing isolation, offering spaces where language, food and culture are familiar and where families of seniors can meet.
Seniors housing was considered the highest priority. The need for more single-room affordable housing units, more cooperatives, more roommate pairing services and stricter legislation for affordable-housing vacancy rules were discussed. It was also believed that immigrants and 55-to-65-year-old seniors needed more access to Canada Pension Plan and Old-Age Security.
At the end of the discussion, Dr. Gloria Gutman, from Simon Fraser University’s Gerontology Research Centre, stressed the needs for groups to keep communicating at all levels to help resolve these major seniors’ issues.
Pamella Ottem, MSN, worked for many years in the field of gerontology. As a retired nurse, she has volunteered in the Fraser Health Authority hip replacement program. At Jewish Seniors Alliance, she is a member of the board and chairperson of the peer support services committee.
Lillian Boraks-Nemetz and Senator Murray Sinclair. (photo by Jerry Nussbaum)
A succession of unjust Canadian laws piled one upon the other in the last part of the 19th century, enabling the federal government to take indigenous children from their homes and eradicate their cultural identities. The full scope of those laws – and their impacts on generations of First Nations people to today – was outlined by Senator Murray Sinclair, former head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who spoke at the University of British Columbia last week.
The impact of residential schools and the laws that created and sustained them was the theme of Sinclair’s talk, which was presented by the UBC faculty of education and the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada.
Prior to Sinclair’s presentation, Vancouver author Lillian Boraks-Nemetz, a board member of the Korzcak association and a child survivor of the Holocaust, contextualized the lecture in the spirit of Korczak’s legacy.
Korczak was an educator and pedagogue who ran orphanages, including one in the Warsaw Ghetto, where Boraks-Nemetz was also confined. Korczak was a respected figure in Polish society, considered by many the originator of the concept of children’s rights.
“Korczak observed and listened to children, never judging, criticizing or showing intolerance,” said Boraks-Nemetz. He cultivated their self-esteem and believed that children should grow into who they want to be, not who others want them to become.
“During the Nazi persecution, Korczak, when offered a reprieve from the depredations of the Warsaw Ghetto, he would not abandon his children in their last journey to the cattle cars heading for Treblinka, the death camp,” she said. “He refused, saying, ‘My children need me. I deplore desertion.’ He went with them and they all perished.”
Sinclair then painstakingly outlined the conspiracy of legal barriers to justice that the government erected to perpetuate what has been termed cultural genocide.
As the federal government began to expand Canada westward in the 1870s, it entered into treaties with the indigenous peoples. One of the demands indigenous negotiators insisted upon in exchange for being limited to reserves was that the federal government create and fund schools on those reserves.
Sir John A. Macdonald sent a representative to the United States to see how they were running schools for Native Americans. In direct repudiation of the treaties, the federal government opted for a similar system and his government created what they called “industrial schools.”
Sinclair said MacDonald believed that, if children went to school on reserves, “the kids would go to the schools in the daytime and they would then return home to their parents, who are nothing but savages, and we would be teaching those children basic skills that all children learn from schools and what we’re going to end up with at the end of the day is nothing but savages who can read and write.”
Because the government wanted to “do it on the cheap,” said Sinclair, “they decided to involve the churches, who were quite willing to get involved because it was great for the churches as well to gain numbers through their missionary zeal.”
Children were punished for speaking their languages and for talking with their friends and siblings, “because they wanted to break your ties to those relationships…. Everything was done in the schools to break down cultural bonds that existed in those children.”
Those who were not physically or sexually abused lived in fear that they would be, Sinclair said.
“And, of course, the children, when they came home, would tell their parents what happened in those schools,” he said.
The natural inclination to stop it from happening led to a cascade of legislative injunctions that took away the most fundamental rights of First Nations peoples.
“In the 1880s, the government passed the law that amended the Indian Act and said that it was an offence, a legal breach of law, if you did not send your child to a school when the Indian agent told you to send the child,” said Sinclair.
