A postcard showing Janusz Korczak in the courtyard of the orphanage on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw, Poland, in the early 1930s.
An unprecedented interdisciplinary event will take place this summer at the University of British Columbia, focusing on the legacy of Janusz Korczak, a pioneer in the area of children’s rights and welfare.
Korczak is perhaps remembered most for his final act of heroism: his refusal to accept an offer of a reprieve, choosing instead to walk with the 200 or so orphaned children of his school as they were sent to their deaths at Treblinka. But it is his legacy as an educator, physician and writer that will be the focus of the 2019 Korczak Summer Institute. The two-week intensive program, called Advocacy in Action: The Legacy of Janusz Korczak, is open to graduate and undergraduate students across disciplines. It takes place July 2-11.
“To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been a university-based course on the work of Janucz Korczak, not in his native Poland, not in Israel, certainly not in North America,” said Rabbi Dr. Hillel Goelman, professor emeritus in UBC’s department of educational and counseling psychology, and special education. The program was developed across disciplines, reflecting Korczak’s range of academic and philosophical work.
“He was a pediatrician by training, so we reached out to the department of pediatrics to get their help and a number of faculty members are going to do Korczak-related activities,” said Goelman. “He was an educator, so the faculty of education were happy to co-sponsor the course with the Januscz Korczak Association [of Canada]. But it would also be open to people studying social work or any sort of child-focused activity. A lot of people at UBC support the whole cause of child activism and child welfare from an interdisciplinary perspective.”
Korczak’s philosophy inspired and informed the United Nations Charter on the Rights of Children. Importantly, his work was not limited to academics or writing, but was devoted to applying his values of child empowerment directly to the real world.
“Children are not the people of tomorrow but people today,” Korczak wrote. “They are entitled to be taken seriously. They have a right to be treated by adults with tenderness and respect, as equals.”
“In the orphanage that he ran in Warsaw, they had a children’s parliament, where children elected their leaders to make the rules and enforce the rules,” said Goelman. “There was a children’s court, where children could complain about their treatment either by the staff or by other students. There was a children’s newspaper that they published. He very much empowered children and he thought it was important to draw on this and give them opportunities to develop their own leadership. I think those are all very important contemporary messages for educators, social workers, pediatricians … and it’s kind of timeless. It’s really relevant to where we are today in terms of child activism, child welfare and child advocacy.”
The institute is designed to help participants transform their working environment to model democratic principles pioneered by Korczak in his writings, pedagogy and governance of the orphanages under his care. It will also encourage participants to adopt strategies to translate the respect for children’s rights into professional practices, including communication with parents and the larger community, and to learn how to help children in developing and sustaining their cultural identity, particularly among those who may struggle with multiple identities.
The course will be taught by Prof. Tatyana Tsyrlina-Spady, an internationally recognized expert on the life and legacy of Korczak and adjunct professor at Seattle Pacific University. She will be joined by a team of international and national invited speakers: teacher trainer and UNICEF consultant Jonathan Levy (Paris, France); founders and leaders in the field of social pediatrics Dr. Gilles Julien and Hélène Trudel (Montreal); researcher and practitioner of Korczak’s legacy Wojtek Lasota (Warsaw, Poland); several UBC professors of nursing and psychology; U.S.-Canadian writer Tilar Mazzeo (Victoria); and a Holocaust survivor and poet, Vancouverite Lillian Boraks-Nemetz.
Promoting Korczak’s pedagogical ideas, as well as their effect on children’s education, is part of the mandate of the Janucz Korczak Association of Canada, which was founded in 2002. The president, Jerry Nussbaum, lives in Vancouver, as do fellow board members Goelman and Boraks-Nemetz.
“His work is very much alive,” said Goelman of Korczak.
Photographs from an unidentified event, possibly a University of British Columbia event, likely in honour of Harry Adaskin, 1985. In the photo immediately below, of the women socializing by the piano, Shirley Kort is second from the right. (above photo JMABC L.13770)
If you know someone in these photos, please help the JI fill the gaps of its predecessor’s (the Jewish Western Bulletin’s) collection at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. by contacting [email protected] or 604-257-5199. To find out who has been identified in the photos, visit jewishmuseum.ca/blog.
