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.
The edition had been purchased by bookbinder Richard Smart from an estate sale in Holland. The book was badly damaged. The front cover had come apart and the spine had broken away from the bound pages. Inside the binding, pieces of another book had been used to pad the spine. It was common practice at a time when paper was scarce, but, in this case, the paper fragments came with a message. Taken from a German volume, the original bookbinder had positioned the title of the book, Die Vergeltung, where it could easily be seen. Its meaning: retribution.
Smart planned to sell the book but not to a private collector. He wanted it to remain in the public eye and be kept within the Jewish community.
A few weeks after the article was published, I received an email from Dr. Robert Krell in Vancouver. A survivor himself, he is a founder of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. He wanted to know if the book was still for sale and could be purchased for the VHEC.
I passed Krell’s message to Smart at the Old English Bindery, and a conversation began about its possible sale. Two weeks later, I drove Smart and Emilie Crewe, the bindery’s administrator, to a meeting at Krell’s home. Krell and his assistant, Joy Fai, welcomed us, and we talked over coffee.
Krell explained his position on the sale, talking about the book’s precious legacy and his own feeling for history. It was deeply moving when he held the book for the first time and opened the cover to see the printed words in the spine.
For any lover of history, a volume like this can take a pretty firm hold on one’s imagination. When the volume is a treasure of this kind, in the hands of a Dutch Holocaust survivor, and – just possibly – with its own, private message of solidarity for those who perished, the power of this moment is immeasurable.
It took a few minutes to finalize the administrative aspects of the sale. Krell gave me a moment alone with the book, then I put it back in the decorative box Smart had crafted, wished Anne goodnight and closed the lid.
Het Achterhuis is now on display at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. The case is situated next to the classroom where all school students begin their tours. It is, said Krell, “a high-traffic area,” so the children cannot fail to pass the book. And, while the centre’s artifact-driven exhibits include many extraordinary items, he said, “the symbolism of Anne reaches far more children than we can.”
Having said that, Krell added, “It’s symbolic for all the wrong reasons. It’s a lovely story of a bright girl who saw so much more than anyone else could, from that tiny room. The Dutch use this photo of a smiling adolescent girl as an example of Dutch resistance, but they have not yet apologized for what they did, the 100,000 Dutch Nazis.”
Krell spoke of the many ties between Holland and Canada, describing liberation day on May 5, 1945, by Canadian troops. Even now, Holland celebrates this day with a gift of tulip bulbs to Ottawa.
Asked why the first edition should be housed here, at the VHEC, Krell said, “Why not? We have been teaching students since 1976. We have earned the right to have a precious book to show our students and loyal teachers.”
Krell emphasized the educational role of the book – artifacts make history real for children, he said. And, “to continue our teaching, we have to use artifacts that survivors have left us. They are evidence of what happened and we have to show what they represent. A skipping rope, a toy, a tin cup, a utensil – that is the difference between life and death.”
Even more importantly, he said, “we’re in a phase of succession to the next generation, to carry the legacy of survivors. These include memories and warnings because we’re facing incredible racism and antisemitism in the world today.”
Contemplating the importance of remembering and teaching about the Holocaust, Krell offered a sombre analogy. At Auschwitz, he said, when prisoners were robbed of their last possessions, they were stockpiled in a spot they named “Canada,” the land of plenty. “Canada was in Auschwitz,” said Krell. “We must be careful not to bring Auschwitz back to Canada.”
Shula Klinger is an author and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at shulaklinger.com.
The Schara Tzedeck Shoah Survivors Tribute Wall was created for the congregation by John Nutter. The sculpture, which includes the names of 230 survivors, was dedicated May 3. (photo from John Nutter)
Congregation Schara Tzedeck has a new art installation in its main sanctuary. The Schara Tzedeck Shoah Survivors Tribute Wall – a Tree of Life rendered in sandblasted glass – includes the names of 230 survivors. It was dedicated May 3.
Full of shared memories and friendship, the pre-Shabbat dedication ceremony featured several speakers: the synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt; its executive president, Howard Kallner; younger family members of the survivors; Ed Lewin, co-chair of the project with Hodie Kahn; and the man who started the entire project, Dr. Robert Krell, a child survivor.
