We are still reeling from what happened in Israel on Oct. 7 and the war that has ensued.
Hamas carried out a brutal terror attack on Israel that targeted civilians, murdering 1,400 people and kidnapping more than 200 Israeli hostages. Jews worldwide are grief-stricken, angry and scared. It is hard to see the hope, as images of dead Israelis mix with images of dead Palestinians.
There is no doubt in our minds that Hamas needs to be incapacitated – its covenant explicitly states their intention to eliminate Israel and kill Jews. On Oct. 7, they reasserted their intention with a vengeance that cannot be ignored. Their unambiguous goal is genocide.
Posters we see around Vancouver that simultaneously accuse Israel of genocide for defending itself and call for the genocide of Israelis – “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” – are abhorrent. People who support Hamas’s genocidal actions, implying, or outright stating, that Israelis deserve such cruelty do not care about humanity, do not believe in peace.
The people who are putting up the posters that ask, “Do you support indigenous rights? Then you support Palestine” are implying that Jews are colonizers and, therefore, deserve to be expelled, no matter how. But the Jewish connection to the land goes back thousands of years; we were dispossessed of it but never ceded it.
There are some two million Palestinians in Gaza, and they cannot be similarly dispossessed. More than half the population has been asked to leave their homes. Reports are that more than 4,500 have been killed from Israel’s bombing campaign.
Our hearts break at the type of war that fighting Hamas entails. The terror group uses civilians and civilian infrastructure as shields, ensuring that hundreds or thousands of innocent Palestinians die every time Israel defends itself militarily, even when it adheres to international law in its actions, including allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza.
One way or another, the people who live between the river and sea must find a way to coexist. That is quite literally the only way forward. As simplistic as this sounds, it is nevertheless true. That is impossible with Hamas as the controlling force in Gaza. But, when they are removed, what then? Replacing the figures at the top – whether in Gaza or in the Israeli government, the latter of which is something that will certainly be discussed in the aftermath of this horror – will not automatically negate deep mutual distrust among populations.
There are so many complexities and no end of theories as to how we have arrived at this point. What will happen next is less discussed, though there is the all-too-real possibility that the conflict will become regional – already the 22,000 residents of Kiryat Shmona, the largest community in the Vancouver Jewish community’s partnership region of the Upper Galilee, are being evacuated because of terrorist attacks from Hezbollah in Lebanon, which are expected to increase once Israel begins its ground offensive in the south. Some fear that the Hamas attack is less the main event than a distraction, a trap to lure Israel into an even more existential fight on multiple fronts.
Closer to home, there are security threats to Jews in the diaspora. Thankfully, Hamas’s call for a day of rage on Oct. 13 did not result in serious incidents. But the fear is real, and that is the purpose of terrorism. Jewish organizations and law enforcement agencies are working together to keep us safe. We must continue to live our lives as Jews, and not hide.
Some of our local community members have gone to Israel to fight. Other community members are rallying, marching and postering to make sure that the Israeli hostages being held captive in Gaza are returned home. More than $15 million was raised for Israel in just two weeks by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s emergency campaign.
And, there are Israelis (Jewish, Muslim, Christian and others) and Palestinians who, despite the terrorist attacks and the war, continue against so many odds to work for peace. Groups such as Standing Together, Women Wage Peace, the Parents Circle, and others are working to shore up hope for peace, equality and coexistence. These groups deserve our support, moral and financial.
At the same time as we support our family and friends in Israel and one another here, as we call for the immediate return of the hostages and as we raise funds for aid, we must also support those activists and dreamers on the ground who advocate for a better postwar world.
The harrowing history of Ukraine’s past was recounted recently in the annual lecture honouring Rudolf Vrba, the late Vancouver scientist whose 1944 escape from Auschwitz brought the most concrete proof of the Nazi “Final Solution” to the world.
Dr. Nataliia Ivchyk delivered the 2023 Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture, titled The Holocaust in Ukraine: Violence, Gender and Memory. Ivchyk is at the University of British Columbia on a visiting fellowship that was created by Dr. Richard Menkis and Dr. Heidi Tworek to bring to Vancouver a Ukrainian scholar at risk. Ivchyk is associate professor in the department of political sciences at Rivne State University for the Humanities in her hometown of Rivne, Ukraine, and her work is focused on public history and memory politics.
Ivchyk’s presentation was based on survivor testimonies held at the USC Shoah Foundation, and narrowed in on the experiences of Jews in the western Ukrainian region of Volhynia and Podilia. Of the approximately 27,000 Jews who lived in Rivne (then known as Rovno) in 1937, it is estimated that just around 1,200 survived to the 1944 liberation by the Red Army. In a single day, on Nov. 6, 1941, about 21,000 Jews were murdered by Einsatzgruppe C and Ukrainian collaborators. The surviving Jews were imprisoned in the Rovno Ghetto, which was created the following month. In July 1942, remaining Jews, about 5,000, were transported to a stone quarry and murdered.
About 1.5 million Jews died in Ukrainian territory during the war years, most of them shot in what has been called the “Holocaust by bullets.”
“The Holocaust has long remained on the margins of collective memory in Ukraine,” said Ivchyk. Babyn Yar, a ravine outside Kyiv where more than 33,000 Jews were murdered over two days in 1941, has become a national symbol of Holocaust remembrance, she said. “However, the local level of remembrance remained low.”
There are many other sites of atrocities that were committed in Ukraine. “Some are marked by monuments, others are still forgotten and lost,” she said.
Of the several thousand Jews who survived the initial mass executions, anyone over the age of 13 was forced into slave labour.
