Toronto actor Jake Epstein hosted Canada’s online Yom Hashoah commemoration on April 20. (PR photo)
Days after many Canadian families celebrated Passover remotely using online platforms for virtual seders, Yom Hashoah was commemorated with a virtual ceremony that linked survivors and others across the country in an unprecedented, but deeply moving, program of remembrance and education.
The 27th of Nissan was set aside in 1951 by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, as Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. This year marked the 75th anniversary since the end of the Second World War and the end of the Holocaust.
Hosted live by Toronto actor Jake Epstein, the event, on April 20, featured prerecorded content from organizations across Canada and new footage broadcast live, including candlelighting from six locations across the country, among them the Vancouver home of Shoshana and Shawn Lewis and their children Charlie, Julian and Mattea.
In a recorded message, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada stands firm against antisemitism and with Israel and the Jewish people.
“The Shoah was undoubtedly one of the darkest periods in human history and these moments where we pause to remember matter, both to honour those who lived through these horrors but also to make sure these atrocities are never repeated,” Trudeau said. “Sadly, acts of antisemitic violence are more and more frequent today and Canada is not immune to this trend. For many Jewish Canadians, the rise in attacks is not only troubling, it’s downright scary. But, let me be clear, attacks against the Jewish community are attacks against us all. Let me be equally clear, Canada and Israel are partners, allies and close friends and we will continue to stand proudly with Israel. Attacks against Israel, including calls for BDS and attempts to single her out at the UN, will not be tolerated.… We will always condemn any movement that attacks Israel, Jewish Canadians and the values we share.”
The Yom Hashoah program also included recorded messages from Israeli diplomats in Canada and prerecorded musical components.
“During the war, music played an important role in lifting the spirits of ghetto inhabitants, camp inmates, as well as being used as a bargaining chip in negotiating small freedoms in the camps,” said Epstein.
Pieces were performed by the Toronto Jewish Chorus, participants in previous March of the Living programs and by shinshinim, young Israelis performing overseas duties after completing high school. Memorial prayers, El Maleh Rachamim and Kaddish, were offered by Cantor Pinchas Levinson of Ottawa.
Epstein, a grandson of Holocaust survivors, spoke of his family’s history, the good fortune of his grandparents’ survival and the resilience they showed in beginning a new life in a new land.
“Upon being liberated from the camps, survivors faced the inconceivable realization of the enormity of their loss,” Epstein said. “Recovery was a long road ahead. Survivors, like my grandparents, immediately searched for any other surviving family members, only to discover that they had lost everyone. And yet, somehow, they rebuilt their lives.
“My grandparents came to Canada through Pier 21 in Halifax before ultimately moving to Toronto. Even though they were free, the culture shock, the language, the difficulty in finding work, made life extremely hard. My grandfather, an architectural engineer in what was then Czechoslovakia, was lucky enough to find work as a bookkeeper for a lumberyard. My grandmother became a seamstress, working day and night, not only making clothing for customers, but making dresses for my mom as well. Somehow, they managed to connect with other survivors who became like family.…My grandparents’ story of resilience and adversity is a common one. They, like so many other survivors in Canada, raised families, found employment, learned new languages and contributed to Canadian society and Jewish communal life. Some even dedicated their lives, decades later, to speaking out against hate and injustice by sharing their Holocaust stories with students and the public.”
Survivors from across Canada, in video recordings, spoke of their liberation experiences and offered advice to successive generations.
Faigie Libman of Toronto recounted her moment of liberation.
“We saw a man on a horse, a Russian soldier, coming towards us,” she recounted. “He said he was a captain, that we are free. You cannot imagine the joy, you cannot imagine the exhilaration. I still see the picture in front of my eyes, women who could hardly walk, some were even crawling, pulled him down, they were kissing him, they were hugging him, and that day will always be in my mind – Jan. 21, 1945 – we were finally free.”
Sydney Zoltan of Montreal expressed concern about Holocaust awareness after the eyewitnesses pass.
“We, the youngest survivors, now stand in the frontline,” he said. “We often ask ourselves what memory of the Shoah will look like when we are gone. We depart with the hope that our fears are only imaginary.”
Another survivor asked younger generations to be vigilant.
“I want young people to remember, I want them to be politically aware, that their government should never preach hate,” said Elly Gotz of Toronto. “I want them to understand how damaging hate is to people.”
The commemoration, coordinated by the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto, was presented in partnership with organizations across the country, including the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. Earlier the same day, a global Yom Hashoah memorial event took place from an eerily empty Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, again with video-recorded survivor testimony and messages from political, religious and civic figures.
Like everything else in this time of pandemic, Yom Hashoah, which took place this week, was not normal.
On Monday, at 10 a.m. Pacific time, viewers worldwide, including here in British Columbia, tuned in online to watch the state ceremony marking the start of Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, taking place in Israel at Yad Vashem. Later that day, a cross-Canada commemoration took place, presented by a number of national bodies and with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre as a contributing organization.
The eerily vacant hall at Yad Vashem was interspersed with video recordings of remarks from Israel’s president, prime minister and chief rabbis, as well as six survivors, who shared their stories of loss and survival. The Canadian commemoration a few hours later was similarly moving, with video interspersed with thoughtful reflections from a member of the third generation who served as host and a message from the prime minister, stories of survivors, and candlelighting by families across the country. (See coverage next issue.)
No doubt the organizers of these events would have preferred to hold them in person. The proximity of family, friends and community strengthens survivors and the successive generations. Being in proximity provides crucial emotional, psychological and intellectual means of conveying the historical importance of that time and its lessons for social justice and human rights today.
The use of digital technology to mark Yom Hashoah was perhaps a little less startlingly odd, given that Jewish people worldwide recently experienced an unprecedented Passover, engaging in “zeders” – virtual seders on Zoom or other videoconferencing platforms – to get together with family over the holidays. The contortions some of our family members went through to make these celebrations happen was cause for some laughs, as well as some tsuris, and Passover 5780 will not be soon forgotten.
This was hardly an ideal way of celebrating – and many in the Orthodox community couldn’t even do this much – but it was necessary given the social isolation required of us during this pandemic.
Yet, while it is important to come together for happy occasions, this time is particularly difficult for those experiencing grief and loss. Having to up-end the ancient Jewish rituals that serve to sustain and strengthen mourners, those who have lost loved ones are left with minimal funeral attendees and shivahs conducted by telephone and computer; hugs only from those who share a household, none of the important reinforcement – and comfort – that comes from the physical proximity of a broader community. Even this sad situation fulfils a mitzvah, though. As painful as it is to be remote from our loved ones in times of grief, it is pikuach nefesh, an act of saving a life, the highest Jewish value and one that overrides almost every other law. During a pandemic, we remain apart from our loved ones because we love them.
