Former Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar (at head of table) joins David Meidan, to Amar’s right, to inform Iranian Jewish families of the fate of their family members. (photo by Ashernet/IGPO)
For the past 20 years, the fate of eight Iranian Jews who were attempting to escape to Israel has been unknown. On Thursday, March 20, former Mossad official David Meidan, who was charged with the inquiry into the disappearance of the eight Jews (plus three other Jews who were last heard from in 1997), told the families in Jerusalem that there is enough reliable information to conclude that all eight of the original Jews were captured and murdered while making their escape.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that the Mossad had been tracking the 11 Jews who had fled Iran in four separate groups, eight in 1994 and the remaining three in 1997. The Iranian Jews vanished without a trace during their clandestine attempts to reach Israel. Families were left clinging to the hope that they had been kidnapped, or perhaps held in captivity by foreign governments. The Mossad did not provide detail into when or where the eight were killed, or by whom.
The Prime Minister’s Office said that the Mossad had relied on a “reliable source” for the information. An inquiry into the fate of the additional three Iranian Jews, who were last heard from in 1997, is ongoing.
The original eight Jews included Babak Shaoulian-Tehrani, 17, of Tehran; Shahin Nik-Khoo, 19, of Tehran; Salari Behzad, 21, of Kermanshah; Farad Ezati-Mahmoudi, 22, of Kermanshah; Homayoun Bala-Zade, 41, of Shiraz; Omid Solouki, 17, of Tehran; Rubin Kohan-Mosleh, 17, of Shiraz; and Ibrahim Kohan-Mosleh, 16, of Shiraz.
The three Jews whose fates remain currently unknown are Syrous Ghahremani, 32 at time of disappearance, of Kermanshah; Ibrahim Ghahremani, 61, of Kermanshah; and Nourollah Rabi-Zade, 52, of Shiraz.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sent his condolences to the families and pledged to continue the investigation into the disappearance of the remaining three Iranians.
Meidan, the veteran Mossad official overseeing the investigation, was also involved in the negotiations for the release of soldier Gilad Shalit. After retiring two years ago, Meidan was approached by Netanyahu to continue to investigate the two cases.
Before the findings were presented to the families, the report was sent to former Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar, who ruled that the information was reliable according to halachah, Jewish law, a ruling that would allow the wives of the victims to remarry if they wish.
Earlier this month, Kaplan’s Deli & Catering at 5775 Oak St. closed. On March 6, there were three signs on the door, one noting that the locks had been changed, and two concerning monies that had to be paid within five days. On March 18, the signs were still there. The doors were still locked. The property management company was continuing its search for new tenants.
Whether or not one frequented the deli, it is sad to see it go. Opened by Ida and Abrasha Kaplan in October 1967, Kaplan’s (with variations on what descriptors followed the name) was a veritable institution in the community. Its opening was heralded with a two-page spread in the Jewish Independent’s predecessor, the Jewish Western Bulletin.
Owners of two Pheasant Delicatessen locations at the time, the Kaplans kept Pheasant’s longstanding 4030 Cambie St. location until, it seems, from the pages of the JWB, April 1969, when it was taken over by Sigy and Molly Robbins. It looks like Pheasant lasted until 1972, when the Pyrogy House starts being advertised in the Bulletin at 4030 Cambie St.
The Kaplans bought Pheasant from Helen and Jack Finkelstein in 1962. The Finkelsteins had owned it since 1952. The for-sale notice the year prior noted the deli’s “good turnover” and “illness reason for selling” – the Finkelsteins bought it from Mrs. Sarah Nager, who seems to have been the first Jewish proprietor of the deli that first appears in the B.C. city directories in 1947.
The Kaplans opened Kaplan’s Delicatessen & Restaurant, “[j]ust a couple of stores over from their former Oak and 41st location (their popular Pheasant Sandwich Bar and Delicatessen),” reads the Oct. 20, 1967, article on the opening. With a seating capacity of 58, the restaurant’s modernity and beauty was lauded, as was its family atmosphere.
In the March 19, 1981, JWB, Mr. and Mrs. Serge Haber ran an ad announcing Kaplan’s new management, and “the introduction of new delicacies from Montreal and Toronto to the already large list available.” As did the Kaplans, Serge and Elinor Haber would run holiday greetings and advertise regularly in the JWB.
In 2000, Haber sold Kaplan’s to Marshall Cramer, in part, Haber told the JWB at the time, because Cramer agreed to keep the staff and run the business as it had been in the past.
Cramer had the store at 5775 Oak St. until 2012, when Howie English took it over. Full of optimism when interviewed by Menschenings’ Alex Kliner, English would not succeed in his hope to “make Kaplan’s the most famous deli in North America.” Unless someone in the community buys the name and reinvents the restaurant, he’ll have been its final owner.
Cousins Michael, left, and Sam Zipursky co-founded FreshGigs.ca. (photo from Michael Zipursky)
When FreshGigs opened for business four years ago, they took the job-hunting business by storm, generating quick growth and interest. So it makes sense that they would link themselves up with another up-and-coming concept taking the world by storm.
FreshGigs.ca, a Vancouver-based jobsite that focuses on marketing and creative talent, has become one of the first companies in the city to accept the new, revolutionary Bitcoin currency as a form of payment.
Bitcoin is the first decentralized digital currency. Ideal for conducting international transactions due to the lack of fees or bank-adjusted exchange rates, Bitcoin has gained popularity since first being introduced in 2009.
“We see it as another currency and option for people to make payments to post their jobs,” FreshGigs.ca co-founder Michael Zipursky explained in an interview with the Jewish Independent. “Employers can pay for their jobs with Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Paypal and, now, Bitcoin. We focus on providing our clients the best service possible and giving them choices is part of that.”
Bitcoin made its first splash in Vancouver in the fall when the first Bitcoin ATM was installed in a Waves Coffee House in Downtown Vancouver. There, customers need to have their palms scanned in order to make transactions worth up to $3,000.
Zipursky said FreshGigs.ca is moving with the times because they see it as another step in fulfilling their original mission. “We started FreshGigs.ca because many people we knew were very skilled at what they did, they were great at marketing, advertising and design, yet they had trouble finding a job,” he said. “At the same time, employers are looking for qualified talent and didn’t have any good options in these industries. We saw an opportunity to create a jobsite that would connect these two groups in a meaningful and effective way.”
Today, FreshGigs.ca is serving companies like Best Buy, Canada Post, Tourism Whistler, Vancity and the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group.
FreshGigs.ca went ahead with the decision to accept Bitcoin despite the controversy that has surrounded its introduction into the marketplace. Financial institutions have cautioned that the electronic currency can too easily be used for money laundering or to fund illegal activities. The European Banking Authority has cautioned that Bitcoin lacks adequate consumer protection, as it can be stolen and chargebacks are impossible. The government of China recently restricted Bitcoin from being exchanged for local currency and, last year, the FBI seized 144,000 Bitcoin worth $28.5 million from an online black market. However, the use of Bitcoin continues to grow as its value increases. As well, more large or reputable international companies have jumped on the Bitcoin bandwagon, leading many to believe that it is here to stay, despite the pushback. Virgin Galactic, the Richard Branson-owned company aiming to send people to space is accepting Bitcoin, as has popular blogging platform WordPress. Many other organizations, such as PayPal and eBay are making plans to follow suit.
