Vancouver Peace Poppies co-founder Teresa Gagné at the White Poppy Memorial in 2018. (photo by Diane Donaldson)
A local group is hoping to broaden the scope of Remembrance Day as more than an occasion to honour the brave men and women who have died while serving for their country. Through the distribution of white poppies, the Vancouver Peace Poppies (VPP) movement strives to extend the focus on Nov. 11 to all those who have suffered as a result of military conflicts.
Teresa Gagné, who co-founded VPP with Denis Laplante in 2008, stresses that the group intends no disrespect towards soldiers. Instead, they wish to bring more awareness to the toll warfare has on the whole population, whether it be the loss of life or other trauma experienced. Beyond representing the victims of war, civilian and military, the white poppy, according to VPP, also challenges the beliefs, values and institutions that create the view that war is unavoidable.
“I have always had respect and sympathy for veterans, who put their life, health and family on the line to serve,” Gagné said. “I believe they deserve recognition and support, but, for years, I was uncomfortable wearing a red poppy, because of the undercurrent of promotion and recruitment for present and future wars that I detect in many public events around the topic of supporting veterans. The white poppy attracts questions, and gives me a chance to explain the nuances of my support.”
A 2016 study by Alexandre Marc, a specialist in conflict and violence for the World Bank, brought to light the overwhelmingly disproportionate number of casualties among non-combatants as opposed to combatants in recent decades. According to some reports, civilians constitute 90% of wartime fatalities, a ratio that has existed since the mid-1950s.
What’s more, Marc’s research points out that global poverty is increasingly concentrated in countries affected by violence and that prolonged conflict keeps countries poor.
Gagné and Laplante have been active in the peace movement since their teens. Their 2008 launch of VPP began by distributing handmade white poppies as a way to promote discussion and a broader focus for Remembrance Day. The following year, while still a “kitchen table” operation, they imported 500 cloth poppies from Britain. VPP now sends out more than 5,000 poppies across Canada annually.
Since 2016, VPP has partnered with the B.C. Humanist Association to host Let Peace Be Their Memorial, an annual Remembrance Day wreath-laying ceremony that includes peace songs, short presentations and poetry. This year, the Multifaith Action Society is also a co-host. The event poster highlights, “The time and location of the ceremony has been chosen to avoid any appearance of competition with, or disrespect for, veteran-focused events.”
As in previous years, this year’s ceremony at Seaforth Peace Park on Nov. 11, 2:30 p.m., will include a special wreath laid in memory of Holocaust victims.
Two members of the Vancouver Jewish community, Marcy Cohen and Gyda Chud, are engaged in the local movement. In 2017, Cohen attended her first Let Peace Be Their Memorial and then sought to get others in the community involved.
“I was far more affected emotionally than I anticipated,” said Cohen of the occasion.
After learning of the history, values and focus of VPP, Chud recently joined the committee, and seeks to profile their work in the larger Jewish community. She represented Pacific Immigrant Resource Society (PIRS), a local refugee service group, in laying the refugee wreath in 2017 and 2018.
“The memorial serves as a powerful and compelling call to action for everything we can and must do to create a more peaceful world,” said Chud.
Last year’s Holocaust wreath was laid by Henry Grayman and Deborah Ross-Grayman, both children of Holocaust survivors. Having each experienced the intergenerational effects of trauma, the couple, both therapists, are facilitators for the Second Generation Group, an organization in Vancouver comprised of children of Holocaust survivors sharing their experiences among peers.
The people laying the Holocaust wreath at this year’s Let Peace Be Their Memorial have yet to be announced.
The red poppy widely worn today first appeared in 1921 on what was then called Armistice Day. In 1926, the No More War Movement, a British pacifist organization, came up with the idea for the white poppy and, in 1933, the Co-Operative Women’s Guild in the United Kingdom sold the first white poppies as a means of remembering that women had lost husbands, sons and fathers during wartime.
The wreaths that Vancouver Peace Poppies and other groups make, a mix of white and red poppies, highlight the amount of civilian suffering. VPP also distributes white poppies in schools in an effort to teach students that wars mostly kill non-military people, pollute the environment and send the message that violence as a means to settle disputes, even for adults, is acceptable.
VPP hands out its poppies by donation to increase awareness of its cause and not as a fundraiser. Poppies cost $1.25 each, of which 95 cents goes to the Peace Pledge Union, a pacifist organization based in London, England, which, since 1934, has advocated for nonviolent solutions to global problems. A $1 or $2 donation allows VPP to provide subsidized poppies for classroom use and free poppies to disadvantaged groups.
For poppies and more information, visit peacepoppies.ca or call 604-437-4453.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
צי’זקייק חוגג ארבעים שנות פעילות ומציין שנתיים למותם של הבעלים (רוני רחמני)
הקפה המיתולגי צ’יזקייק אצטרה יחגוג בקרוב ארבעים שנות פעילות. הקפה נמצא ברחוב גראנוויל מייד לאחר הגשר (שמחבר את העיר עם הדאון טאון), בסמוך לשדרה הרביעית.
ביום ראשון האחרון (העשרים בחודש) נערך טקס אזכרה לבעלי צי’זקייק, אדית ומייקל סימס, בבית העלמין שבפוינט רוברטס ארה”ב (שסמוכה לדלתה שבמחוז בריטיש קולומביה). באירוע שאורגן על ידי בנם יחידם של הזוג, דניאל סימס ואשתו פטרישיה, כלל חשיפת המצבה מעל הקבר. השתתפו בו בני משפחה וחברים קרובים.
אדית ומייקל סימס שמו קץ לחייהם ביחד (אדית הייתה בת 77 ומייקל היה בן 79), ב-27 בנובמבר לפני שנתיים. בחיים כמו במותם השניים תמיד היו ביחד: הם גרו ביחד מרגע שהתחתנו בשנות העשרים המוקדמות של חייהם, הם עבדו ביחד בקפה, טיילו ברחבי העולם ביחד, נפשו ביחד, נפגשו ביחד עם החוג הנרחב של החבריהם מכל קצוות עולם, שהו יחדיו באירועי משפחה שונים, הופיעו כמעט לכל אירוע ביחד, החזיקו במחשב אחד, באימייל אחד ובמכשיר סלולר אחד.