When parents tried to hide their children, the parents would be prosecuted and go to jail. Faced with the prospect of indigenous people taking the government to court over the issue, the government passed another law, making it impossible to go to court against the government for anything done under the Indian Act “unless you get permission from the minister of Indian Affairs first.” The government soon made it illegal for indigenous people to consult with a lawyer on anything relating to the Indian Act – with the punishment for the lawyer being disbarment. Then, another step was added, making it illegal for a white Canadian to speak to a lawyer on behalf of an indigenous person.
When it seemed parents might protest the situation, the government made it illegal, in 1892, for three or more First Nations people to gather together in order to discuss a grievance against the government of Canada. It was made illegal for indigenous people to attend large gatherings like the traditional sundances or the potlatch, “not just because of the religious aspect of it but also because, at these gatherings, that’s when Indians got together in order to discuss their grievances,” said Sinclair.
Fears of a violent uprising were dismissed by Northwest Mounted Police in documentation Sinclair has seen, which, he summarized: “We don’t have to worry about the Indians taking up arms against the government because we have their kids. They are not going to go to war against us.”
Children who returned from the schools were scarred and often unable to communicate with their parents in a shared language.
“Their ability to know how to hunt, fish or trap, which is what the communities depended upon, was lost to them,” said Sinclair.
Estimates are that about 35% of indigenous children attended residential schools, but the damage extended to the other 65%, who were taught in public schools the same white superiority/indigenous inferiority curriculum as those who were taken away.
When those children grew up and had children, they had no learned skills at parenting and were burdened with their own demons, said Sinclair. As a result, when child welfare systems were burgeoning in the 1950s, it was mostly indigenous children who went into care. It was, and is, disproportionately indigenous people who are incarcerated.
Indigenous Canadians have the highest suicide rates of any cultural group in the world, said Sinclair. High school dropout rates, substance abuse and violent crime affect indigenous Canadians in exponentially greater numbers than non-indigenous Canadians.
The problems will not be resolved, Sinclair said, by spending more money on child welfare, policing or incarceration. The education system and society must help indigenous young people realize who they are as Anishinaabe, Cree, Sto:lo or Mohawk.
“The educational system is just not giving them what they need,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do, but, if we address that one aspect of how our society is functioning, we will see the most dramatic change that will resolve or redress the history of residential schools in Canada on indigenous people, on indigenous youth in particular.… It begins with recognizing that … indigenous youth, in particular, must be given their chance to develop their sense of self-respect first, and that’s going to take some time to do.”
Under community pressure, a Richmond auction house backed down from selling a collection of Nazi memorabilia last weekend. Maynards Fine Art and Antiques was set to auction items including Nazi flags, military items and other war-era artifacts on Saturday. Two days before that, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs was made aware of the items by a member of the community.
“We spoke to the lead appraiser, the person in charge of auctioning this lot,” said Nico Slobinsky, CIJA’s Pacific region director. “We provided context and tried to explain why auctioning these items was morally reprehensible. I would love to be able to tell you that we got positive engagement and understanding at the time when we had those conversations on Thursday. We did not get that positive engagement. It was clear to us from the response from the auction house that they were going to go ahead with the auction as originally planned.”
Community members and elected officials quickly mobilized and media seized the story. Individuals messaged the auction company and politicians lined up in opposition to the sale. Two members of the legislature from Richmond, Jas Johal and John Yap, spoke out, as did Andrew Wilkinson, leader of the B.C. Liberals.
Mike Sachs, past president of the Richmond congregation the Bayit and a Jewish community activist in Richmond, mobilized his contacts – even while vacationing in Mexico. He said Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie not only spoke out against this incident but promised to proclaim Holocaust Awareness Day in January 2020.
“People were just disgusted that Maynards would do such a thing,” said Sachs. “As a whole, we all agree enough of profiting off Jewish blood. Enough. We’re not going to accept it anymore.”
Sachs and Slobinsky praised community allies who spoke up. They both believe that historical artifacts like these should be in museums or educational institutions, where they can serve as educational tools in proper context.
CIJA is asking Maynards for an apology and a donation to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. The organization extended an offer to the undisclosed owner of the items to assist in placing them in an appropriate venue.