Alpha Epsilon Pi chapter members with the fraternity’s “sweetheart,” Rachel Meadow. A “sweetheart” is elected every year at the chapter’s formal. (photo from AEPi)
The Vancouver chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the traditionally Jewish fraternity, is 20 years old this year. So is Benny Stanislawski, the chapter’s president, who will help oversee the anniversary celebrations next month.
AEPi, as it is commonly known, was not the first Jewish fraternity at the University of British Columbia. Another frat operated on campus in years past but eventually disbanded. In the summer of 1999, the former longtime international executive director of the fraternity contacted Jeff Waldman, a student at UBC, suggesting he consider founding a chapter. A group of eight “founding fathers” came together and Adam Propp, a high school friend of Waldman, also a UBC student, was chosen as the first president, or “brother master,” as the role is called internally.
Hillel has been on the UBC campus since 1947 and provided an avenue for Jewish fellowship and involvement for many students. But the founders of the fraternity saw advantages in creating the male-only society.
“I think all of us had different reasons,” Propp recalled. “For me, to be able to have an impact on the university experience for young Jewish men like myself was important. When I look back at it, Hillel appealed to many, but not all. [The fraternity] just appealed to a different set of people who might not have been attracted to Hillel right away. It was a way to get more people more active and involved in a Jewish experience on campus, especially since UBC is such a commuter school.”
Propp became philosophical reflecting on the chapter’s founding two decades ago, noting that, in the next few years, some sons of the original brothers will likely be pledging to the fraternity. In recent days, Propp has been reconnecting with many of the original brothers, as they plan to gather for the 20th-anniversary celebration with a series of events over the weekend of April 5-7.
The relationship between AEPi and Hillel differs from campus to campus and, at UBC, it has generally been extremely strong, sometimes highly symbiotic.
Gabe Meranda, who was executive director of the Vancouver Hillel Foundation at the time the chapter formed, admits he had some trepidation about a Jewish fraternity, not having had any experience with what is called “the Greek system.”
“I was skeptical at first, since I was cautious about fraternities. But these first few guys were so excited about launching the chapter in B.C. that I decided I must get behind it,” Meranda recalled. “I remember the night of their first party at Hillel. I didn’t know what to expect, but all seems to have gone well and it’s taken off from there.”
The chapter made Meranda an honorary brother and he still proudly has the pin, he said.
While fraternities have a reputation for certain excesses, Canadian campuses tend to be a little more low-key, in part because the lower drinking age in Canada means access to booze is not a motivator to joining a frat. What is less obvious to the general public are programs of leadership development, philanthropic ventures and, in the case of AEPi, Jewish cultural activities and, to varying extents, Israel programming or education.
Stanislawski stressed that AEPi has no political or religious orientation. Jewish young men, as well as non-Jewish ones who want to pledge – of which there are usually a few each year – are welcome without concern for their religious affiliation (or lack of affiliation) or their approach to Zionism.
The chapter’s main annual philanthropic event is Hoops 4 Health, an all-day, three-on-three basketball tournament that takes place this year on March 31 at War Memorial Gym. The chapter’s charity beneficiary used to be different health causes, but the Heart and Stroke Foundation has a special meaning to the brothers. A couple of years ago, an AEPi member, Nitai Weinberg, suffered a stroke at the age of 18. Now fully recovered, he and his brothers raised $8,000 for the cause last year, and this year have significantly upped their goal to $25,000.
As an example of the range of programs, the chapter recently hosted a presentation on sexual assault awareness, led by the UBC Mental Health Network. They also host “Greek Shabbats” at Hillel House, where members of all the university’s fraternities are invited.
“The Greek community is fairly large and it’s also influential,” said Lenny Tabakman, who was master brother last year and is chairing the organizing committee for the anniversary celebration. “A lot of people that join fraternities and sororities are leaders in their own community. The fact that they mingle with us and we get to meet the leaders of other communities, I feel like it’s beneficial for the Jewish community at large because we’re basically creating allies of the community by bringing them in. They probably would never even enter Hillel and, every week, we have people who are not Jewish come into Hillel and hang out with AEPi.”