“We wanted to honour the Holocaust survivors who found their way to Canada, before and after the war, and wound up as members of this shul,” Lewin told the Independent. “Most of them came here in 1948. Their names are all there, on the wall. My parents’ and grandparents’ names are among them.”
Explaining how the project started, Lewin said, “We had this empty space, and Krell suggested a tribute to Holocaust survivors. It was several years ago. It took us awhile to find the talented glass artist, John Nutter, who transformed our ideas into a sculpture.”
The synagogue is publishing a commemorative book about the installation, as well. While the Tribute Wall features survivors’ names only, the book also contains photographs of the survivors; there are family and group photo pages. Together, the book and the wall serve as a memorial to those who not only survived the Shoah but contributed greatly to Schara Tzedeck and to the development of Greater Vancouver and the province over the past seven decades.
One page of the book is dedicated to Nutter, who has created numerous art installations for churches and synagogues, mostly in New York. His works decorate many institutions in the United States and Canada: hotels, museums, hospitals. He collaborated with local artist Bill Reid on a glass sculpture at the Vancouver International Airport. A few years ago, Glass Magazine named Nutter one of the top three architectural glass artists in the country.
About how he came to design the Tribute Wall, Nutter said, “A few years ago, I did a small glass sculpture for the Louis Brier Home, a collaboration with a wonderful artist and friend, Diana Zoe Coop. Camille Wenner, Diana’s daughter, works for Schara Tzedeck. I’ve known Camille since she was a young child. She contacted me about this project and, of course, I said, yes.”
He explained his work process. “They knew exactly what they wanted – a Tree of Life, made like a Vancouver cherry tree in bloom. Usually, I start with a small draft, show it to my clients, make changes until they’re satisfied, before I transfer the design to glass. But the people from Schara Tzedeck were very nice. They approved my first draft of the design.”
The first step in making the sculpture was creating a life-size drawing out of the small-scale draft. “I hire a company for that,” said Nutter, “give them my small drawing, and they blow it up to the size I want.”
Once he has the full-size paper draft, he starts working on the glass. For this sculpture, he used nine separate glass panels. The three bottom panels are roots. “The words ‘Schara Tzedeck’ are carved among the roots, to symbolize the Jews who had set their roots with the congregation,” Nutter explained.
The middle panel is the trunk, and the five panels around it are carved with leaves and flowers. “I sandblasted each petal of each flower individually,” Nutter said. “It gives more depth to the sculpture.”
The work is made of 15-millimetre laminated glass; two layers joined together. The carving is on the back, and the names of the survivors are written on the front, in black, which adds to the visual depth.
Nutter has been working with architectural glass for decades. “I started as an architecture student at the University of Manitoba,” he recalled. “A couple years into my studies, I took a summer job with a stained glass company. I loved it so much, I left my schooling and stayed with the company for several years, before I founded my own company. I never finished my architectural degree, but I taught stained glass making at the same faculty years later.”
He loves architecture, and most of his works are large-scale glass. “Sometimes,” he said, “my background in architecture helps me to win the contracts. I often build small-scale models of my proposed installations when I bid for a job. I like the details and hardware used in the models. I learned that during my years of architectural studies.”
Frequently, Nutter’s sculptures and windows tell a story, like the one he created for Schara Tzedeck. “In the past, when artists made glass installations in churches and other religious institutions, it was always to tell a story, as most of the population were illiterate,” he said. “Now, people can read, so the art became more decorative, but it still tells a story.”
Dr. Robert Krell with Grade 12 King David High School students Gali Goldman, left, and Edden Av-Gay. (photo by Shula Klinger)
On May 2, King David High School marked Yom Hashoah at its annual assembly commemorating those lost in the Holocaust. This year, for the first time, the school hosted Grade 10 students from Alpha Secondary School in Burnaby.
The morning began with prayers for the victims of the recent Poway shooting in San Diego. After a minute’s silence, the assembly commenced with a procession led by child Holocaust survivor Dr. Robert Krell. Each of the five KHDS students in the procession carried a candle.