Yom Hashoah commemorations often take a sombre tone and include some of the rituals we perform at a funeral, which made viewing the events in seclusion especially isolating. Yet, conversely, there was something uniquely appropriate about this alternative form of marking Yom Hashoah.
While we were fortunate to have survivors participate via video in these and other online commemorations of the day, the undeniable reality is that this was among the last such commemorative days where successive generations will be able to hear firsthand from the mouths of survivors their stories of loss, resistance and survival. Finding ways beyond first-person witness testimonies is the unavoidable way forward for Holocaust education and remembrance. Organizations dedicated to this mission have recognized this reality and have been developing impactful ways to augment and, eventually, replace in-person survivor testimony.
Remembering and, using that memory as motivation, ensuring that the promise of “Never again” is taken up by the next generations is also a Jewish value. It took an admirable mobilization of our local, national and international communal organizations to ensure that the pandemic did not cause us to ignore Yom Hashoah this year. It was precisely the sort of flexible, responsive action that will be required to meet the demands of Holocaust remembrance and education in the decades to come.
Necessity is the mother of invention and the unusual yet deeply moving commemorations this week should encourage us that, whatever challenges and changes the future holds, we remain determined to memorialize and educate about the Holocaust in ways appropriate to the times in which we live.
The grave of an unknown soldier on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. (photo by Deborah Rubin Fields)
As of Israel Independence Day last year, 23,741 Israeli soldiers had died during their service. The country has come to memorialize its fallen soldiers in one of three ways: 1) most commonly, it provides a grave and a headstone in a military cemetery, with information provided on the soldier, 2) when there is no official grave (that is, when no one really knows where the body of the deceased is), it inscribes the name either on a memorial wall or marker, and 3) it furnishes a grave and a headstone, but little or no information about the deceased is engraved on the stone.
Today, when a soldier dies, the following identification is to be established: the name of the soldier, their army identification number, national civilian identification number, army rank and army unit, as well as their job in the army. When they are buried, the headstone notes the full name of the deceased, their parents’ first names, country of birth (if outside of Israel), date of birth (according to both the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars), aliyah date, date and place of death and age at the time of death. The stone also contains the emblem of the Israel Defence Forces. In a military cemetery, the tombstone’s content reflects a high degree of uniformity. One monument pretty much contains the same details as the next one.
In pre-state Israel and in the War of Independence in 1948, these practices were not yet in place. Young men and women – many of whom had just survived the Holocaust – fought to establish the state. They (and all other soldiers) had little military training. They might not have known Hebrew very well. Not uncommonly, they were the only survivor of their families.
Times were tense, at times verging on the chaotic. The fighting left limited time for socializing, for establishing relationships. So, if a soldier died, it was not surprising to have known them only by their first name. Under the circumstances, most fellow fighters would not have been acquainted with the soldier’s parents, would not have even known their names.
At the end of the War of Independence, about 1,000 of the 4,500 fallen were considered missing. It was the chief rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who initiated an intensive project of identifying the dead. The establishment of military cemeteries helped the identification process move forward, but, even after that, there remained anonymous soldiers, and headstones with missing information.
Recognizing this situation, Dorit Perry and Uri Sagi started Giving a Face to the Fallen. The organization has been in existence fewer than 10 years. Its team of some 52 volunteer investigators and activists comes from a variety of backgrounds. It includes bereaved family members, friends of fallen soldiers, judges, former career army officers and others. As the organization’s website states, all volunteers believe there is “a duty to remember and, in so doing, to … repay the debt we owe to those who gave their lives for the establishment of the state of Israel.”
All of the volunteers are in a race against time, trying to piece together information on 500 soldiers who fell fighting either in pre-state Israel or in the War of Independence. They ask the following questions: Did you (or maybe your grandfather or an older neighbour) know the fighter we are researching? Maybe you fought with such person either before the creation of the state or in the War of Independence? Maybe you still have pictures of your fighting unit?
The volunteers also try to fill in blanks by asking to see old photos of youth movement activities, aliyah preparation groups (aliyah registration cards have provided investigators with correct birth dates and with the names of relatives, see blog.nli.org.il/en/baumgarten) and family albums. Some soldiers do not even have a photo on file.
Besides trying to find people still alive who were acquainted with these fallen soldiers, volunteers search archives. It is real detective work. When successful, there is the rededication of a tombstone with the added information. To date, out of the more than 800 “untraceable” soldiers, they have pieced together the missing information for 120 of them.
The stories of the fallen soldiers of this period are poignant. Take the example of Tobias Marmolstein, who came from Bitshekov, Czechoslovakia. His father had died in Tobias’s arms at Mauthausen concentration camp. Twenty-year-old Tobias was killed as his Haganah unit fought to open the road to Jerusalem. He had been in Israel for just nine days. He is buried on Mt. Herzl.
Each life story has its twists and turns. For instance, over two decades passed before Shaul Yekutiel Urbach came to be buried in Israel. He arrived in Palestine in 1939 to visit Tel Aviv relatives. When the Second World War broke out, he was unable to return to his large family in Kielce, Poland, so he volunteered to fight for the British. The British sent him to fight in Greece. There, the Germans took him prisoner. The Nazis sent him to do hard labour in Schlesien, Germany. In a revolt against a Nazi camp officer, Shaul was wounded, and he died in a German hospital. After the war, his only surviving brother, Raphael Fishel – the rest of the family had been murdered at Treblinka – tried to have Shaul’s remains brought to Israel. For 22 years, the British stalled in releasing his body from their military cemetery. Finally, in 1967, Shaul was reinterred, on Mt. Herzl.
Uri Sagi has maintained that a blank headstone or one that is missing information makes the soldier invisible. A fallen soldier, Sagi said, should not be invisible.
As time passes, it becomes harder and harder to find acquaintances and family who can fill in the blanks with firsthand testimony. For more information on Giving a Face to the Fallen, visit latetpanim.org.il.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
On Sunday, vigils were held in many cities to commemorate the 11 worshippers killed at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018. The shooting was the deadliest attack on Jews in American history.
As we have mourned and taken greater measures toward protecting ourselves, we have, mainly, not let fear paralyze us or isolate us from our neighbours and the larger world. We have continued to live Jewishly, whatever that means to each one of us; whether it’s helping those less fortunate, lobbying for sound government policies, going to synagogue or simply being kind to the people we encounter in our day.
In Vancouver, community members and others could join two collective moments of remembrance on Sunday: the Jewish Federations of North America’s Pause with Pittsburgh, which included the livestreaming of a public memorial service, and a service at Congregation Beth Israel, organized by the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, Hillel BC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.