These connections are helpful, Tabakman said, when issues like anti-Israel incitement happens on campus and allies are needed to counter them.
Tabakman sees fraternities in general as a place to nurture leadership.
“A fraternity is kind of like a learning laboratory where you get to practise your leadership skills and your teamwork skills,” he said. “It’s kind of a safe place to fail. It prepares you for the business world.”
AEPi has an added mission, agreed Tabakman and Stanislawski: “Developing leaders for the Jewish community.”
Founded in 1913, the fraternity now serves 190 campuses in seven countries; it claims 90,000 living alumni. The UBC branch, officially called the Beta Chi chapter, welcomes students from Langara, Simon Fraser, Emily Carr, Capilano and all post-secondary institutions in the region. The chapter usually has 40-plus brothers in any given year, peaking last year at 49.
“I’d love to see the organization get into the 70s,” said Stanislawski. But, given the limited number of Jewish students on campus, slow, steady growth is the realistic goal.
Samuel Heller, the current executive director of Hillel at UBC, congratulated the fraternity and thanked them for their contributions.
“Both the Hillel community and wider campus community are enriched by this brotherhood of young men who exemplify leadership and champion Jewish values,” said Heller. “Brothers of AEPi are a positive force on campus … by creating a group of young leaders who are changing the face of UBC and who, in turn, will change the world.”
Pat Johnson is an honorary brother of Alpha Epsilon Pi Beta Chi chapter.
Left to right are GOLDRAUSCH actors Tebo Nzeku, Gray Clark, Karthik Kadam, Matthew Rhodes and Hannah Everett. (photo by Javier Sotres)
GOLDRAUSCH is described as “a comedy with music that journeys through film director Oskar’s efforts to make a film about the man who started the Gold Rush Fever of 1848: the ‘Emperor of California.’ Mixed with classic country and Mexican banda songs, GOLDRAUSCH is the story of rampant jealousy, greed and ambition run amok, as dueling actors fight for their close-ups in Oskar’s magnum opus.”
The University of British Columbia’s theatre and film department presents GOLDRAUSCH at Frederic Wood Theatre March 14-30.
“GOLDRAUSCH follows the story of director Oskar, creating a film on Johann Augustus Sutter, based on the book Gold by Blaise Cendrars,” explained Hannah Everett, who plays the role of Marlene in the UBC production. “Sutter was a German-born colonizer who came to America, set up a farm for himself and became rich – until the gold rush of the 1850s, which destroyed the land he had taken.
“The playwright, Guillermo Calderón, is commenting on how Blaise Cendrar’s Gold is an exaggerated and fictionalized version of Sutter’s life that glosses over his problematic character, and the history surrounding the land and people during this time,” she said. “The play begins months into the shoot when Oskar realizes his film has become boring, and lacking ‘soul.’ He decides to bring in two new actors and shoot a porn scene, much to the other actors’ surprise.”
Marlene is one of the new actors.
“Marlene has been hired by Oskar to perform a porn scene and body double the leading lady, Greta, on set,” said Everett. “Marlene represents Oskar’s ‘fresh start’ to the film, in order to make it more interesting. Throughout the play, we learn she contracted hepatitis from the porn industry and is incredibly poor. She needs this job to make money and survive, which sends Greta into a panic as she learns Marlene is her replacement.”
Appropriately for a play about a film, GOLDRAUSCH is a multimedia work.
“GOLDRAUSCH features real cameras and sound equipment that will project film scenes onto the stage,” said Everett. “We are calling it a ‘meta-theatrical comedy with music’ and, in a way that is somewhat Brechtian, the play often breaks into song and dance, with karaoke tracks projected onto screens. In a final scene, where Oskar and the four actors interview about their film, it becomes clear that these songs are included in the film soundtrack. The multimedia layers to this piece create an effect that continues to take the audiences out of these different worlds of the past and the present, and remind them that they are watching a performance – and that not everything is always as it seems.”
