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.
Left to right, back row, are Rory Richards, Kasimir Kish, Gord Kushner, Sarah Ann Chisholm (Jewish Family Services liaison), Daniel Bar Dayan, Jeremy Berger and Anat Gogo. In the front, left to right, are Rhonda Sacks, Marcela Manes, Shelley Karrel, Selina Robinson (guest speaker at the recent AGM), Alice Sundberg and Eric Fefer. (photo from Tikva Housing)
Tikva Housing had its annual general meeting Dec. 13, 2018. Two new directors were elected at the AGM, and another has joined since, to be appointed at the next board meeting.
The new directors elected in December were Jeremy Berger, a commercial property manager with Porte Realty, and Rhonda Sacks, a realtor with Sutton Group. Both have demonstrated a keen interest in Tikva’s work and have been actively engaged since joining. The new director to be appointed at the Feb. 28 board meeting is Rory Richards, who brings marketing and communications expertise, as well as strong links in the Jewish community.
Continuing board members are Shelley Karrel (chair), Gord Kushner (treasurer), Heather Sirlin (secretary) and directors-at-large Dan Granirer, Marcela Manes, Kasimir Kish and Mike Grudman.
Alice Sundberg, Tikva Housing’s director of operations and housing development, describes the Tikva board as a dynamic group of professionals who share a passion for providing affordable housing in an expensive region. In a meeting last October, they made a plan for Tikva’s next three years. The key strategic goals are engaged and committed board members and active committees; an endowment fund to provide stable and predictable funding for the rent-subsidy program; an expanded housing portfolio; closer ties with other Jewish nonprofit housing providers; and adequate human resources to manage all these goals.
Housing administrator Anat Gogo noted that the demand for rent subsidies is constant. Currently, Tikva is assisting approximately 30 families to be able to stay where they are, without worry of eviction for failure to pay their rent. For more information or to get involved with Tikva, contact the office at 604-998-4582.
National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, Vancouver, welcomes Tanya Paz as executive director. Paz volunteered for NCJWC in the 1990s, subsequently served on the board of directors and was Council’s liaison to Canadian Jewish Congress (now Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs).
Both Paz’s background as development director for the first car-sharing organization in British Columbia (Modo) and her involvement with the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival and other organizations, make her a valuable addition to the community of volunteers that is NCJWC. She also brings a wealth of experience in municipal affairs, in environmental initiatives and in social activism. And her expertise in community development and her commitment to women’s and children’s issues ensure a strategic approach to the goals of Council.
Working with the board of directors, Paz will help bring the goals of NCJWC – advocacy, education and social action – to both the Jewish and general communities throughout the region, with a focus on women and children experiencing poverty.
Nina Krieger, executive director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, is among those who have been appointed to the National Expert Committee on Countering Radicalization to Violence.
The Canada Centre was officially launched in 2017. Located at Public Safety Canada headquarters in Ottawa, its work includes the National Strategy on Countering Radicalization to Violence and the role of the expert committee is to help the centre meet the strategy’s three priorities: building, sharing and using knowledge; addressing radicalization to violence in the online space; and supporting interventions.
Krieger, who previously was education director and curator at the VHEC, is highly regarded for developing educational programs and exhibits that challenge audiences to probe the difficult historical, cultural and ethical issues raised by the Holocaust. She is also a member of the Canadian delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and past chair of the Memorials and Museums Working Group.
Joining Krieger on the expert committee are Dr. Ghayda Hassan (co-chair), a clinical psychologist and professor of clinical psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal: Peter John M. Sloly (co-chair), a former Toronto police service deputy chief and currently a partner at Deloitte Canada; Bob Rae, a professor of public policy at both the Munk School and Victoria College at the University of Toronto, who also serves as senior counsel at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP; Dr. Jaspreet Khangura, an emergency physician at Royal Alexandra Hospital and Northeast Community Health Centre in Edmonton; Dillon Black, a gender-nonconforming feminist anti-violence and LGBTQ+ rights advocate and current PhD student with the eQuality Project in the department of criminology at the University of Ottawa; Max FineDay, executive director of Canadian Roots Exchange, an organization that builds bridges between indigenous and non-indigenous youth in Canada, among other things; Rizwan Mohammad, a Canadian Muslim civic engagement coordinator; Irfan Chaudhry, a hate crimes researcher and the director of the Office of Human Rights, Diversity and Equity at MacEwan University; and Dr. Shelly Whitman, executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, who is considered a subject matter expert on the issue of child soldiers.
On Jan. 28, 10 recent Bnei Menashe immigrants brought on aliyah from India by Shavei Israel, celebrated their bat mitzvah at a gathering of family and friends hosted by Girls Town Jerusalem, where they are enrolled as students.