מייקל חלה בנסיעתם האחרונה של הזוג לצרפת ודרום אפריקה ולקה בשיתוק חלקי. המחלה הפריעה לו למהמשיך ולתפקיד כרגיל, הוא התקשה בהליכה ובעיקר בנגינה על פסנתר – הדבר שהכי אהב לעשות. גם אדית כבר לא הייתה בקו הבריאות ולכן הם החליטו יחדיו להיפרד מהחיים. לא במקרה הם עשו זאת בסטודיו שלהם שממוקם מאחורי בית הקפה.
דן לקח את מושכות ניהול בית הקפה לידיו והמקום ממשיך להיות מלא מדי ערב, שבעה בימים בשבוע, מזה קרוב לארבעים שנה.
רבים רבים בוונקובר ובמקומות אחרים בעולם הצטערו לשמוע על מותם הפתאמי של אדית ומקייל סימס. לא נמצא אף אחד שאמר משהו רע עליהם. רבים הגיבו על פרסום הידיעה בעיתון “הוונקובר סאן” על מותם. נכתבו דברים טובים מאוד והובע צער עמוק על הפרידה מהזוג האהוב. להלן חלק מתגובות: “אדית ומייקל היו זוג נפלא ותמיד קיבלו בברכה, באהבה ובנוחות את הלקוחות”. “כמה היו נחמדים ונדיבים”. “איזה זוג מדהים. אבידה גדולה”. “זוג כל כך נחמד, אני שבור לשמוע את החדשות הרעות”. “צ’יזקייק היה מקום נפלא לעבוד בו בגלל אדית ומייקל”. “אהבתי את האווירה והמוסיקה. מאוד מאוד עצוב”. “אני בהלם לשמוע את החדשות הנוראיות. אדית ומייקל היו זוג כל כך נחמד, נעים וחם”. “הם היו נשמות יפות, נדיבים, מתוקים וטהורים. חיו בדרכם והיו מאוד מיוחדים”.
צ’יזקייק הזכיר בית קפה בפאריז בשל האווירה הרומנטית, האורות הנמוכים, התמונות בשחור לבן, הקירות באדום והנעימות ששררה במקום. מייקל ניגן נפלא ואהב לאלתר ג’אז. אדית אהבה לשיר וקול זהב שלה הזכיר מאוד את קולה של הזמרת הצרפתית הידועה אדית פיאף.
השניים היו יהודים: אדית ילידת סקוטלנד שגדלה בטורונטו ומייקל אמריקני יליד בוסטון. הם הכירו בישראל בשנת 1961 והתאהבו במבט ראשון. לאחר שנה החליטו השניים להינשא בטורונטו. ולאחר מכן הזוג עבר לבוסטון. אחרי שנולד בנם דן הם החליטו לעבור לוונקובר, שהפכה לביתם החם במשך כארבעים השנים האחרונות.
יום אחד בשנת 1979 אדית ומייקל מצאו חנות להשכרה ברחוב גראנוויל ובמקום נפתח קפה צ’יזקייק אצטרה. לאט לאט הקפה החל להתמלא ורבים באו לשמוע את מייקל מנגן ושר עם אשתו, ונהנו לאכול עוגת גבינה ברוטב תות שדה או שוקולד. תוך תקופה קצרה צ’יזקייק הפך לשם דבר והמקום שימש לעלייה במשך שנים וגם כיום – כאמור זה קרוב לארבעים שנה.
University of Ottawa’s Prof. Jan Grabowski delivered the Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia Nov. 15. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Jan Grabowski, a University of Ottawa professor who is a leading scholar of the Holocaust, delivered the annual Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia Nov. 15 – the same day he filed a libel suit against an organization aligned with Poland’s far-right government.
The Polish League Against Defamation, which is allied with the country’s governing Law and Justice Party, initiated a campaign against Grabowski last year, accusing him of ignoring the number of Poles who saved Jews and exaggerating the number of Jews killed by their Polish compatriots. Grabowski’s book, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, won the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research. An English translation of an even more compendious multi-year analysis undertaken by a team of researchers under Grabowski’s leadership will be published next year. His Vrba lecture provided an overview of some of the findings in the new work. It is a harrowing survey that brought condemnation from Polish-Canadians in the Vancouver audience.
The new book, which does not yet have an English title, is a work of “microhistory,” Grabowski said. Holocaust studies is one of the fastest-growing fields of historical research, he said, partly because it got off to a slow start and really only picked up in the 1980s. Much of the written work being completed today is in the area of survivor memoirs, second- and third-generation experiences, including inherited trauma, and “meta-history,” the study of the study of the Holocaust.
“This assumes that we actually know what has happened,” he said. Grabowski maintains there is still much primary research to be done. “We are still far away from knowing as much as we should about this, one of the greatest tragedies in human history.”
There are millions of pages of relevant historical documentation almost completely untapped – primarily in provincial Polish archives, police records and town halls – that spell out in detail the often-enthusiastic complicity of Poles in turning on their
Jewish neighbours. By combing through these previously ignored records, Grabowski and his co-authors have amassed evidence of widespread – and eager – involvement of Polish police and other Poles in assisting Germans to identify, hunt down and murder Polish Jews.
The work has been met with official condemnation. Earlier this year, the Polish government adopted a law that would expose scholars involved in the study of the Holocaust to fines and prison terms of up to three years. The criminal component of the law, including imprisonment, was rescinded after international backlash, but the atmosphere around Holocaust inquiry in Poland remains repressive.
Grabowski said that the “explosion of right-wing extremists, xenophobia and blatant antisemitism” in Poland is related to the “undigested, unlearned and/or rejected legacy of the Holocaust” – the fact that Polish society has, by and large, refused to acknowledge the wounds of the past or to deal with its own role in the extermination of three million of its Jewish citizens between 1939 to 1945.