Originally from The Hague, Krell is founding president of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and an educator and advocate for the centre’s programs. He is also professor emeritus, department of psychiatry, University of British Columbia, and distinguished life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. He was introduced by KDHS students Estie Kallner and Mattea Lewis, his granddaughters. They spoke of their grandfather, thanking him for the “privilege” of hearing firsthand stories of the Holocaust.
Krell began his talk holding up a black and white photograph of himself as a baby. “Who was the enemy of the Third Reich?” he asked the audience. “This,” he said.
Krell was born when Holland was already occupied by Nazi forces. Indeed, the hospital he was born in was already partially confiscated by the Gestapo. He described how restrictions were imposed rapidly, every mundane aspect of Jewish life being placed under more and more stringent rules. Deportations began in 1942. Speaking of the local Jewish population being assembled for the euphemistically named “resettlement in the east,” he said, “No one panicked sufficiently.”
Krell went on to describe how, as family friends began to disappear, his “rather astute” parents fled their home, taking few possessions. “What would you grab?” he asked. His parents abandoned their photo albums because, in enemy hands, they would give away too much personal information.
Placed in the care of a local Dutch Christian family, Krell learned to call the parents Mother and Father. He described them as “the most wonderful people on earth.” With them, he said, his life was “comparatively normal.” That said, with the ever-present risk of betrayal, as a dark-haired child in a sea of blond heads, he was very noticeable. He was not allowed to look out of the apartment windows; there were Dutch Nazi sympathisers living within sight of his adoptive home.
One of the most powerful aspects of the lecture were Krell’s insights on human memory and identity under conditions of extreme stress. He described his recollections as “fragmented, not fully formed” and, while his young mind didn’t appreciate the extent of the horrors being committed outside, he said, “I knew something was wrong because I was part of another family.” His mother, he explained, remembered nothing of that period. Having given her young son over to a Dutch Christian, he said, “She was in shock for three months.” He spoke in the present tense of how his real identity vanished in hiding. “I melt into the family.”
As an adult, his adoptive sister, Nora, also buried some memories, which led to a conflict with Krell. He recalled being taken to visit his mother by Nora but Nora said she had never done that. This was a way of “denying me my memory,” he said, adding that this denial causes grievous harm to the psyche. Even though we have fragmented memories, he said, “we don’t want to give them up because they are part of who we are.”
In the end, the disagreement was resolved. Nora had indeed taken Krell to see his mother. Twice, he was nearly discovered and twice he narrowly escaped, first by covering his head with a blanket and, the second time, by hiding under a bed.
His years in hiding were characterized by unease, a looming sense of fear and constant hyper-vigilance. After the war, his family moved to Vancouver, leaving behind Holland, which he said he viewed as “a place of death.” He described himself as “the most eager immigrant-in-waiting that ever existed.”
Once in Canada, Krell reinvented himself, hiding his shyness behind outward charm and sociability. He said he became resilient, ignoring illness and pain, striving to forge a new life, a family and career for himself.
He spoke of the medical advice he received when dealing with overwhelming feelings – “You should get rid of your obsession with the Holocaust.” Instead, he helped found the Holocaust Symposium for high school students and facilitated the recording of 140 testimonies from survivors.
Following the lecture at KDHS, Krell answered questions from students, concerning Holocaust education today, as well as why it is that some people hid Jews and put their own lives at risk. Krell referred to “common decency,” adding that his own rescuers “didn’t know the precise nature of the unfolding danger, but once they had me, they were committed.” He told the students that, in spite of the “showcase” of the Nuremberg trials, “there is no justice.” And, are we at risk today? “Massively.”
In his closing comments, Krell shifted from storyteller to teacher, using the narrative of his life to guide the students in theirs. “Learn your history,” he said. “In it lies everything to secure the safety of your children and grandchildren.”