Calderón, a Chilean playwright, wrote GOLDRAUSCH in 2017, “in a continuing time of political upheaval and uncertainty, particularly in United States,” said Everett. “Johannes Augustus Sutter came to America in the 1800s, stole land and enslaved indigenous peoples. His story, Calderón highlights, is unfortunately still incredibly relevant.
“Calderón asks us to think about land ownership, freedom and immigration. He shows us how history repeats itself,” she said. “The play satirizes Cendrar’s book, Gold, demonstrating how we become numb and alienate ourselves from people and politics that attempt to take away basic human rights. This is seen in Oskar’s film, and the ego and greed between the four actors, all struggling for the spotlight…. Calderón has decided to illuminate these issues in a way that is absurd and entertaining, as a way to get audiences to think more actively than perhaps watching or reading a news story.”
Born in White Rock, Everett grew up in Tsawwassen. She got into acting through various avenues, including Gateway Theatre and high school productions. During a three-year internship with the Riotous Youth program at Bard on the Beach, she helped create A Shakesperience and Shakespeare Unhinged. She also participated in the InTune Young Company Intensive with Touchstone Theatre and with the Stratford Theatre Performance Intensive.
In the course of her university studies, Everett has performed in many theatre and some film productions at UBC, as well as in other theatre productions. In her fourth and final year of UBC’s bachelor of fine arts acting program, Everett graduates in May.
“I’m hoping to get a film agent and, ideally, work in both film and theatre,” she said of what comes next. “I am keen to explore more devised performance, Shakespeare and the contemporary Canadian theatre scene. What I love about this line of work is that it scares me and challenges me to always keep learning, whatever the future may hold.”
Everett’s love of theatre came from her maternal grandmother, Irene N. Watts, who most recently has published Seeking Refuge (2016), a graphic novel, with Kathryn E. Shoemaker, which is a sequel to the graphic novel version of Goodbye Marianne. (See jewishindependent.ca/meet-award-winning-artists.)
“Her most well-known trilogy includes the novel (adapted from the play) Goodbye Marianne, which draws from her experience as a child Holocaust survivor, arriving in England via the Kindertransport from Germany,” said Everett of her grandmother. “In England, she became a teacher and worked in drama education before coming over to Canada in 1968, where she continued working in children’s theatre, acting and directing.
“Her love for theatre trickled down to me, and I was incredibly fortunate to be taken to numerous productions over the years, and given seemingly endless supplies of plays and books. Our shared passion has created such a cherished and close relationship and, as Judaism has had such a deep effect on her life and storytelling, I am always eager to share and learn her stories. Coming from both Jewish and non-Jewish heritage on my father’s side, I have learned to appreciate and be open to different views of the world, especially when it comes to making art.”
Tickets for GOLDRAUSCH – which contains adult themes and language – can be purchased from ubctheatretickets.com or 604-822-2678.
Mary Kitagawa was honoured with the
Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Award on Jan. 20. (photo by Pat Johnson)
At a convocation ceremony at the University of
British Columbia in 2012, a group of graduates stood out from the rest.
Twenty-one elderly Japanese-Canadians, ranging in age from 89 to 96, were
awarded honorary degrees in recognition of an historic injustice that had taken
place 70 years earlier.
In the winter of early 1942, right after
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, the Government of Canada ordered all
Japanese-Canadians to be relocated from the coast. This included students at
UBC. For the next seven decades, the injustice went unrectified and largely
unrecognized by the university until Mary Kitagawa, a community leader whose
own family history was ruptured by the events of the war years, took up the
cause. It was her tenacity that led the university to acknowledge and make some
amends for its complicity in the injustice. It awarded honorary degrees to 96
students – most of them posthumously.
For this achievement, and others, Kitagawa was
honoured with the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Award on Sunday afternoon,
Jan. 20. This was the 14th annual Vancouver commemoration of Raoul Wallenberg Day,
which, since 2015, has coincided with the presentation of the Civil Courage Award.
In her remarks upon receiving the award,
Kitagawa reflected on the social conditions that permitted the internment of
Canadians of Japanese descent.