The concept of microhistory, which is the approach Grabowski’s team uses, is not local history, he said, “it is an attempt to follow trajectories of people.” He instructed his researchers to focus on the exact day, often hour by hour, when liquidation actions took place in hundreds of Polish shtetls and ghettoes. To do so upends a conspiracy of silence that has existed for decades.
“Why the silence?” he asked the audience. “There were three parts to the silence. One was the Jews. They were dead. They had no voice … 98.5% of Polish Jews who remained under German occupation, who never fled, died. You have a 1.5% survival rate for the Polish Jews. So, the Jews couldn’t really, after the war, ask for justice, because they were gone.”
The communist regime that dominated Poland for a half-century after the war was viewed not only as a foreign power inflicted on Poles from the Soviet Union, Grabowski said, “but, more importantly, as Jewish lackeys – that was a term that was used.
“So, it wouldn’t really stand to have trials of those accused of complicity with the Germans for murdering the Jews,” he said. “That would only confirm the widespread accusations that the communists were here doing the Jewish bidding.”
The third factor in the silence were the interests of Polish nationalists, whose ideology is inherently antisemitic, and who are the dominant political force in the country today.
While clearly not all Poles were collaborators, it would have been impossible for almost anyone in the country to claim ignorance of what was happening.
“Mass killing was taking place in the streets,” the professor said. Researchers found bills of sale charging city officials for the sand municipal workers needed to cover the blood on sidewalks.
“When you say that blood was running in the streets, it’s not a metaphor, it’s just a description of what really happened,” he said.
In some ghettos, as many as half the Jewish population was killed on the day of the action, with massive participation from Polish society.
“One area more, one area less,” he said. “Usually between 10 and 20% of Jews were slaughtered simply in order to frighten the remaining 80% to go to the trains, to be herded to the trains,” said Grabowski.
In Poland’s smaller communities, centuries of Jewish and Polish social, commercial and civic interactions did not result in camaraderie – on the contrary.
“The deadliest places of all [were] small shtetls, small towns, where anonymity was not available when the authorities were not far away,” he said. In one instance, a Jew in hiding heard his neighbour assure the Nazis he would return with a hatchet to help them break into the hiding place seconds before the door was axed down.
In another example, Grabowski described in minute detail the atrocities committed by Germans, Poles and Ukrainian recruits in Węgrów, a town in eastern central Poland with a Jewish population of about “10,000 starving Jews who have been terrorized for nearly three years and now the final moment has come.”
Rumours of liquidation swirled for months, as Jews fleeing neighbouring communities brought narratives of destruction. In the day or two before the liquidation, wives of Polish military and other officials rushed to their Jewish tailors, shoemakers and others craftspeople to obtain the items they knew would soon become unavailable.
“With mounting panic, people started to prepare themselves for a siege,” said Grabowski. “They built hideouts to survive the initial German fury, they started to seek out contacts on the Aryan side of the city, looking for help from former neighbours, sometimes friends and former business partners.”
On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1942, Polish officials in the town were instructed to assemble horses, wagons and volunteers. A cordon of Nazis and collaborators surrounded the city at intervals of no more than 100 metres.
The mayor of the town wrote: “Jews who woke up to the terrible news ran like mad around the city, half-naked, looking for shelter.” The same leader noted that, when the Germans demanded he produce volunteers to help with the task of rounding up their Jewish neighbours, he feared he would not be able to meet their needs.
“Before I was able to leave my office, in order to assess the situation and issue orders for the removal of the bodies,” the mayor testified, “removal of the bodies had already started. There were carts and people ready. They volunteered for the job without any pressure.”
For Jews, the Germans were to be feared, but their Polish neighbours were also a threat.
“The greatest danger was not associated with the Germans, but with the Poles,” said Grabowski. “Unlike the former, the latter could easily tell a Jew from a non-Jew by their accent, customs and physical appearance.”
Poles were rewarded with a quarter-kilo of sugar for every Jew they turned in.
“The searches were conducted with extreme brutality and violence … the streets were soon filled with crowds of Jews being driven toward the market square, which the Germans had transformed into a holding pen for thousands of ghetto inmates,” he said.
On the streets, “the cries of Jews mixed with the shouts of the Germans and the laughter of the Poles,” according to an eyewitness.
“All of this was done in a small town where everybody knows each other,” said Grabowski. “It’s not only the question of geographic proximity, it’s social proximity. These people knew each other.”
People were taking clothes, jewelry and other possessions from the dead bodies. A husband would toss a body in the air while the wife pulled off articles of clothing until what was left was a pile of naked cadavers.
“They even pulled out golden teeth with pliers,” said Grabowski. A court clerk responded defensively to accusations that the gold he was trying to sell was soaked in human blood. “I personally washed the stuff,” he protested.
The prevalence in the Polish imagination of a Jewish association with gold partly accounted for the actions.
“This betrayal, due to widespread antisemitism and hatred of the Jews, was combined with the seemingly universal conviction that Jewish gold was just waiting to be transferred to new owners,” Grabowski said. “The myth of Jewish gold was so popular and so deeply rooted among Poles that it sealed the fate of [many Jews].”
The historical records indicate many Poles saw no need to cover their collaborationist tracks. Police and others who took it upon themselves to aid the Nazis without pressure defended their actions.
One policeman, after the war, depicted the killing of Jews as a patriotic act, one that saved Polish villagers from the wrath of the Nazis, who would have learned sooner or later about Jews in hiding and who then, he claimed, would have burned down the entire village.
As efficient as the Nazi killing machine was, Grabowski contends it could not have been as effective without the enthusiastic complicity of so many in Poland and other occupied countries.
“It was their participation that, in a variety of ways, made the German system of murder as efficient as it was,” he said.
With trepidation, Grabowski and his fellow researchers followed the documents and met with people in the towns. They would review documents from a 1947 trial, for instance, then go to the village in question.
The entire village would be conscious of its war-era history, he said. And the people who are, decades later, ostracized by their neighbours are not those who collaborated in the murder of Jews.
“The person that is ostracized is the family who tried to rescue the Jews, because they broke a certain social taboo and it still visible 75 or 76 years after the fact,” he said.