He said, “Without engaging with the Holocaust, you are at great risk of becoming an under-educated person, and that makes you vulnerable. This mass murder took doctors, lawyers. Physicians were killing children in 1938. It was the doctors, engineers, architects. Each of the professions we trust for our safety. They all worked in the service of mass murder. Safeguard your professions from sliding into the abyss. It happens so quickly.”
Grade 12 students Edden Av-Gay and Gali Goldman spoke with Krell after his talk. Av-Gay was struck by how “one person could experience so many miracles in his life, especially someone born into such hardship” and said, “His story is truly amazing.”
Goldman, who had recently given a class presentation on youth movements during the Holocaust, had heard Krell tell his story before. She said she was still touched by how “he lost so much but he has devoted his life to teaching about what he went through, even though it was horrific. He can still find parts of his story that were miracles.”
Asked about Krell’s decision to speak about his past, Av-Gay said, “I think it’s not a matter of him being comfortable telling his story, I think he feels obligated to do it, to share his past, to show what happened to six million Jewish people.”
Alpha Secondary Grade 10 student Amy Ricker said she found Krell “motivating and inspiring.” Ricker, who hopes to become a humanitarian lawyer, said she “teared up because he showed me how in the dark I have been, and how much I want to help people.”
One perhaps surprising message in his talk was a warning about tolerance.
“If Jews were ‘tolerated’ in Holland, and the result was the deaths of over 80% of the Jewish population,” he said, “then we have to do much better than just tolerance.”
As he finished his lecture, he said, “Realize what you have. Thank your parents and tell your irritating siblings that you love them. I urge you – be kind.”
Shula Klingeris an author and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at shulaklinger.com.
Many child survivors of the Holocaust did not identify as survivors – and were not deemed so by other survivors, including their parents – until decades after the end of the Second World War. The emergence and evolution of the unique experiences of child survivors was the subject of the Yom Hashoah keynote address in Vancouver by Dr. Robert Krell, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.
Local survivors of the Shoah and their families, as well as the premier, cabinet ministers and other elected officials, joined hundreds more in Vancouver and Victoria to commemorate Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, earlier this month. An event presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre took place at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on April 11 and another took place at the B.C. legislature in Victoria the following day.
In his presentation, Krell spoke about how he was liberated at the age of 5, having been a hidden child in the Netherlands. From the only family he knew, he was returned to the parents of his birth.
“My father and mother’s parents – my grandparents – and their brothers and sisters – my uncles and aunts – had all been murdered,” he said. “I learned about being Jewish at home, hearing stories from survivors who returned. They spoke of Auschwitz and other mysterious places in Yiddish, ably translated by my second cousin, 8-year-old Millie, who had returned from Switzerland with her parents. We heard things no child should hear and, therefore, listened all the more attentively.
“That was my introduction to Judaism, an unforgettable litany of horrors visited upon Jews that imprinted on my mind,” said Krell. “So far as I knew … being a Jew meant death, for everyone was dead, save one first cousin and Millie.”
Finding one’s way through the present with such a burden was an added challenge. “The task of being normal when you know you are not is all-encompassing,” he said. “What I did not realize then was how deeply affected we children were by the events of the Shoah and how intimately the traumatic consequences were entwined with our daily existence.”
While at UBC, in his small private practice, Krell began to see the children of Holocaust survivors. “And, from them, I learned of the impact of the Shoah on survivor families.”
During this period, he was spearheading Holocaust education initiatives in the province, including the Holocaust Symposium for high school students, which will have its 42nd iteration on May 2, and video recording survivor testimonies. “But there was one overriding issue that became the driving force of my preoccupations,” Krell said. “I discovered child Holocaust survivors. That may sound strange…. They did not need to be discovered. But they had disappeared from view. For almost 40 years, child survivors did not identify themselves as survivors. Immediately after the war, children were discouraged from talking about their experiences. In any case, said adults, you were too young to have memories, lucky you. Therefore, you did not suffer like we did.
“Other well-meaning adults urged children to forget in order to get on with their lives. That is not how it works,” said the psychiatrist. “Traumatic memories experienced in early childhood are not forgotten. They remain and they return.”