“We were delighted to attend this very special and moving bat mitzvah celebration, which symbolizes the right of passage that the girls and their families have undergone in returning to the Jewish people,” said Shavei Israel founder and chair Michael Freund.
“We are determined to continue with our efforts until all the remaining 7,000 Bnei Menashe still in India are able to return to Zion,” he added.
The Bnei Menashe are descendants of the tribe of Manasseh, one of the Ten Lost Tribes exiled from the Land of Israel more than 2,700 years ago by the Assyrian Empire. So far, some 4,000 Bnei Menashe have made aliyah with Shavei Israel over the past 15 years, including more than 450 last year.
Through education and remembrance, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre engages British Columbian students, educators and the broader public with the history of the Holocaust – the Shoah – and its ongoing relevance. Building on the VHEC’s achievements as Western Canada’s foremost Holocaust teaching museum, the centre’s renewal project, currently underway, will reconfigure the centre’s space to better serve the community and advance the organization’s vital mission.
The preservation of the VHEC’s collection of artifacts, and their use in support of Holocaust education in the post-eyewitness era, has emerged as a new area of emphasis for the future. To provide access to its archival collections and to better meet the needs of students and educators, the centre is proceeding with needed infrastructure upgrades, with support from the Government of Canada (Canada 150 Cultural Infrastructure Program), the Province of British Columbia (British Columbia/Canada 150: Celebrating B.C. Communities and their Contributions to Canada) and the Jewish Community Foundation.
The project will feature temperature and humidity-controlled archival storage and display facilities to enhance the visitor experience. The centre also looks forward to incorporating electronic access portals, which will allow visitors to interact with key themes in Holocaust history and with artifacts, documents and testimonies from the collections at the touch of a screen. Additionally, the VHEC is developing a designated audio-visual programming space that will allow Holocaust survivor outreach speakers – perhaps the centre’s most powerful, and certainly most in-demand, educators – to interact with students and participants in remote locations throughout British Columbia and beyond.
The VHEC renewal project will enable the centre to reach more students, to fulfil its obligation to archival donors and to engage in the time-sensitive work around ensuring that Holocaust-era artifacts from the community can be collected and integrated into exhibits and educational programs.
With plans for an eventual redevelopment of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver in progress, the VHEC is ensuring that key aspects of the renewal are modular and transferable, in the event that the centre relocates in the coming years. The renewal will build in flexibility and sustainability.
The VHEC looks forward to welcoming students, teachers and community members to its renewed facility in early 2018, and to using its improved facility as a platform for carrying out its programming and interacting with the community. Guests attending the Nov. 22 special event in support of the VHEC, called “Looking Back … Moving Forward: Expanding the Reach of Holocaust Education,” will learn more about the centre’s upcoming plans, and preview the inaugural exhibition that will open in its renewed space.
Featuring a commissioned series of portraits of VHEC Holocaust survivor volunteers, the exhibition will honour and put a human face on those who survived the Shoah and have contributed to the VHEC community. Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Marissa Roth created a similar exhibition of portraits of Holocaust survivors associated with the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, currently on permanent exhibition at the museum. Inspired by this remarkable project, the VHEC is launching a documentation and exhibition project by Roth at an important time of transition for the centre and for Holocaust education.
The exhibition of black-and-white, matted and framed archival silver gelatin prints will be accompanied by biographical and historical information, and reflections on survival and the importance of education and remembrance. Representing and honouring the survivor volunteers who are no longer with us is an important aspect of the project, which will feature posthumous portraits – photographs of photographs of survivors, in some cases held by descendants.
Embodying the VHEC’s commitment to engaging with the past with eyes fixed firmly on the future, the renewal project and the Roth portrait exhibition will honour survivors, invite the participation of next generations and extend the reach of the VHEC’s work to new audiences, asking ever-more-challenging questions of how we extrapolate insights from history to navigate present-day affronts to social justice and human rights.
Nina Krieger is executive director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. This article originally appeared in the centre’s magazine, Zachor.
On Sunday, Sept. 24, 11 a.m., at Schara Tzedeck Cemetery in New Westminster, the annual High Holidays Cemetery Service, presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, Congregation Schara Tzedeck and the Jewish War Veterans, will mark the 30th anniversary of the Holocaust Memorial. On April 26, 1987, 1,300 numbers of the community, including Holocaust survivors and their families, attended the unveiling of the memorial, on which more than 900 names of family members who perished during the Holocaust were inscribed. Survivor Lillian Boraks-Nemetz wrote the following poem after that unveiling 30 years ago.
The Six Million Written in dedication of the Holocaust Monument in Schara Tzedeck Cemetery
In this cemetery
far away from where They died
you stand dwarfed by this giant monument
your feet sinking lower and lower into the earth
your soul graining deeper and deeper
into the black granite.
You stand an alien to this earth
a born again human
sixty odd years away from the factories of death
of mercy – pleading voices scattered to deaf winds.