“This happened because those in power in Canada
at that time forgot that this was a democratic country, sending her men and
women to war to preserve our freedom,” she told a packed auditorium at the H.R.
MacMillan Space Centre. “The excuse they used for incarcerating us was that we
were a security risk. However, if you read all the newspaper headlines of the
1930s and ’40s, you will find that the B.C. politicians’ hatred of
Japanese-Canadians was deep and abiding. They wanted to ethnically cleanse this
one small group of people from the province.”
Kitagawa said that, at a January 1942 meeting
in Ottawa to address “the Japanese problem,” a B.C. representative declared,
“The bombing of Pearl Harbour was a heaven-sent gift to the people of British
Columbia to rid B.C. of Japanese economic menace forevermore.”
“My family was swept away from our home in this
storm of hatred,” Kitagawa said. From their home on Salt Spring Island, the
family was transported to Hastings Park, in East Vancouver, which served as an
assembly point for dispersal to the interior of the province.
“Our journey through incarceration was brutal
and dehumanizing,” she said. The family was separated from her father for six
months and they feared the very worst. Eventually, the family was reunited, but
they were moved from place to place around the interior of British Columbia and
in Alberta a dozen times during seven years of incarceration.
When the War Measures Act, under which the
internment was justified, ceased its effect at the end of the war, Parliament
passed successive “emergency” laws to permit the continued incarceration
through 1947, and it was April 1949 before Japanese-Canadians were granted
freedom of movement and permitted to return to the coast. Her father and
mother, aged 55 and 50 respectively, took the family back to Salt Spring and
began all over again.
“It wasn’t just the material things that they
lost,” Kitagawa reflected. “They lost the dream for the future they had planned,
their community, their opportunities, education for their children, their
friends, their youth, their culture, language and heirlooms. But never – they
never lost their pride nor their dignity.… My parents believed in forgiveness.
Like Nelson Mandela, they believed that forgiveness liberates the soul. They
refused to look back in anger. Instead, they chose to continue to move forward
with the same resolve that helped them to survive their terrible experience.”
In 2006, Kitagawa read in the Vancouver Sun that a federal building on Burrard Street in Vancouver was being named to honour Howard Charles Green, a longtime Conservative member of Parliament from Vancouver and a leading advocate of Japanese-Canadian internment. “Immediately, I knew that I had to have that name erased from that building. To me, no person who helped destroy my parents’ dream and made them suffer so grievously was going to be so honoured.”
With help from a quickly mobilized group of
activists and sympathetic media coverage, Kitagawa successfully had Green’s
name stripped from the building, which was renamed in honour of Douglas Jung,
another Conservative MP, but the first MP of Chinese-Canadian heritage.
Kitagawa also led an initiative that saw
Hastings Park declared an historic site related to the internment.
In her talk on Sunday, Kitagawa emotionally
credited an “unsung hero,” her husband Tosh, who, among other efforts he played
in supporting Kitagawa’s activism, spearheaded the reprinting of the 1942 UBC
yearbook to include information about the internment and biographies of the
students affected. It was also through his persistence that they were able to
track down the 23 living students and the families of those who had passed
The Civil Courage Award is presented by the
Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society, which was formed by members of the
Swedish and Jewish communities in Vancouver.
Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish architect,
businessman, diplomat and humanitarian who became Sweden’s special envoy to
Hungary in the summer of 1944, several months after the Nazi deportation of
Hungarian Jews had begun. He issued protective passports and sheltered people
in buildings that were declared to be Swedish territory, saving tens of
thousands of Jews. He was taken into Soviet captivity on Jan. 17, 1945, and was
never seen again.
Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who
served as the vice-consul in Lithuania during the Second World War. Acting in
direct violation of his orders at great risk to himself and his family, he
issued transit visas that allowed approximately 6,000 Jewish people from Poland
and from Lithuania to escape probable death.
The award presentation was followed by a
screening of the 1995 film The War Between Us, which dramatizes the
events of the Japanese-Canadian experience through the lives of a single
Councilor Pete Fry, Vancouver’s deputy mayor, read a proclamation
from the city. Consular officials from Sweden and Japan were in attendance.