Throughout the 1980s, child Holocaust survivors began to speak with each other and to the public. In 1991, 1,600 people, primarily child survivors and their families, gathered in New York. “The workshops provided a safe environment in which participants gained self-awareness and much-needed relief,” said Krell.
Yom Hashoah corresponds to the 27th day of Nissan in the Hebrew calendar, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the uprising, which began on April 19, 1943. “The ghetto fighters were able to hold out for nearly a month,” said Vivian Claman, a member of the second generation at the Vancouver event. “On May 16, 1943, the revolt ended and a total of 13,000 Jews died. It was the largest single revolt of Jews during the Second World War.”
Jody Wilson-Raybould, federal minister of justice, also addressed the audience. “I want to say that we hear you, we honour your lived experiences and your stories, and we renew our commitment, and we reaffirm our vigilance to speak out against antisemitism, to speak out against xenophobia, to speak out against any form of racism or intolerance as unacceptable in this country and throughout the world,” she said.
Councilor Raymond Louie, acting mayor of Vancouver, read the proclamation from city hall. Kaddish was led by Chaim Kornfeld, a survivor. Eric Wilson played cello, and singers included Advah Soudack, Kathryn Palmer and Mia Givon. Wendy Bross Stuart played piano and, with Ron Stuart, were artistic producers. The ceremony ended, as is tradition, with “Zog Nit Keynmol,” the Partisan Song.
* * *
B.C. Premier John Horgan quoted Elie Wiesel: “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
“That’s why it’s so important,” said Horgan in the legislature’s Hall of Honour, “that, on Yom Hashoah, we acknowledge, as a society … that this may never happen again provided – provided – we don’t let time and the sands of history go through our fingers and we remember the words of the survivors that I was fortunate enough to hear today and we remember the millions and millions of lives that were lost because of hate, intolerance and because people didn’t stand up fast enough.”
Selena Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing, who is Jewish, emceed the commemoration. MLAs of all parties were present. British Columbia is the only province with a Yom Hashoah commemoration in the legislature.
“We are here today to think deeply on one of the darkest moments in human history so we can remember and, in our remembering, stop it from happening again,” she said.
Opposition MLA Sam Sullivan said, “It is only through knowledge and recognition of humanity’s worst capabilities, including the profound banality of evil, that we can strive for ensuring justice and good in the world and ensure that such heinous acts will not happen again.”
Judy Darcy, minister of mental health and addictions, shared the story of how her father hid his Jewishness with the intention of protecting his family after he survived the Second World War in Europe. Darcy shared the story with the Independent last year. (See the Feb. 24, 2017, issue.)
Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Carey Brown chanted El Maleh Rachamim and an adaptation of the Kaddish, also by Wiesel, which includes the names of camps and other places Jews were interned. Members of the audience spoke out names of places that they or family members came from or experienced.
MLA Nicholas Simons played Kol Nidre on the viola while Holocaust survivors Daniel Wollner, Alex Buckman, Rita Akselrod, Suzi Deston and Edith Matous lit candles. Another candle was lit by Nathan Kelerstein, a member of the second generation. A seventh candle was lit by representatives of other groups targeted by the Nazis, including people with disabilities, who were represented by Meyer Estrin and his mother Tzvia Estrin; Peter Csicsai of the Romani Canadian Alliance; and Jonathan Lerner, in memory of gender- and sexuality-divergent peoples. A group of young people, led by Hannah Faber, sang.
Micha Menczer, a Victoria lawyer who deals with First Nations and aboriginal rights, spoke as a child of a survivor of the Shoah. His mother, he said, spoke frequently of the non-Jews who risked their lives to save or help Jews.
“I learned also that, while Jews were a central target, others were attacked, deported and killed because of their race, political or religious belief, disability or sexual orientation,” he said. “Very importantly, my mother taught me that this does not diminish the memory of the Shoah or those who perished to give full recognition to the pain of other people and to the heroism of non-Jews who helped at great risk to themselves. It takes nothing away from our collective memory as Jews to honour those people and remember others who suffered.”