You stand in this cemetery
on the anniversary of the Holocaust
staring with hollow eyes
at simulated graves of strangers finally named
who once went to sleep in a common ditch
souls torn from peace like bones from flesh –
a child’s name upon your lips
a child’s fist pressing upon your breath
to break the granite silence
to speak to shout to scream the truth
to silence forever the mad dogs who
deny the happening of Shoah.
You remember as you stand here
waiting your turn to honour the Dead
how you stood with Them then
in line for death only you didn’t die
running away on all fours
through the contaminated sewers like a rat.
You say Kaddish and for a single moment
become one with the living and the dead.
Then you, the survivor, slip away into an alien world
where your soul must learn to sustain alone,
The Six Million.
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.
This photo is among the images in The Face of the Ghetto: Pictures Taken by Jewish Photographers in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, 1940-1944, produced by the Topography of Terror Foundation, Berlin. The bride on the right is Bronia Sonnenschein; beside her is her groom Erich Strauss. The second bride is Mary Schifflinger with husband Ignatz Yelin. Blessing the couples is Chaim Rumkowski, head of Lodz Ghetto’s Jewish council. Only Sonnenschein survived the Holocaust. She passed away in Vancouver in 2011. (photo from Yad Vashem Photo Archive)
The Face of the Ghetto: Pictures Taken by Jewish Photographers in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, 1940-1944, opened last week at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. Produced by the Topography of Terror Foundation in Berlin, among the traveling exhibit’s photographs was a surprise – a photo with a local connection.
“Unidentified in the photo caption but recognized by our education director [Adara Goldberg] during her research about this exhibit, Bronia Sonnenschein is depicted in the photo to my left,” said VHEC executive director Nina Krieger in her remarks at the opening on May 14, directing attendees’ attention to an image “showing a double wedding ceremony presided over by Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Council of Elders in the Lodz Ghetto. Bronia was the sole survivor of those shown in this photograph. A multilingual secretary in Rumkowski’s office and a survivor of Auschwitz, Bronia passed away in 2011 but is fondly remembered by so many of us.
“Bronia, who stood maybe ‘this’ tall,” continued Krieger, indicating a measure of about shoulder height, “was a giant in terms of her dignity, her resilience, and her dedication to sharing her eyewitness testimony with tens of thousands students as a VHEC outreach speaker.”
About the Topography of Terror Foundation, Krieger explained that it “is mandated to transmit the history of National Socialism and its crimes, and to encourage people to actively confront this history and its aftermath. A distinctive indoor and outdoor museum, the Topography of Terror is located on the very grounds previously occupied by the primary institutions of Nazi persecution and terror: the SS, the Gestapo secret police and the Reich Main Security Office ran their central operations from the site.”
Krieger provided context for the exhibit. “Following the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the Nazis imposed a ghetto in the city of Lodz, which they renamed Litzmannstadt. From 1940 to 1944, more than 180,000 Jews and 5,000 Roma and Sinti lived in the ghetto’s cramped quarters, with many working in factories that supported the war effort.
“Ghetto residents were not allowed to own cameras, yet Lodz is the most documented of all the ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe. Some of these images were taken by perpetrators, often trivializing the terrible conditions in the ghetto and attempting to justify the exploitation of Jewish forced laborers. Others – and the focus of this exhibit – were taken by a handful of Jewish photographers, commissioned by the local Jewish council. While instructed to document the productivity of the war industry for the Nazis, the photographers also captured – at great personal risk – intimate moments of family, childhood and community.”
The Face of the Ghetto exhibit is here as a result of VHEC’s partnership with the German Consulate General in Vancouver and the sponsorship of the German government. Consul General Herman Sitz was at the opening and said a few words, as did Sonnenschein’s son, Dan. Drawn from a collection of 12,000 images held by the Lodz State Archives, one of the intimate moments captured is the one in which his mother appears.
“Last Friday was the historic 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day,” said Sonnenschein, addressing those assembled. “May 8th was personally very meaningful for my mother, as it was the date in 1945 on which she was liberated from the Nazi horror. For her, the bitterly harsh years had begun on March 13, 1938, when Germany annexed a largely welcoming Austria, immediately setting off intense persecution of the Jewish population.
“My mother, with her sister and parents, were among the longest-held prisoners in the Lodz Ghetto, from its formation in spring 1940 until its so-called liquidation in August 1944. Unlike many deported there from other places, they had fled Vienna after the notorious Kristallnacht, and were living under great stress in Lodz when the family was forced from their new home into the ghetto. They were later joined by a beloved aunt of my mother who was deported from Vienna. Her cherished elderly grandmother was deported elsewhere and murdered soon after.
