Robbie Waisman and Dr. Uma Kumar
spoke Jan. 24 at UBC’s Hillel House. (photo from Hillel BC)
History’s resonance in the present was a
recurring theme at a commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day
The event at Hillel House on the University of
British Columbia campus, featured Holocaust survivor Robbie Waisman speaking
about his experiences in Buchenwald concentration camp and his life before and
after the Shoah.
Thirteen survivors of the Holocaust lit
yahrzeit candles, after which Hillel’s Rabbi Philip Bregman chanted the
Before Waisman’s presentation, the audience
watched a 1985 video from CBC television’s national program The Journal,
which followed Waisman as he traveled to Philadelphia to meet Leon Bass, the
American soldier who had liberated him from the camp 40 years earlier.
Bass, an African-American, was the first black
person Waisman had ever seen. At the age of 13, Waisman thought Bass and his
fellow American soldiers must be angels.
“Indeed, they were,” he said.
At the event Jan. 24, which was co-sponsored by
the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, Hillel BC, the Centre for Israel and
Jewish Affairs and UBC’s department of Central, Eastern and Northern European
Studies (CENES), Waisman said the thing that kept him and his fellow survivors
alive was the hope of being reunited with family.
“The enormity of the Holocaust was not yet
known to us,” said Waisman. When it did become known, he said, “we had to find
a way to deal and cope with the huge loss of all our loved ones.… How are we
going to live with all these horrors?… Has anyone survived? If not, what is the
point of my own survival?”
He and his father had seen one of Waisman’s
brothers murdered, and his father died later in the same camp. He would learn
that his mother and his other three brothers were also murdered, as were his
uncles, aunts, cousins and friends. Of the family, only Waisman and his sister
“I search for answers,” he said. “I only find
more questions. How could anyone remain sane and functioning as a human being
when humanity was destroyed in front of our eyes? Worst of all, how do you come
to terms with the tragic loss of all our loved ones, fathers, mothers,
brothers, sisters, friends that we grew up with, all innocent – everything gone
– how is it possible? We started questioning the existence of God. How could
this happen to us?… Before the war, we all came from Orthodox homes, rich in
heritage and traditions. After coming out of the terrible abyss, the darkness,
we questioned angrily. But what we learned in the home, from our parents, was
not lost. The sense of humanity slowly returned to us. Our faith was shaken
yet, in spite of it all, we remained true to it.”
Waisman said his experience in the Holocaust,
and the experience of other survivors, has taught that “evil must be recognized
and that we all have a responsibility to make sure that it never happens again
to anyone. And yet … what is the world doing about it now?”
He reflected on the concept of “Never again.”
“Noble, thought-provoking words, but only if we
act upon them,” he said. “Today, over 70 years after my liberation, the promise
of never again has become again and again. There have been a number of
situations that have tested the world’s resolve, in Cambodia, the former
Yugoslavia, in Darfur and in Syria – I could go on and on.
“When I speak at high schools, I try to convey
to students the pain of my experience in order to inspire them to prevent such
events from occurring again,” he said. “The world must learn from the past in
order to make this a better place for now and the future. We must teach
compassion, we must eradicate racism and religious persecution. We must teach
ourselves, teach our children, each generation must learn.”
Also at the Jan. 24 event, Dr. Uma Kumar, a
lecturer with CENES, noted recent reports that indicate many Canadians and
others are ignorant of the most basic facts of the Holocaust.
“Nearly half of Canadians cannot name a single
concentration camp or ghetto that existed in Europe during the Shoah,” she
said. “However, there is a positive point: 85% of the respondents of the study
said that it was important to keep teaching about the Holocaust so that it does
not happen again. Hence, there is a pressing need for more and better Holocaust
education at schools and universities in Canada. We, as Holocaust educators,
still have a lot of work to do.”
Joyce Murray, member of Parliament for
Vancouver Quadra, brought greetings on behalf of the federal government and
also reflected on her visit last year to Auschwitz.
“The Holocaust reality, for me, shifted from
being a part of history that I thought I understood and regretted to a reality
that I feel in my body and in my heart,” she said. “Commemorating mass atrocity
and genocide in the continued sharing of the story of survivors is a vital part
of prevention. These stories serve as a reminder of the dangers of hate,
prejudice and discrimination, the dangers of seeing human beings as ‘us’ and
‘them,’ the dangers of excessive nationalism to the detriment of others that is
stalking so many nations today.”