Over the weekend, Jews were also encouraged – as they were in the wake of the tragedy last year – to #ShowUpForShabbat, an initiative of the American Jewish Committee, calling for us “to honour the victims and raise our collective voice for a world free of antisemitism, hate and bigotry.”
Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, who grew up in Pittsburgh, told News 1130, “There are still many people who are frightened and worried about what took place a year ago…. There are people who are concerned about coming to synagogue and people who are concerned about antisemitism. Especially on holidays, one of the messages I deliver is that, unfortunately, antisemitism is on the rise in the world. But we have to remain strong, to have the courage to come to synagogue, and to not allow attacks like this to prevent us from being who we are and to deprive us of the benefits that come from being in a sacred space.”
Infeld also noted, “One of the aftermaths of the attack is that people in Pittsburgh didn’t feel this was an attack just on a synagogue, they felt it was an attack on Pittsburgh…. We have to understand an attack on any sacred space is an attack on an entire community, so we need to stand together as one community with the message that love is stronger than hate.”
While the situation is not as bad as elsewhere in the world, the number of hate crimes and the incidences of antisemitism in Canada, including in British Columbia, have increased worrisomely. Love has a long row to hoe. Not only to give us the courage to speak up in the face of prejudice, but also to confront and temper our own. Not only to make us self-assured enough to make space for those with whom we agree and for whom we care, but also for those with whom we disagree and whom we dislike. Not only to inspire us to dream of a better world, but to give us the imagination and resourcefulness to bring those aspirations into being.
Love can only be stronger than hate if we choose to make it so.
Vancouver Peace Poppies co-founder Teresa Gagné at the White Poppy Memorial in 2018. (photo by Diane Donaldson)
A local group is hoping to broaden the scope of Remembrance Day as more than an occasion to honour the brave men and women who have died while serving for their country. Through the distribution of white poppies, the Vancouver Peace Poppies (VPP) movement strives to extend the focus on Nov. 11 to all those who have suffered as a result of military conflicts.
Teresa Gagné, who co-founded VPP with Denis Laplante in 2008, stresses that the group intends no disrespect towards soldiers. Instead, they wish to bring more awareness to the toll warfare has on the whole population, whether it be the loss of life or other trauma experienced. Beyond representing the victims of war, civilian and military, the white poppy, according to VPP, also challenges the beliefs, values and institutions that create the view that war is unavoidable.
“I have always had respect and sympathy for veterans, who put their life, health and family on the line to serve,” Gagné said. “I believe they deserve recognition and support, but, for years, I was uncomfortable wearing a red poppy, because of the undercurrent of promotion and recruitment for present and future wars that I detect in many public events around the topic of supporting veterans. The white poppy attracts questions, and gives me a chance to explain the nuances of my support.”
A 2016 study by Alexandre Marc, a specialist in conflict and violence for the World Bank, brought to light the overwhelmingly disproportionate number of casualties among non-combatants as opposed to combatants in recent decades. According to some reports, civilians constitute 90% of wartime fatalities, a ratio that has existed since the mid-1950s.
What’s more, Marc’s research points out that global poverty is increasingly concentrated in countries affected by violence and that prolonged conflict keeps countries poor.
Gagné and Laplante have been active in the peace movement since their teens. Their 2008 launch of VPP began by distributing handmade white poppies as a way to promote discussion and a broader focus for Remembrance Day. The following year, while still a “kitchen table” operation, they imported 500 cloth poppies from Britain. VPP now sends out more than 5,000 poppies across Canada annually.
Since 2016, VPP has partnered with the B.C. Humanist Association to host Let Peace Be Their Memorial, an annual Remembrance Day wreath-laying ceremony that includes peace songs, short presentations and poetry. This year, the Multifaith Action Society is also a co-host. The event poster highlights, “The time and location of the ceremony has been chosen to avoid any appearance of competition with, or disrespect for, veteran-focused events.”
As in previous years, this year’s ceremony at Seaforth Peace Park on Nov. 11, 2:30 p.m., will include a special wreath laid in memory of Holocaust victims.
Two members of the Vancouver Jewish community, Marcy Cohen and Gyda Chud, are engaged in the local movement. In 2017, Cohen attended her first Let Peace Be Their Memorial and then sought to get others in the community involved.
“I was far more affected emotionally than I anticipated,” said Cohen of the occasion.
After learning of the history, values and focus of VPP, Chud recently joined the committee, and seeks to profile their work in the larger Jewish community. She represented Pacific Immigrant Resource Society (PIRS), a local refugee service group, in laying the refugee wreath in 2017 and 2018.
“The memorial serves as a powerful and compelling call to action for everything we can and must do to create a more peaceful world,” said Chud.
Last year’s Holocaust wreath was laid by Henry Grayman and Deborah Ross-Grayman, both children of Holocaust survivors. Having each experienced the intergenerational effects of trauma, the couple, both therapists, are facilitators for the Second Generation Group, an organization in Vancouver comprised of children of Holocaust survivors sharing their experiences among peers.
The people laying the Holocaust wreath at this year’s Let Peace Be Their Memorial have yet to be announced.
The red poppy widely worn today first appeared in 1921 on what was then called Armistice Day. In 1926, the No More War Movement, a British pacifist organization, came up with the idea for the white poppy and, in 1933, the Co-Operative Women’s Guild in the United Kingdom sold the first white poppies as a means of remembering that women had lost husbands, sons and fathers during wartime.
The wreaths that Vancouver Peace Poppies and other groups make, a mix of white and red poppies, highlight the amount of civilian suffering. VPP also distributes white poppies in schools in an effort to teach students that wars mostly kill non-military people, pollute the environment and send the message that violence as a means to settle disputes, even for adults, is acceptable.
VPP hands out its poppies by donation to increase awareness of its cause and not as a fundraiser. Poppies cost $1.25 each, of which 95 cents goes to the Peace Pledge Union, a pacifist organization based in London, England, which, since 1934, has advocated for nonviolent solutions to global problems. A $1 or $2 donation allows VPP to provide subsidized poppies for classroom use and free poppies to disadvantaged groups.
For poppies and more information, visit peacepoppies.ca or call 604-437-4453.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
צי’זקייק חוגג ארבעים שנות פעילות ומציין שנתיים למותם של הבעלים (רוני רחמני)
הקפה המיתולגי צ’יזקייק אצטרה יחגוג בקרוב ארבעים שנות פעילות. הקפה נמצא ברחוב גראנוויל מייד לאחר הגשר (שמחבר את העיר עם הדאון טאון), בסמוך לשדרה הרביעית.