To use Bitcoin with FreshGigs.ca, a client simply needs to go to the Bitcoin payment page and enter the required information to process the order.
Dov Elbaum speaks in Vancouver on March 30. (photo by Sasson Tiram)
Israeli journalist, writer and television host Dov Elbaum will be visiting Vancouver for a Cherie Smith JCCGV Jewish Book Festival-sponsored talk at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on March 30.
Starting his career in print media, Elbaum moved into book publishing and writing for television. Eventually, he moved in front of the camera; since 2007, he has hosted the popular parashat hashavua-themed show Mekablim Shabbat (Welcoming Shabbat). Elbaum is also involved in academic research and teaching on secular Jewish culture, and is the founder of the BINA Secular Yeshiva in south Tel Aviv. He is in Vancouver promoting the new English translation of his 2009 book Into the Fullness of the Void: A Spiritual Autobiography, and the Jewish Independent talked to him about his journey, Judaism in North America and Israel, and secular Jewish renewal.
JI: You have quite an interesting biography. While rejecting the ultra-Orthodox community you grew up in, you’ve remained deeply involved and curious about being Jewish. Where are you in your journey now?
DE: My journey from the world that I grew up in has been a long journey and it isn’t over yet. Still, I have gone through many significant points along the way. At the beginning, I was trying to get away, but today I find myself looking for a way to get to a renewed approach to Jewish culture, one that comes not through guilt or fear or obligation, but through love. And, when I approach Jewish culture in this way, through love, I see how my own path can help build connections to Jewish culture within secular Israeli society.
In the past in Israel, access to Judaism was through religious denominations, specifically Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. Today, I am trying to find a way for secular Israeli Jews to approach Judaism positively, and not through negative definition, sof, which synagogues they don’t go to, or which mitzvot they don’t observe. In doing so, I am trying to develop new, nontraditional frameworks through which secular Israeli Jews can explore and express their Judaism. This is my current station on my journey.
JI: On the one hand, tshuva (return), on the other, she’ela (“lapsed”). Can you comment on the macro meaning of these opposite phenomena in Israeli society and perhaps what the numbers are in the two directions?
DE: I don’t think anyone has exact numbers of hozrei b’she’ela and hozrei b’tshuva in Israel. I imagine that the numbers are similar in both directions, though I might tend to believe that there are somewhat more hozrei b’tshuva. This is due largely to the fact that institutions of hazara b’tshuva receive a great deal of funding from the Israeli government as well as philanthropy from Israel and abroad.
But let’s talk about these phenomena spiritually rather than sociologically. I don’t like use of the words she’ela and tshuva in the context of exit from or entry into orthodoxy. I think that the meanings of these words in Judaism are much deeper than their current sociological use. In spiritual terms, she’ela and tshuva should be processes in every person’s life, and not connected to any one movement, denomination or label.
JI: Many of the progressive movements in Judaism in Israel have their origins in North America. How do you see North American Judaism influencing the religious landscape in Israel and vice versa?
DE: I think that Israeli culture has received quite a lot of gifts from North American Jewish thought. And, yes, I believe it’s true that a lot of the spiritual renewal in Israel has received spiritual and financial support from North American Judaism. I can also say that we Israeli Jews must give credit and appreciation to North American Judaism for teaching us how Judaism can develop and can be understood pluralistically.
At the same time, I think a most meaningful laboratory for Jewish renewal can happen when taking place in the Hebrew language and in the landscape of Jewish culture and society, as found specifically in Israel. When these ideas of Jewish renewal and pluralism come into contact with Jewish Israelis, the impact is fascinating; [it’s a contact that is experienced] much differently and more intensely so than in the Diaspora. Thus, when North American Jews come to visit and engage with Israel, they can influence as well as learn a great deal from Israel. We have much to learn from one another.
JI: In a lecture given by Micha Goodman, he suggests that Judaism in North America has been influenced by Abraham Joshua Heschel’s teachings, which were focused on the human experience. On the other hand, he says that Yeshayahu Leibovitch detested this approach, instead putting God at the centre regardless of whether this made Jews themselves feel spiritually enriched. Is this a good metaphor for Judaism in North America versus Israel?
DE: I don’t agree. I love and appreciate Micha Goodman, but I think such a metaphor of North America equals Heschel and Israel equals Leibovitch is not so precise. In fact, in recent years, I would say that Heschel’s ideas have had a much stronger impact in Israel [than those of] Leibovitch.
I don’t think that Leibovitch’s ideas had such a tangible impact on broader Israeli society. He voiced an important voice and many have been interested in his ideas, but still I don’t see the impact so directly on the ground. Heschel’s ideas, on the other hand, have had a very significant impact. Today, I feel that most of the secular Jewish renaissance movement in Israel feels closer to Heschel than to Leibovitch.
JI: There seems to be an awakening of interest in secular Jewish learning in Israel with BINA, your organization, and many other secular Jewish midrashot that have opened in recent years. Why is this happening now?
DE: I can think of a few reasons. First of all, I think that the assassination of Prime Minster [Yitzhak] Rabin in 1996 shook Israeli secular society profoundly. Secular Israeli society started to feel that they were losing hold on the country, and losing it to a particular group of religious Israelis whose mindset they no longer understood, whose world they no longer understood. Hence, a renewed interest in Judaism and the world of Jewish religion.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, secular Israeli society has been in an ongoing process of being emptied of the values upon which Israel was established. And now, the vacuum has expanded so much that secular Israelis have come to realize that if we want to continue to live in this wonderful and dangerous place called Israel, it needs to be clear to us what we are doing here. If a person doesn’t understand his or her role or purpose in this place called Israel, he or she won’t last here long. So, secular Israelis are starting to ask each other the most elementary questions of identity and purpose, and are going back to the old sources.
JI: Given all these movements, it seems possible to be both secular and connected to Judaism, but can there be continuity of such a connection over generations?
DE: First of all, that’s a great question. How do we pass these ideas and values to the upcoming generations is one of the deepest and most essential questions of Judaism. Take a look at the Sh’ma: “… and you shall teach them to your children and speak of them….” The Sh’ma asks us to make our values present in daily life. And I believe therein is the solution. In Israel, it is also easier. We speak Hebrew and live the Jewish calendar and, through the language and calendar, we can make Jewish culture present in a very tangible way. In Israel, it’s easier to be a secular Jew than in other places, because the language and the place make it easier to actualize Jewish culture in daily life without being religious in a traditional or halachic sense.
JI: Is there a manner in which knowledge and ownership of Judaism in Israel translates to political power?
DE: In the last elections, the Jewish secular renaissance in Israel earned a certain amount of political entrance through the election of MK Ruth Calderon and a few other MKs … that have understood the power and influence that this movement has, and they have seen fit to give expression to it…. The ignorance among the general public regarding the possibility of having a profound Jewish identity without connection to traditional organized religion is still widespread, and we have a lot of work to do, especially with everything that relates to public awareness and the establishment of new secular yeshivot that should receive government funding just like any other educational institution, which is something that has yet to happen.