“Every time I present a speech to a Polish audience, the question of Polish righteous is presented as if it is a fig leaf behind which everyone else can hide.”
In the question-and-answer session, Grabowski shut down a persistent audience member who identified as Polish and who took exception with Grabowski’s research, arguing that Poland has more Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem than any other country.
“Every time I present a speech to a Polish audience, the question of Polish righteous is presented as if it is a fig leaf behind which everyone else can hide,” said Grabowski, who was born and educated in Warsaw. “The thing is, do you know how many Jews needed to be rescued? Poland had the largest Jewish community and using today Polish righteous as a universal and, let’s say, fig leaf behind which situations like I described here can be hidden is absolutely unconscionable. I protest against any attempt to overshadow the tragedy of Jewish people [with] the sacrifice of very, very few Poles.”
While Poland’s far-right government removed the mandated jail sentence for anyone found guilty of “slandering” Poland or Poles with complicity in Nazi war crimes, acknowledging the participation of Polish collaborators in the Holocaust remains a civil offence and Holocaust scholars in the country – and in Canada – face death threats and intimidation.
In introducing Grabowski, Richard Menkis, associate professor in the department of history at UBC, paid tribute to Rudolf Vrba, a Slovakian Jew who escaped Auschwitz and brought to the world inside information about the death camp, its operations and physical layout. Vrba, with fellow escapee Albert Wetzler, warned in 1944 that Hungarian Jews were about to face mass transport to the death camps. The news is credited with saving as many as 200,000 lives.
Vrba migrated to Canada and became a professor of pharmacology at UBC. He died in 2006.
The Vrba lecture alternates annually between an issue relevant to the Holocaust and an issue chosen by the pharmacology department in the faculty of medicine.
Olga Campbell (seated) takes a break from signing books at the opening of her exhibit A Whisper Across Time, which also served as a launch of her book by the same name. (photo by Gordon E. McCaw)
The impacts of the Holocaust continue to reverberate. Even though most of the first-generation survivors have passed away, the next generations, the survivors’ children and grandchildren, remember.
Local artist Olga Campbell belongs to the second generation. Her parents survived the Holocaust, but her mother’s entire family was murdered by the Nazis. The need to give those family members a voice was Campbell’s driving force in writing her new book, A Whisper Across Time: My Family’s Story of the Holocaust Told Through Art and Poetry. Her solo exhibit with the same name, co-presented with the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival, opened at the Zack Gallery on Nov. 15. The night also served as a book launch.
“The art in this show are mostly prints from the book,” she said in an interview with the Independent. “There are also some pieces that are offshoots on the same theme, even though they aren’t in the book.”
Campbell has always known that her mother’s family didn’t survive the war, but the emotional impact of their deaths built slowly over the years. It took decades for this book to emerge.
“In 1997,” she said, “I heard a program on the radio about the second-generation survivors. Their words about the trauma being passed between generations resonated with me.”
She embarked on an artistic journey, and she is still following a path of exploration. Her art reflects her emotional upheaval. Her paintings and statues are fragmented, with broken lines and distorted figures, evoking feelings of loss and anguish. One look at her paintings and a disquiet tension washes over the viewer. It is apparent that a huge tragedy inspired her work.
In 2005, Campbell had a show at the Zack, called Whispers Across Time. “Even then,” she said, “I knew I had to write about my family. The art show was not enough. I had to say more, but, at that time, I couldn’t. I was too raw, too emotional. But my family kept tugging at me. I needed to tell their story. I was compelled to write this book.”
Unfortunately, she knew only the bare bones of her mother’s life. So she plunged into a deep and long research period, surfed the internet, contacted Yad Vashem and other sources. After several years, the book crystallized.
“My book is a tribute to my family, the family I never knew,” she said.
“Of course, it is only one family of the millions of families killed during the Holocaust.”
Campbell spoke of the relevance of her book in today’s political climate. “Our world is a chaotic place right now, somewhat reminiscent of the period before the war,” she said. “There are over 68 million people around the world that are refugees or displaced. My book is not only about my family. It is a cautionary tale. It is about intergenerational trauma and its repercussions across time.”
She created new art for the book, wrote poetry to supplement the imagery, and also included an essay on her family members and their lives, destroyed by the war. The paintings in the book and on the gallery walls are powerful but melancholy, even distressing.
“My work always had this darkness, the sadness, but also a bit of hope,” she said. “I never know what will happen when I start a piece. I’m very intuitive. I would throw some paint on an empty canvas and let my emotions and the art itself guide me through the process. I use photos in my works and digital collages. My finished pieces always surprise me.”
When the book was ready, Campbell applied for another show at the Zack, to coincide with the book launch.
“I wanted to give it the same name as the previous show, Whispers Across Time,” she said, “but I checked the internet, and there are a couple other books already published with the same title. I decided to change it.” The book and the show are called A Whisper Across Time. “I feel a lot lighter now, after the book is finished and published,” she said.
A Whisper Across Time is Campbell’s second publication. In 2009, she published Graffiti Alphabet. She has been doing art for more than 30 years, but that is not how she started her professional career. She was a social worker until, in 1986, she took her first art class. That year changed her life.
“It was such fun. I loved it,” she said. “I went back to work afterwards but it didn’t feel as much fun. I decided to get an art education. I enrolled in Emily Carr when I was 44.”
Campbell finished the art program, continued working part-time as a social worker, and dedicated the rest of her time to painting, sculpture and photography.
“I’ve been a member of the Eastside Culture Crawl for 22 years, since its beginning,” she said. “I participated in the Artists in Our Midst for many years, too. At first, when people asked me, I would say I do art. Now, I say, I’m an artist. I must be. That’s what I do. I’m retired now, but I did art when I was working, too, and it was always very healing and rewarding – still is…. If, for some reason, I don’t paint for awhile, I feel as if something is missing.”