“My mother, with her German-language and office skills, worked as a secretary in the ghetto’s Jewish administration,” he explained. “The photo in this exhibit shows her being married to Erich Strauss, who had been deported from Prague with his mother. The other bride in this double ceremony was Mary Schifflinger, my mother’s fellow office worker and good friend, whose groom’s name was Ignatz Yelin. Shown in the photo blessing the couples is Chaim Rumkowski, appointed head of the Jewish council by the ghetto’s masters in the German administration.
“These five people were all transported, in the usual dreadful way, to Auschwitz, where Rumkowski was killed. Soon after, the others were sent to a less well known but no less brutal concentration camp called Stutthof. There, Mary and her husband were killed, Erich Strauss and his mother were killed, my mother’s father and aunt were killed. As my mother once said, it was a killing field.
“Other photos of my mother in the ghetto may be seen on the internet, along with such photos of my Aunt Paula, who also married in the ghetto, to Stan Lenga,” continued Sonnenschein. “Unlike my mother’s first husband, my Uncle Stan survived and the couple was reunited after the war, being a part of my close family in Vancouver along with my maternal grandmother, Emily Schwebel. The local Jewish Family Service Agency gives an annual Paula Lenga Award in my aunt’s memory for exemplary volunteer service.
“My mother was also an exemplary volunteer, in her case, in Holocaust education. She began this late-life career, first under the auspices of the Canadian Jewish Congress and then with this centre, for over two decades compellingly conveying the suffering imposed on her and so many others for, as she put it, the crime of being Jewish. She often quoted Elie Wiesel’s saying: ‘Not every German was a Nazi but every Jew was a victim.’
“Although we no longer can experience her vibrant presence,” concluded Sonnenschein, “we are fortunate to have many recordings of my mother, as well as a book, to help her testimony live on.” Included in those recordings, he said, is one of her talking about the photo in The Face of the Ghetto exhibit, and related matters. The photos he mentioned of his mother and aunt can be found at google.com/culturalinstitute, searching for “Bronia Sonnenschein” and “Paula Lenga.”
In conjunction with the exhibit, the VHEC has developed a school program and teaching resource to engage students. “Visiting school groups will explore topics such as resistance to dehumanization; the unique experiences of children; and the complex role of Jewish leadership under Nazi occupation,” said Krieger, noting that several of the volunteer docents were at the opening. “Volunteers are central to our work,” she said, “and it’s my honor to acknowledge and to thank our docents for everything that they do.”
Krieger also thanked the VHEC staff – present were Goldberg, designer Illene Yu, archivist Elizabeth Shaffer, collections assistant Katie Powell and administrator Lauren Vukobrat – and the installation crew, Wayne Gilmartin and Adam Stenhouse, as well as the consul general.
The Face of the Ghetto is on display at the VHEC until Oct. 16.
– With thanks to Nina Krieger and Dan Sonnenschein for providing electronic copies of their remarks.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day was commemorated here on Jan. 25 with a ceremony at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. Holocaust survivors lit candles of remembrance and there was a moment of silence followed by Kaddish; Nina Krieger, Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre executive director, read a proclamation from Mayor Gregor Robertson; and a screening of the film Numbered followed, in which survivors of Auschwitz, their children and grandchildren reflect in often unexpected ways on the meaning of the numbers the Nazis tattooed onto their victims.
Vancouverite Robbie Waisman, who is a child survivor of Buchenwald, delivered remarks before the film. With permission, the Independent is privileged to publish a slightly edited transcript of his words:
I am honored to be with you this evening. This film speaks about numbers. I have not seen the film, but I have experience with numbers.
Numbers that have been given to us in the camps have two very significant meanings. They were very dehumanizing. They robbed you of your feelings as a person. Your humanity as a human being was taken away. And as long as you remained healthy and were able to work, in that sense the number given to you made it possible to remain alive and continue to live and hope to survive.
When I lived in France after liberation, they gave us identification cards. It allowed me to get around every day. The police issued it to me on June 9, 1947. I had to have it renewed every year. This was important to me. This was my first ID card, so it is hard to explain how I cherished this card. It meant that I was no longer just a number. It meant that I was a person, that I was a person of value. It proved I had a name and an address. I was so proud to have it. It gave us back some of the dignity we had lost. It gave us back our humanity.
Every time a ghetto was being liquidated, there was a selection of men and women who the Nazis selected to work. Those would be spared and taken to the munitions factories to replace other workers who they perceived as not being strong enough to continue working.
I myself have gone through three of those selections successfully with my father alongside with me.
All of us Jews who were no longer capable of working were eliminated in the most horrific way. I am not going into details – the pain always resonates.
The Nazis decided who qualified to live and work, and others were sent to the gas chambers. Six million of our people, of which 1.5 million were children, were brutally murdered. I represent the seven percent that managed to survive.
The Nazis and their collaborators murdered my mother, father and four older brothers … my uncles, aunts, cousins and friends who had been my schoolmates, and on and on.