“Nobody wanted to work for the Germans,” Ivchyk quoted one survivor, “but we had to. We hoped it would somehow balance our relationship with the Germans and would help us survive.”
Violence against women was mainly carried out by Ukrainian collaborators, she said, though Nazis also took part.
“I remember many times Germans came at night, knocked on the windows, took away beautiful girls,” Ivchyk quoted a survivor. “Sometimes, they raped and killed them right away. Sometimes, they said we will come again.”
Rabbis became a particular target of violence against men, given their social and symbolic status, and their role as spiritual leaders.
In the Soviet era, historical memorialization was subordinated to the priorities of the regime.
“The Holodomor [the deliberate Soviet famine that killed millions of Ukrainians], the deportation of Crimean Tatars, the Holocaust and the genocide of the Roma – all of these events were suppressed in collective memory by the Soviet regime,” she said.
Today, support in Ukraine for Holocaust memorialization is ambivalent.
“The activities of the state today do not prohibit academic, educational or public activities in the field of Holocaust remembrance, but neither does it act as a financial or ideological initiator,” she said.
The Vrba event was funded by the Holocaust education committee of UBC’s department of history, which is responsible for the annual lecture, as well as a number of other organizations, including the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics.
Menkis, associate professor of modern Jewish history at UBC and chair of the Holocaust education committee, noted that the event recognizes Vrba’s contributions to two primary areas to which Vrba’s life was devoted: Holocaust education and science, particularly pharmacology. The annual lectures alternate between these topics.
Menkis told the audience how Vrba and his friend Alfréd Wetzler made the momentous decision to escape from Auschwitz after overhearing conversations around the planned deportation of Hungarian Jewry. After a difficult and dangerous trek, the pair reached northern Slovakia, where they compiled a report documenting the layout of Auschwitz and the extermination process there.
“Although the report is credited with saving many lives,” said Menkis, “Vrba and Wetzler were keenly aware that more decisive action could have saved more. After the war, Dr. Vrba continued to speak about Auschwitz and his experiences. His book, I Cannot Forgive, written with Alan Bestic, was first published in 1963 and has been issued in a number of translations and re-editions since. He is also well known for his unforgettable testimony in Claude Lanzmann’s [documentary film] Shoah and perhaps less well-known but also important was his effective testimony in the Canadian trials against Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel.”
Vrba’s widow, Robin, attended the event virtually. Vrba died in 2006.
King David High School’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies 12 class with Liliane Pari Umuhoza. (photo from KDHS)
On Nov. 24, King David High School Holocaust and Genocide Studies 12 teacher Anna-Mae Wiesenthal invited a guest speaker. The class had the opportunity to hear from Liliane Pari Umuhoza, a child survivor of the Rwandan genocide, who is currently doing a master’s degree at the University of British Columbia.
Hearing Umuhoza’s personal story of healing from trauma, as well as her work with other survivors of the genocide, gave our class a better understanding about how genocide affects individuals and how to help them with their personal growth. Especially interesting was hearing about her involvement with the Survivors Fund, and her process of helping women share their stories from the Rwandan genocide. Having Umuhoza speak to our class was an experience we will never forget, and that we will continue to learn from.
Emma Silber is a Grade 12 student at King David High School.
Holocaust survivors participate in the candlelighting ceremony at the community’s Kristallnacht commemoration Nov. 9. (photo by Al Szajman)
Commemorating the Holocaust and the sad succession of genocides that have been perpetrated since is a sacred responsibility – but it is not enough, says Liliane Pari Umuhoza. That memory must be the motivation that drives people to make a better world, she said.
Umuhoza was 2 years old when her father and a million others were murdered during the Genocide Against the Tutsis of Rwanda, in 1994. After experiencing trauma in her adolescence due to that familial and communal history, Umuhoza has devoted her life to commemorating and educating about the genocide and encouraging people to dedicate themselves to healing their societies.
“When we remember, we help ensure that the memories and legacies of the victims and survivors continue to resonate for future generations,” she said at Vancouver’s community Kristallnacht commemoration Nov. 9. “When we remember, we learn about the history and create awareness. But that’s not enough. What matters the most is how we use that history to create a better world.”
The annual event took place at Beth Israel synagogue on the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” on Nov. 9-10, 1938, which is the moment when anti-Jewish regulations and systemic discrimination turned into overt violence and murder. It is seen by many historians as the effective beginning of the Holocaust.
The event was presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC), in partnership with Congregation Beth Israel and with support from the Robert and Marilyn Krell Endowment Fund of the VHEC and from the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign.
Umuhoza arrived in Vancouver several months ago to attend the University of British Columbia, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and global affairs. She is founder of the Women Genocide Survivors Retreat and is project officer for Foundation Rwanda, which provides funding for education to those who were born from rape during the genocide.
She began by outlining her own family’s history.
“I was 2 years old in the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda,” she said. “During this tragedy, my father was killed. Some of my uncles, aunties, cousins and many other members of my extended family are among the million Tutsi who were killed by the Hutu extremists in 100 days.
“One million people were killed in 100 days,” she stressed. “I was lucky to survive with my mother, who managed to escape to a neighbouring country, Congo, holding me, a 2-year-old baby, where we lived as refugees until it was safe enough for us to go back to Rwanda.”
She considers herself fortunate in comparison with many of her peers.
“I now have a stepfather and stepsiblings and I cannot tell you how blessed I feel because most of my friends from home grew up without a father or a mother figure in their lives,” she said.