The A Whisper Across Time exhibit continues until Dec. 9. For more about her work and books, visit olgacampbell.com.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Kristallnacht, which took place 80 years ago this month, saw hundreds of synagogues burned, Jewish-owned businesses destroyed, 100 Jews murdered and 30,000 incarcerated. (photo from commons.wikimedia.org)
Kristallnacht, which took place 80 years ago this month, was the “Night of Broken Glass” that saw hundreds of synagogues burned, Jewish-owned businesses destroyed, 100 Jews murdered and 30,000 incarcerated. The state-sanctioned pogrom was staged to look like a spontaneous uprising against the Jews of Germany, annexed Austria and occupied Sudetenland. It is frequently seen as the beginning in earnest of the Holocaust. According to Prof. Chris Friedrichs, who delivered the keynote address at the annual Kristallnacht commemorative evening Nov. 8, global reaction to the attack, which took place on the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938, sent messages to both Nazis and Jews.
“The world was shocked,” said Friedrichs, professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia. “Newspapers in the free countries of Europe and all over the Americas reported on these events in detail. Editorials thundered against the Nazi thugs. Protests took place. Demonstrations were held. Opinion was mobilized – for a few days. But soon, Kristallnacht was no longer front-page news. What had happened was now the new normal in Germany, and the world’s attention moved elsewhere. And this is what the Nazis learned: we can do this, and more, and get away with it. Nothing will happen.
“And the Jews of Germany learned something too,” said Friedrichs, himself a son of parents who fled the Nazi regime. “By 1938, many Jews had emigrated from Germany – if they could find a country that would take them. But many others remained. Much had been taken away from them, but two things remained untouched: their houses of worship and their homes. Here, at least, one could be safe, sustained by the fellowship of other Jews and the comforts and consolations of religious faith and family life. But now, in one brutal night, these things, too, had been taken from them. Their synagogues were reduced to rubble, their shops vandalized, their homes desecrated. Nothing was safe or secure. The last lingering hopes of the Jews still living in Germany that, despite all they had suffered at the hands of the Nazis, they might at least be allowed to live quiet private lives of work and worship with family and friends, collapsed in the misery of fire, smashed glass, home invasions, mass arrests and psychological terror on Nov. 9, 1938.”
Friedrichs’ lecture followed a solemn procession of survivors of the Holocaust, who carried candles onto the bimah of Congregation Beth Israel. The evening, presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) and Beth Israel, was funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign, with support from the Robert and Marilyn Krell Endowment Fund of the VHEC and the Azrieli Foundation, which provided every attendee with a copy of Dangerous Measures, the memoir of Canadian Joseph Schwartzberg, who witnessed Kristallnacht and fled Germany with his family soon after.
“We are gathered tonight in the sanctuary of a synagogue,” said Friedrichs, who retired in June, after 45 years of teaching and researching at UBC. “A synagogue should indeed be a sanctuary, a quiet place where Jews can gather, chiefly but not only on the Sabbath, for prayer, worship and contemplation. Recent events have reminded us only too bitterly that this is not always the case.
“Our minds are full of mental images of what happened in Pittsburgh less than two weeks ago, but I invite you to call up a different mental image,” he said, taking the audience back to the time of Kristallnacht. “Think of a synagogue. Just a few days earlier, on the Sabbath, Jews had gathered there, as they have gathered in synagogues for 2,000 years, for prayer, worship and fellowship with other Jews. But now, suddenly, in the middle of the night, a firebomb is thrust through a window of the synagogue. As the window glass shatters to the floor, the firebomb ignites a piece of furniture. Within minutes the fire spreads. Soon the entire synagogue is engulfed in flames. It is an inferno. The next morning, the walls of the synagogue are still standing, but the interior is completely gutted. No worship will ever take place there again.”
Friedrichs paused to note that some in the audience would recall a similar attack that destroyed Vancouver’s Reform synagogue, Temple Sholom, on Jan. 25, 1985. He recounted the reaction of police and firefighters, civic leaders and the general public, who rallied around the Vancouver congregation at the time, and compared that with the reactions of non-Jews in Germany and the territories it controlled at the time of Kristallnacht.
“Police and firefighters are on the scene,” Friedrichs said of the situation during Kristallnacht. “But the firefighters are not there to put out the blaze. They are there only to make sure the fire does not spread to any nearby non-Jewish buildings. The police are there only to make sure no members of the congregation try to rescue anything from the building.
“The next morning, crowds of onlookers gape at the burnt-out shell of the synagogue. Some of the furnishings and ritual objects have survived the blaze, so they are dragged out to the street and a bonfire is prepared. But first, the local school principal must arrive with his pupils. Deprived of the opportunity to see the synagogue itself in flames during the night, when they were asleep, the children should at least have the satisfaction of seeing the furnishings and Jewish ritual objects go up in smoke. Most of those objects are added to the bonfire, but not all. Not the Torah scrolls – the Five Books of Moses, every single word of which, in translation, is identical to the words found in the first five books of every Christian Bible. No, the Torah scrolls are not added to the bonfire. They are dragged out to the street to be trampled on by the children, egged on by adult onlookers, while other adults rip apart the Torah covers to be taken home as souvenirs.
“And now consider this: events like this did not happen in just one town,” Friedrichs said. “The same things took place in hundreds upon hundreds of cities and towns throughout Germany and Austria, all on the very same evening and into the next morning. There were minor variations from town to town, but the basic events were exactly the same, for it was a nationwide pogrom, carefully planned in advance.”
Friedrichs, who devoted 25 years to serving on the organizing committee of the Kristallnacht commemorative committee, including eight as president, reflected on the history of Holocaust remembrance in Vancouver, including the decision to single out this date as one of the primary commemorative events of the calendar.
“Why should we commemorate the Shoah at this particular time in November?” he asked. “Consider this: 91 Jewish men died on Nov. 9th and 10th, 1938. Yet, on a single day in the busy summer of 1944, up to 5,000 Jewish men, women and children might be murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz on one day. Why not select some random date in August 1944 and make that the occasion to recall the victims of the Shoah? Why choose Kristallnacht?”