During the Goldene Medina exhibit this past summer, the documentary Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin was screened. It will be shown again on Dec. 8 at Congregation Beth Israel. (photo from Steve Rom)
I have a bad case of South African Jewish envy. This condition developed when I moved to Vancouver from the North End of Winnipeg. I can’t remember meeting even one South African Jew while growing up in the Prairies – the majority of Jews in my hometown were from Eastern Europe. However, I met oodles of South African Jews when I moved here in the early 1990s and I was impressed by their knowledge of Judaism and their commitment to Jewish life. There seemed to be something unique about their community and it seemed exotic compared to Winnipeg’s. Many of them became my good friends, perhaps because, as a Litvak (my last name literally means a Jew from Lithuania), I share a common ancestry with my South African co-religionists, who predominately hail from Lithuania.
When I first moved here, my South African friend Geoff Sachs, z”l, two Montrealers and I organized Tschayniks, an evening of Jewish performing arts at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. It was at the JCC that I met another South African friend, Steve Rom, who was working there at the time, and helped us set up our events. About a month ago, Steve brought a fascinating exhibit to Congregation Beth Israel. Prior to being mounted in Vancouver, the exhibit, Goldene Medina, a celebration of 175 years of Jewish life in South Africa, was displayed in South Africa, Israel and Australia. Thanks to Steve, Jews in Vancouver got a taste of South African Jewish life, as well.
A unique feature of the exhibit was that nobody was named or personally identified on any of the displays. This approach helped tell the story of all South African Jews, and made the exhibit simultaneously particular and universal.
Stories were depicted on a series of panels, and traced the South African Jewish community from its origins in 1841 – when Jews first settled in South Africa – to the present. On one of the panels, I recognized the son and daughter in-law of Cecil Hershler, who has South African roots and is well known in the Vancouver Jewish community as a storyteller. His son married a woman from Zimbabwe and the wedding in Vancouver, which I attended, was a joyous blend of South African and Zimbabwean cultures. Seeing the panel brought back memories of that happy occasion and gave me an unexpected personal connection to the exhibit (other than identifying with my Lithuanian landsmen).
Other panels depicted various aspects of Jewish life in South Africa. While I was fascinated by the differences between the South African Jewish community and my experience growing up in Winnipeg, the exhibit was really a microcosm of Jewish life in the Diaspora. For example, the panel on Muizenberg depicted the resort town located near Cape Town, where throngs of South African Jews flocked to during the summer. The photos of crowded beaches told a thousand stories. However, that panel also reminded me of the stories that my dad, z”l, told me about taking the train to Winnipeg Beach in the summer with other Jews from the city to escape the summer heat. Like at Muizenberg, there was a synagogue at Winnipeg Beach. I am sure that Jews from New York have similar stories of escaping the city heat by going to the Catskills. In addition, the Jews of America, like the Jews of South Africa, referred to their new home as “the Goldene Medina.” Ultimately, all three places – Canada, the United States and South Africa – represented a new start for Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe.
The Goldene Medina exhibit gave me an opportunity to learn about Jews from the land of my ancestors in Lithuania, who were able to reinvent themselves on the African continent and create a thriving Jewish community, which, at one point, reached 120,000. This resiliency is a characteristic of Jews and Jewish communities all over the world. And this resilience was evident in the film Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin: Cape Town Embraces Yiddish Song, which screened at Beth Israel during the exhibit – and will be shown again at the synagogue on Dec. 8.
Using 10 years of archival footage, Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin showcases the Annual Leah Todres Yiddish Song Festival, which was held in Cape Town. The documentary features stirring renditions of classic Yiddish songs like “Romania Romania” and “Mayn Shtetele Belz,” as well as two original songs written for the festival by Hal Shaper, a renowned songwriter, which are sung with passion by talented South African Jews of all ages. The songs featured in the film evoke a yearning for a Jewish world that no longer exists in Lithuania and Eastern Europe and highlight the power of the Yiddish language and music.