Getting back to numbers…. When I read that many second- and third-generation survivors are [tattooing] their fathers’ and grandfathers’ numbers on their own arms and chests, I was upset.
Upon further research and reflection, I came around and now admire all those that have done this noble task. It is strange and amazing how, after all the years, those numbers have taken on a new meaning and brought change to what we think about those horrific years.
The book God, Faith and Identity from the Ashes is a reflection of children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg, from Beth El New Jersey, who is the son of survivors Jacob and Rachel Rosenberg, wrote: “Growing up, I constantly looked at the numbers on my father’s left arm, which he received in Auschwitz. Those numbers instilled in me the urge to fight for the state of Israel and against antisemitism wherever it may occur. I became a rabbi because of those numbers.”
Here is my own experience with numbers. Imagine being a 14-year-old boy. Imagine having been in hell and back over four years of this boy’s life working in Germany’s ammunition factories, being hungry, starved, emotionally exhausted, physically weakened, deprived of every human emotion. Imagine being so brutalized and dehumanized that you begin to believe that you are no longer human. In spite of it all, I never lost hope of being reunited with my family.
Hope! – a very powerful motivation.
The emergence of the enormity of the Holocaust became known to us and we had to find a way to deal and cope with the huge loss of all our loved ones murdered by the Nazis. How are we going to live with all those horrors?
April 11 will be the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald.
Would you believe, Gloria [Waisman’s wife] and I are invited by the German government to come to Weimar for this special occasion, where I am also invited to speak to German teenagers. I will share my experience in that infamous and dreadful place where death was a constant companion.
I celebrate April 11 as my birthday, for that day I was reborn again into freedom.
When the Americans liberated Buchenwald, we were euphoric! I will never forget the feeling! The soldiers were larger than life. They symbolized freedom, a new beginning! I tried to communicate with them, but had no words.
For the first time, I saw black men among the soldiers. Since I had been tormented by white persons and had never seen a black person, I thought that angels must be black!
The soldiers looked around and were surprised to find youngsters like myself. They wanted to know, Who are these kids? Where do they come from? What are their nationalities? Why are they here? What are they guilty of? What was the crime they committed?
Ultimately – a few days later – some men arrived to sort out the puzzle. They proceeded to make a list of our names and when my turn came and I was asked my name, I blurted out #117098, the number given to me. My name as a human was erased. I was surprised that they wanted my name not my number. So, you see here, again, the numbers are part of our stories.
When I think back, it was an extraordinary time, full of promise and hope. But it was also bittersweet. Those of us determined to survive had to focus all our efforts towards survival. We wanted to go home and be reunited with family. We soon realized that home was no more and that families we loved had been brutally murdered.
But after emerging from the abyss, thoughts and feelings returned.
Questions bombarded me. What now? Where is my family? Has anyone survived? If not, what is the point of my own survival?
Those wonderful memories of home no longer existed. Everything shattered.
How will I recapture feelings, so that I could cry and laugh again? How do I learn to love and trust again?
It was not easy to relearn the ordinary skills of life that had been shattered over a six-year period. We had to put our numbers aside, reclaim our names and that of our families and move forward.
We were also sure that when the American soldiers … when they saw the consequences of Nazi racism and brutality … that they would ensure that such things would never happen again. We, the survivors, were certain that the leaders and the citizens of the world would say “Never again!” and commit themselves to turning those words into reality.
Never again! Noble, thought-provoking words, but only if we act upon them. Only then do these words become meaningful.
Today, almost 70 years after my liberation, the promise of “Never again” has become again and again!
There have been a number of situations that have tested the world’s resolve … in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and now in Darfur, Syria and so many other places, people have been, and continue to be, the victims of genocide.
My eyes have seen unspeakable horrors! I am a witness to the ultimate evil! I am a witness to man’s inhumanity to other human beings! To this day, I cannot grasp how I managed to go through hell and survive.
The promise of being reunited with my family, all my loved ones, was the strong motivator for not giving up, for not losing it and falling into despair. After having come out of the abyss, I remember thinking, What now? I must go home – my family is waiting for me.
Then the questions began. Where are our loved ones? What happened to them? So much devastation! How to cope? So many losses, including our humanity. We became angry and outraged.
We were 426 youngsters among 20,000 adults in Buchenwald. We were brought to Ecouis, France, for our recovery and were told by psychologists that we had become sociopaths who would never recover.
Most of us forged ahead in school and business, raised families and contributed to our communities. In fact, we count among the Buchenwald children such personalities as my friend Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize winner; and Lulek, Israel’s recent chief rabbi, Israel Meir Lau, and his brother Naphtali.
Simon Wiesenthal, of blessed memory, said, “I believe in God and the World to Come, and when they ask me what did you do? I will say, I did not forget you.”