The earliest Holocaust commemorations in the city, he said, citing the work of local scholar Barbara Schober, was an event in 1948 marking the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
People who had founded the Peretz School in Vancouver, in 1945, hoped to preserve the memories and values of the East European Jewish culture, which had been almost totally wiped from the map, he said. “Yet, rather than focus on the six million deaths, their intention was to honour those Jews who had actually risen up to fight the Nazi menace – the hopeless but inspiring efforts exemplified above all by the heroic resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters who used the pathetically meagre supply of weapons they could find to resist the final liquidation of the ghetto by the Nazis in the spring of 1943,” said Friedrichs. “That effort failed, but it was not forgotten.”
This event continued, with the support of Canadian Jewish Congress, into the 1970s, he explained.
“There was an emerging concern that Jews should not just recall and pay tribute to the victims of the Shoah,” said Friedrichs. “The increasing visibility of the Holocaust denial movement made it apparent that Jews should also make their contribution to educating society as a whole – and especially young people – about the true history of what had happened. Prof. Robert Krell and Dr. Graham Forst undertook to establish an annual symposium at UBC at which hundreds of high school students would learn about the Holocaust from experts and, even more importantly, from hearing the first-person accounts of survivors themselves. It was in those years, too, that the Vancouver Holocaust Education Society was established to coordinate these efforts. The survivor outreach program, through which dozens of survivors of the Shoah in our community spoke and continue to speak to students about what they experienced, became the cornerstone of these educational efforts. Their talks are always different, for no two survivors ever experienced the Shoah the same way, but the ultimate object is always the same – not just to teach students what happened to the Jews of Europe between 1939 and 1945, but to reflect on the danger that racist thinking of any kind can all too easily lead to.”
But this was education, he noted, not commemoration.
“With the decline of the Warsaw Ghetto event in Vancouver, the need to commemorate the Shoah came to be filled in other ways. One of those ways was the emergence of the Vancouver Kristallnacht commemoration. The origins of this form of commemoration lie right here in the Beth Israel congregation. In the late 1970s, members of the Gottfried family who had emigrated from Austria in the Nazi era, now members of Beth Israel, proposed that their synagogue host a commemoration of Kristallnacht.”
Friedrichs spoke of the burden carried by each of the survivors who carried candles onto the bimah moments earlier.
“You might think that a candle is not very hard to carry, but, for each one of these men and women, the flame of the candle has reignited painful memories stretching back 70 or 80 years, to a dimly remembered way of life before their world collapsed,” he said. “These men and women survived, and sometimes a few of their relatives did as well, but all of them, without exception, you’ve heard this before, had family members – whether parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, or cousins – who were murdered. One could not reproach these men and women if they had chosen to stay home on a night like this. But, instead, they are here.
“Many of these men and women have done more, even more, as well,” he continued. “For many of them have done something for years and continue to do so even now: to speak of their experiences to students in the schools of our province. To stand in front of two or three or four or five hundred students of every race and every heritage and describe life in the ghetto or the camp or on the death march or the anxiety of living in hiding and being pushed into a basement or a closet every time some unwanted visitor arrived – this is not easy. But there is a purpose. The young people of our province are barraged with images and messages and texts telling them that people of certain religions or races or heritages are inferior and unwanted members of our society. They must be told just what that kind of thinking can lead to. No textbook, no video, no lecture can do the job as powerfully as hearing a survivor describe exactly what he or she experienced during the Shoah.”
Corinne Zimmerman, vice-president of the VHEC, welcomed guests and introduced the candlelighting procession. Cantor Yaacov Orzech chanted El Moleh Rachamim, the memorial prayer for the martyrs. UBC Prof. Richard Menkis delivered opening remarks and Helen Pinsky, president of Beth Israel, introduced Sarah Kirby-Yung, a Vancouver city councilor who read a proclamation from the mayor. Nina Krieger, executive director of the VHEC, introduced Friedrichs. Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld provided closing remarks, and Jody Wilson-Raybould, minister of justice and member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville, sent greetings on behalf of the Government of Canada.
Selina Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing, speaks at the local memorial for the victims of the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. (photo by Alan Katowitz)
On Sunday afternoon, Oct. 28, the day after a gunman opened fire on Shabbat worshippers in Pittsburgh in the Tree of Life synagogue, hundreds gathered at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver for a vigil for the victims.
Eleven congregants were murdered and four police officers wounded before the shooting suspect, Robert Bowers, was apprehended, in what the Anti-Defamation League is calling the greatest antisemitic massacre in American history. Above the crowd in the Wosk Auditorium at the JCCGV, a projector showed a version of the logo of the Pittsburgh Steelers that had been created in the wake of the shooting – it had one of the iconic stars replaced by a Star of David.
The local response was so large that a separate service had to be held in the community centre’s atrium. The Jewish Independent attended the vigil in the auditorium, which was opened by Rabbi Hannah Dresner, spiritual leader of Or Shalom Synagogue and head of the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver.
“We must stand with other minorities to combat hatred with nobility, goodness, and with radical love,” said Dresner. “We must strengthen our empathy with marginalized peoples and do the job, each of us, that is uniquely ours, to create a heaven right here on earth. But first, we must grieve a Jewish loss.”
The rabbi closed with reading a poetic translation of Psalm 23, which is traditionally read at funerals.
Rabbi Jonathan Infeld of Congregation Beth Israel said, “I’ve lived for the last 13 years in Vancouver but was born in and grew up in Pittsburgh. I went to Tree of Life many times as a teenager. HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society], the organization the deranged individual was most upset about, was the organization that brought my parents to the sanctuary of Pittsburgh.”
The shooter, who had yelled, “All Jews must die!” before opening fire, had written on Facebook before the attack that he was incensed by Jewish support for immigrants and refugees, who he believed were entering the United States to slaughter white people.
“The massacre took place in Squirrel Hill, in Mr. Rogers’ neighbourhood, where Fred Rogers taught us the Torah verse, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ so well,” Infeld noted. “The response to something like this is repairing the world.”
He appealed to everyone present, and all Jews, to fill every synagogue to capacity in the coming weekend. “I ask that all synagogues in Vancouver be filled, with not one seat empty,” he said.
Karen James, chair of the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, then spoke, followed by Selina Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing, who read a statement from B.C. Premier John Horgan.