Umuhoza was too young to understand what was happening at the time, she said. “But I grew up facing the consequences of that tragedy in every corner of my life. As many of you may know, psychologically, young children between the age of 0 and 5 are the most vulnerable to the effects of trauma since their brains are in the early development stage. For most people who have been exposed to genocide or war as children, the trauma can become severe at the adolescent stage and adulthood, if it is not properly treated.”
At the age of 12, Umuhoza began to exhibit symptoms of trauma, including depression, post-traumatic stress, nightmares, frustration, anger and confusion. She used the strength of others as an example to recover, including a friend who had to take on the parent role from childhood after she and her younger siblings were orphaned. Umuhoza is now deeply immersed in often deeply difficult aspects of education, such as translating the narratives of other survivors through Foundation Rwanda.
“My role with this organization was to listen to the stories of these women in their Rwandan mother language and translate the stories in English so we could use those stories to create awareness and educate the world about the genocide and its ongoing consequences,” she said. “I found myself in a series of stories I’d never heard before … stories of mass murder, stories of pain, stories of rape.”
One of the lessons she learned from the genocide is to never tolerate injustice, no matter how big or small, Umuhoza said.
“Speak up and raise your voice when you see or hear people denying that the Holocaust happened,” she said. “Speak up when you hear people saying that the genocide did not happen. Speak up when you see minorities being unfairly treated. Speak up when you see women in Tehran being oppressed. Let’s dare to step out of our common comfort zone and cultivate empathy to people around us.”
She concluded: “Individually, we can change our communities. But together we can change the world.”
Earlier in the evening, Prof. Chris Friedrichs contextualized the history of the Holocaust, emphasizing the importance of synagogues as a place of refuge for Jewish communities. The Kristallnacht commemoration has been taking place in the sanctuary of Beth Israel for more than 40 years, he said.
There were more than 1,000 synagogues in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht, he noted, some many centuries old, while others were newer, having been dedicated in the presence of senior German officials, clergy and others, a testament to the apparent solidity of the Jewish community’s place in the country.
“But then, beginning in 1933, everything started to change,” said Friedrichs, professor emeritus of history at UBC. “Once the Nazis came to power, Germans were taught to shun their Jewish neighbours. Jews were banned from public places. They could no longer go to the theatre or walk in the park or send their children to public schools. But one place was still open to them – their own synagogues, where they could gather to worship or study or simply spend time with their fellow Jews. And so it was until Nov. 9, 1938, when, in one carefully orchestrated nationwide night of terror, hundreds of synagogues all over Germany were set aflame, thousands of Jews were arrested, over 100 were killed. The next morning, Jews found their synagogues turned into empty shells and the windows of their shops shattered into broken shards of glass and the contents plundered. No Jew in Germany ever forgot that night of broken glass, Kristallnacht.”
Irwin Cotler, Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combatting antisemitism, spoke via video link to the audience.
Of the Holocaust, he said, “It was a continuation and manifestation of history’s oldest, longest, most enduring and most toxic of hatreds, antisemitism, a hatred that mutates and metastasizes over time, which is grounded in one generic, historical, foundational, conspiratorial trope of the Jews – the Jewish people, the Jewish state – as the enemy of all that is good and the embodiment of all that is evil, which led, therefore, to the demonization and dehumanization of the Jew as prologue and justification for Kristallnacht and the Holocaust.”
A parallel between the Holocaust and the genocide against the Tutsis, he said, is that they were preventable.
“Nobody could say we did not know,” said Cotler. “We knew, but we did not act.”
Corinne Zimmerman, president of the VHEC, opened the event. Nina Kreiger, executive director, introduced the speakers and acknowledged dignitaries in attendance.
Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, a child of Holocaust survivors, thanked Umuhoza and reflected on her words and those of other speakers. He understands the idea of trauma being passed down through generations, he said. Reflecting on Friedrichs’ discussion of the centrality of the synagogue in Jewish life, Infeld said his spiritual leadership of the congregation during the construction of the new synagogue building was a form of response to the history of his family and the Jewish people.
Elected officials also spoke at the ceremony. Taleeb Noormohamad, member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville, spoke of his first trip to Berlin, where he walked around the streets of the old Jewish district.
“As somebody who had never really seen firsthand until that trip the horrors of what had happened to the Jewish community and to so many others,” said Noormohamad, “in that moment you come to realize the absolute inexplicable horror that was cast upon people and what it does to people, to communities, to families and to the histories of people.”
He committed to standing with the Jewish community against discrimination and noted the diversity of the audience, which included himself, a Muslim Canadian; Michael Lee, a Chinese-Canadian member of the legislature; and Ken Sim, a Chinese-Canadian mayor.
Parm Bains, member of Parliament for Steveston-Richmond East, was also present, as was Marc Eichhorn, consul general of Germany in Vancouver.
“Antisemitism is not a problem, a fight, that is for the Jewish community alone,” Noormohamad said. “When you look in this room today, we are all in this together. This is our community. You are our family and the remembrance of what happened is our responsibility as much as it is yours.”
The Kristallnacht commemoration was the first official community event for Sim, who was sworn in as mayor of Vancouver three days before. He, too, spoke of visiting Germany, along with his wife and their four sons, where they witnessed the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and pondered the Stolpersteine, the “stumbling stones” that have been installed to mark the places where victims of Nazi extermination or persecution lived. The family, he said, has also visited Auschwitz, in Poland, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C.
During the recent election campaign, Sim promised that, as mayor, he would promote the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism, which the previous council failed to do. He repeated his commitment at the ceremony, and council passed the motion on Nov. 16. (Click here and here for stories.)