Dr. Robert Krell with the Hon. Coralee Oakes (left), minister of community, sport and cultural development, and the Hon. Judith Guichon, OBC, lieutenant governor of British Columbia. (photo fromB.C. Achievement Foundation)
On April 24, 2015, Dr. Robert Krell was among those honored at the 12th Annual British Columbia Community Achievement Awards ceremony held at Government House in Victoria, where he received a B.C. Community Achievement Award medallion and certificate.
“These honorees exemplify what it is to go above and beyond; to do what needs to be done and to give without question their time and energy for the betterment of their communities,” said Keith Mitchell QC, representing the British Columbia Achievement Foundation.
In a personal letter received from the premier of British Columbia, Christy Clark, Krell was honored for his “many years of commitment to developing anti-racism, antisemitism and Holocaust education programs for people of all ages. By establishing the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre in 1994 and documenting Holocaust survivors’ testimonials, you have ensured that no one will ever forget what Jewish people went through during the war. Your work with child survivor groups is further testament to your dedication to helping people gather together, talk to one another and know they are not alone in dealing with the aftermath of what they and their families experienced.”
Hidden as a child in the Netherlands during the Holocaust, child and family psychiatrist and University of British Columbia professor emeritus, Krell understands the necessity of Holocaust remembrance: learning from its lessons, providing education, supporting survivors and ensuring their stories are not lost. In addition to founding the VHEC, he also founded a group for child survivors, giving voice to their experience.
In the early 1980s, Alberta teacher James Keegstra was charged with wilful promotion of hatred for teaching high school students that the Holocaust was a myth and that Jewish people were responsible for much of the world’s evil.
For Robbie Waisman, a Vancouver businessman, news of Keegstra’s teachings revived an exchange from decades earlier that he had repressed. Waisman – at the time he was Romek Wajsman – was one of the youngest prisoners in Buchenwald concentration camp, in eastern Germany. While trying to get to sleep in the crowded barracks one night, young Romek had an interaction that would resonate decades later in the lives of tens of thousands of young North Americans.
As Waisman recalled: “This one voice said, ‘Hey kid,’ addressing me, ‘if this is over and you survive, remember to tell the world what you have witnessed.’ I didn’t answer. Again, a second time. And then another voice says, ‘Leave the kid alone. Let’s all go to sleep. None of us are going to survive.’ I’m trying to fall asleep. Again: ‘Hey kid, I haven’t heard you promise.’ I wanted him to leave me alone so I said, ‘OK, I promise.’”
Yet, for 36 years, as Waisman rebuilt his life in the aftermath of the Shoah that destroyed nearly his entire family, everything he knew and most of European Jewish civilization, he remained publicly silent about what had happened to him and what he had seen. As it was for most survivors, the pain of the past was unbearable. The motivation to move ahead, to make good on the promise of survival, consumed Waisman and other survivors. Those who had spoken out in the first years after liberation were often hushed up, accused of being macabre, of living in the past, of not moving forward. Many adopted silence.
For Waisman, and some other survivors who had kept their stories private, it was the Holocaust denial that sprang up in the 1970s and ’80s that ended their silence.
Now, after speaking hundreds of times to audiences, most often of high school students, but also to churches and First Nations communities, Waisman is being honored for contributing to understanding and tolerance in Canada. He is to receive the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award, which recognizes volunteers who help others and build a “smarter and more caring nation.” He was nominated for the honor by his longtime friend, Derek Glazer.
Waisman cannot estimate the number of times he has spoken or the accumulated number of individuals who have heard his story. But he has thousands of letters – most of them from young people – telling him how the experience of meeting him has changed their lives and caused them to commit themselves to humanitarianism and social justice. And, as much as he is pleased to receive the commendation from Gov.-Gen. David Johnston, it is these letters, and the hugs and words he receives from young people, that he says are the real compensation for what he does.
“These kinds of letters are my reward. Never mind the award that I’m going to be getting. This is the reward. This is what keeps us going. If I can inoculate young people against hatred and discrimination, I honor the memory and I give back for my survival,” he said.
“In most cases, when I go to speak, I get hugs from people, and I get tears, and they come and they are so grateful. I always hear this: ‘You’ve changed my life. Thank you.’”