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.
The University of British Columbia’s Prof. Richard Menkis has received two honours recently: the 2018 Louis Rosenberg Canadian Jewish Studies Distinguished Service Award and the 2018 Switzer-Cooperstock Prize for the best essay in Western Canadian Jewish history.
The Association for Canadian Jewish Studies established the Rosenberg Award in 2001 to recognize the significant contribution by an individual, institution or group to Canadian Jewish studies. In announcing Menkis as this year’s honouree, the association noted his “long and very distinguished career as a strong advocate for and practitioner of the scholarship and teaching of Canadian Jewish studies.”
Menkis won this year’s Switzer-Cooperstock Prize for the essay “Two Travelers and Two Canadian Jewish Wests,” which emphasizes the multiple expressions of interwar Jewish life in the Canadian west, and studies how two rabbis – Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz and Rabbi Y. Horowitz – traveled through the region to promote their different visions. Hertz offered a modern acculturated Anglo-orthodoxy, while Horowitz promoted a traditionalist orientation shaped by Chassidism.
The Switzer-Cooperstock Prize, donated by members of the Switzer family to honour their parents and grandparents, is awarded biennially by the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada. Past winners of the prize are Theodore Friedgut (Hebrew University), Lynne Marks (University of Victoria), Chana Thau (Winnipeg independent scholar), David Koffman (York University) and Esyllt Jones (University of Manitoba).
Menkis received his PhD from Brandeis University in 1988 and for many years held a position in the department of classical, Near Eastern and religious studies with a cross appointment to the department of history at UBC. He is currently associate professor of medieval and modern Jewish history in the history department at UBC. In addition to the surveys of medieval and modern Jewish history, he has taught advanced undergraduate courses on the Holocaust; Canadian Jewish history; fascism and antifascism; the historiography of genocide; and Jewish identity and the graphic novel. He continues to supervise both MA and PhD student theses at UBC and has served on PhD committees at other institutions.
Menkis has published widely on the cultural and religious history of Canadian Jewry. His articles have appeared in American Jewish History, American Jewish Archives, Canadian Ethnic Studies, Canadian Jewish Studies and in a number of edited volumes. Menkis was co-author, with Harold Troper, of More Than Just Games: Canada and the 1936 Olympics (University of Toronto Press, 2015), a seminal work in the field that presents an investigation of the responses and reactions of both Jewish and non-Jewish Canadian athletes and their communities to participation in the games. He is continuing the research for a publication, begun with Gerald Tulchinsky (z”l), on an aspect of the Canadian Jewish garment industry.
Tikva Housing has hired Alice Sundberg as director of operations and housing development. Sundberg has more than 30 years of nonprofit housing experience, including housing development, organizational and project management, and sector leadership. Most recently, she was involved with the development of the Co:Here Housing Community and the creation of Home Front, a collaborative initiative to make homelessness in Metro Vancouver rare, brief and one-time. Her knowledge of and contacts with both provincial and federal levels of government will assist Tikva Housing greatly as the organization moves forward with current and new project developments.
Sundberg is excited to be joining Tikva Housing and is already busy with the upcoming opening of the Ben and Esther Dayson Residences in Vancouver’s Fraser district. For information about Tikva’s upcoming projects, you can reach her at [email protected], or housing administrator Anat Gogo, at [email protected].
The study methods of Jewish school have served Jake Pascoe well in his study of film at the University of British Columbia. His works will be among those featured in the Persistence of Vision Film Festival 28 (POV28) April 28 and 29.
The festival showcases the work of fourth- and third-year students in the film production program at UBC Theatre and Film, which is what brought Pascoe – born and raised in Toronto – to Vancouver in 2014. Now in the final year of his bachelor of fine art in film production, Pascoe is involved in many of the 21 short films being screened at POV28. He directed Genesis, was the producer of Snoop! and first assistant director on three films, With Love From God, It’s a Boy! and How Long?, as well as being key grip on two others and gaffer on yet another. Pascoe said that, for a student to be involved in so many productions is “completely usual.”