Sim was joined at the event by Vancouver Councilor Sarah Kirby-Yung, who Sim credited as a stalwart ally of the Jewish community. Together, they read the official proclamation from the City of Vancouver.
“Out of the shards of destruction, in this case the glass on the night of Kristallnacht, often are born the glimmers of hope,” said Kirby-Yung, “and I think that is what keeps all of us going. It is the resilience and faith and the hope of the Jewish community that I think embodies the spirit of what we aspire to deliver here in the city of Vancouver.”
A gift of Elie Wiesel’s Night was among the forces that influenced Madeleine Schwarz’s career path.
Madeleine Schwarz is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Not the kind you would expect to build much of her career prosecuting or aiding in the prosecution of war criminals around the world, including the Nazi war criminal known as the “Beast of Bolzano,” who was living on Commercial Drive in Vancouver.
Now based in Toronto, working with the Refugee Board of Canada, Schwarz spoke with the Jewish Independent about a few of her accomplishments.
Raised Catholic, Schwarz was one of seven kids on the block who frequented our house in Vancouver back in the 1960s and early ’70s. Little did we know that she would soon be making history.
She told the Independent that her passion for international criminal law began when she was a teenager and learned about the genocide of the Jewish people.
My parents, Joyce and Bernie Freeman, helped her along her journey by giving her Night by Elie Wiesel, an account of his terrifying time in Auschwitz.
“Your house was very much an introduction to Judaism,” she said. “Yours was a very open, friendly Jewish family. I recall coming to your house for Shabbat dinner in my convent school uniform.”
While studying international relations at the University of British Columbia, Schwarz had a number of Chilean friends who had family members in camps under the dictator Augusto Pinochet. That was her “introduction” to contemporary war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In 1994, Schwarz graduated with her bachelor of laws at Dalhousie University. In 2003, she obtained her master of laws at the University of Ottawa, specializing in international criminal law.
Her first job involving war crimes was at the Canadian Department of Justice. From 1999 to 2005, she worked closely with RCMP officers on investigations into crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in Ukraine, Belarus, Italy and Rwanda.
When Italy found Michael Siefert, a former S.S. guard at a transit camp in Bolzano, guilty in absentia of 11 murders during the Holocaust, Schwarz put together the case to revoke his Canadian citizenship. She interviewed many people in Italy, including former resistance fighters who had witnessed his crimes.
“Seifert was quite a young man during the war. He was an old man during the proceedings. But he had committed horrendous crimes,” she said.
One of the documents Schwarz saw during the investigation made the Holocaust all so terribly real.
“I remember that we had an invoice confirming the transfer of a number of people to Auschwitz. That was one of the most horrific pieces of evidence I’ve ever seen.”
In 2003, as a result of her work and that of the legal teams who came afterwards, the B.C. Supreme Court ordered Siefert’s extradition and, in 2007, the Federal Court upheld a decision to strip him of his Canadian citizenship. In 2008, Siefert, aged 83, was sent back to Italy. His residence in Vancouver as a free man for more than 50 years was over.
During her time with the Department of Justice, Schwarz interviewed many victims and witnesses of war crimes. She said that, even when, after 15 minutes, she knew that she couldn’t use their story, she would sit there and listen for the whole two hours.
“When I’ve asked someone to tell me their story,” she said, “it’s incumbent on me to listen.… I might be the only person they will be able to tell their story to [in their lifetime].”
From 2006 to 2010, Schwarz lived in Tanzania, where she was one of the trial attorneys on the largest multi-accused trial for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Part of her work there was interviewing perpetrators of the genocide in the Butare prefecture.
She confided that this part of her job was very hard on her. “I remember interviewing three suspects alleged to have committed genocide in a row. I told my colleague – I need a break before I can talk to the fourth man.”
When it came to the trial, Schwarz and her team secured convictions of all six accused, including the first woman charged with ordering rape as a war crime.
“I think, as a lawyer and particularly a prosecutor, you are assessing the evidence and being critical. You have to be pretty surgical about it,” said Schwarz.
A few years later, at a UN conference, a co-presenter from Butare approached her and told her that his entire family had been wiped out by the genocide there. “And he said thank you very much for your work. And I practically burst into tears because I felt humbled that somebody would say that … it was not something I felt I should be thanked for, nor any of us should be thanked for because it shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”
As a commissioner looking into the killings in Les Cayes prison in Haiti during 2010, Schwarz led an international team and supervised the final report with recommendations on future prosecutions, penal reform, justice reform and police training.
Schwarz was in Kenya in 2013, working as the human rights and justice advisor to the UN Special Envoy in the Great Lakes region of Africa, a region encompassing 13 countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. With a team of experts, she collaborated with myriad different organizations to create strong networks of people who would work together to promote better communication, peace and understanding in the region.
“There are so many layers that need to be addressed if you are ever going to deal with root causes of conflict, that range from ensuring people have access to clean water, food, lodging and education, to building trust and confidence among the leaders and civil society, to advocating for accountability for past crimes…. It takes a lot of time,” she said.
From 2016 to 2019, Schwarz worked as a trial lawyer and deputy team leader at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It was there that she prepared arrest warrants for individuals alleged to have committed crimes in Libya since 2011.
Despite seeing the very worst of humanity, Schwarz still has hope for the human race. “I’ve seen some pretty horrible things,” she acknowledged. “I’ve also seen people who do tremendous things to try and make change or try and help people.”
And she had this to say about the International Criminal Court.