ביום ראשון האחרון (העשרים בחודש) נערך טקס אזכרה לבעלי צי’זקייק, אדית ומייקל סימס, בבית העלמין שבפוינט רוברטס ארה”ב (שסמוכה לדלתה שבמחוז בריטיש קולומביה). באירוע שאורגן על ידי בנם יחידם של הזוג, דניאל סימס ואשתו פטרישיה, כלל חשיפת המצבה מעל הקבר. השתתפו בו בני משפחה וחברים קרובים.
אדית ומייקל סימס שמו קץ לחייהם ביחד (אדית הייתה בת 77 ומייקל היה בן 79), ב-27 בנובמבר לפני שנתיים. בחיים כמו במותם השניים תמיד היו ביחד: הם גרו ביחד מרגע שהתחתנו בשנות העשרים המוקדמות של חייהם, הם עבדו ביחד בקפה, טיילו ברחבי העולם ביחד, נפשו ביחד, נפגשו ביחד עם החוג הנרחב של החבריהם מכל קצוות עולם, שהו יחדיו באירועי משפחה שונים, הופיעו כמעט לכל אירוע ביחד, החזיקו במחשב אחד, באימייל אחד ובמכשיר סלולר אחד.
מייקל חלה בנסיעתם האחרונה של הזוג לצרפת ודרום אפריקה ולקה בשיתוק חלקי. המחלה הפריעה לו למהמשיך ולתפקיד כרגיל, הוא התקשה בהליכה ובעיקר בנגינה על פסנתר – הדבר שהכי אהב לעשות. גם אדית כבר לא הייתה בקו הבריאות ולכן הם החליטו יחדיו להיפרד מהחיים. לא במקרה הם עשו זאת בסטודיו שלהם שממוקם מאחורי בית הקפה.
דן לקח את מושכות ניהול בית הקפה לידיו והמקום ממשיך להיות מלא מדי ערב, שבעה בימים בשבוע, מזה קרוב לארבעים שנה.
רבים רבים בוונקובר ובמקומות אחרים בעולם הצטערו לשמוע על מותם הפתאמי של אדית ומקייל סימס. לא נמצא אף אחד שאמר משהו רע עליהם. רבים הגיבו על פרסום הידיעה בעיתון “הוונקובר סאן” על מותם. נכתבו דברים טובים מאוד והובע צער עמוק על הפרידה מהזוג האהוב. להלן חלק מתגובות: “אדית ומייקל היו זוג נפלא ותמיד קיבלו בברכה, באהבה ובנוחות את הלקוחות”. “כמה היו נחמדים ונדיבים”. “איזה זוג מדהים. אבידה גדולה”. “זוג כל כך נחמד, אני שבור לשמוע את החדשות הרעות”. “צ’יזקייק היה מקום נפלא לעבוד בו בגלל אדית ומייקל”. “אהבתי את האווירה והמוסיקה. מאוד מאוד עצוב”. “אני בהלם לשמוע את החדשות הנוראיות. אדית ומייקל היו זוג כל כך נחמד, נעים וחם”. “הם היו נשמות יפות, נדיבים, מתוקים וטהורים. חיו בדרכם והיו מאוד מיוחדים”.
צ’יזקייק הזכיר בית קפה בפאריז בשל האווירה הרומנטית, האורות הנמוכים, התמונות בשחור לבן, הקירות באדום והנעימות ששררה במקום. מייקל ניגן נפלא ואהב לאלתר ג’אז. אדית אהבה לשיר וקול זהב שלה הזכיר מאוד את קולה של הזמרת הצרפתית הידועה אדית פיאף.
השניים היו יהודים: אדית ילידת סקוטלנד שגדלה בטורונטו ומייקל אמריקני יליד בוסטון. הם הכירו בישראל בשנת 1961 והתאהבו במבט ראשון. לאחר שנה החליטו השניים להינשא בטורונטו. ולאחר מכן הזוג עבר לבוסטון. אחרי שנולד בנם דן הם החליטו לעבור לוונקובר, שהפכה לביתם החם במשך כארבעים השנים האחרונות.
יום אחד בשנת 1979 אדית ומייקל מצאו חנות להשכרה ברחוב גראנוויל ובמקום נפתח קפה צ’יזקייק אצטרה. לאט לאט הקפה החל להתמלא ורבים באו לשמוע את מייקל מנגן ושר עם אשתו, ונהנו לאכול עוגת גבינה ברוטב תות שדה או שוקולד. תוך תקופה קצרה צ’יזקייק הפך לשם דבר והמקום שימש לעלייה במשך שנים וגם כיום – כאמור זה קרוב לארבעים שנה.
University of Ottawa’s Prof. Jan Grabowski delivered the Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia Nov. 15. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Jan Grabowski, a University of Ottawa professor who is a leading scholar of the Holocaust, delivered the annual Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia Nov. 15 – the same day he filed a libel suit against an organization aligned with Poland’s far-right government.
The Polish League Against Defamation, which is allied with the country’s governing Law and Justice Party, initiated a campaign against Grabowski last year, accusing him of ignoring the number of Poles who saved Jews and exaggerating the number of Jews killed by their Polish compatriots. Grabowski’s book, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, won the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research. An English translation of an even more compendious multi-year analysis undertaken by a team of researchers under Grabowski’s leadership will be published next year. His Vrba lecture provided an overview of some of the findings in the new work. It is a harrowing survey that brought condemnation from Polish-Canadians in the Vancouver audience.
The new book, which does not yet have an English title, is a work of “microhistory,” Grabowski said. Holocaust studies is one of the fastest-growing fields of historical research, he said, partly because it got off to a slow start and really only picked up in the 1980s. Much of the written work being completed today is in the area of survivor memoirs, second- and third-generation experiences, including inherited trauma, and “meta-history,” the study of the study of the Holocaust.
“This assumes that we actually know what has happened,” he said. Grabowski maintains there is still much primary research to be done. “We are still far away from knowing as much as we should about this, one of the greatest tragedies in human history.”
There are millions of pages of relevant historical documentation almost completely untapped – primarily in provincial Polish archives, police records and town halls – that spell out in detail the often-enthusiastic complicity of Poles in turning on their
Jewish neighbours. By combing through these previously ignored records, Grabowski and his co-authors have amassed evidence of widespread – and eager – involvement of Polish police and other Poles in assisting Germans to identify, hunt down and murder Polish Jews.
The work has been met with official condemnation. Earlier this year, the Polish government adopted a law that would expose scholars involved in the study of the Holocaust to fines and prison terms of up to three years. The criminal component of the law, including imprisonment, was rescinded after international backlash, but the atmosphere around Holocaust inquiry in Poland remains repressive.
Grabowski said that the “explosion of right-wing extremists, xenophobia and blatant antisemitism” in Poland is related to the “undigested, unlearned and/or rejected legacy of the Holocaust” – the fact that Polish society has, by and large, refused to acknowledge the wounds of the past or to deal with its own role in the extermination of three million of its Jewish citizens between 1939 to 1945.