While the South African Jewish community has shrunk since its heyday in the 1970s to approximately 50,000, it is still an important Diaspora community. In addition, South African Jews make important contributions to every Jewish community they move to, and bring their unique culture to their new homes.
Seeing the exhibit and the documentary cemented the kinship I feel with my South African brothers and sisters. A few of my South African friends even dubbed me an honourary South African Jew at the exhibit, an honour I gladly accepted. One day, I hope to make a pilgrimage to the land of the Litvaks to experience South African Jewish life firsthand. Until then, I will have to continue to learn about South Africa vicariously.
The Dec. 8 screening of Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin at Beth Israel takes place at 4 p.m. Admission is a suggested donation of $10. For more information, visit leahteddyandthemandolin.com.
David J. Litvakis a prairie refugee from the North End of Winnipeg who is a freelance writer, former Voice of Peace and Co-op Radio broadcaster and an “accidental publicist.” His articles have been published in the Forward, Globe and Mail and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His website is cascadiapublicity.com.
Chabad Richmond’s Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, far left, was the only Canadian spiritual leader to participate in first-ever rabbinic seminar on Holocaust studies at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, this past July. (photo from Chabad Richmond)
For one week this past July, 15 pulpit rabbis gathered together to take part in the first-ever rabbinic seminar on Holocaust studies at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, in Jerusalem.
Yad Vashem is the foremost resource for Shoah educators, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Fourteen rabbis and rebbetzins from North America and one rabbi from Israel, all of whom are engaged in adult education, were invited to participate in the week-long pilot immersion program, which was sponsored by David and Ellie Werber and Martin and Bracha Werber. The diverse group of spiritual leaders spanned the religious spectrum.
Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, director of Chabad Richmond, was the only Canadian rabbi to participate in the seminar, with the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver being a partial sponsor of his travels. He described the week of learning at Yad Vashem as “transformational, uncomfortable, overwhelming, extremely challenging, very enlightening and at times very inspiring. It’s going to take awhile to unpack all this information.”
Entitled Teaching the Shoah and Antisemitism: Opportunities, Challenges and Techniques, the seminar consisted of 65 hours of lectures by scholars and experts, plus testimonials from Holocaust survivors. Covering an array of topics, the point of the program was to help rabbis cultivate the skills necessary to create an educational curriculum and content for Holocaust studies in their schools, adult education classes and congregations at home. Yad Vashem’s challenge was to find unique approaches to teaching people about history, theology, antisemitism and Jewish values relating to the Holocaust, as well as to expand the breadth and scope of emissaries who will ensure the continuity of the stories and pass along the lessons learned from the Shoah.
The Yad Vashem seminar incorporated a multidisciplinary approach to Holocaust education and used various methodologies to help participants comprehend the complexity of the Shoah as a whole, never forgetting the personal stories of individuals. The curriculum included studying prewar Jewish life in Europe; the rise of Nazism; life in the ghettos; concentration camps and the attempted “Final Solution”; liberation from concentration camps; survivors returning to life in the “new world”; the ongoing pursuit of Nazi war criminals; the new antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric; physical and spiritual resistance; the role rabbis played during the Shoah; survivor testimony; and theological responses to the Holocaust.
Speakers included international researchers, professors and historians; a world expert on antisemitism; the head of Holocaust studies at Yad Vashem; a Nazi hunter; and several Holocaust survivors, including former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, and Rabbi Judge David Frenkel.
As the survivor population gets smaller, others need to ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten. Yad Vashem understands that rabbis have a special role to play in teaching about the rabbinic, theological and spiritual meanings and implications of the Holocaust. For his part, Baitelman will be looking for ways to collaborate with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre to create a curriculum for Jews and non-Jews alike.
“The challenge is how to talk to teens, 20-somethings, 30-somethings and 40-somethings about the Holocaust,” said Baitelman. “What should the message be?… We’re a people who have always told stories. Even though we are so many generations removed, in a sense, it is still my story, our story. The message is not only about where we come from, but also about where we are going.” He stressed that, with growing global antisemitism, we need to strengthen the Jewish people worldwide – Jewish education, Jewish values and Torah observance.