“I think that investigations and prosecutions of individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide are incredibly important,” said Schwarz. “I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re always getting the complete truth and I do not think we always get it right. However, I do think we get some truth and some accountability that is important for victims, as well as for countries moving out of conflict. I think that is important. And it’s a different way of telling the story than a novelist or historian.”
Cassandra Freeman is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. During the early 1980s, she was part of the Jewish student movement that called for the extradition of Nazi war criminals living in Canada.
An important – and surprising – court decision in Poland last month is a small victory in a longer battle over the history of Polish behaviour during the Second World War.
On appeal, two Holocaust scholars had an earlier decision reversed. University of Ottawa professor Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking, a Polish historian of the Holocaust, had earlier been ordered to apologize to a Polish woman who brought a suit against the two, arguing that her family’s name had been tarnished by the historians’ depictions of her uncle’s actions during the war. The case was watched closely, and its appeal is significant, as it could portend how Poland’s judiciary approaches a comparatively new law that proscribes negative depictions of Polish complicity during the war.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party is a right-wing nationalist movement that seeks to glorify Polish heroism during that era and erase – indeed, outlaw – records that demonstrate the complicity in atrocities by individual Poles and segments of that society during the Holocaust.
Grabowski and Engelking are on the frontlines of that conflict. They head a team of researchers that produced Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland, a compendious 1,700-page documentation of Polish atrocities during the war. The researchers, at risk to themselves, delved into often-untouched archival records in small and remote communities across Poland. In a presentation in Vancouver three years ago, Grabowski explained that, after the war, a surprising number of Poles felt no obligation to hide or embroider their activities during that period, content that their neighbours, if not history, would judge them kindly. The researchers plumbed files that had not been opened since 1945 and discovered harrowing tales of neighbour turning on neighbour, of Jews in hiding listening as their former friends pointed out their whereabouts to the Nazis and their collaborators.
The work is monumental and is being translated into English. It also indicates the breadth and depth of Holocaust history that has yet to be even remotely explored. The big picture, certainly, is well known – to the extent that plenty of people complain that it is time to move on from the topic. But the work of Grabowski et al reminds us that, in terms of millions of stories of individuals, heroic and wicked, we have hardly scratched the surface.
This is why the Polish law, and the intent behind it, is so dangerous. The problem is not merely the suppression of what we already know to be true, it is the very tangible possibility that current scholarship will be curtailed and that potential future scholars will choose less arduous fields of study. In either case, the crucial primary research still underway could be squelched.
This urgency was underscored by the publication Tuesday of a new book, Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph and Love by Rebecca Frankel, former executive editor of Foreign Policy magazine. Writing in the New York Times Sunday, Frankel shared the story of one family who survived the war in Poland by hiding in the forests. The “Jews of the forest,” as she calls them, are an example of a massively underexplored facet of Holocaust history. The narratives of these Jews – some of whom survived the war, many or most of whom apparently did not – are absent from most chronologies because, by definition, those who survived (or did not) by disappearing into the forests were not included in the record-keeping of the Nazis and their collaborators.
We know from opinion surveys that there is an enormous amount of ignorance, particularly among the young in North America and Europe, about the Holocaust. In a notable irony, a major survey of European societies discovered that the countries where the largest number of people believes that there is too much emphasis on the Holocaust are the same countries where ignorance of the facts is greatest. In other words, it seems that those who know the least about that history are the ones most determined to close their ears to it.
Prof. Grabowski, who was born in Poland, was evasive in his visit to Vancouver in 2018, deflecting assertions that his work is heroic. Instead, he credited the courage of the on-the-ground researchers in Poland. There should be enough admiration to go around for the researchers, historians, writers and teachers who continue the necessary work of studying and sharing knowledge of that time.
As we have seen from the past seven decades, knowledge of the past does not preclude repetitions of genocide. But ignorance will almost certainly hasten its frequency and severity.
Since the High Holidays last year, a group of demonstrators has met every Thursday afternoon opposite the Chinese embassy in Ottawa to protest in support of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The protest was initiated by members of Kehillat Beth Israel, a synagogue in Ottawa, but has grown to include other faith communities and cities, including Vancouver. (photo from Phil Kretzmar)
The Chinese government is perpetrating a genocide against Uyghur people in the northwestern part of that country – with possibly millions incarcerated and untold numbers coerced into slave labour and forced sterilization. Reports also suggest organ harvesting. Children are being separated from their families.
Canada, the United States and the Netherlands have accused the Chinese government of committing genocide. There are about 12 million Uyghurs, mostly Muslim, living in the region of Xinjiang, which some Uyghurs prefer to call East Turkestan, reflecting their connection to central Asian cultures. A United Nations Human Rights Committee report in 2018 asserted that as many as one million Uyghurs were being held in at least 85 concentration camps, though other estimates say possibly three to five million are now incarcerated. The Chinese government acknowledges the existence of the camps, but claims they are education and skills training facilities.
Uyghurs who are not imprisoned have been subjected to intensive surveillance, repression of religious expression, slave labour and forced sterilizations.
A concerted campaign has been waged to suppress Uyghur culture and the Muslim religion to which most of them adhere. It began with a ban on men growing long beards or women wearing veils and expanded into the destruction of dozens of mosques.
The region is an economic powerhouse, producing 20 to 30% of the world’s entire cotton supply. It is also rich in oil and minerals, and produces China’s largest supply of natural gas.
A webinar was presented March 22 by the Canadian Multifaith Initiative for Uyghur Rights. In addition to three Uyghur expatriates who spoke from a personal perspective, three clergy members of different traditions spoke of the moral obligation to defend the imperiled people.