JI: Can you talk about/explain the popularity of your show Mekablim Shabbat?
DE: I think it’s been popular because of all the things we’ve just mentioned. Israeli society has been thirsty for years for Jewish content without vestments of religion. On the show, I try to demonstrate that you don’t have to be religious in order to approach the Jewish canon, to read and explore it, to ask questions about it and about life, and to use it in order to think and to express ourselves. Israeli society has been very thirsty for meaningful Jewish content, but they don’t want it all wrapped up in religion. When I present it … without religious garb, they can connect to it.
JI: What would you like to share with the Vancouver community when you are here?
DE: That the time has come for these two different movements … to come together and think about how we can contribute to and learn from one another. We must learn from one another’s knowledge and experiences and explore how we can strengthen one another, and not let certain negative forces control and dominate the global sphere of Jewish culture and spirituality.
I look forward to opening up a dialogue and exemplifying some of the fruits of our labor in Israel through a re-reading of the Jewish sources, specifically one of the most-read texts in the Jewish tradition – the story of the Exodus from Egypt in the Passover Haggadah.
Maayan Kreitzman is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.
Tickets for Dov Elbaum’s March 30, 6 p.m., talk at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver ($14/$10) are available at the centre, 604-257- 5111 and ticketpeak.com/jccgv.
Gary and Nanci Segal learn about bees at the Hebrew U Rehovot campus, home of the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment. (photo from JNF Pacific Region)
This year, for the first time in Vancouver, Jewish National Fund and Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem are together hosting the Negev Dinner.
The dinner will pay tribute to businessman and philanthropist Gary Segal, whose “remarkable heritage” is “led first and foremost by a love of humanity, a love of the land of Israel and a deep social commitment and yearning for tikkun olam,” said JNF Pacific Region shaliach Ilan Pilo. The event will raise funds for an educational outreach program led by JNF at Hebrew U’s Joseph Meyerhoff Youth Centre.
“Gary and [his wife] Nanci wanted to support the JNF and HU and, when this project came up, they simply realized the importance of doing it,” Dina Wachtel, executive director of CFHU Western Region, told the Independent. In the program, she explained, “They are taking mainly at-risk youth from the periphery of the country, both geographically and socially, many of whom are kids of immigrants and hard-working citizens, and are offering them a lifetime opportunity … interaction with PhD and graduate students who teach them science and ecological sciences. Basically, these kids are exposed to a world that, for the most part, they are not familiar with and, by exposing them to hands-on lessons in science and allowing them to learn presentation and leadership skills, we are literally transforming their sense of pride and ability to believe in themselves that, yes, they can reach university and that it is not beyond their reach.
“Both Gary and Nanci know that Israel’s number one capital is its human resources and, by investing in these kids, they are literally investing in Israel’s most precious capital.”
Vice-president of Kingswood Capital Corp., Gary Segal’s philanthropic endeavors are numerous. Locally, they include – but are not limited to – Ronald McDonald House, VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation, Jewish Community Foundation, Louis Brier Home and Hospital, Kollel, Vancouver Talmud Torah Foundation and St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation. Among the work Gary and Nanci Segal (and their family) support is that of Dr. Rick Hodes, medical director of Ethiopia for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
“It was important to me to support a project that would have a direct impact on underprivileged youth, including the Ethiopian community that I have become involved with over the years; at the same time, it would have to be one that fits the mandates of both organizations,” explained Gary Segal about the choice of the JNF-HU project for the proceeds of this year’s Negev Dinner.
Seeing the JNF and CFHU projects firsthand
The Segals were in Israel earlier this month on a trip with Pilo and Wachtel. “The two days I just spent in Israel witnessing firsthand the outreach activities of the Joseph Meyerhoff Youth Centre at Hebrew U affirmed the absolute merits of this project and how it aligns perfectly with my stated goal for this dinner,” said Segal.
“I witnessed the enthusiastic way in which these young students embraced the wide range of activities, and heard from them directly how much they love being part of it,” he added. “These children would not have the opportunity to be exposed to such things through their homes and resource-challenged schools alone. A clearly devoted and emotionally invested teacher that I spoke with recounted how she overcame her own disadvantaged background to become a teacher, and how important it is to her to give these children the understanding and belief that they can aspire to a better life through advanced education. Most of the participating children have parents either in low-level jobs or else unemployed, and many of them come to school hungry so, on her own account, she brings food to school to be able to feed them. In addition to stimulating an interest in science and the environment through this youth centre program, the children go back and do research and make a presentation to the student body and parents, as well. The teacher explained how this develops public speaking and leadership skills and instils in them a new sense of self-confidence. At the same time, for the parents, it leads to a sense of pride in their children.”
The trip to Israel “was a mixture of viewing projects, gaining perspectives on Israel from a variety of people, experiencing the specific science outreach program we are supporting through the upcoming dinner, and having some fun,” Segal said.
In Jerusalem, the couple visited Mahane Yehuda, Teddy Park, the Old City and the Western Wall. On erev Shabbat, they had dinner at the home of Rabbi Ehud Bandel, the first Israeli native ordained in the Masorti (Conservative) movement. One evening, they took in a musical comedy show by the Voca People and, another night, Gary Segal dined with two Knesset members from the Yesh Atid party, Ronen Hoffman and Karine Elharrar. “Ronen is head of the Israel/Canada relations committee and has prior experience in various Israeli peace efforts; Karine is involved in disabilities awareness and accessibility,” explained Segal.
Sunday was spent touring JNF projects, he continued. They visited a new water bio-filteration pilot system in Kfar Saba, the Biriya Forest (“which sadly suffered a lot of tree-branch destruction from the winter snowstorm”) and the Hula Valley bird sanctuary park. “We saw everything in a somewhat different light,” he said, “as it was an extremely hazy day due to dust from Africa having spread all the way to Israel.”
On Monday, the Segals met with HU president Menahem Ben-Sasson on the Mount Scopus campus before heading to HU’s Safra Givat Ram campus to meet with Joseph Meyerhoff Youth Centre administrators and get an overview of the program they are sponsoring.
“Interacting with these lively and outgoing youth over the course of these two days was most definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me and Nanci, and my ability to converse directly with the kids in Hebrew made it particularly fun and personal for me,” said Segal. “In the spirit of my own quest for new experiences as an adult, I did something I never thought I would do – in one of the Monday morning labs, the instructor was talking about the West African python snake wrapped around his neck and, when he went to pass it to me, I actually took it from him and held it while encircled by some curious yet wary girls in the class – my first close-up, hands-on interaction with a snake.”
On the way to Tel Aviv, Segal said they stopped at the JNF Canada Park so that he and Nanci could “plant an olive tree and see the commemorative plaque for the grove we planted in 2000 in honor of our daughter Stephanie’s bat mitzvah.”
Before checking into their hotel, they met with the new Israeli health minister, Yael German, who, Segal noted, “before national office … was the very successful mayor of Herzliya for 15 years.” She gave them over an hour of her time, he said, discussing with them some of the many issues with which the ministry is dealing.