“We encourage them. We empower them. And we make them appreciate life and what they have around them. I feel we are doing noble work. We are changing some of the kids’ lives,” said Waisman, referring to himself and other survivors who speak.
He added, “Some people think that we sadden the children,” referring to himself and other survivors who speak. “No. We encourage them. We empower them. And we make them appreciate life and what they have around them. I feel we are doing noble work. We are changing some of the kids’ lives.”
Yet, even as he is being recognized for speaking to thousands, Waisman recalled that the first time he publicly spoke of his experiences, he vowed it would be his last. Motivated by the Keegstra affair, Waisman contacted Robert Krell, a founder of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, to say he was ready to speak. A school visit was arranged and Waisman told the students of his experiences. The reaction was poor. Some students fell asleep – though Waisman thinks it was not because the narrative was boring, but the opposite: it was too graphic. The students tuned it out as a sort of emotional defence.
“I came home and I was completely out of it,” Waisman said. “I had to lock myself in a room because it was so painful.”
Krell talked him into trying it once again and, this time, Krell, a psychiatrist, was in the audience. On Krell’s advice, Waisman developed a different approach. “I tell my story, but I don’t go into details,” he said. “I tell them about my life at home [before the Holocaust], with my family, and I tell them about my life afterwards.” He usually shows a video clip that provides a graphic depiction of the Holocaust, but his own presentations put a face to the Shoah but do not dwell on the atrocities he personally witnessed and experienced.
“All in all, as you can see from the letters, I seem to connect, telling the importance of being a decent human being and the responsibility they have toward humanity to make this place a better world,” said Waisman.
It is estimated that between 89 and 94 percent of Jewish children who were alive in Europe in 1939 had been murdered by 1945.
Waisman’s survival is an example of how many extraordinary incidents, fortunate coincidences and unlikely near-misses were required for a Jewish child to endure that era. In the dystopia of Nazism, children were deemed non-productive “useless eaters.” They also represented the future of the Jewish people, so the Nazis took special steps to ensure the deaths of as many children as possible. It is estimated that between 89 and 94 percent of Jewish children who were alive in Europe in 1939 had been murdered by 1945.
The Wajsman family were stalwarts of the community in Skarzysko, Poland. After the Sabbath candles were lit, neighbors would pour into the Wajsman home to listen to the wisdom of Romek’s father, Chil, a haberdasher and an admired leader in the synagogue and community. Romek was the youngest, aged eight when the Nazis invaded Poland, with four brothers and a sister.
Romek’s first break came when the ghetto in Skarzysko was about to be liquidated, in 1942. One of Romek’s older brothers had been forced into labor at a munitions factory. At four in the morning on the day the ghetto was to be liquidated, Romek’s brother appeared and took him to the factory, where he would survive as a useful – if extremely young – munitions worker.
When the Russians advanced on Poland in 1944-45, the Germans moved the munitions workers into the German heartland – and Romek was taken to Buchenwald. There, he met another boy, Abe Chapnick.
“We sort of supported one another,” Waisman said. “We had numbers that we were called by in Buchenwald, but we called each other by name and kept our humanity intact.”
Buchenwald was not primarily an extermination camp, yet Waisman was well aware that if they were not useful to the Germans, they would not survive. What helped the two boys live was the fact that Buchenwald was a camp originally intended for political prisoners, not necessarily Jews, and while the Nazis ran the overall affairs of Buchenwald, many internal matters were left to a committee of prisoners. “They protected us,” said Waisman.
He remembers a particularly fateful moment.
“We were marched out in line and an SS comes up and screamed at the top of his voice ‘All Jews step out!’” Romek and Abe looked at one another. “I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’” Waisman said. “Before we could make up our minds, Willie [Wilhelm Hammann, the German prisoner who was in charge of the barrack] stood in front of us and screamed at the top of his voice at the SS: ‘I have no Jews!’”
The same process unfolded in other barracks and when the Jewish inmates stepped out, they were shot. “That was two or three days before liberation,” Waisman said.