“In fact,” he told the Independent, “I have some currently exhausted friends who have been in several more roles this year than I have. The program really emphasizes getting as much exposure to the different departments as possible, which makes the production season of the school year a lot of fun; you and your friends working several long days in a row and having to figure out how equipment works on the fly since – hey, you’re suddenly our sound mixer now!”
Pascoe’s bio notes that, in addition to “a background in directing theatre, he’s won fiction and stage play awards and has had stories published in magazines.”
“Before I was ever interested in filmmaking, I loved writing, so that stage of the process will always feel a little sacred to me,” he said. “This year, I got my first opportunity to direct a large and legitimate set with a big, scary camera and lots of equipment. Directing a movie like Genesis has been an opportunity that’s sort of eluded me, so I didn’t know what to expect coming up to the shoot. My favourite directors, like David Fincher or Wim Wenders, have been almost holy figures to me but I haven’t had the chance to take on that role with any of the resources remotely similar to the movies I grew up watching. Just feeling part of that tradition was pretty special.
“It also just gave me a creative buzz I hadn’t really ever experienced before. There was a moment I had with my actors getting ready before a big scene and I listened as they were getting into character, talking about their fears and emotions and I got so caught up with them. It was really surreal sharing a creative process with so many people since writing is so solitary. Watching and working with them along with my producer Ayden Ross and cinematographer Sam Barringer was really inspiring.”
Pascoe said he will be taking some summer courses to complete his minor in English literature and he aims to graduate this fall. As for his plans after that, he said, “Directing is such a fun and almost addictive experience that I feel like I need to get back in the chair sometime soon, but what’s nice about writing is that you don’t need any money or equipment to do it. I’ve been writing fiction for my whole life so, immediately following graduation, I’ll be working on getting some of my writing published.”
Pascoe said he attended a Jewish day school until Grade 11, “so it was a very large part of my life growing up. In terms of how it comes into play now – it’s funny, I was just giving a little spiel about this at my family’s seders this year – it struck me recently just how strangely effective Jewish school was in preparing me to study film.
“There’s something really talmudic in the analysis and criticism of cinema and the application thereof to any filmic creative pursuits I’ve had at UBC,” he said. “I remember very vividly in long Grade 7 classes being given an excerpt from the Torah and having to take the ‘story’ and methodically comb through it for all the moral quandaries it presents, all of its impacts on daily life it posits, and all the laws within its lessons to follow.
“In a very similar way, when you watch a movie, you’re really being handed a puzzle in the form of a story and are expected to totally squeeze everything out of it and methodically ask different kinds of theoretical questions.” He spoke of walking out of theatres “with the movie nerds in my program, who are just, if not more so, as trivial and hairsplitting as any of the ancient rabbinical commentators I read in middle school.”
POV28 screenings take place at UBC’s Frederic Wood Theatre, and there are morning matinées and evening programs. For tickets and the full schedule, visit povfilmfestival.org.
Hillel House building at the University of British Columbia. (photo from Hillel BC)
The University of British Columbia Geography Students Association (GSA) recently canceled a gala that was to take place in rental space owned by UBC’s Hillel chapter, due to pressure from some of the faculty in the department of geography.
The faculty members said they insisted on boycotting the event because of what they called the “controversial” and “political” nature of Hillel, according to numerous reports. The faculty members had not been publicly identified as of press time and could, therefore, not be located to clarify their position.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) has accused them of boycotting the GSA gala based on the perception that Hillel supports the state of Israel, which CIJA is calling discriminatory.
“Boycotting Jews or a Jewish organization simply because you object to the state of Israel’s policies is classic antisemitism,” said Nico Slobinsky, CIJA’s director for the Pacific region.
“It is hard to believe that there is such blatant antisemitism on a Canadian university campus in 2018. There should be zero tolerance for any expressions of discrimination, racism and antisemitism on campus and anywhere else in Canada.”