“Tuesday involved a visit to the Hebrew U Rehovot campus, home of the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment,” said Segal. “We first were introduced to some of their international activities to assist countries to alleviate problems of hunger, disease and poverty through technical training and technology transfer. We heard about some fascinating research projects being undertaken in this regard, and had the opportunity to hear from a half-dozen post-graduate international scholarship students from Africa and Asia who are there to gain knowledge that can be implemented back home.”
For the rest of the morning, the Segals tagged along with children visiting from the periphery community of Kiryat Malachi. They saw the mechanical milking process and, said Segal, “another first for me, tasting fresh (sterilized) goat milk. We then moved on to a session learning about live bees and the workings of the hive and honey making. Before leaving the campus, we had lunch in the cafeteria with the children…. It gave me the opportunity to have a very moving and enlightening talk about the outreach program with one of their obviously very dedicated teachers.
“We then departed campus for the last element of our outreach experience – a visit to the periphery community of Kiryat Ekron. The mayor of this community of 11,500 people was very happy to take the time to greet and accompany us at the school, and the proud principal of the school explained to us how she had a vision to bring such a science-outreach program to her school and had searched far and wide and negotiated for about a year to make her vision a reality. We sat in on an entertaining chemistry class being led by the same Hebrew U graduate student we first met the day before in Jerusalem while leading a class there on trees and the environment. As we were leaving the school, I saw the presence of JNF here, too, in an outdoor classroom structure that had been funded by them. Another fond memory from this visit was successfully coaxing a number of young girls to serenade me with one of their favorite Israeli pop songs in Moroccan Arabic.”
The next day and a half comprised visits to more JNF activities, “including the Be’er Sheva River Park, the older settlements and newer pioneer settlements near the Gaza borders, and the impressive Sderot high school.” The region’s mayor explained the “programs available to the students, as well as the challenges of being in such a dangerously exposed area.”
Rounding out their 10-day trip, the Segals met JNF world chairman Efi Stenzler, spent time with friends and took a helicopter ride over the country with Wachtel.
A longtime involvement
Segal’s connection to JNF and HU extend much further back than this recent visit, of course. “From my Talmud Torah and Camp Hatikvah days,” he said, “I grew up with a strong feeling of connection to Israel and an understanding of its importance to the Jewish people. In terms of JNF specifically, though I felt I was already very familiar with the general nature of JNF’s activities in Israel through the blue pushke box, Tu b’Shevat, attending Negev dinners and my many discussions over the years with different Vancouver JNF emissaries, I must say that I was very impressed on this trip seeing the breadth and depth of JNF’s projects from before statehood through today, and the vast impact they have on the quality of life, security and future prospects of the Israeli people. They touch upon these areas in so many different ways.
“Regarding Hebrew U,” he continued, “I can honestly say that my decision to attend Hebrew U in 1971/72 for my second year of university studies played a pivotal role in developing many of my life interests and activities…. That was a very exciting and stimulating year and a half, from the first few months on kibbutz through the end of the school year in Israel, then followed by three months of adventure travel with my good buddy Ben Goldberg in East Africa, including being in Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. This opened up a whole new desire to learn about the developing world, leading to my post-BA year of travel across Asia and the Middle East in 1974/75. You could say, in a way, this all sowed the seeds for my current philanthropic work in Ethiopia and my interest in the Ethiopian community in Israel.”
The 2014 Negev Dinner takes place on Sunday, April 6, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver, starting at 5:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, call 604-257-5155 or e-mail [email protected].
On Dec. 16, 2013, Kinder Morgan Energy Partners filed an application with Canada’s National Energy Board for permission to proceed with its proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline system between Edmonton and Burnaby. “If approvals are received, the expansion is expected to be operational in late 2017,” says the company’s website. It also notes, “The proposed $5.4 billion project will increase capacity on Trans Mountain from approximately 300,000 bpd [barrels per day] to 890,000 bpd.”
One of the leaders of the fight against this project is Sundance Chief Rueben George of Tsleil-Waututh Nation (TWN), who will be addressing this year’s Outlook fundraising dinner later this month. “I guess how I got involved, in a way, is embedded in me, with my cultural and spiritual teachings,” he told the Independent in a phone interview.
These teachings, he explained, include the protection of “the things that are sacred to us, and that’s our children, our families and also our land and our waters. You look at any religious or spiritual belief and you can see that water is used in most ceremonies and, in a sense, fire, too, because you have candles or incense, and we use sage or sweetgrass. We use the elements of … fire, earth, water and sky. We learn through the ceremonies that there is a sacredness to it, just like there is a sacredness to our children, so it was a natural transition for me to go from director of community development for Tsleil-Waututh Nation, overseeing all the social programs, employment and training, and education programs” to being, among other responsibilities, program manager of TWN’s Sacred Trust. The trust “is mandated to oppose and stop the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline project,” explains its website.
“When we started,” said George of the fight against the pipeline expansion, “there was Rex Wheeler and Ben West and a [handful] of others. Rex Wheeler is one of the fathers of Greenpeace, and Ben West is one of the managers at ForestEthics. They couldn’t believe it when they saw a tanker going through our [TWN] territory, the Burrard Inlet, almost four years ago … and so they found us…. But we’ve been fighting the battle against things like this for years, and being traditional stewards of our lands. We did elk re-introduction programs, we’re doing salmon enhancement programs and, when we do things like that, those things benefit everybody. So, we’ve been doing this work and, with our treaty lands and resource payments, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation [has been doing it] for years as well, and my grandfather Chief Dan George did similar work.”
In addition to the pipeline, said George, “We’re also keeping a close eye on the whole that’s being distributed from Vancouver. There’s uranium going out of Vancouver, there’s a whole bunch of toxic and very dangerous things that are going through our waters and we’re watching those very carefully, as well.”
When the struggle against Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion began, said George, the concern was mainly about Enbridge Inc. (Enbridge’s at-least $6.5 billion Northern Gateway project to build a new twin pipeline system running from near Edmonton to Kitimat was approved by the NEB last December, with 200-plus conditions.) Public awareness of Kinder Morgan was limited when TWN became involved, said George, but that has since changed.
Last fall, TWN received the gift of a totem pole from Lummi Nation in Washington state. “They wanted to work together with my nation because they see what we are doing against Kinder Morgan, and [it’s similar to] what they’re doing against the coal in Cherry Point,” explained George. “But they did a journey from Montana to Vancouver with that totem pole and in every nation they stopped at, there were prayers and there was a gathering, and through that process, they had 7.5 million people witness part of that journey … through internet or TV or newspapers. And then, when we went to Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations Earth Summit, there were a couple of pictures that were taken … [with] indigenous people around the Amazon, and there is 1.2 million views on that. So, from nobody having awareness to this, to bringing it to the international stage and showing the world that not only are the tankers not a good idea, the pipelines are not a good idea, [and] the Alberta Tar Sands are an atrocious idea, just like the rest of it.”
For economic prosperity, said George, “we don’t need this destruction that’s happening to our earth and our atmosphere and our waters. We need the world to know that we have green-energy alternatives. Tsleil-Waututh Nation, we own and we manufacture and we sell wind turbines.” He called it “ridiculous” that the Canadian government has given some $1.4 billion in subsidies to fossil fuel companies who are “not working for change.”