Vancouver anthropologist and author Alan Morinis was one of the organizers and moderators, and Rabbi Susie Tendler of Richmond’s Beth Tikvah Congregation introduced one of the speakers. Rev. Christopher Pappas, an Anglican priest, and Mufti Aasim Rashid, a Muslim scholar, also spoke.
Mihrigul Tursun, who spoke on the webinar, was incarcerated several times and said she was electrocuted and subjected to other forms of torture. She saw detainees beaten, starved and strip-searched. Scores of prisoners were kept in tiny spaces, forcing some to stand up while others slept sideways.
The Chinese government has contested Tursun’s testimony, claiming she was taken into custody on suspicion of inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination. The government also insisted she was not imprisoned, but spent time in a skills training facility.
Akeda Pulati described the personal anguish from a family’s perspective. Pulati’s mother, Rahile Dawut, disappeared on Dec. 12, 2017, and her family has had no contact and seen no trace of her since. She assumes her mother is in a “re-education camp.”
“The Chinese government has been claiming that those kinds of centres, those kinds of places, are educational centres for people to receive education and job training,” she said. “How could my mom, in her retirement age, need job training?”
Pulati stayed silent for some time for fear of reprisals by the Chinese government against other members of her family and community.
“I stayed silent for too long,” she said. “One day, I realized I cannot stay silent anymore. Our people is experiencing a genocide. I don’t want my mother to die in this horrific place. I lost hope for the Chinese government to have mercy on my mother, have mercy on the Uyghur people.… I am not the only one experiencing this tragedy. There are many, many Uyghur children like me searching for their parents. We found each other on social media and we decided to do something together.”
Mehmet Tohti is a Uyghur-Canadian activist and executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, based in Ottawa. He is a cofounder of the World Uyghur Congress and has twice served as vice-president. By extrapolating the Chinese government’s own limited information on the subject, Tohti estimates there may be 7.8 million Uyghurs incarcerated.
“Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs living abroad are not communicating with their family members,” he said. “They don’t know whether their families are alive or dead. I don’t know whether my mother is alive or dead.”
The world must make China realize they will pay a price for their actions, Tohti said. “Unless there is a cost, the Chinese government won’t stop,” he said.
Canadian companies are the fifth largest investors in the region, Tohti said. “The Chinese ambassador [to Canada] said that Canada’s exports to China soared more than 95% in the last year,” he added. “We are still continuing business as usual.”
Canadians, Tohti said, should be calling on our elected officials to introduce legislation to ban imports of products that may have been created with forced labour. “We have to force our companies to disclose their supply chain,” he said.
Other Canadians are also stepping up on the matter. An ad hoc group coordinated by Ottawa Jewish community member Phil Kretzmar helped schedule a demonstration outside the Chinese consulate in Vancouver during Passover, on April 1. The local team intends to demonstrate outside the Chinese consulate in Vancouver, 3380 Granville St., every Thursday at 3 p.m. until further notice. For more information, email [email protected].
The entire federal cabinet – save the foreign affairs minister – was absent Monday when the House of Commons unanimously voted to characterize the Chinese government’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the northwest part of China as “genocide.”
In the absence of the prime minister and all his cabinet colleagues, Marc Garneau, the foreign minister, stood and declared, “I abstain on behalf of the Government of Canada.”
The vote was on a nonbinding resolution brought forward by the Conservative party and, ultimately, was supported by all parties, receiving a unanimous vote by those members in the house and participating remotely. An amendment, brought by the Bloc Quebecois, also passed, calling on the International Olympic Committee to move the games scheduled for Beijing in 2022 unless the genocide stops.
According to international law, genocide is the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The United States, at the tail end of the Trump regime, became the first country to name China’s behaviour genocide.
The Chinese government is perpetrating mass incarceration of millions of Uyghur Muslims and ethnic Kazakhs in northwestern China, operating concentration camps, separating families, committing forced sterilization, using slave labour and employing indoctrination apparently aimed at breaking the victims’ adherence to Islam and promoting obeisance to the communist regime.
The Chinese state barely disguises their intent, acknowledging that they are operating “re-education camps” or “counter-extremism centres.” An Australian study last year posited that there are 380 such facilities in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, where most of the 12 million Uyghurs live. The area produces a large proportion of the world’s cotton and the BBC has reported that an estimated 500,000 people are being employed in forced labour picking cotton. Some who have escaped the camps report physical and mental torture, including mass rape and sexual abuse.
An argument could – indeed should – be made that the use of the term “genocide” must be applied carefully in order to avoid diminishing the significance of the language. We have seen the misuse of the term applied to Israel. But there is a great difference between using caution out of respect for the magnitude of the allegation and avoiding the term out of some political expediency or fear of diplomatic retaliation.
Whether what is happening in China right now fits the definition of genocide as we understand it in contexts like the Holocaust, Darfur, Rwanda or Bosnia is not immaterial. But there can be no question that what is happening are crimes against humanity on a massive, blood-chilling scale. Censure of the most extraordinary sort is absolutely justified.
Of course, discretion plays a role. In every decision and position the government takes relating to foreign parties, there are multiple domestic, diplomatic and practical considerations. No country’s foreign policy is pristine or unsullied by what we might consider pure self-interest or unprincipled motives. Fears of repercussions are legitimate.
China is a bully. In response to Canada’s rightful arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request, the regime effectively kidnapped two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have now been incarcerated for more than 800 days.