I want to end with my friend Elie Wiesel’s words: “Zachor, remember, for there is, there must be, hope in remembering.”
The commemoration was presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, in partnership with the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre and the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, and with funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and Rita Akselrod and family, in memory of Ben Akselrod z”l.
Jeanne Beker reads from her parents’ (Bronia and Joseph Beker) Holocaust memoir on Feb. 19. (photo from Jeanne Beker via vhec.org)
Some survivors of the Holocaust choose never to speak of the horrors they endured. My parents talked. They were adamant about telling us every detail of their war experience, time and time again. I remember hiding under the bed as a small child – I didn’t want to hear any more of their “war stories.” Now, I realize it was precisely their storytelling that made me who I am, coloring my personal philosophies, imparting a sense of resiliency and instilling in me a precious instinct for survival.
What they endured and all they have given me [was] on my mind a great deal over Toronto’s Holocaust Education Week [Nov. 2-9, 2014], with the recent publication of their memoirs, Joy Runs Deeper. With the last generation of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust slowly slipping away, my parents’ stories have taken on more value and urgency. As a child of survivors, I’m keenly aware that I have been left with a legacy that’s as powerfully daunting as it is inspiring.
My parents, Bronia and Joseph Beker, both grew up in Kozowa – a small town in eastern Poland that is now part of Ukraine. They paint a colorful prewar picture of life in their idyllic shtetl, where they met and fell in love. But when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, their lives became a living hell. By 1941, all the Kozowa Jews were confined to a ghetto.
Nazis would regularly come into town and randomly shoot any Jew in sight.
After these horrific shootings, the Germans would command the Jews to make their ghetto even smaller. Many people lived in one room, and with little food, people grew weak and prone to disease. My grandmother and mother both came down with typhus, and it killed my grandmother. In the meantime, my grandfather built a bunker in the basement of the family home where they would hide whenever the Nazis came to town.
In April 1943, my mother and nine members of her family went down to their bunker. After about six hours, they could hear digging: the Nazis were looking for them.
“We held our breath and didn’t move for about half an hour,” writes my mother. “They left without finding our bunker, but the pipes through which we got air must have been covered during their digging. We couldn’t breathe,” she recalls.
“I remember seeing my father, sitting on the floor in his prayer shawl, praying, and my brother with a hammer in his hand, trying to open the entrance to the bunker. Then I fell down and everything went black.”
My mom’s entire family perished that day: all of them suffocated, except, miraculously, for her. Like a knight in shining armor, my dad came to her rescue, scooped her up and, for many months until their liberation, my parents were on the run, hiding in barns and bunkers, depending on the kindness of strangers for their very existence.
It was these stories of survival that were relentlessly recounted to my sister and me throughout our childhood. “Don’t be afraid and never give up” was my father’s famous saying, the mindset that saw him through the war, and the sage edict he raised us on.
My mother’s modus operandi, which tended to chip away any potential optimism, was even more pragmatic: “Expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed.” It certainly wasn’t an upbeat way of viewing the world, but it was her motherly attempt at protecting us and sparing us pain.
While my mother’s influence certainly affects me even to this day, it was my father’s motto that I especially took to heart – an order that still carries me through all my trials.
Ultimately, both my parents taught me the meaning of fearlessness and tenacity, courage and dignity.
As my mother always says, “If you live long enough, you’ll live to see everything.” And her words rang true as I sat by her side at her book launch, watching in wonder as she proudly signed countless books bearing her name. On the verge of turning 94, suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s, but as radiant and stylish as ever, my mom was realizing one of her greatest dreams: she could now share her personal story with the world.
Her memoir, which she’d written more than 30 years ago, along with my father’s memoir, which he’d written, longhand, in Yiddish, just before he died in 1988, has been published by the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program.
Established in 1989 by the late Montreal philanthropist David J. Azrieli, himself a Holocaust survivor, this Canadian organization collects, archives and publishes inspirational accounts of courage and strength in the light of horrifying adversity, and distributes them free of charge to libraries and educational institutions across the country. (The books are also available at bookstores, with all revenues going back into this extraordinary memoirs program.)
My mother and so many others had their youth nipped in the bud, endured unspeakable pain and suffered profound loss. Yet still, they managed to soldier on, pick up the broken pieces and stoically rebuild their shattered lives.
Their tales of toughness and tenacity light our paths, and teach us the kind of fearlessness it takes to survive. These lessons learned from survivors, like my parents, inspire and challenge us to shoot for the moon, work hard, be successful and live out not just our dreams, but their unrealized ones as well.
Their heroism drives me relentlessly.
Jeanne Bekeris a Canadian television personality, fashion designer, author and newspaper columnist. This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail and is reprinted here from Zachor, the magazine of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, with permission.