The concept of microhistory, which is the approach Grabowski’s team uses, is not local history, he said, “it is an attempt to follow trajectories of people.” He instructed his researchers to focus on the exact day, often hour by hour, when liquidation actions took place in hundreds of Polish shtetls and ghettoes. To do so upends a conspiracy of silence that has existed for decades.
“Why the silence?” he asked the audience. “There were three parts to the silence. One was the Jews. They were dead. They had no voice … 98.5% of Polish Jews who remained under German occupation, who never fled, died. You have a 1.5% survival rate for the Polish Jews. So, the Jews couldn’t really, after the war, ask for justice, because they were gone.”
The communist regime that dominated Poland for a half-century after the war was viewed not only as a foreign power inflicted on Poles from the Soviet Union, Grabowski said, “but, more importantly, as Jewish lackeys – that was a term that was used.
“So, it wouldn’t really stand to have trials of those accused of complicity with the Germans for murdering the Jews,” he said. “That would only confirm the widespread accusations that the communists were here doing the Jewish bidding.”
The third factor in the silence were the interests of Polish nationalists, whose ideology is inherently antisemitic, and who are the dominant political force in the country today.
While clearly not all Poles were collaborators, it would have been impossible for almost anyone in the country to claim ignorance of what was happening.
“Mass killing was taking place in the streets,” the professor said. Researchers found bills of sale charging city officials for the sand municipal workers needed to cover the blood on sidewalks.
“When you say that blood was running in the streets, it’s not a metaphor, it’s just a description of what really happened,” he said.
In some ghettos, as many as half the Jewish population was killed on the day of the action, with massive participation from Polish society.
“One area more, one area less,” he said. “Usually between 10 and 20% of Jews were slaughtered simply in order to frighten the remaining 80% to go to the trains, to be herded to the trains,” said Grabowski.
In Poland’s smaller communities, centuries of Jewish and Polish social, commercial and civic interactions did not result in camaraderie – on the contrary.
“The deadliest places of all [were] small shtetls, small towns, where anonymity was not available when the authorities were not far away,” he said. In one instance, a Jew in hiding heard his neighbour assure the Nazis he would return with a hatchet to help them break into the hiding place seconds before the door was axed down.
In another example, Grabowski described in minute detail the atrocities committed by Germans, Poles and Ukrainian recruits in Węgrów, a town in eastern central Poland with a Jewish population of about “10,000 starving Jews who have been terrorized for nearly three years and now the final moment has come.”
Rumours of liquidation swirled for months, as Jews fleeing neighbouring communities brought narratives of destruction. In the day or two before the liquidation, wives of Polish military and other officials rushed to their Jewish tailors, shoemakers and others craftspeople to obtain the items they knew would soon become unavailable.
“With mounting panic, people started to prepare themselves for a siege,” said Grabowski. “They built hideouts to survive the initial German fury, they started to seek out contacts on the Aryan side of the city, looking for help from former neighbours, sometimes friends and former business partners.”
On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1942, Polish officials in the town were instructed to assemble horses, wagons and volunteers. A cordon of Nazis and collaborators surrounded the city at intervals of no more than 100 metres.
The mayor of the town wrote: “Jews who woke up to the terrible news ran like mad around the city, half-naked, looking for shelter.” The same leader noted that, when the Germans demanded he produce volunteers to help with the task of rounding up their Jewish neighbours, he feared he would not be able to meet their needs.
“Before I was able to leave my office, in order to assess the situation and issue orders for the removal of the bodies,” the mayor testified, “removal of the bodies had already started. There were carts and people ready. They volunteered for the job without any pressure.”
For Jews, the Germans were to be feared, but their Polish neighbours were also a threat.
“The greatest danger was not associated with the Germans, but with the Poles,” said Grabowski. “Unlike the former, the latter could easily tell a Jew from a non-Jew by their accent, customs and physical appearance.”
Poles were rewarded with a quarter-kilo of sugar for every Jew they turned in.
“The searches were conducted with extreme brutality and violence … the streets were soon filled with crowds of Jews being driven toward the market square, which the Germans had transformed into a holding pen for thousands of ghetto inmates,” he said.
On the streets, “the cries of Jews mixed with the shouts of the Germans and the laughter of the Poles,” according to an eyewitness.
“All of this was done in a small town where everybody knows each other,” said Grabowski. “It’s not only the question of geographic proximity, it’s social proximity. These people knew each other.”
People were taking clothes, jewelry and other possessions from the dead bodies. A husband would toss a body in the air while the wife pulled off articles of clothing until what was left was a pile of naked cadavers.
“They even pulled out golden teeth with pliers,” said Grabowski. A court clerk responded defensively to accusations that the gold he was trying to sell was soaked in human blood. “I personally washed the stuff,” he protested.
The prevalence in the Polish imagination of a Jewish association with gold partly accounted for the actions.
“This betrayal, due to widespread antisemitism and hatred of the Jews, was combined with the seemingly universal conviction that Jewish gold was just waiting to be transferred to new owners,” Grabowski said. “The myth of Jewish gold was so popular and so deeply rooted among Poles that it sealed the fate of [many Jews].”
The historical records indicate many Poles saw no need to cover their collaborationist tracks. Police and others who took it upon themselves to aid the Nazis without pressure defended their actions.
One policeman, after the war, depicted the killing of Jews as a patriotic act, one that saved Polish villagers from the wrath of the Nazis, who would have learned sooner or later about Jews in hiding and who then, he claimed, would have burned down the entire village.
As efficient as the Nazi killing machine was, Grabowski contends it could not have been as effective without the enthusiastic complicity of so many in Poland and other occupied countries.
“It was their participation that, in a variety of ways, made the German system of murder as efficient as it was,” he said.
With trepidation, Grabowski and his fellow researchers followed the documents and met with people in the towns. They would review documents from a 1947 trial, for instance, then go to the village in question.
The entire village would be conscious of its war-era history, he said. And the people who are, decades later, ostracized by their neighbours are not those who collaborated in the murder of Jews.
“The person that is ostracized is the family who tried to rescue the Jews, because they broke a certain social taboo and it still visible 75 or 76 years after the fact,” he said.
“Every time I present a speech to a Polish audience, the question of Polish righteous is presented as if it is a fig leaf behind which everyone else can hide.”
In the question-and-answer session, Grabowski shut down a persistent audience member who identified as Polish and who took exception with Grabowski’s research, arguing that Poland has more Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem than any other country.