He held up TWN as one of the First Nations from which people could learn “what a government should be like.” He said that, when its wind turbines and other investments have success, “it’s not going to be an individual that’s taking off and becoming a billionaire” looking out for their own best interests.
“Instead of taking millions of dollars and negotiating with Kinder Morgan, we said no…. Like the 160 nations that signed the Fraser declaration [to ‘not allow the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, or similar Tar Sands projects, to cross our lands, territories and watersheds, or the ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon’], they said no, too….”
“We have a collective of a nation that did a referendum,” he said. “Instead of taking millions of dollars and negotiating with Kinder Morgan, we said no…. Like the 160 nations that signed the Fraser declaration [to ‘not allow the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, or similar Tar Sands projects, to cross our lands, territories and watersheds, or the ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon’], they said no, too…. When we do have success with our economic development – we’re not a perfect system but we’re working towards it – but when we do have success, that money supplement[s] … every program of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.”
He gave the examples of environmental programs, such as those dealing with elk and salmon, as well as “social development, we help people to get off social assistance; and we help with the healing of our communities from the genocide that has happened [as a result of] the residential school experience; we have education; we have employment and training. All these programs are supplemented by our drive towards self-sufficiency. So, that, to me, is a government.
“And, when we make decisions for the better of our future generations, we sacrifice,” he admitted. “It would be easy for a lot of people to negotiate and say, yeah, I’ll take 10, 20 million dollars and let this pipeline go through, and maybe we’ll take some of the things that they’re offering and help our people out of poverty … but this is the sacrifice that we make. This is the sacrifice we have to do to create change. This is the sacrifice we have to do to have positive success that will go along the lines of what our culture and our spirituality teach us, and that’s not to cause destruction to what we [consider] sacred.”
George stressed the need to work with business partners who have the same values. He said that “this Canadian government, this Harper government, they don’t have the values that they’ll put forth to protect the sacred, their own children. Because they can’t make those decisions for themselves, we will – we will make those choices for them.”
George isn’t afraid of the David-versus-Goliath element of the struggle. He explained that indigenous people, who once “populated the Burrard Inlet with 15,000 people – we went down to 13 people, we were almost extinct. But those 13 people fought and they strived, and they maintained, and they stood up for the land, they stood up for the people, they stood up for those cultural indigenous rights. And I’m talking about those teachings of humanity, of love and respect, and honor and dignity and pride. If we treat well those things that we care for, like the land and the water and individuals, we’ll be making the right decisions.”
“My grandfather once said, if you’re going to be a pipe carrier or a longhouse West Coast ceremonial person, or you’re going to be Catholic or Jewish or Muslim … it doesn’t matter what you are, as long as you’re good at it. When you’re good at it – he meant, by following those teachings, what they represent and how you’re to live your life – there’s no boundaries between us and we can have a good relationship with one another.”
And his interfaith work has shown him that, when people recognize and live by “those fundamentals of humanity … there’s no differences between us. When we’re born, we’re born with no prejudice, no anger, no hate, no judgment…. It’s this society that we live in that warps us in the way we’re thinking…. My grandfather once said, if you’re going to be a pipe carrier or a longhouse West Coast ceremonial person, or you’re going to be Catholic or Jewish or Muslim … it doesn’t matter what you are, as long as you’re good at it. When you’re good at it – he meant, by following those teachings, what they represent and how you’re to live your life – there’s no boundaries between us and we can have a good relationship with one another.”
Emphasizing that pipelines and other such projects are not a First Nations or environmentalist problem, but rather everybody’s problem, George encouraged people to get involved. About his upcoming talk in the Jewish community, he said he hopes that “our collective religions and spiritual beliefs when we come together like this, where I come to be with your beautiful people, that we can spread the messages out, the teachings of humanity, and we can connect to those ones who don’t understand and bring some understanding of the true facts of what’s happening, and we can join together and make a movement that can create a better future for all of our future generations.”
The Annual Vancouver Outlook Fundraising Supper ($40/person) featuring Chief Rueben George will take place at the Peretz Centre on March 23, 6 p.m. An RSVP is requested to 604-324-5101.
Members of the Momo Minyan. (photo by David Berson)
Sometime in the next three months, two Tibetans will arrive in Vancouver from Arunachal Pradesh, a poor, remote region in the far northeast of India. When they get here, a group of Jews from Vancouver’s Or Shalom Synagogue will be waiting for them, ready to aid with their resettlement in this country. The group, which calls itself the Momo Minyan – momo after a Tibetan steamed dumpling – formed in June 2013 with the sole purpose of helping these Tibetans create a new life in British Columbia. In February, they completed and filed the sponsorship papers. Now, they wait. When the newcomers arrive, their work will begin in earnest.
The group will be supporting the two Tibetans financially, but their involvement will go beyond hard cash. “It means receiving them at the airport, finding a place for them to stay, ensuring they get registered for health benefits, helping them learn the language and find a job, and assisting them as they integrate socially,” said David Berson, a member of the minyan. The group will be responsible for accommodating the Tibetan refugees and ensuring they can access the services they require. It promises to be no small undertaking.
Back in 2010, at the urging of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to allow 1,000 Tibetans from this rugged, contested area to resettle in Canada. Arunachal Pradesh is claimed by China as “South Tibet” and for the past 55 years the strip of land along this border has been home to thousands of Tibetans. To determine who was chosen to go to Canada, a lottery was held in the village’s public square, eventually granting a new life to one-sixth of the Tibetans from this area. The first wave of 55 arrived in Canada in December 2013. By the program’s conclusion, there will be approximately 200 refugees in British Columbia and others in Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto.
To make the transition to Canada possible, each one required sponsorship by a Canadian group or individual before they could obtain special travel documents and enter the country as landed immigrants.
Vicki Robinson, a facilitator for the Momo Minyan, said Or Shalom is the first synagogue in Canada to sponsor Tibetans under this program. The minyan has partnered with the Tibetan cultural society in this project. The United Church of Canada, a government sponsorship holder, has also helped to get the applications completed. “The United Church has a lot of experience in resettlement, working with the Canadian Immigration Committee and getting all the permits lined up,” Berson said. “They’re a conduit more than a partner for us.”
The Momo Minyan will be responsible for the Tibetans’ entire integration package, including finding and paying for an apartment, paying for health insurance and food. “Until we know who we’re absorbing, it’s difficult to know what kind of work will be appropriate,” Berson said of the process. The refugees, who have varying levels of education, come from poverty-stricken villages in this region, where they have limited access to medical care and often have to send their children away to school. “Their lives are threatened and they are a stateless people living in a disputed territory,” he noted.
The Tibetans have neither Chinese nor Indian citizenship. Some have more work experience than others, said Berson, who recently learned the Tibetans in this area tried to cultivate apple orchards for the past 10 years, but were more successful growing kiwi. Some worked in the agricultural sector in Israel, as foreign workers, he added. “The Canadian government is going to Arunachal Pradesh this month to interview them, so we’ll hear very soon about the Tibetans we will be receiving.”