“Although we might struggle with faith,” said Baitelman, “we still need to look for G-d amidst the rubble and the hatred. It’s imperative that we find inspiration from those who survived the Holocaust, and find ways to teach tolerance, empathy and understanding.”
Baitelman believes it’s essential to address not only the theological question of “Where was G-d?” during the Holocaust, but also, “Where was man in all of this?”
“If, as a result of the Holocaust, one does not believe in G-d, then we have to believe in humanity,” he said. “The question is: ‘Where was the humanity of the people that perpetrated these crimes?’”
For the rabbi, a meaningful Jewish education involves people living Jewishly. “We need highly educated, well-informed Jewish kids living fully engaged Jewish lives,” he said. “We need children who are living proudly Jewish.”
Baitelman has taught several courses on the Holocaust through the Jewish Learning Institute, and has talked to teachers, school classes and new immigrants about antisemitism and the Holocaust. He said education needs also to address the important question of “Now what? What are we here for?”
Shelley Civkinis a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review, and currently writes a bi-weekly column about retirement for the Richmond News. She is a volunteer with Chabad Richmond.
Child survivors Rabbi Joseph Polak, right, and Robert Krell at the Havdalah service Nov. 2, part of the annual conference of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants. (photo from Robert Krell)
When Halina Levitt was 2 years old in a part of Poland that is now in Ukraine, her mother left her with a Polish farm family to hide through the Holocaust.
“My mother luckily survived and came back to retrieve me,” Levitt told the Independent. “Of course, at that point, I was 5 years old and she was a total stranger to me. I didn’t want to go with her.”
The family who saved her didn’t want to relinquish her, either, and, as the conflict between the birth mother and the Polish family escalated, neighbours gathered and tried to intervene on behalf of the family as the mother tried to reclaim her child.
“She was quite scared for her life until we boarded the bus and got away from there,” Levitt said.
Rose Raport, a retired doctor from New Jersey, was also left with another family.
“I was given away to a Polish farmer at age 4,” she said. But her parents never returned. “I spent six years and, by the end of my stay with the Polish family, I found out that I’m left alone. There were no parents, there was no sibling, no family and that’s it.” She was turned over to the Jewish community and continued her life in a Jewish orphanage.
Karen Komar, a Massachusetts woman, managed to remain with her family in their home in Hamburg, Germany, until 1941. Then, an intervention by a distant American relative – Arthur Bulova, head of the Bulova watch company – succeeded in getting the family a visa to the United States.
These were just three of the experiences of people who convened in Vancouver Nov. 1-4 for the 31st annual conference of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants.
About 400 people attended the gathering – about 110 survivors, joined by members of the second, third and fourth generations, as well as spouses. Each has a unique experience, yet all who spoke with the Independent said such meetings are an opportunity to share time with those most likely to comprehend what they have endured and the lives they have led.
The conference was co-chaired by Vancouverites Marie Doduck and Dr. Robert Krell, both child survivors of the Holocaust.
The conferences create a feeling of belonging, said Doduck.
“Our survivors feel safe, they talk about their lives, their grandchildren, their past, their future, their thoughts in a safe place,” she said. “And the children felt a safe place to speak about their feelings, that they may not be able to do with their parents or grandparents.”
Child survivors – almost all of whom were hidden children during the war because almost none of the children who were sent to concentration camps survived – were not recognized, by themselves or others, as Holocaust survivors or as a distinct group until the 1980s. Because they were so young during the war, or because they were not in the camps, their experiences were dismissed by adults. A 1988 book by Helen Epstein, Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors began a reconsideration of the individual and collective experiences of the second generation, but also of those who survived as hidden children and who were not, until then, considered “survivors.”
“We still are the children inside of us,” said Doduck. “When I speak in schools, I speak of the child inside of me, not this mother, grandmother, now great-grandmother that they’re looking at, this old lady. This old lady is really Mariette the child, who is starting, after 70 years growing up … who had no childhood, who lived with bombs and death and starvation and disease. I knew that, if I was sick, I would die, and most of us have these kinds of stories.”