Murray also mentioned the Canadian government’s
recent apology for refusing admission to passengers on the MS St. Louis in 1939
and reminded the audience that Canada is not immune to bigotry.
Michael Lee, member of the B.C. legislature for
Vancouver-Langara, was also present.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day was
officially marked worldwide on Jan. 27, the date when Allied forces liberated
the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps in 1945. Another ceremony and a film
screening took place Sunday at the Peretz Centre.
Robbie Waisman, left, and Chief Robert Joseph, will speak at Temple Sholom’s Selichot program Sept. 1. (photos from Temple Sholom)
Two men who have built bridges between Canada’s indigenous and Jewish communities will speak about reconciliation, forgiveness and resilience at Temple Sholom’s Selichot program.
Robbie Waisman, a survivor of the Holocaust who was liberated as a child from Buchenwald concentration camp, and Chief Robert Joseph, a survivor of Canada’s Indian residential schools system, will address congregants on the subject of Forgiving But Not Forgetting: Reconciliation in Moving Forward Through Trauma. The event is at the synagogue on Sept. 1, 8 p.m.
Waisman is one of 426 children who survived Buchenwald. At the age of 14, he discovered that almost his entire family had been murdered. He came to Canada as part of the Canadian War Orphans Project, which brought 1,123 Jewish children here under the auspices of Canadian Jewish Congress.
Joseph is a hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation, located around Queen Charlotte Strait in northern British Columbia. He spent 10 years at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School at Alert Bay on the central coast of the province. He recalls being beaten for using his mother tongue and surviving other hardships and abuse. A leading voice in Canada’s dialogue around truth and reconciliation, the chief is currently the ambassador for Reconciliation Canada and a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council. He was formerly the executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and is an honourary witness to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Waisman and Joseph have become close friends over years of discussing, publicly and privately, their respective histories and the challenges of building a life after trauma. Waisman has become a leading Jewish advocate for indigenous Canadians’ rights.
“I think we have a duty and obligation to give them a stand in the world,” Waisman said. “For many, many years, many people ignored them, and their story about truth and reconciliation was just in the background, they weren’t important. I think that now that we give them an importance – and it is important that they speak up and speak about their history and so on – [it is possible] to make this a better world for them.”
Waisman believes that the experiences of Holocaust survivors and the example that many survivors have set of assimilating their life’s tragedies and committing themselves to tikkun olam is a potential model for First Nations as they confront their past and struggle to address its contemporary impacts.
“We were 426 youngsters who survived Buchenwald and the experts thought that we were finished,” Waisman said of his cohort of survivors, who have been immortalized in The Boys of Buchenwald, a film by Vancouverites David Paperny and Audrey Mehler, and in a book by Sir Martin Gilbert. “We wouldn’t amount to anything because we’d seen so much and we’d suffered so much and lost so much. And look what we have accomplished. We have little Lulek [Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau], who became the chief rabbi of Israel, Eli Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and I can go on and on. When I speak to First Nations, I say, ‘look what we’ve done,’ and then I quote [Barack] Obama and say, ‘Yes, you can.’”
One of Waisman’s first experiences with Canadian indigenous communities was when he was invited to the Yukon. His presentation was broadcast on CBC radio and people called in from all over the territory, asking that Waisman wait for them so that they could come meet him.
“They kept phoning in and saying, ‘Don’t let Robbie leave, we are coming in to see him,’” Waisman recalled. “It was just amazing. I would sit on a chair and they would come and touch me and then form themselves in a circle and, for the first time, they were speaking about their horrors and how to move on with life.”
This was a moment when Waisman realized the power of his personal story to help others who have experienced trauma gain strength.
The Selichot program was envisioned by Shirley Cohn and the Temple Sholom Working Group on Indigenous Reconciliation and Community, which Cohn chairs.
“It’s the right thing to do given the political atmosphere, the increased awareness about indigenous issues and just the fact that, as Jews, I think we need to be more tolerant of others, and these are really the first people in Canada, and they’ve suffered discrimination, as we have, and I think it’s important,” she said.
The message is especially relevant at this time of penitence and self-reflection, she added. “It’s a time for thoughtfulness and looking inward,” said Cohn, who is a social worker.
Rabbi Carrie Brown said the Temple Sholom community sees the topic as fitting.
“We want to look at this further as a congregation,” said Brown. “Selichot is a time of year when we really start to think about ourselves as individuals and ourselves as a community and the conversation between Robbie Waisman and Chief Joseph really fits nicely into that, about trauma and reconciliation and forgiveness and all of these major themes of the season.”