The minyan has begun fundraising in the Or Shalom community and will extend its efforts to the wider community once more is known about the particular immigrants they are sponsoring. Eligibility for social assistance is not a possibility under the agreement with the Canadian government, which estimates sponsorship costs at $12,000 per person per year. With the cost of living in Vancouver, that won’t be enough, Berson said. “It’s guiding our efforts in terms of fundraising, but we think we’ll need more than that. The government is very nicely providing them with landed immigrant status, but not any other aid, per se, in the process. After five years, they will be eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship like any other landed immigrant.”
Members of the Momo Minyan united in a mutual agreement to participate in this humanitarian effort, one that resonated with many in the synagogue, Berson said. “The opportunity for us to be able to extend our hospitality to another group that has suffered exile and have a diaspora is probably one element why I got involved. The Tibetans are amazing people but they’re very reserved and shy in their mannerisms,” he added. “There’s going to be big cultural differences.”
Robinson was eager to step forward and join the minyan after visiting Tibet in 1994. “The Tibetan people stole my heart,” she admitted. “They are amazing, beautiful, spiritual, good people who are struggling in a very difficult situation. Since my visit there, I’ve been involved working with the Tibetan community in exile. I spent time working with the Tibetan Women’s Association in India for a year, where I met Tibetans from Arunachal Pradesh.” Robinson’s family came to Canada fleeing persecution, which was another reason she wanted to get involved. “I thought this would be good work to do – a way of giving back to the country that welcomed us,” she said.
Those interested in contributing to the resettlement efforts can contact Berson by email at [email protected].
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
The Dafna Fund is Israel’s only women’s foundation, funding programs and partnerships with women’s groups across sectors in Israel. According to Hamutal Gouri, the fund’s director, “Our mission is to promote women leadership and women agents of change. We promote the agency of women from all walks of Israeli life, whether it’s public or political life, academia or the economy. We want to reach women from different walks of Israeli society, and help them to become agents of social change.”
Gouri will be in Vancouver on March 11 to speak at a New Israel Fund Canada event at Temple Sholom titled Trailblazing Women. The combination isn’t incidental. The Dafna Fund was founded in 2003 by then NIF board member Prof. Dafna Izraeli (z”l), who gave the fund its initial $1 million endowment. However, while the organization remains constituted under NIF and the two organizations share the same values, they have separate fundraising sources and are independent in decision-making, explained Gouri in her interview with the Independent.
Dafna Fund’s resources include the endowment, gifts from board members and strategic partnerships with foundations outside of Israel. Gouri noted that one of the main goals of Dafna’s resource development strategy is to introduce and promote giving through a gender lens to Israeli philanthropists and the Israeli public.
While Israeli society is deeply divided by religion, ethnicity and class, there are international metrics on the status of women in Israel, which place it mostly on par with other European nations. Gouri said there are two challenges that, while not unique, are specific to Israel compared to its Western counterparts.
“First, the lack of separation between religion and state – Jewish law in Israel prescribes personal status, marriage and divorce,” and the legal strength of certain religious laws lends strength to traditional religious notions that “women should be limited to the private sphere and not to the public sphere.”
Second, Israel is a society in conflict. “This also affects women,” said Gouri, “because women are not seen as having an equal stake in issues of peace and security. Security in the narrow military sense of the world is seen as a man’s thing; men usually hold positions of power in these areas. Women also have a different definition of security, but, in conflicts, the narrow military definition of security is seen as most important and is, therefore, emphasized.”
Dafna is currently supporting a project that addresses the second challenge via United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. The resolution, which was adopted unanimously in 2000, emphasizes women’s participation and rights in peace negotiations and post-conflict settlements. In Israel, the spirit of the resolution was also anchored and expanded in legislation. Gouri said the goal of the project, titled 1325 Women Leading Peace and Security, is “to develop a comprehensive statement for a full implementation of the 1325 resolution. It’s about actually implementing the inclusion of women in all decision-making around peace and security.”
In collaborations with policymakers in Israel on women’s issues, Gouri is cautiously optimistic. “It’s a mixed bag,” she said. “There are politicians that are very open. First of all, we have more women Knesset members in this Knesset and more of them have feminist agendas. On issues of religion and state, and also on issues of employment, there are several vocal Knesset members that are very supportive: Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid, an Orthodox woman herself), Merav Michaeli (Labor), Michal Rozin (Meretz), Orly Levy-Abekasis (Likud Yisrael Beitenu), Zahava Gal-On (Meretz), Adi Koll (Yesh Atid). I think the most important change was that Aliza Lavie, the chair of the Committee for the Status of Women, has changed the name to the Committee for the Status of Women and Gender Equality. This reflects the success of women’s organizations by the introduction of the concept of gender equality, and mainstreaming it.”
Dafna Fund is, of course, active in the political arena. Said Gouri: “We have established and are supporting a project called Women in the Public Sphere based at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. They do research conferences around women in elected positions that work on a gender-equity agenda. We are also routinely supporting the work of women’s groups that are working on a regular basis with policymakers on gender equity.”
Gouri – who created the website Consult4good “to share information, thoughts and ideas about the things [she] is passionate about: social justice, human rights, equality and social transformation” – told the Independent that she is encouraged by some of the developments that have arisen from the social justice protest movement that swept Israel in the summer and fall of 2011. Apart from personally meeting with and supporting one of the protest leaders, Stav Shafir, in her successful run for the Knesset, Gouri noted a more general change in attitude that took place. “One of the important things is that women had role models, and it was women who were in leadership roles in the protests. Afterwards, people understood that if they lead change, they also need to be in the political arena – whether as elected officials, or working closely with elected officials.”
Remembering Shulamit Aloni, the Israeli MK, pioneering feminist and human rights advocate who recently died, Gouri said, “She was a great leader and a great politician. There were not many women politicians in her generation. She was also among the founding mothers of the human rights movement in Israel. She was among the first people to coin the concept that women’s rights are human rights. For women and men, she was a role model of a politician with a very broad agenda. Shulamit Aloni evolved, and saw the connection between different issues; her politics were not compartmentalized. She was a fascinating politician.”
In her talk at Temple Sholom on Tuesday, Gouri said she will be sharing stories of feminist leaders from specific and non-stereotypical cultural groups in Israel: Shula Keshet of the Mizrachi feminist group Achoti; Hanna Kehat of the Orthodox feminist group Kolech; and Fida Tabony Abu Dbai of the feminist Jewish-Arab community Mahapach-Taghir. To register for the event, which begins at 7:30 p.m., visit nifcan.org.
Maayan Kreitzman is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.
At the age of 80, after 40 years of researching and collecting material on the Jewish farming colonies of Saskatchewan, scholar Anna Feldman donated the entire body of research to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. Among the materials are audiocassettes with songs, interviews and oral narratives, personal memoirs and other textual documents. It’s a rich contribution that sheds light on those small colonies and the hopes and dreams of their Jewish inhabitants, said Judith Klassen, music curator at the museum.
“It really makes sense for it to be here,” Klassen said. “The breadth of Anna’s work is really exciting. For example, she didn’t record only one particular genre of song as she looked at Yiddish song and culture. Rather, she recorded different types of music from a broad spectrum of people, including cantorial training, ornamentation, traditional song and storytelling.”