Jeanne Beker reads from her parents’ (Bronia and Joseph Beker) Holocaust memoir Joy Runs Deeper (Azrieli Series of Holocaust Survivor Memoirs) on Feb. 19, 7 p.m., at the Museum of Vancouver, 1100 Chestnut St., to open the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre’s Shafran Teachers’ Conference. Those in attendance receive a complimentary copy of the memoir, and a reception follows. The event is open to the public and is free of charge but space is limited. RSVP to 604-264-0499 or [email protected].
In the dystopia of the Holocaust, pregnancy and childbirth were life-threatening situations – for the mother and the child. In Auschwitz, if a woman were able to conceal her pregnancy long enough to come to term, despite malnutrition and epidemics, the women who helped deliver the baby would sometimes kill the child and dispose of the body in order to save the mother from the Nazi overseers.
Ending Jewish civilization, which was the goal of the Nazi Holocaust, focused particular attention on children and pregnant women, according to Prof. Sara R. Horowitz, who delivered the annual Kristallnacht memorial lecture Sunday night at Congregation Beth Israel.
Jewish men, women and children were all targeted by the Nazis, but their experiences were different, said Horowitz. While female victims of the Nazis may have been doctors, businesspeople, farmers or had other roles, they were particularly under assault as mothers. Horowitz based her lecture, Mothers and Daughters in the Holocaust, on many recorded narratives from mothers and daughters affected by the Holocaust. The harrowing stories involved both unthinkable choices during the Shoah and strained relationships thereafter.
For Jews in hiding, babies could be particularly dangerous. A baby’s cry could betray entire families hiding in attics or under floorboards. In one case, Horowitz recounts a mother pulling her hair out in silence while an uncle smothered her baby as Nazis searched the house in which they were hiding.
Women were routinely forced to make impossible choices between their own welfare and that of their children. In many cases, she said, women given a choice opted to die so that their child would not die alone. In others, mothers knew they could do nothing to forestall the inevitable and saved themselves.
In the concentration camps, pregnant women and young children were automatically selected for death. Horowitz quoted Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz doctor, as saying that the mothers could have been spared but that it would “not be humanitarian” to send a child to death without its mother.
Secret abortions were performed and pregnancies hidden. In one case, Horowitz said, a woman survived to deliver her child by positioning herself among beautiful young women during naked inspections by Nazi guards, hoping, successfully, that the guards’ attentions would be distracted from her condition.
One of the experiments Mengele undertook was to see how long a newborn could survive without nourishment. A woman delivered a baby under his direct supervision and then had her breasts bound so she was unable to feed the baby. Mengele came daily to inspect the situation and take notes.
Experiences during the Shoah had indelible impacts on its victims, their children and grandchildren.
Horowitz reflected on Motherland, a memoir by the writer Fern Schumer Chapman, whose mother was sent from her home on the Kindertransport, which took Jewish children from their homes in Europe to safety in England and elsewhere. Her mother, Edith, never forgave her parents for “abandoning” her, even though she understood that she would have perished along with them had she remained behind.
“At least we would have been together,” Horowitz quoted Edith, noting that the author-daughter’s conclusion was that her mother’s understanding of those early events was “stuck in a 12-year-old’s heart.”
Horowitz also discussed Sarah Kofman, who would go on to become a leading French philosopher. She survived as a hidden child in Paris, with her mother, but the woman who provided them shelter worked to detach Sarah from her mother and from Judaism, which led to difficult relations between all three women after liberation. Kofman never wrote about her experiences during the war until her 60th year, when she penned a memoir of the time and shortly thereafter committed suicide.
Relationships between parents and children after the Holocaust were often difficult. Adults understood both the “preciousness and precariousness” of children. For children born after 1945, many of whom bear the names of victims of Nazism, their relationships with the past and with their parents can bear varieties of scars.
Many parents, having missed normal upbringings, did not intuit how to parent. In one case Horowitz mentioned, a woman who had never witnessed a normal pregnancy and whose mother died in the Holocaust lamented that no one told her what to expect or how to prepare. When labor began while her husband was at work, the woman rode a bicycle to the hospital.
A woman who was forced to murder her own baby during the Holocaust went on to have two sons after liberation. In an Israeli hospital, when a nurse momentarily took her baby away, the woman became hysterical.
“Nobody knew and nobody cared about people from the concentration camps,” Horowitz quoted the woman. “They thought we were mad.”
Mothers who were unable to protect their children during the Holocaust carried concealed memories that sometimes prevented them from normal mothering after liberation.
In many cases, though, the mother-daughter relationship was credited with saving one or both parties. Mothers provided inner strength, a moral anchor and often ingenuity, said Horowitz.
One mother, a seamstress, ingratiated herself with the town mayor by making dresses for the mayor’s wife and daughters, thereby delaying her family’s selection for successive roundups. When at last her family was lined up for the trains, the mayor’s wife insisted the woman be removed so she could finish the dresses she was working on. When the seamstress insisted she could not possibly do good dressmaking while worrying about her family, the mayor’s wife insisted the rest of the family also be removed from the transport.