Categories can be fluid, Krell explained. As a hidden child who survived in Holland thanks to a Christian family, he is a child survivor. But he is also a second generation, because his parents survived the camps and came back to claim him. This was statistically extraordinary, as the Netherlands had one of the highest Jewish death rates by country in the Holocaust.
Krell feels a special kinship with Abe Foxman, longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, with whom he organized one of the first child survivor conferences, in 1991. Foxman was hidden from ages 2 to 5, just like Krell. His parents also returned to claim him, an even more statistically anomalous outcome, given that he was in Poland, which had the most catastrophic statistics of annihilation. Krell tried to get Foxman to attend this month’s conference, but the distance was too great to travel.
Location is an important part of the conferences, said Krell, and accessibility is one of the reasons they move annually in Europe, all over North America and to Israel, depending on the year. This year, almost half the attendees were British Columbians.
More than three dozen workshops, panel discussions and plenaries offered a range of topics for attendees, with some exclusive to survivors or successive generations. An art installation and a musical concluding evening added to the weekend experience.
Guest presenters included Rabbi Joseph Polak, a child survivor of Bergen-Belsen and author of After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring; Dr. Catherine Chatterley, founding director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism; Prof. Chris Friedrichs, professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia; and Vancouverite Robbie Waisman, a survivor of Buchenwald, who spoke together with Éloge Butera, a survivor of the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, about human rights activism. Krell’s plenary address opened the conference on the Saturday morning with a keynote titled The Future of Our Past: Informing and Inspiring Next Generations.
Dr. Michael Hayden delivers the keynote address at the annual Kristallnacht commemorative program Nov. 7. (photo by Al Szajman)
In the 1930s, German Jews were required to register all precious metals in their possession, a prelude to having them confiscated. In Hamburg alone, the Nazis collected 20 tons of silver, much of it Judaica. Of this, they melted down 18 tons. Two tons was deemed by the Nazi curator Carl Schellenberg to be of artistic or other value in its existing form.
After the war, Schellenberg was kept on by the British because his scrupulous indexing of artifacts made him valuable. His love of the city of Hamburg meant he ensured that some of the most precious pieces of stolen art and artifacts made their way to that city’s museum.
That is where Dr. Michael Hayden, a Vancouver researcher in molecular medicine and human genetics, and one of the world’s leading researchers in Huntington disease, was able to trace one of the few remaining pieces of his grandparents’ once-extensive collection of Judaica.
A silver Kiddush cup, crafted in 1757 and embossed with a vivid three-dimensional depiction of the story of Jacob’s vision of a ladder to heaven, which belonged to his grandparents, Gertrud and Max Raphael Hahn, has been restituted to the family. It is now on loan, a small artifact in size but one of the most stunning pieces in a just-opened exhibition at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, titled Treasured Belongings: The Hahn Family & the Search for a Stolen Legacy.
Hayden delivered the keynote address at the annual Kristallnacht commemorative program Nov. 7, before the opening of the exhibition to the public. The exhibit runs to Nov. 27, 2020.
“It’s a story that it’s taken me a long time to confront,” Hayden told the Independent.
Hayden’s grandparents were transported to Riga, Latvia, in 1941, where they were murdered by Latvian collaborators of the Nazis. Max Hahn had been arrested for the first time on Kristallnacht, three years earlier, but, with Gertrud, had managed to secure the passage of many possessions to safe locations in the neutral countries of Sweden and Switzerland. More importantly, they had sent their two children, daughter Hanni and son Rudolf – Hayden’s father – to safety in London.
After the war, the orphaned pair retrieved the remnants of their family’s material possessions. Rudolf, who joined the British army in 1943 and adopted the less Germanic-sounding name Roger Hayden, moved to South Africa. There, more than a dozen boxes sat undiscussed in the family home. When Roger passed away, Michael Hayden shipped the boxes to his Vancouver home, where they sat, unopened, for another two decades.
When he finally confronted the parcels from his family’s past, he discovered a stamp collection, maps, artworks – and 9,000 original documents relating to his family’s history from the 1850s until 1941. These included heart-wrenching letters between Rudolf in England and his parents still in Germany.