As we have said in the context of Canada’s support for Israel, elected officials should exercise immense caution in employing foreign policy as a wedge issue. Certainly there are legitimate differences of opinion among parties and individuals on various international topics.
Objectively, O’Toole and his party did the right thing. They were accompanied by MPs from all parties, including Liberal backbenchers. We would hope that the motion and the unanimous support is a symptom of a genuine Canadian commitment to fighting evil in the world. However, it is difficult not to see some partisan calculation at play. O’Toole and his party have been effective and vocal in raising the Uyghur issue (as well as other Chinese government atrocities and human rights abuses) for some time. By contrast, the Trudeau government has appeared to waffle, hemming and hawing over the definition of genocide and appearing reticent to offend the Chinese regime; their approach to China in general has been scattershot and incoherent.
It is within the realm of reason that the Conservatives saw a chance to embarrass and divide the Liberal government and took it. But the bigger issue is, even if the Conservatives were motivated by some hope of political gain, the Liberal government could have muted any such benefit by simply doing the right thing – as Liberal MPs and those of other parties did.
O’Toole, after the vote, decried an absence of leadership. Fair enough.
If the Canadian government has a reason to not characterize Chinese actions as genocide, we’d like to hear them. By simply refusing to show up, the Trudeau government did not take a stand on one of the crucial global issues of the day.
When a people is facing genocide, the very least the victims and Canadian citizens should expect is for Canada’s government to speak up. Too many times in history we have seen the consequences of silence.
On Dec. 9, the Honourable Rosalie Silberman Abella, a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, delivered the inaugural Elie Wiesel Lectureship in Human Rights. (photo by Philippe Landreville)
The Honourable Rosalie Silberman Abella, a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, last week delivered an emotional, scathing indictment of the world’s failures to live up to the promise of post-Holocaust human rights protections.
Abella, a daughter of Holocaust survivors who herself was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, in 1946, delivered the inaugural Elie Wiesel Lectureship in Human Rights. She spoke Dec. 9 on the 72nd anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the day before the 72nd anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The promise of those documents – and the justice represented by the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals – has been betrayed and ignored, she said.
“These were the powerful legal symbols of a world shamefully chastened,” Abella said in the streamed virtual presentation. “But although Nuremberg represented a sincere commitment to justice, it was a commitment all too fleeting.”
As the West’s triumph over fascism gave way to conflict with communism, Germany transformed in the diplomatic imagination from an enemy conquered to a potential ally to be wooed, she said. Britain issued a communiqué to all Commonwealth countries to abandon prosecutions of Nazi war criminals.
“The past was tucked away and the moral comfort of the Nuremberg trials gave way to the moral expedient of the Cold War,” Abella said.
As the fight against communism eclipsed the fight for justice over past crimes, expedience led Western countries to welcome Nazi scientists and others to contribute to the military-industrial strategy – even as Jewish victims of Nazism, like Abella and her parents, sat stateless in DP camps.
To Abella, Nuremberg represented an acknowledgement of the failure of Western democracies to respond when they should have and could have.
“And so, the vitriolic language and venal rights abuses unrestrained by anyone’s conscience anywhere in or out of Germany turned into the ultimate rights abuse: genocide,” she said.
Some justice did in fact emerge in the aftermath of Nuremberg and remarkable progress has been made in some quarters, she said. “But we still have not learned the most important lesson of all – to try to prevent the abuses in the first place. All over the world, in the name of religion, domestic sovereignty, national interest, economic exigency or sheer arrogance, men, women and children are being slaughtered, abused, imprisoned, terrorized and exploited with impunity.… No national abuser seems to worry whether there will be a Nuremberg trial later because usually there isn’t. And, in any event, by the time there is, all the damage that was sought to be done has been done.”
Abella reflected on the preoccupation among jurists with the rule of law, noting that the atrocities of the Nazi era all took place legally under German laws. She said we should be focused on “the rule of justice, not just the rule of law.”
Itemizing the myriad genocides that have occurred since 1945, including ones happening now, Abella decried a lack of global will to confront atrocities before they occur.
“Clearly what remains elusive is our willingness as an international community to protect humanity from injustice,” she said, launching a broadside against the failures of the United Nations.
“It can hardly be said to have been the avatar of human rights we hoped it would be when it was created,” she said. “We changed the world’s institutions and laws after World War II because they had lost their legitimacy and integrity. Are we there again? Not so much because our human rights laws need changing, but because a good argument can be made that our existing global institutions, and especially the UN’s deliberative role, are playing fast and loose with their legitimacy and our integrity.”
She acknowledged the successes of some UN agencies, such as UNICEF, but lamented the body’s failures to meet its core objectives.
“The UN had four objectives: to protect future generations from war, to guard human rights, to foster universal justice and to promote social progress,” she said. “Since then, 40 million people have died as a result of conflicts all over the world. The UN eventually reacted in Libya and wagged its finger at Syria, but I waited in vain to wait to hear what it had to say about Iran, Venezuela and China, for example. Isn’t that magisterial silence a thunderous answer to those who say things would be a lot worse without the UN? Worse how? I know it’s all we have but does that mean it’s the best we can do? Nations debate, people die. Nations dissemble, people die. Nations defy, people die. We need more than the words and laws of justice. We need justice.”
Abella acknowledged the need to address climate change but suggested a moral climate crisis is upon us.
“We have to worry not only about how the climate is changing the world but how the moral climate is creating an atmosphere polluted by bombastic anti-intellectualism, sanctimonious incivility and a moral free-for-all,” she said. “Everyone is talking and no one is listening. We are rolling back hard-fought human rights for minorities, immigrants, refugees, workers and women.