Samuel Heller, the assistant executive director of Hillel BC, told the CJN that, “The actions of these faculty members have resulted in a de facto boycott of the Jewish student centre on campus. To boycott Jews based on one’s political views about Israel is discriminatory and antisemitic. Their actions have led to the resignation of the lone Jewish student on the executive of the GSA, as he felt marginalized and discriminated against because of his Jewishness.”
Addressing the claim that Hillel is a controversial and political space, Heller said, “Hillel doesn’t have any politics. What these faculty members really object to is Hillel’s support of Israel’s existence. We are a Jewish organization and Israel is a part of Jewish identity.… To demand that Jews disavow parts of our identity to placate faculty members is wrong and discriminatory.”
But not everyone accepts Heller’s characterization of Hillel as “having no politics.” The Progressive Jewish Alliance at UBC (PJA) released a statement on Facebook on March 16, saying: “While we recognize the right of the GSA to move the gala based on political considerations, we urge the GSA to recognize that Hillel is the physical Jewish space on campus, alongside having a political position. While we wait for a statement from the GSA, we would like to point out that the ramifications of their decision are alienating Jewish students on campus. Likewise, we encourage Hillel to consider how their political positions, such as an opposition to all boycotts of Israel, can alienate other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and students.”
The PJA is referring to Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership, which state that Hillel will not partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel; or support the boycott of, divestment from or sanctions against the state of Israel.
In 2012, concerns about Hillel’s refusal to partner with Jewish organizations that support the BDS movement led to the formation of Open Hillel, an organization that agitates for Hillel to end the Standards of Partnership.
Numerous controversies have broken out over Hillel boycotting groups or individuals in recent years. In one example, in March 2017, B’nai Keshet, a queer Jewish group at Ohio State University, co-sponsored a Purim fundraiser for LGBTQ refugees in the Columbus area. Because Jewish Voices for Peace, an organization that supports BDS, was one of the sponsoring groups, OSU Hillel cut ties with B’nai Keshet, due to pressure from Hillel International, prompting students on numerous American campuses to hold “solidarity Shabbats” with the LGBTQ group. In June, a letter calling for the end of the standards was signed by more than 100 rabbis and submitted to Hillel.
The UBC Progressive Jewish Alliance hopes that the controversy will not only provoke change in the GSA, but in Hillel, as well.
“We hope that both organizations take this opportunity to engage in genuine dialogue around the complexity of politics and place,” it concluded in a statement.
Philip Steenkamp, the vice-president of external relations at UBC, told the CJN that the university is “aware of concerns that have been expressed by CIJA” and “are looking into this matter and will follow due process to ensure it is appropriately addressed.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter. This article was originally published by the CJN.
In his first Olympic-distance triathlon, Daniel Meron placed first in the men’s 30-34-year age category. He topped his category in the University of British Columbia Triathlon March 10.
Olympic triathlons see participants swim one-and-a-half kilometres, cycle 40 kilometres and run 10 kilometres. In a sprint triathlon, which also took place the same day, participants swim, cycle and run half those distances. Meron competed in his first sprint triathlon last August.
“I did my first triathlon on a whim,” he said. “I take part in a local boot camp called November Project [a free fitness movement that began in Boston and has spread to other cities]. They exercise at Queen Elizabeth Park every Wednesday morning. I started going over the summer and just began to get to know some truly phenomenal people, people who regularly win or place in ultramarathons, which are 100-kilometre runs that take place over two or three days. I thought I would like to try some sort of event.”
Meron regularly cycles about 16 kilometres to work and has been a lifeguard and swimming teacher for the City of Burnaby since 2004.
UBC Triathlon participants were equipped with timing sensors that measured when they began and finished each segment of the competition. Results were not released on the day of the event, and Meron was pleasantly shocked when he checked his results online.
“It came as a bit of a surprise,” he said. “It was obviously a huge accomplishment just doing an Olympic distance for the first time and so, honestly, winning my age category was just gravy.”
Meron, a UBC alumnus, is a former Hillelnik and served as vice-president of the UBC chapter of the traditionally Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. He is also an actor and acting teacher.
He is slated to do three or four more triathlons in the coming months.