While Michael Hayden was growing up, there were some items that his father had not kept stored away. One was a Paul Ritter violin that Rudolf had received on his bar mitzvah. Michael’s daughter, Anna, now a Vancouver hematology oncologist, played on it as a young person and Hayden hopes to one day hear grandchildren also play it. It is part of the exhibit. It is also a hint of how the family got its name. It was not a coincidence that, in anglicizing his name, Rudolf/Roger chose a variation on the surname of a legendary classical composer.
“There were piano recitals and all kinds of concerts in the Hahn family every Sunday,” said Hayden. “They used to have a little chamber orchestra, it was a totally different world. So, he chose the name Roger Hayden from Rudolf Hahn and I’m sure Hayden had some comfort for him because Haydn was so important in his life.”
Hayden credits the German government and museums for supporting restitution efforts. His family recently received a grant from the German federal government to hire a researcher to continue the search. Understandably, the challenges are great. The Hahn family’s collection of Judaica was considered one of the finest and most extensive in Germany, rivaling those of the Sassoon and Rothschild families. Because they had lent some objects to museums, and because of Max and Gertrud’s careful recordkeeping, the family has both photographs and detailed inventories of what the collection included before it was looted. Most families do not have such tangible proof.
Hayden emphasizes that any material value of restituted artifacts is irrelevant and the importance is because of personal significance, and that the process represents steps toward reconciliation and restoring dignity of Nazism’s victims.
“For me, personally, it’s been a process of coming to terms with the unimaginable horror and confronting it,” he said.
He has had very positive and some negative experiences during this work. He is impressed with the German government’s efforts to seek forgiveness for their country’s past, including memorializations like the 70,000 Stolpersteine, stumbling stones, that have been installed outside the last homes of victims of the Nazis, and the fact that the vast Holocaust memorial in Berlin is located between the embassies of major countries in the heart of the city.
“When I see Germany and I see what they’re doing, it’s been very instructive for me about confronting your history and confronting it unabashedly,” he said, making parallels with Canada’s reconciliation process with First Nations.
Germany’s response is especially admirable in comparison to other European countries that experienced collaboration and, rather than confronting their past, are actively denying it.
But, Hayden has had negative experiences, including the discovery that the school his father had attended in Hamburg had, as recently as a few years ago, what amounted to a museum to those students who had fought for the Nazis, with not a trace of the fate of the Jewish students who had attended. The Nazi display is now gone and a marker lists the names of Jewish students who were murdered. But he also discovered that the school’s long-held assurance that they had never participated in Nazi activities was fabricated, when photos emerged of the school festooned in Nazi flags and students and faculty making Heil Hitler salutes.
“At a personal level, for me, it’s trying to give up the stowaway of sorrow and pain on my shoulders that I’ve never confronted and to move forward,” Hayden said. “It’s not that I’m at forgiveness, but I recognize that forgiveness is not so much for those you are forgiving, but for the forgiver. You can give up your own toxic anger and move forward. For me, it’s also been a journey to acknowledge my own German ancestry and come to terms with it.”
He hopes that the exhibit, his family’s story and the larger facts of the Holocaust resonate in today’s world.
“We’ve got to be aware of ourselves as Jews of condemning other populations, we have to be aware of stereotyping, we have to be even more acutely aware from our own history about the struggles and making sure that we learn from that in the way that we conduct ourselves, so recognizing, as we look at children on television separated from their parents, that we too can be horrified by that and do whatever we can to make sure that we are not complicit or even silent in the face of all of this,” he said. “In certain circumstances, unless we really hold onto some deep principles of democratic culture and value of life, your neighbours can become your killers.”
As the search for additional family heirlooms continues, Hayden acknowledges the challenges. “I think it is a needle in a haystack to be honest, but it’s worth pursuing.”
Of the entire experience, he said: “It’s been an opportunity to give individuality and identity for two of six million people who were murdered, to rescue them from generalizations and understand who they were and understand their distinctiveness and to bring my grandparents out of obscurity and give them the warmth and respect they deserve.”