Abella approached global justice through the eyes of a single family. Her parents were married in Poland on Sept. 3, 1939, the day the Nazis rolled over the border and as the Second World War began. Her parents spent four years in concentration camps. The brother she never knew was murdered at the age of two-and-a-half. The only survivors of her extended family were her parents and one grandmother.
“My life started in a country where there had been no democracy, no rights, no justice,” she said, struggling to maintain her composure. “No one with this history does not feel lucky to be alive and free. No one with this history takes anything for granted and no one with this history does not feel that those of us who are alive have a duty to wear our identities with pride and to promise our children that we will do everything humanly possible to keep the world safer for them than it was for their grandparents, a world where all children regardless of race, colour, religion or gender can wear their identities with dignity, with pride and in peace.”
Her own existence is a statement of the resilience of human hopefulness, she said.
“In an act that seems to me to be almost incomprehensible in its breathtaking optimism, my parents and thousands of other survivors transcended the inhumanity they had experienced and decided to have more children,” she said. “I think it was a way to fix their hearts and prove to themselves and the world that their spirits were not broken.”
Abella dedicated her lecture not only to Elie Wiesel, the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but also to Irwin Cotler, who introduced her prior to her presentation and who Abella called Wiesel’s “spiritual heir.”
Cotler, a former Canadian justice minister, is the founder and chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, which sponsored the lecture along with faculties of law at McGill University and the Université de Montréal, the Lord Reading Law Society and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute.
Cotler, who last month was appointed Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism, noted that Abella was the youngest person ever appointed to the Canadian judiciary, at age 29.
“She was the first refugee ever appointed to the judiciary and she was the first Jewish woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada,” Cotler said, noting that he was the justice minister who nominated her to the highest court. “She has been a remarkable trailblazer. A quintessential Renaissance jurist, public intellectual, educator and judge.”
Among Abella’s recognitions, Cotler noted, are 39 honorary doctorates.
Yad Vashem holds an almost sacred place in the Jewish world. The foremost repository of materials relating to the Holocaust, and Israel’s official memorial to the victims of Nazism, the centre is practically an obligatory destination for visiting diplomats and foreign dignitaries. It is a solemn place dedicated to the terrible past, but with an explicit vision for a future without hatred and genocide.
Yad Vashem is rightly focused on the Jewish particularity of the Shoah. We take for granted the logic of Yad Vashem being located in Jerusalem. The capital of Israel and, spiritually, of the Jewish people seems a logical place to remember this massive cataclysm in Jewish history. But it commemorates a history that took place thousands of kilometres away, in Europe. Its presence in the Jewish state is itself a statement about Jewish particularism. But this does not erase the universal lessons Yad Vashem advances.
Since its founding in 1953, it has been a model for the world in commemorating and educating about the worst chapters in human history. The events of the 20th century that necessitated the invention of the word “genocide” did not end with the Holocaust. Genocides have occurred since 1945 – and before. Educators and others who strive to preserve and transmit these histories and their lessons struggle over the balance between respecting the very specific characteristics of the Holocaust, for example, with the broader messages for all humanity. At a time when antisemitism is experiencing a resurgence, it is essential that the role of Jew-hatred be addressed and confronted, at least in part with the recent past as a warning for the dangers of complacency.
While the struggle between universality and particularism is challenging, all can probably agree that Yad Vashem stands as a monument to human rights and the dignity of all people – and as a lesson to those in societies where those values are compromised. At the same time, the existence and focus of Yad Vashem safeguards the particular and monumental horrors of the genocide against the Jews.
This is why there is rightful concern over the proposed appointment of former brigadier general Effi Eitam as head of Yad Vashem. His proponents – including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who nominated him for the position – contend that Eitam’s career has been spent defending the Jewish state. And among the lessons many people take from the exhibits of Yad Vashem is the necessity of a Jewish state as a bulwark against a world that has yet to cure itself of antisemitism.
But Eitam’s military record is more than troubling, and this is the main reason for concerns about his appointment. During the First Intifada, he brutally instructed his troops to break the bones of a 21-year-old Palestinian prisoner, Ayyad Aqel. The soldiers beat the young man to death. Four of Eitam’s soldiers were court-martialed and the Military Advocate General reprimanded Eitam and recommended he never be promoted. (He was.) In addition to his military career, he served two terms in the Knesset representing various religious parties, and held several cabinet portfolios.
Beyond Eitam’s record of heinous action is a record of deeply concerning and racist ideas. He has referred to Arab Israelis as a “cancer” and promoted ethnic cleansing of West Bank Palestinians: “We’ll have to expel the overwhelming majority of West Bank Arabs from here and remove Israeli Arabs from political system,” he said in 2006.
Referring to human beings with terms like “cancer” is precisely the sort of dehumanization that can be a precondition to genocide. In any society – including one as open as Israel, where diverse views and expressions are the norm – these statements must preclude someone from a role like head of the world’s foremost research centre about, and memorial to, the Shoah. Eitam’s military service – he was part of the raid on Entebbe, among other things – can be seen as evidence that a strong Israel is the best defence for the Jewish people in a world capable of genocide. But Eitam’s statements cannot be justified from the mouth of one who seeks to advance the lessons, particular or universal, that Yad Vashem is expected to convey.
The nomination is threatening to create yet another schism in the government, as Netanyahu’s coalition partner Benny Gantz opposes Eitam’s appointment. Ideally, a more suitable leader will be found for this important role, one who stands as a defender of the sanctity of the Shoah and its lessons for humanity.