When liberation finally came – at 3:45 p.m. on April 11, 1945, the day Waisman counts as his “birthday” – their troubles were not yet over. They were moved to better quarters but remained at Buchenwald for two months, while authorities attempted to determine what to do with millions of displaced persons across Europe.
Romek had looked forward to going home, to being reunited with his family. “After liberation, we couldn’t grasp the enormity of the Holocaust,” he said. “I saw people around me die, but I didn’t see the whole picture. I wanted to go home because I thought everybody would be at home.”
Eventually, 426 of them, all boys, would be taken to France, to a makeshift orphanage where they were expected to resume their lives and studies as if their experiences had been merely some sort of routine disruption.
While Waisman and Chapnick had been the youngest in their barrack, at liberation they would discover there were hundreds more children, from 8 to 18, in the camp. Eventually, 426 of them, all boys, would be taken to France, to a makeshift orphanage where they were expected to resume their lives and studies as if their experiences had been merely some sort of routine disruption. They acted out in ways that made their new caretakers fear them as animalistic and potentially dangerous.
“We were angry and full of rage when we couldn’t go home after liberation,” Waisman said. “We came to France and there were all these people that wanted to help us out and came to deal with us. Professionals and volunteers to help us out, people that spoke our language [but] when we wanted to speak and share some of the pain, they weren’t interested. It was too soon. Psychiatry wasn’t as advanced as it is now. They’d say, ‘We are not interested. Just never mind. Forget about it. Move on. Go back to school. Continue your schooling.’
“I can’t repeat what we told them what to do,” Waisman said, laughing. “After all, we knew best.”
Waisman would discover decades later that a report commissioned by the French government declared that these “boys of Buchenwald” would never rehabilitate, they had seen too much, been too damaged and would not live beyond 40. The report recommended that the government find a Jewish organization to look after them.
In fact, in addition to the most notable boys of Buchenwald – Elie Wiesel, the renowned author and humanitarian, and Yisrael Meir Lau, who would become a chief rabbi of Israel – almost every one went on to succeed in life beyond all expectations. For Waisman, who is still active in the hotel industry, this was a direct result of a single determined man.
“Manfred Reingwitz, a professor at the Sorbonne – he wouldn’t give up on us. He used to always give us these wonderful discussions and spoke to us about the importance of moving on. It didn’t register. He took a lot of abuse, but I remember the one crucial time. There were four of us, including myself, and he sort of said, ‘I give up’ and then he turned around … ‘By the way, Romek, if your parents stood where I am standing right now, what do you think they would want for you?’ he said in an angry voice. And, of course, we don’t answer anything and he walks away. We looked at one another and it resonated. We didn’t say anything. But we sort of began a different attitude, a different way of looking at things.”
This was the moment when Waisman and most of the others, like so many survivors, began a process of throwing themselves into careers, family and community work.
He and his sister Leah were the only survivors from their family of eight. (Leah married in a DP camp, moved to Israel and Waisman sponsored them to come to Canada in the 1950s.)
Slowly, Romek’s life took on a form of normalcy. Under the auspices of Canadian Jewish Congress, he would arrive in Halifax and travel by train to Calgary, where he would begin Canadian life with the help of a local family, start his career and meet his wife, Gloria. The couple would move to Gloria’s native Saskatchewan for two decades before coming to Vancouver.
“For, I think, close to 36 years I went on with my life,” Waisman said. The other boys of Buchenwald progressed similarly, many settling in Australia, as well as in Israel, the United States and elsewhere. “I made a life … my Holocaust experience was there, but I put it aside…,” Waisman said. “And then Keegstra came along teaching his students that the Holocaust was a myth, that it didn’t happen.” And Waisman became one of the most active survivor speakers, putting a face to history for thousands of young people.
“One and a half million Jewish children were not as lucky as I was, and the other boys of Buchenwald [were], and so I sort of began to think about it and said, ‘I made it. I have a sacred duty and obligation to [share my experiences with younger generations] and when I’m doing this I honor the memory of the one and a half million.’
“Our survival meant something,” he said. “After all these years, I felt that I had to do it, that it’s a sacred duty.”