“Every time I present a speech to a Polish audience, the question of Polish righteous is presented as if it is a fig leaf behind which everyone else can hide,” said Grabowski, who was born and educated in Warsaw. “The thing is, do you know how many Jews needed to be rescued? Poland had the largest Jewish community and using today Polish righteous as a universal and, let’s say, fig leaf behind which situations like I described here can be hidden is absolutely unconscionable. I protest against any attempt to overshadow the tragedy of Jewish people [with] the sacrifice of very, very few Poles.”
While Poland’s far-right government removed the mandated jail sentence for anyone found guilty of “slandering” Poland or Poles with complicity in Nazi war crimes, acknowledging the participation of Polish collaborators in the Holocaust remains a civil offence and Holocaust scholars in the country – and in Canada – face death threats and intimidation.
In introducing Grabowski, Richard Menkis, associate professor in the department of history at UBC, paid tribute to Rudolf Vrba, a Slovakian Jew who escaped Auschwitz and brought to the world inside information about the death camp, its operations and physical layout. Vrba, with fellow escapee Albert Wetzler, warned in 1944 that Hungarian Jews were about to face mass transport to the death camps. The news is credited with saving as many as 200,000 lives.
Vrba migrated to Canada and became a professor of pharmacology at UBC. He died in 2006.
The Vrba lecture alternates annually between an issue relevant to the Holocaust and an issue chosen by the pharmacology department in the faculty of medicine.
Olga Campbell (seated) takes a break from signing books at the opening of her exhibit A Whisper Across Time, which also served as a launch of her book by the same name. (photo by Gordon E. McCaw)
The impacts of the Holocaust continue to reverberate. Even though most of the first-generation survivors have passed away, the next generations, the survivors’ children and grandchildren, remember.
Local artist Olga Campbell belongs to the second generation. Her parents survived the Holocaust, but her mother’s entire family was murdered by the Nazis. The need to give those family members a voice was Campbell’s driving force in writing her new book, A Whisper Across Time: My Family’s Story of the Holocaust Told Through Art and Poetry. Her solo exhibit with the same name, co-presented with the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival, opened at the Zack Gallery on Nov. 15. The night also served as a book launch.
“The art in this show are mostly prints from the book,” she said in an interview with the Independent. “There are also some pieces that are offshoots on the same theme, even though they aren’t in the book.”
Campbell has always known that her mother’s family didn’t survive the war, but the emotional impact of their deaths built slowly over the years. It took decades for this book to emerge.
“In 1997,” she said, “I heard a program on the radio about the second-generation survivors. Their words about the trauma being passed between generations resonated with me.”
She embarked on an artistic journey, and she is still following a path of exploration. Her art reflects her emotional upheaval. Her paintings and statues are fragmented, with broken lines and distorted figures, evoking feelings of loss and anguish. One look at her paintings and a disquiet tension washes over the viewer. It is apparent that a huge tragedy inspired her work.
In 2005, Campbell had a show at the Zack, called Whispers Across Time. “Even then,” she said, “I knew I had to write about my family. The art show was not enough. I had to say more, but, at that time, I couldn’t. I was too raw, too emotional. But my family kept tugging at me. I needed to tell their story. I was compelled to write this book.”
Unfortunately, she knew only the bare bones of her mother’s life. So she plunged into a deep and long research period, surfed the internet, contacted Yad Vashem and other sources. After several years, the book crystallized.
“My book is a tribute to my family, the family I never knew,” she said.
“Of course, it is only one family of the millions of families killed during the Holocaust.”
Campbell spoke of the relevance of her book in today’s political climate. “Our world is a chaotic place right now, somewhat reminiscent of the period before the war,” she said. “There are over 68 million people around the world that are refugees or displaced. My book is not only about my family. It is a cautionary tale. It is about intergenerational trauma and its repercussions across time.”
She created new art for the book, wrote poetry to supplement the imagery, and also included an essay on her family members and their lives, destroyed by the war. The paintings in the book and on the gallery walls are powerful but melancholy, even distressing.
“My work always had this darkness, the sadness, but also a bit of hope,” she said. “I never know what will happen when I start a piece. I’m very intuitive. I would throw some paint on an empty canvas and let my emotions and the art itself guide me through the process. I use photos in my works and digital collages. My finished pieces always surprise me.”
When the book was ready, Campbell applied for another show at the Zack, to coincide with the book launch.
“I wanted to give it the same name as the previous show, Whispers Across Time,” she said, “but I checked the internet, and there are a couple other books already published with the same title. I decided to change it.” The book and the show are called A Whisper Across Time. “I feel a lot lighter now, after the book is finished and published,” she said.
A Whisper Across Time is Campbell’s second publication. In 2009, she published Graffiti Alphabet. She has been doing art for more than 30 years, but that is not how she started her professional career. She was a social worker until, in 1986, she took her first art class. That year changed her life.
“It was such fun. I loved it,” she said. “I went back to work afterwards but it didn’t feel as much fun. I decided to get an art education. I enrolled in Emily Carr when I was 44.”
Campbell finished the art program, continued working part-time as a social worker, and dedicated the rest of her time to painting, sculpture and photography.
“I’ve been a member of the Eastside Culture Crawl for 22 years, since its beginning,” she said. “I participated in the Artists in Our Midst for many years, too. At first, when people asked me, I would say I do art. Now, I say, I’m an artist. I must be. That’s what I do. I’m retired now, but I did art when I was working, too, and it was always very healing and rewarding – still is…. If, for some reason, I don’t paint for awhile, I feel as if something is missing.”
The A Whisper Across Time exhibit continues until Dec. 9. For more about her work and books, visit olgacampbell.com.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Kristallnacht, which took place 80 years ago this month, saw hundreds of synagogues burned, Jewish-owned businesses destroyed, 100 Jews murdered and 30,000 incarcerated. (photo from commons.wikimedia.org)
Kristallnacht, which took place 80 years ago this month, was the “Night of Broken Glass” that saw hundreds of synagogues burned, Jewish-owned businesses destroyed, 100 Jews murdered and 30,000 incarcerated. The state-sanctioned pogrom was staged to look like a spontaneous uprising against the Jews of Germany, annexed Austria and occupied Sudetenland. It is frequently seen as the beginning in earnest of the Holocaust. According to Prof. Chris Friedrichs, who delivered the keynote address at the annual Kristallnacht commemorative evening Nov. 8, global reaction to the attack, which took place on the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938, sent messages to both Nazis and Jews.
“The world was shocked,” said Friedrichs, professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia. “Newspapers in the free countries of Europe and all over the Americas reported on these events in detail. Editorials thundered against the Nazi thugs. Protests took place. Demonstrations were held. Opinion was mobilized – for a few days. But soon, Kristallnacht was no longer front-page news. What had happened was now the new normal in Germany, and the world’s attention moved elsewhere. And this is what the Nazis learned: we can do this, and more, and get away with it. Nothing will happen.