“British Columbians’ hearts are broken, hearing the devastating news of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Everyone should feel safe in a place of worship,” said Horgan in his statement. “My caucus and I and everyone in the House reject antisemitism, racism, discrimination, intolerance and bigotry. When these rise up, we must stand up united and denounce them together in the strongest of terms. An attack like this is a deep violation of safety and security. Our thoughts are with the families of those targeted and Jewish people around the world.”
Robinson was among many officials present, including Bruce Ralston, minister of jobs, trade and technology; Ravi Kahlon, parliamentary secretary for sport and multiculturalism; Howard Chow, Vancouver Police Department deputy chief constable; Irene Lanzinger, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour; and several members of the Legislative Assembly. Richmond North Centre MLA Teresa Wat changed a flight to be there.
“I am quite connected to the Jewish community,” Wat told the Jewish Independent, “especially the Bayit congregation in Richmond. When I saw what’s happening, I felt really sad. We need to combat this kind of attack on humankind as a global village. Everyone is related and, if it happens to one ethnic group, it can happen to any other. I am happy to see this vigil and hope that all ethnic groups will gather in solidarity to condemn this kind of atrocity.”
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom led a candlelighting in remembrance of the victims, with help from Rabbi Adam Rubin of Beth Tikvah. Moskovitz read the names of each victim and shared something from their biography. “In the Jewish tradition,” said Moskovitz, “we need the names. To say Kaddish, to pray, to remember.”
Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Congregation Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh then joined the service in the auditorium on video, thanking the Vancouver Jewish community for their solidarity. He told the story of being at his synagogue on the day of the shooting – where he was doing a baby naming for two Jewish fathers who had adopted a child – and hearing the news and having to tell the congregation that they were on lockdown until the shooter was apprehended. Bisno urged the crowd to “repair the world when we find it fractured instead of blaming each other for that which we find uncomfortable. I give you my most sincere blessing of gratitude.”
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay of Congregation Beth Hamidrash chanted El Male Rachamim (God Full of Compassion), a traditional prayer of mourning. Rabbi Philip Gibbs read an English translation.
Many non-Jewish community clergy were present at the vigil, including Dr. Kala Singh and Pritam Singh of the Sikh community, Prof. Harry O. Maier of the Vancouver School of Theology and Haroon Khan of the Al Jamia Masjid mosque.
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Israeli Minister of Jews in the Diaspora and Minister of Education Naftali Bennett addresses a memorial in Pittsburgh on Oct. 28. (Alexi Rosenfeld courtesy Ashernet)
On Sunday, Oct. 28, Israeli Minister of Jews in the Diaspora and Minister of Education Naftali Bennett addressed a memorial vigil at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh, for the 11 members of the Jewish community murdered in the shooting attack at the Tree of Life synagogue the day before.
Bennett was visiting the city as an official emissary of the Government of Israel, to offer strength and support to the Jewish community following the tragedy. The minister met during the day with leaders of the Pittsburgh Jewish community, and wider American Jewry, as well as with Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and members of Congress representing the state.
In an emotional meeting, Bennett sat with Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, spiritual leader of the Tree of Life congregation. During the attack, Myers had led many of his congregants to safety.
“Our whole nation is feeling the pain you are feeling here after this heinous hate crime,” Bennett told the leaders of the Pittsburgh community. “I want to extend my condolences to the families of the victims. People who have seen so much in their lives could not imagine they would be gunned down in Shabbat prayer.”
The minister visited the site of the attack and met with ZAKA (Israel’s volunteer emergency response force) and other emergency crews, who had helped the local police, who he also thanked for their great bravery.
Addressing the memorial vigil – attended by more than 4,000 people from the Jewish and non-Jewish communities in the city, including the governor and mayor, senators and members of Congress, President Donald Trump’s Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and New York Israel Consul General Danny Dayan – he said, “Today, we stand in the shadow of death, in the shadow of evil, in the shadow of a cowardly terror attack on Jews who were in synagogue to pray – the deadliest antisemitic attack in the history of the United States.”
He added, “But, today, I met the people and the leaders of the community here in Pittsburgh and I didn’t see death. I saw life, strength. I saw a warm community of love and unity. I saw the Tree of Life, which will never be uprooted by hatred.”
He said, “We stand together, as Jews from all communities united, as well as members of all faiths. Together we stand. Americans and Israelis. People who are, together, saying no to hatred. The murderer’s bullet does not stop to ask, Are you Conservative or Reform, are you Orthodox? Are you right-wing or left-wing? It has one goal, and that is to kill innocent people. Innocent Jews.”
Bennett told the thousands at the memorial that he came to offer the support and condolences of all the Israeli people.
“Nearly 80 years since Kristallnacht, when the Jews of Europe perished in the flames of their houses of worship, one thing is clear,” he said. “Antisemitism, Jew-hating, is not a distant memory. Antisemitism is a clear and present danger. From Sderot [in southern Israel] to Pittsburgh, the hands that fire missiles are the same hands that shoot worshippers. We will fight against the hatred of Jews and antisemitism wherever it raises its head, and we will prevail.”
Stressing the shared values that bond the American and Israeli peoples together, Bennett concluded, “Freedom will overcome. Unity will defeat division. Love will defeat hatred. Light will defeat darkness. Am Yisrael Chai.”
Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting in Israel. (photo from IGPO via Ashernet)
On Oct. 28, at the regular Sunday morning cabinet meeting in Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, together with ministers, stood for a moment of silence. At the meeting, Netanyahu said, “The entire people of Israel grieve with the families of the people who were murdered in the shocking massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh [on Oct. 27]. On behalf of myself, the Government of Israel and the people of Israel, from the depth of our hearts, I send our condolences to the families who lost their loved ones. We all pray for the swift recovery of the wounded.”
He added, “It is very difficult to exaggerate the horror of the murder of Jews who had gathered in a synagogue on Shabbat and were murdered just because they were Jews. Israel stands at the forefront with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, with all Jewish communities in the U.S. and with the American people. We stand together, at the forefront, against antisemitism and displays of such barbarity.