The Kristallnacht commemoration where Hayden spoke began with a candlelight procession of survivors. Cantor Yaacov Orzech chanted El Maleh Rachamim. Philip Levinson, president of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC), introduced the event and Nina Krieger, the VHEC’s executive director, introduced the keynote speaker. Rabbi Jonathan Infeld offered reflections after Hayden’s address. Jody Wilson-Raybould, member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville, offered greetings, and Councilor Sarah Kirby-Yung read a proclamation from the City of Vancouver. The event was presented by the VHEC, in partnership with Congregation Beth Israel, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and the Robert and Marilyn Krell Endowment Fund of the VHEC.
At the University of British Columbia on Nov. 21, Prof. Robin Judd will speak on What’s Love Got to Do With It? Jewish War Brides and North American Soldier Husbands after the Second World War. (photo from Robin Judd)
Prof. Robin Judd noticed that a significant number of the earliest Holocaust memoirs written by women were penned by “war brides” who had married American, Canadian or British soldiers.
In the course of teaching about the Holocaust at Ohio State University, the coincidence struck her and, as happens in research, led her onto a new topic. She is nearing completion on a book about the experiences of Jewish women – and a few men – in Europe and North Africa who married Allied service personnel and moved to Canada, the United States or Britain. She will give a guest lecture on the subject at the University of British Columbia next week and the public is welcome to attend.
The lecture is titled What’s Love Got to Do With It? Jewish War Brides and North American Soldier Husbands after the Second World War, and Judd told the Independent that love certainly played a key role, but some of the other factors at play also interest her.
“What prompts individuals from radically different cultures, who may not necessarily speak the same language, what prompts them to create relationships with one another and long-lasting relationships, relationships that are going to result in marriage and then bring the civilians to Canada, Britain or the United States?” she asked.
Most of the soldiers that Judd is studying were Jewish themselves, though there are exceptions to the rule.
In some cases, the wives would arrive in the new country before or otherwise apart from their new husbands or fiancés. An entire infrastructure was in place to accommodate and integrate them.
“The war brides, particularly if you come to the United States or to Canada as a war bride, first you live with other war brides at least temporarily in a kind of war bride home or war bride camp and you travel on a war bride ship and there are particular Red Cross workers who teach English and show films and cooking classes,” she said.
If the fiancés or husbands were not yet decommissioned or were traveling with their units, the brides may have found themselves in the position of living with their new in-laws.
“These were not the spouses they were planning for their sons,” Judd comments. “And all of a sudden here you have this woman show up. You are processing stories that you are hearing about the war and all of a sudden here comes this person and you might not be able to communicate, you might not have a shared language, you might not know how to even ask questions about what this person had experienced.”
Feeling isolated and foreign, some of these women used the opportunity to express their experiences privately, to themselves, in writing.
“Some of the women that I’ve spoken to have told me that they used that time to write out their story, to put it to paper, because they needed to kind of get it out and there was no one with whom they could talk, literally,” she said. “But then, as they began to create networks, make new connections, maybe by that point their now-husbands have returned to Canada, Britain or the U.S., a number of them tell me that they then destroyed them.”
By an apparent coincidence, though, Judd concluded that it was disproportionately the women who had married soldiers who were among the first to publish English-language Holocaust memoir narratives for general readers in the 1970s and ’80s. She has a theory about this, but admits she could be wrong: these may have been some of the first women who were asked to speak about their early life and Holocaust experiences to Jewish women’s groups, federations and other community audiences, acclimating them to become among the first to put them on paper for general readers.
“But, again, I could be completely wrong,” she said.
Judd’s lecture is supported by a Holocaust education fund in UBC’s department of history to support undergraduate education on the Holocaust. The fund supports a biannual lecture, alternating years with the Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture, and is incorporated into an undergraduate course, History of the Holocaust, taught by Prof. Richard Menkis, who is also chair of the committee that manages the fund. The public is welcome to attend on Thursday, Nov. 21, 5-6:15 p.m., at Buchanan D217 at UBC.