In last words between mothers and daughters, strength and continuity prevailed, said Horowitz. In face-to-face goodbyes, and in letters and postcards received after a death, mothers granted children “permission to survive” without guilt, urged survivors to tell the world what happened and instructed them not to internalize the perceptions the Nazis had of them.
In one instance, where a young woman was spared while her mother and two young sisters were selected for death, the mother implored her daughter not to become bitter and hateful.
“Don’t let them destroy you,” the mother said.
Horowitz is the director of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University, and a professor of comparative literature. Her diverse areas of research and writing include cultural responses to the Holocaust. She is a member of the academic advisory board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a former president of the Association for Jewish Studies.
At the start of the evening, Prof. Chris Friedrichs, representing the Kristallnacht committee, reflected on the symbolism of coming together in the recently completed new Beth Israel synagogue to commemorate an historical event in which “hundreds of synagogues like this were put to the torch and destroyed.”
Cantor Lawrence Szenes-Strauss recited El Moleh Rachamim, the memorial prayer. Holocaust survivors participated in a candlelighting procession. Barry Dunner reflected on being a child of Holocaust survivors. Prof. Richard Menkis introduced the keynote speaker and Rabbi Jonathan Infeld thanked her. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson read a proclamation from the city.
The annual Kristallnacht commemorative event is a partnership between the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, Congregation Beth Israel and Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.
Swiss Consul General Urs Strausak at the opening reception of the Carl Lutz and the Legendary Glass House exhibit, which features panel displays as well as various artifacts. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
He was the first Swiss national to be awarded the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem and he is credited with using his diplomatic privileges to save tens of thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust. However, an exhibit dedicated to him had eluded Vancouver – until now.
Last week, Carl Lutz and the Legendary Glass House in Budapest opened at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC). A partnership between VHEC, the Swiss consulate in Vancouver and local Jewish families, the opening reception on Oct. 23 drew a full house, with a wide range of ages represented, from Holocaust survivors to young children, who attended with their parents. Several volunteer docents were on hand to walk the public through the displays and take questions.
Panels display various topics, including Jewish life in Hungary before the Second World War, the rise of Nazism and the Glass House, where thousands of Jews found refuge, as well as personal stories from the era. The exhibit, sent by the Carl Lutz Foundation in Budapest, is enriched by a companion exhibit that includes testimony and artifacts from local Hungarian Holocaust survivors, showcasing important themes relevant to Lutz’s environment and life.
Nina Krieger, VHEC executive director, said the exhibit demonstrates the complexity of moral decision making in a turbulent time.
“Alongside narratives of moral courage and rescue, we must recognize, of course, that these were the rare exceptions,” she said.
She went on to discuss the artifacts, which bring a direct connection between the era and a visiting audience.
“On display are materials that reflect a vibrant prewar Jewish life in Hungary – a cherished prayer brook and photographs of everyday life – as well as evidence of antisemitism and persecution,” she said.
“An 18th-century silver chanukiyah buried by Dr. Joseph and Anna Lövi in the basement of a neighbor’s home on the eve of their deportation to Auschwitz survived; its owners did not. The chanukiyah was retrieved in July 1945 and given to one of their daughters, Judith Lövi Maté. Judith and her infant son Gabor had found refuge in the Glass House, representing a local family intimately connected to Carl Lutz.”
Swiss Consul General Urs Strausak, whose participation helped make the exhibit possible, emphasized the need for education about the Holocaust in his country and around the world.
“The study of the Holocaust shows the danger of being silent in face of evil, and education is a tool to make sure atrocity will never happen again,” he said in his speech at the exhibit opening. He explained the place of Holocaust education in Swiss education, saying, “The topic of [the] Holocaust is taught within the context of history teaching and civic education. Some aspects of the Holocaust are also addressed in social science, religious studies and literature.” Switzerland joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental organization dedicated to promoting Holocaust education and research, in 2004.
Asked about his connection to the exhibit, Strausak, who is a personal friend of Lutz’s daughter and current curator of the Carl Lutz Foundation, said it was an important event to reach out to the Jewish community and beyond and help support further communal education. Teaching has to start early, he said, and it is important to emphasize figures such as Lutz since he was more than simply a person who saved Jews. “He was a mensch and people need to have the courage to speak out [regarding evil],” he said.
Carl Lutz and the Legendary Glass House in Budapest will be at VHEC until Feb. 15, and is open to the public by donation. More information on the exhibit and becoming involved with VHEC can be found at vhec.org.
Gil Lavieis a freelance correspondent, with articles published in the Jerusalem Post, Shalom Toronto and Tazpit News Agency. He has a master’s of global affairs from the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.