“And the Jews of Germany learned something too,” said Friedrichs, himself a son of parents who fled the Nazi regime. “By 1938, many Jews had emigrated from Germany – if they could find a country that would take them. But many others remained. Much had been taken away from them, but two things remained untouched: their houses of worship and their homes. Here, at least, one could be safe, sustained by the fellowship of other Jews and the comforts and consolations of religious faith and family life. But now, in one brutal night, these things, too, had been taken from them. Their synagogues were reduced to rubble, their shops vandalized, their homes desecrated. Nothing was safe or secure. The last lingering hopes of the Jews still living in Germany that, despite all they had suffered at the hands of the Nazis, they might at least be allowed to live quiet private lives of work and worship with family and friends, collapsed in the misery of fire, smashed glass, home invasions, mass arrests and psychological terror on Nov. 9, 1938.”
Friedrichs’ lecture followed a solemn procession of survivors of the Holocaust, who carried candles onto the bimah of Congregation Beth Israel. The evening, presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) and Beth Israel, was funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign, with support from the Robert and Marilyn Krell Endowment Fund of the VHEC and the Azrieli Foundation, which provided every attendee with a copy of Dangerous Measures, the memoir of Canadian Joseph Schwartzberg, who witnessed Kristallnacht and fled Germany with his family soon after.
“We are gathered tonight in the sanctuary of a synagogue,” said Friedrichs, who retired in June, after 45 years of teaching and researching at UBC. “A synagogue should indeed be a sanctuary, a quiet place where Jews can gather, chiefly but not only on the Sabbath, for prayer, worship and contemplation. Recent events have reminded us only too bitterly that this is not always the case.
“Our minds are full of mental images of what happened in Pittsburgh less than two weeks ago, but I invite you to call up a different mental image,” he said, taking the audience back to the time of Kristallnacht. “Think of a synagogue. Just a few days earlier, on the Sabbath, Jews had gathered there, as they have gathered in synagogues for 2,000 years, for prayer, worship and fellowship with other Jews. But now, suddenly, in the middle of the night, a firebomb is thrust through a window of the synagogue. As the window glass shatters to the floor, the firebomb ignites a piece of furniture. Within minutes the fire spreads. Soon the entire synagogue is engulfed in flames. It is an inferno. The next morning, the walls of the synagogue are still standing, but the interior is completely gutted. No worship will ever take place there again.”
Friedrichs paused to note that some in the audience would recall a similar attack that destroyed Vancouver’s Reform synagogue, Temple Sholom, on Jan. 25, 1985. He recounted the reaction of police and firefighters, civic leaders and the general public, who rallied around the Vancouver congregation at the time, and compared that with the reactions of non-Jews in Germany and the territories it controlled at the time of Kristallnacht.
“Police and firefighters are on the scene,” Friedrichs said of the situation during Kristallnacht. “But the firefighters are not there to put out the blaze. They are there only to make sure the fire does not spread to any nearby non-Jewish buildings. The police are there only to make sure no members of the congregation try to rescue anything from the building.
“The next morning, crowds of onlookers gape at the burnt-out shell of the synagogue. Some of the furnishings and ritual objects have survived the blaze, so they are dragged out to the street and a bonfire is prepared. But first, the local school principal must arrive with his pupils. Deprived of the opportunity to see the synagogue itself in flames during the night, when they were asleep, the children should at least have the satisfaction of seeing the furnishings and Jewish ritual objects go up in smoke. Most of those objects are added to the bonfire, but not all. Not the Torah scrolls – the Five Books of Moses, every single word of which, in translation, is identical to the words found in the first five books of every Christian Bible. No, the Torah scrolls are not added to the bonfire. They are dragged out to the street to be trampled on by the children, egged on by adult onlookers, while other adults rip apart the Torah covers to be taken home as souvenirs.
“And now consider this: events like this did not happen in just one town,” Friedrichs said. “The same things took place in hundreds upon hundreds of cities and towns throughout Germany and Austria, all on the very same evening and into the next morning. There were minor variations from town to town, but the basic events were exactly the same, for it was a nationwide pogrom, carefully planned in advance.”
Friedrichs, who devoted 25 years to serving on the organizing committee of the Kristallnacht commemorative committee, including eight as president, reflected on the history of Holocaust remembrance in Vancouver, including the decision to single out this date as one of the primary commemorative events of the calendar.
“Why should we commemorate the Shoah at this particular time in November?” he asked. “Consider this: 91 Jewish men died on Nov. 9th and 10th, 1938. Yet, on a single day in the busy summer of 1944, up to 5,000 Jewish men, women and children might be murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz on one day. Why not select some random date in August 1944 and make that the occasion to recall the victims of the Shoah? Why choose Kristallnacht?”
The earliest Holocaust commemorations in the city, he said, citing the work of local scholar Barbara Schober, was an event in 1948 marking the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
People who had founded the Peretz School in Vancouver, in 1945, hoped to preserve the memories and values of the East European Jewish culture, which had been almost totally wiped from the map, he said. “Yet, rather than focus on the six million deaths, their intention was to honour those Jews who had actually risen up to fight the Nazi menace – the hopeless but inspiring efforts exemplified above all by the heroic resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters who used the pathetically meagre supply of weapons they could find to resist the final liquidation of the ghetto by the Nazis in the spring of 1943,” said Friedrichs. “That effort failed, but it was not forgotten.”
This event continued, with the support of Canadian Jewish Congress, into the 1970s, he explained.
“There was an emerging concern that Jews should not just recall and pay tribute to the victims of the Shoah,” said Friedrichs. “The increasing visibility of the Holocaust denial movement made it apparent that Jews should also make their contribution to educating society as a whole – and especially young people – about the true history of what had happened. Prof. Robert Krell and Dr. Graham Forst undertook to establish an annual symposium at UBC at which hundreds of high school students would learn about the Holocaust from experts and, even more importantly, from hearing the first-person accounts of survivors themselves. It was in those years, too, that the Vancouver Holocaust Education Society was established to coordinate these efforts. The survivor outreach program, through which dozens of survivors of the Shoah in our community spoke and continue to speak to students about what they experienced, became the cornerstone of these educational efforts. Their talks are always different, for no two survivors ever experienced the Shoah the same way, but the ultimate object is always the same – not just to teach students what happened to the Jews of Europe between 1939 and 1945, but to reflect on the danger that racist thinking of any kind can all too easily lead to.”
But this was education, he noted, not commemoration.