How Jews ended up in Saskatchewan
Jews arrived in Saskatchewan in the 1880s, many fleeing from persecution in Europe. They established farming colonies with names like New Jerusalem, Sonnenfeld and Edenbridge and, by 1930, those colonies were populated by thousands of Jewish farmers and their families. The Jewish colonies’ decline started in the 1930s with the Depression and drought. By the 1960s, most of the farm colonists had left the land for larger cities. Today, all that remains is open prairie where homes and settlements once were, small cemeteries marking the graves of the original settlers. In Edenbridge, the Beth Israel Synagogue, constructed in Carpenter Gothic style in 1906 and used until the 1960s, is now a municipal heritage site. But for any kind of context about the lives lived here, you have to go to the museum.
Fortunately, material like Feldman’s, which is being processed for the public archives, is accessible. To immerse yourself in the collection you have to travel to Gatineau, but for those who are looking for specific documents, those can be ordered, copied, scanned or mailed. “We’ve already had inquiries from people interested in this collection, even from outside of Canada, which shows it’s of interest beyond our borders,” Klassen said.
The origins of the research
Feldman’s interest in the Jewish pioneers was sparked when she married the son of a pioneer family from the Sonnenfeld homestead. Her late spouse was attached to Sonnenfeld all his life and Feldman’s first interview was in 1978, with his mother.
An accomplished scholar, Feldman returned to university as a mature student and obtained an ARCT in singing, a bachelor of music and a master’s degree in Canadian studies from Carleton University. In 1983, she received the Norman Pollock Award in Canadian Jewish Studies. Today, she lives in a seniors residence in Toronto.
Feldman began donating her collection of music to the Museum of History’s Centre for Folk Culture Studies in early 2000. The first 188 audio cassettes containing interviews with Jewish musicians, homesteaders, merchants and professionals who were part of the rural farming communities in Saskatchewan have been processed and are available in the catalogue. Part two of her collection is still being processed.
“In terms of Jewish cultural expression and settlement in Saskatchewan, this collection is foundational,” Klassen noted. Partly, that’s due to Feldman’s skill as an interviewer. “She’s very pointed in her questioning and very thoughtful in how she asks questions. She allows her subjects to talk about their background and interests, but guides them so she covers the key areas she is interested in. In the breadth of her fieldwork and interviews, you get a nuanced perspective on the experiences people had; for example, on antisemitism, but also on mutual respect. You see there’s a broad spectrum of opinions even within the particular settlement. That’s one of the really unique things about this collection.”
The importance of Feldman’s work
“I don’t want the people of Canada, especially the Jews, to be unaware that we had pioneers in Canada who came here when there was no one else in the land. Jews don’t know about this and neither does the general public, and I think people should know about it,” Feldman has reflected.
After her first interview, she traversed Canada twice looking for Jewish pioneers and their children. “I remember visiting one family in Winnipeg whose elderly mother was a descendent of a Jewish pioneer family,” she recalled. “She was blind and unwell, but when she heard about my interest she met me and we had a wonderful time. She was reminiscing and we sang songs together until 2 a.m.!”
What she learned from those interviews is that the early Jewish pioneers in Canada suffered a great deal. “They had the economic depression, problems with weather, land and soil, and all sorts of plagues, but they had the strength to survive,” Feldman said. “They weren’t farmers when they came, and Canada didn’t want Jews, but the Canadian government was afraid the Americans would take over the Prairie provinces, so because of that they allowed the Jews to come.”
She continued, “I think people should have pride in all [that] those Jewish pioneers accomplished. They survived in spite of all the difficulties they had and they made a tremendous contribution to Canada – them, their children and their children’s children.”
A list of the material catalogued thus far is available on the museum’s website at historymuseum.ca. Search the archives by author Anna Feldman to find a description of the material in each box.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
In the early 1980s, Alberta teacher James Keegstra was charged with wilful promotion of hatred for teaching high school students that the Holocaust was a myth and that Jewish people were responsible for much of the world’s evil.
For Robbie Waisman, a Vancouver businessman, news of Keegstra’s teachings revived an exchange from decades earlier that he had repressed. Waisman – at the time he was Romek Wajsman – was one of the youngest prisoners in Buchenwald concentration camp, in eastern Germany. While trying to get to sleep in the crowded barracks one night, young Romek had an interaction that would resonate decades later in the lives of tens of thousands of young North Americans.
As Waisman recalled: “This one voice said, ‘Hey kid,’ addressing me, ‘if this is over and you survive, remember to tell the world what you have witnessed.’ I didn’t answer. Again, a second time. And then another voice says, ‘Leave the kid alone. Let’s all go to sleep. None of us are going to survive.’ I’m trying to fall asleep. Again: ‘Hey kid, I haven’t heard you promise.’ I wanted him to leave me alone so I said, ‘OK, I promise.’”
Yet, for 36 years, as Waisman rebuilt his life in the aftermath of the Shoah that destroyed nearly his entire family, everything he knew and most of European Jewish civilization, he remained publicly silent about what had happened to him and what he had seen. As it was for most survivors, the pain of the past was unbearable. The motivation to move ahead, to make good on the promise of survival, consumed Waisman and other survivors. Those who had spoken out in the first years after liberation were often hushed up, accused of being macabre, of living in the past, of not moving forward. Many adopted silence.
For Waisman, and some other survivors who had kept their stories private, it was the Holocaust denial that sprang up in the 1970s and ’80s that ended their silence.
Now, after speaking hundreds of times to audiences, most often of high school students, but also to churches and First Nations communities, Waisman is being honored for contributing to understanding and tolerance in Canada. He is to receive the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award, which recognizes volunteers who help others and build a “smarter and more caring nation.” He was nominated for the honor by his longtime friend, Derek Glazer.
Waisman cannot estimate the number of times he has spoken or the accumulated number of individuals who have heard his story. But he has thousands of letters – most of them from young people – telling him how the experience of meeting him has changed their lives and caused them to commit themselves to humanitarianism and social justice. And, as much as he is pleased to receive the commendation from Gov.-Gen. David Johnston, it is these letters, and the hugs and words he receives from young people, that he says are the real compensation for what he does.
“These kinds of letters are my reward. Never mind the award that I’m going to be getting. This is the reward. This is what keeps us going. If I can inoculate young people against hatred and discrimination, I honor the memory and I give back for my survival,” he said.
“In most cases, when I go to speak, I get hugs from people, and I get tears, and they come and they are so grateful. I always hear this: ‘You’ve changed my life. Thank you.’”
“We encourage them. We empower them. And we make them appreciate life and what they have around them. I feel we are doing noble work. We are changing some of the kids’ lives,” said Waisman, referring to himself and other survivors who speak.
He added, “Some people think that we sadden the children,” referring to himself and other survivors who speak. “No. We encourage them. We empower them. And we make them appreciate life and what they have around them. I feel we are doing noble work. We are changing some of the kids’ lives.”
Yet, even as he is being recognized for speaking to thousands, Waisman recalled that the first time he publicly spoke of his experiences, he vowed it would be his last. Motivated by the Keegstra affair, Waisman contacted Robert Krell, a founder of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, to say he was ready to speak. A school visit was arranged and Waisman told the students of his experiences. The reaction was poor. Some students fell asleep – though Waisman thinks it was not because the narrative was boring, but the opposite: it was too graphic. The students tuned it out as a sort of emotional defence.