“I call upon the whole world to unite in the fight against antisemitism everywhere. Today, regretfully, we refer to the United States, where the largest antisemitic crime in its history took place, but we also mean, of course, Western Europe, where there is a tough struggle against the manifestations of a new antisemitism. Of course, there is also the old and familiar antisemitism, and that of radical Islam. On all these fronts, we must stand up and fight back against this brutal fanaticism. It starts with the Jews, but never ends with the Jews.”
Hundreds of Vancouverites came together Sunday night, driven by the need for community after the news that 11 congregants were murdered during services at a Pittsburgh synagogue a day earlier.
The attack – the deadliest terror act against a Jewish community in North American history – devastated the Pennsylvania Jewish community and elicited grief, alarm and solidarity among Jews across the continent and beyond. As some commentators have said, shock may not have been a foremost response. The very fact that we in Vancouver and Jews almost everywhere else pass by security personnel and infrastructure every time we enter a Jewish facility conditions us to expect that something like this might happen.
The assembly at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, convened by the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver, drew hundreds of people, mostly Jews but also members and clergy of other faith communities, as well as elected officials and other individuals. The words from the speakers – mostly rabbis – were powerful and thoughtful, though perhaps the words were less significant than the simple sense of commonality of emotion among those assembled.
In the hours and days since the incident, so many of us have tried to somehow assimilate the meaning and implications of the violence.
Extremism has been growing worldwide. Antisemitism, racial supremacism, nativism and other dangerous tendencies have infiltrated societies throughout the Western world. We have seen political successes for once-fringe parties in Europe and, most recently, in South America. In the online and general discourses in North America, extremist commentary has become so commonplace that it approaches the mainstream, if that is not an oxymoron. Words have consequences. All actions, good and evil, begin as ideas, move into language and ultimately manifest in behaviours.
This raises the matter of free expression. While some seek to smother the expression of hateful and other repugnant ideas, the events of last weekend present an argument for more, not less, discussion. Open dialogue of all ideas, including appalling ones, is not just a theoretical value. It allows us to monitor antisocial ideas, rather than pushing them under rocks. The perpetrator’s long record of deranged rants about Jews did not prevent this tragedy. But knowledge of such ideas and those who hold them represent our best chance for preventing repetition of such terror acts. (This sort of knowledge is critical to intelligence-gathering services. In Israel, recent reports indicate, 10 potential attacks are thwarted for every one that is successfully executed.)
Americans’ access to guns is also raised as an issue when things like this happen. We have little optimism of seeing this matter resolved in our lifetimes. It is notable, though, that, in what should be a moment of national mourning, the U.S. president has aimed to score political points by advancing the idea that the synagogue should have been, essentially, an armed defensive encampment. This idea is not a solution. It is a capitulation to a dystopic reality. A better president would have had words of national unity and consolation.
While we seek healing as a community, welcome condolences from so many allies, and wish blessings on the murdered and comfort for the survivors, we also now enter unfamiliar realms. In many mass murder incidents, the perpetrator does not survive the attack. In this case, he has. We will watch as the victims’ families confront this terrible act through the justice system, hoping for something approaching closure. Some people are already calling for vengeance, and the death penalty is a possible punishment for the perpetrator, which raises additional quandaries for those among us for whom state-sanctioned killing is an evil unto itself.
The larger issue facing us in the coming weeks is that true justice, in a practical sense, must convey to all people that this is a society that rejects and condemns not only the act that took place Saturday, but the ideas that inspired it and other heinous hate crimes. The mantra of Simon Wiesenthal’s life, which was devoted to as proper a response as possible to the greatest crime perpetrated against the Jewish people, was “justice, not vengeance.” This was in keeping with the ancient obligation of Judaism – justice, justice, you shall pursue.
We grieve, we mourn, we console. But, through these processes and after, we continue what our tradition has demanded for millennia, the ultimate bulwark to this and every other wrong: we seek justice.
Rosetta van Dam, circa 1920. (photo from Louise Sorensen)
The Dutch Holocaust Memorial of Names has provided the opportunity to write and have published a piece about a person named on the memorial. I contributed stories about six of my murdered relatives, and wrote one of those stories in English, about my Aunt Rosa.
Rosetta van Dam (1904-1942), or Ro, was my mother’s younger sister. She was the first in the family to be deported and murdered, on Aug. 3, 1942, in the first Auschwitz gas chamber, at the age of 38. She had responded to the Nazi call to report for “labour in Germany.”
Ro lived in Rotterdam at the family home on Bergweg 99, where I was born and where she had her own room on my grandparents’ floor. Ro was totally withdrawn and had virtually no social life. She always wore a girl scout uniform, with heavy wool knee-high socks and sandals. She likely would have preferred men’s clothing but it was totally taboo at the time for women to dress in that way.
Ro’s voice was very deep and I believe now that she may have been transsexual or, in any event, a lesbian. I was told that my grandparents had been dragging her to a number of doctors, of course with no result. She ended up a virtual hermit, usually disappearing to her room. I think she did some secretarial work, perhaps for my grandparents’ business.
From 1929 to 1936, we lived in the same Rotterdam house. As a toddler and preschooler, I was too young to understand my aunt, but was curious and eager to please her.
Several years ago, I visited Auschwitz and learned that Ro never reached the Birkenau gas chambers because they were not yet in operation on Aug. 3, 1942. I was informed of this while standing in that very gas chamber, the only one that had not been destroyed, feeling deeply sad about my aunt.
Louise Sorensen was born in the Netherlands in 1929, where she lived with her parents and older sister. In May 1940, when the Nazis occupied Holland, they lived in a suburb near Amsterdam. Two years later, the Nazis ejected them from their home and the family was forced into the Amsterdam ghetto. By January 1943, they were separated and hidden in various locations throughout the country until the Canadians liberated them on April 17, 1945. Sorensen immigrated to Vancouver in 1959; her Danish husband has passed away and she has two sons and three grandsons. She has been active with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre since its inception: she was a board member for 10 years and has been speaking in schools and to other audiences for about 30 years. This article also appeared in VHEC’s Zachor.