“With the decline of the Warsaw Ghetto event in Vancouver, the need to commemorate the Shoah came to be filled in other ways. One of those ways was the emergence of the Vancouver Kristallnacht commemoration. The origins of this form of commemoration lie right here in the Beth Israel congregation. In the late 1970s, members of the Gottfried family who had emigrated from Austria in the Nazi era, now members of Beth Israel, proposed that their synagogue host a commemoration of Kristallnacht.”
Friedrichs spoke of the burden carried by each of the survivors who carried candles onto the bimah moments earlier.
“You might think that a candle is not very hard to carry, but, for each one of these men and women, the flame of the candle has reignited painful memories stretching back 70 or 80 years, to a dimly remembered way of life before their world collapsed,” he said. “These men and women survived, and sometimes a few of their relatives did as well, but all of them, without exception, you’ve heard this before, had family members – whether parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, or cousins – who were murdered. One could not reproach these men and women if they had chosen to stay home on a night like this. But, instead, they are here.
“Many of these men and women have done more, even more, as well,” he continued. “For many of them have done something for years and continue to do so even now: to speak of their experiences to students in the schools of our province. To stand in front of two or three or four or five hundred students of every race and every heritage and describe life in the ghetto or the camp or on the death march or the anxiety of living in hiding and being pushed into a basement or a closet every time some unwanted visitor arrived – this is not easy. But there is a purpose. The young people of our province are barraged with images and messages and texts telling them that people of certain religions or races or heritages are inferior and unwanted members of our society. They must be told just what that kind of thinking can lead to. No textbook, no video, no lecture can do the job as powerfully as hearing a survivor describe exactly what he or she experienced during the Shoah.”
Corinne Zimmerman, vice-president of the VHEC, welcomed guests and introduced the candlelighting procession. Cantor Yaacov Orzech chanted El Moleh Rachamim, the memorial prayer for the martyrs. UBC Prof. Richard Menkis delivered opening remarks and Helen Pinsky, president of Beth Israel, introduced Sarah Kirby-Yung, a Vancouver city councilor who read a proclamation from the mayor. Nina Krieger, executive director of the VHEC, introduced Friedrichs. Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld provided closing remarks, and Jody Wilson-Raybould, minister of justice and member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville, sent greetings on behalf of the Government of Canada.
Selina Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing, speaks at the local memorial for the victims of the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. (photo by Alan Katowitz)
On Sunday afternoon, Oct. 28, the day after a gunman opened fire on Shabbat worshippers in Pittsburgh in the Tree of Life synagogue, hundreds gathered at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver for a vigil for the victims.
Eleven congregants were murdered and four police officers wounded before the shooting suspect, Robert Bowers, was apprehended, in what the Anti-Defamation League is calling the greatest antisemitic massacre in American history. Above the crowd in the Wosk Auditorium at the JCCGV, a projector showed a version of the logo of the Pittsburgh Steelers that had been created in the wake of the shooting – it had one of the iconic stars replaced by a Star of David.
The local response was so large that a separate service had to be held in the community centre’s atrium. The Jewish Independent attended the vigil in the auditorium, which was opened by Rabbi Hannah Dresner, spiritual leader of Or Shalom Synagogue and head of the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver.
“We must stand with other minorities to combat hatred with nobility, goodness, and with radical love,” said Dresner. “We must strengthen our empathy with marginalized peoples and do the job, each of us, that is uniquely ours, to create a heaven right here on earth. But first, we must grieve a Jewish loss.”
The rabbi closed with reading a poetic translation of Psalm 23, which is traditionally read at funerals.
Rabbi Jonathan Infeld of Congregation Beth Israel said, “I’ve lived for the last 13 years in Vancouver but was born in and grew up in Pittsburgh. I went to Tree of Life many times as a teenager. HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society], the organization the deranged individual was most upset about, was the organization that brought my parents to the sanctuary of Pittsburgh.”
The shooter, who had yelled, “All Jews must die!” before opening fire, had written on Facebook before the attack that he was incensed by Jewish support for immigrants and refugees, who he believed were entering the United States to slaughter white people.
“The massacre took place in Squirrel Hill, in Mr. Rogers’ neighbourhood, where Fred Rogers taught us the Torah verse, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ so well,” Infeld noted. “The response to something like this is repairing the world.”
He appealed to everyone present, and all Jews, to fill every synagogue to capacity in the coming weekend. “I ask that all synagogues in Vancouver be filled, with not one seat empty,” he said.
Karen James, chair of the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, then spoke, followed by Selina Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing, who read a statement from B.C. Premier John Horgan.
“British Columbians’ hearts are broken, hearing the devastating news of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Everyone should feel safe in a place of worship,” said Horgan in his statement. “My caucus and I and everyone in the House reject antisemitism, racism, discrimination, intolerance and bigotry. When these rise up, we must stand up united and denounce them together in the strongest of terms. An attack like this is a deep violation of safety and security. Our thoughts are with the families of those targeted and Jewish people around the world.”
Robinson was among many officials present, including Bruce Ralston, minister of jobs, trade and technology; Ravi Kahlon, parliamentary secretary for sport and multiculturalism; Howard Chow, Vancouver Police Department deputy chief constable; Irene Lanzinger, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour; and several members of the Legislative Assembly. Richmond North Centre MLA Teresa Wat changed a flight to be there.
“I am quite connected to the Jewish community,” Wat told the Jewish Independent, “especially the Bayit congregation in Richmond. When I saw what’s happening, I felt really sad. We need to combat this kind of attack on humankind as a global village. Everyone is related and, if it happens to one ethnic group, it can happen to any other. I am happy to see this vigil and hope that all ethnic groups will gather in solidarity to condemn this kind of atrocity.”
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom led a candlelighting in remembrance of the victims, with help from Rabbi Adam Rubin of Beth Tikvah. Moskovitz read the names of each victim and shared something from their biography. “In the Jewish tradition,” said Moskovitz, “we need the names. To say Kaddish, to pray, to remember.”
Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Congregation Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh then joined the service in the auditorium on video, thanking the Vancouver Jewish community for their solidarity. He told the story of being at his synagogue on the day of the shooting – where he was doing a baby naming for two Jewish fathers who had adopted a child – and hearing the news and having to tell the congregation that they were on lockdown until the shooter was apprehended. Bisno urged the crowd to “repair the world when we find it fractured instead of blaming each other for that which we find uncomfortable. I give you my most sincere blessing of gratitude.”
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay of Congregation Beth Hamidrash chanted El Male Rachamim (God Full of Compassion), a traditional prayer of mourning. Rabbi Philip Gibbs read an English translation.
Many non-Jewish community clergy were present at the vigil, including Dr. Kala Singh and Pritam Singh of the Sikh community, Prof. Harry O. Maier of the Vancouver School of Theology and Haroon Khan of the Al Jamia Masjid mosque.
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.