“I came home and I was completely out of it,” Waisman said. “I had to lock myself in a room because it was so painful.”
Krell talked him into trying it once again and, this time, Krell, a psychiatrist, was in the audience. On Krell’s advice, Waisman developed a different approach. “I tell my story, but I don’t go into details,” he said. “I tell them about my life at home [before the Holocaust], with my family, and I tell them about my life afterwards.” He usually shows a video clip that provides a graphic depiction of the Holocaust, but his own presentations put a face to the Shoah but do not dwell on the atrocities he personally witnessed and experienced.
“All in all, as you can see from the letters, I seem to connect, telling the importance of being a decent human being and the responsibility they have toward humanity to make this place a better world,” said Waisman.
It is estimated that between 89 and 94 percent of Jewish children who were alive in Europe in 1939 had been murdered by 1945.
Waisman’s survival is an example of how many extraordinary incidents, fortunate coincidences and unlikely near-misses were required for a Jewish child to endure that era. In the dystopia of Nazism, children were deemed non-productive “useless eaters.” They also represented the future of the Jewish people, so the Nazis took special steps to ensure the deaths of as many children as possible. It is estimated that between 89 and 94 percent of Jewish children who were alive in Europe in 1939 had been murdered by 1945.
The Wajsman family were stalwarts of the community in Skarzysko, Poland. After the Sabbath candles were lit, neighbors would pour into the Wajsman home to listen to the wisdom of Romek’s father, Chil, a haberdasher and an admired leader in the synagogue and community. Romek was the youngest, aged eight when the Nazis invaded Poland, with four brothers and a sister.
Romek’s first break came when the ghetto in Skarzysko was about to be liquidated, in 1942. One of Romek’s older brothers had been forced into labor at a munitions factory. At four in the morning on the day the ghetto was to be liquidated, Romek’s brother appeared and took him to the factory, where he would survive as a useful – if extremely young – munitions worker.
When the Russians advanced on Poland in 1944-45, the Germans moved the munitions workers into the German heartland – and Romek was taken to Buchenwald. There, he met another boy, Abe Chapnick.
“We sort of supported one another,” Waisman said. “We had numbers that we were called by in Buchenwald, but we called each other by name and kept our humanity intact.”
Buchenwald was not primarily an extermination camp, yet Waisman was well aware that if they were not useful to the Germans, they would not survive. What helped the two boys live was the fact that Buchenwald was a camp originally intended for political prisoners, not necessarily Jews, and while the Nazis ran the overall affairs of Buchenwald, many internal matters were left to a committee of prisoners. “They protected us,” said Waisman.
He remembers a particularly fateful moment.
“We were marched out in line and an SS comes up and screamed at the top of his voice ‘All Jews step out!’” Romek and Abe looked at one another. “I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’” Waisman said. “Before we could make up our minds, Willie [Wilhelm Hammann, the German prisoner who was in charge of the barrack] stood in front of us and screamed at the top of his voice at the SS: ‘I have no Jews!’”
The same process unfolded in other barracks and when the Jewish inmates stepped out, they were shot. “That was two or three days before liberation,” Waisman said.
When liberation finally came – at 3:45 p.m. on April 11, 1945, the day Waisman counts as his “birthday” – their troubles were not yet over. They were moved to better quarters but remained at Buchenwald for two months, while authorities attempted to determine what to do with millions of displaced persons across Europe.
Romek had looked forward to going home, to being reunited with his family. “After liberation, we couldn’t grasp the enormity of the Holocaust,” he said. “I saw people around me die, but I didn’t see the whole picture. I wanted to go home because I thought everybody would be at home.”
Eventually, 426 of them, all boys, would be taken to France, to a makeshift orphanage where they were expected to resume their lives and studies as if their experiences had been merely some sort of routine disruption.
While Waisman and Chapnick had been the youngest in their barrack, at liberation they would discover there were hundreds more children, from 8 to 18, in the camp. Eventually, 426 of them, all boys, would be taken to France, to a makeshift orphanage where they were expected to resume their lives and studies as if their experiences had been merely some sort of routine disruption. They acted out in ways that made their new caretakers fear them as animalistic and potentially dangerous.
“We were angry and full of rage when we couldn’t go home after liberation,” Waisman said. “We came to France and there were all these people that wanted to help us out and came to deal with us. Professionals and volunteers to help us out, people that spoke our language [but] when we wanted to speak and share some of the pain, they weren’t interested. It was too soon. Psychiatry wasn’t as advanced as it is now. They’d say, ‘We are not interested. Just never mind. Forget about it. Move on. Go back to school. Continue your schooling.’
“I can’t repeat what we told them what to do,” Waisman said, laughing. “After all, we knew best.”
Waisman would discover decades later that a report commissioned by the French government declared that these “boys of Buchenwald” would never rehabilitate, they had seen too much, been too damaged and would not live beyond 40. The report recommended that the government find a Jewish organization to look after them.
In fact, in addition to the most notable boys of Buchenwald – Elie Wiesel, the renowned author and humanitarian, and Yisrael Meir Lau, who would become a chief rabbi of Israel – almost every one went on to succeed in life beyond all expectations. For Waisman, who is still active in the hotel industry, this was a direct result of a single determined man.
“Manfred Reingwitz, a professor at the Sorbonne – he wouldn’t give up on us. He used to always give us these wonderful discussions and spoke to us about the importance of moving on. It didn’t register. He took a lot of abuse, but I remember the one crucial time. There were four of us, including myself, and he sort of said, ‘I give up’ and then he turned around … ‘By the way, Romek, if your parents stood where I am standing right now, what do you think they would want for you?’ he said in an angry voice. And, of course, we don’t answer anything and he walks away. We looked at one another and it resonated. We didn’t say anything. But we sort of began a different attitude, a different way of looking at things.”
This was the moment when Waisman and most of the others, like so many survivors, began a process of throwing themselves into careers, family and community work.
He and his sister Leah were the only survivors from their family of eight. (Leah married in a DP camp, moved to Israel and Waisman sponsored them to come to Canada in the 1950s.)
Slowly, Romek’s life took on a form of normalcy. Under the auspices of Canadian Jewish Congress, he would arrive in Halifax and travel by train to Calgary, where he would begin Canadian life with the help of a local family, start his career and meet his wife, Gloria. The couple would move to Gloria’s native Saskatchewan for two decades before coming to Vancouver.
“For, I think, close to 36 years I went on with my life,” Waisman said. The other boys of Buchenwald progressed similarly, many settling in Australia, as well as in Israel, the United States and elsewhere. “I made a life … my Holocaust experience was there, but I put it aside…,” Waisman said. “And then Keegstra came along teaching his students that the Holocaust was a myth, that it didn’t happen.” And Waisman became one of the most active survivor speakers, putting a face to history for thousands of young people.
“One and a half million Jewish children were not as lucky as I was, and the other boys of Buchenwald [were], and so I sort of began to think about it and said, ‘I made it. I have a sacred duty and obligation to [share my experiences with younger generations] and when I’m doing this I honor the memory of the one and a half million.’
“Our survival meant something,” he said. “After all these years, I felt that I had to do it, that it’s a sacred duty.”