This is “not just a one-off program,” the rabbi stressed, but the beginning of a process of education and conversation.
Honourary degree recipient Robert Waisman, centre, is congratulated by University of Victoria chancellor Shelagh Rogers as UVic president Jamie Cassels, right, applauds. (photo from UVic Photo Services)
The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre extends a mazal tov to board director and longtime volunteer Robert (Robbie) Waisman, who received the degree of honourary doctor of laws from the University of Victoria on June 13.
Waisman was one of the “Boys of Buchenwald” before he was liberated from the concentration camp, eventually emigrating to a new life in Canada, where he built a successful career and now dedicates himself to Holocaust education. He is a community leader, a philanthropist, a founder and past president of the VHEC, and an extremely effective educator who promotes social justice and human rights for all by sharing his experience as a child survivor.
Audiences impacted by Waisman’s VHEC outreach activities include thousands of British Columbian students each year, as well as students and community groups throughout Canada and the United States. He has served as a mentor to survivors of the Rwandan genocide who were wanting to share their eyewitness accounts. Also notable, Waisman was inducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an Honourary Witness in 2011, and has spoken alongside First Nations leaders and survivors of residential schools about reconciliation and healing.
Dedicated teacher, outstanding volunteer, loving daughter, sister and wife, Jewish National Fund of Canada Bernard M. Bloomfield Medal for meritorious service recipient Ilene-Jo Bellas can be called a “Woman for All Seasons.”
A retired high school teacher, Bellas taught English and theatre arts for 32 years in the Delta School District. She directed more than 100 popular plays and musicals at Delta Secondary School in Ladner. Many of her students have graduated to become successful actors, writers, directors and educators, and they keep in touch with their first teacher/director. She was president of the Association of B.C. Drama Educators, and was instrumental in procuring funding for and in the designing of Genesis Theatre, a fully professional theatre in Ladner.
Bellas was born and raised in Vancouver. She attended Sir Winston Churchill High School and Schara Tzedeck Synagogue Religious School. She developed her strong community commitment through youth activities in Young Judaea, Camp Hatikvah, Camp Biluim and working as a camp counselor. In university, she was involved in the Student Zionist Organization and held leadership roles in Hillel. She became a charter member and eventually president of Atid chapter of Hadassah-WIZO Vancouver; she also served as the Vancouver council vice-president.
Since her retirement in 2003, Bellas has used her many talents and skills to serve her community: three years as secretary of the Jewish Seniors Alliance, four years on the board of the Louis Brier Home and Hospital and president of the ladies’ executive of the Richmond Country Club. She also directed musical shows at Vancouver Talmud Torah, produced souvenir books, chaired and worked on dinner committees for Congregation Schara Tzedeck, Vancouver Talmud Torah, Israel Bonds and the JNF. In 2013, Bellas and her husband Joel, z’l, were awarded the Betzalel Award at Schara Tzedeck Synagogue. Most recently, she chaired a very successful fundraising gala for RAPS (Regional Animal Protection Society).
Bellas served as president of JNF Pacific Region from 2012 to 2015. She remains active to this day, continuing as a board member, chairing and co-chairing Negev Dinner committees and producing the souvenir books. Bellas is on the national board of JNF and states that she is very proud to be part of such a proactive organization for the benefit of the state of Israel.
Bellas attributes much of the success of her stellar volunteer career to the loving support and encouragement she received from her beloved husband Joel, z’l.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem is known for innovation. With nine Nobel Prize and Fields Medal winners among its alumni and being ranked 12th in the world for biotechnology patent filings, there is an abundance of creativity and ingenuity emanating from the university. It should come as no surprise then that the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University (CFHU) co-convened a fundraising event honouring cardiologist Dr. Saul Isserow on June 28. Hosted by CFHU and VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation in the Landmark Aviation Hangar at YVR, the casual-chic event – which sold out just weeks after it was announced – hosted a capacity crowd of 500-plus people.
The huge walls of the hangar were draped and a lighting and sound system had been installed along with a cabana that was a full-service bar. There were five food stations, including one serving South African specialties. One wall of the hangar was open to the runway and a private jet was on display to top off the evening’s decor.
Among other things, Isserow is director of the Vancouver General Hospital Centre for Cardiovascular Health, director of cardiology services at University of British Columbia Hospital and medical director of Sports Cardiology B.C.
“It’s not in my nature to be fêted in this way,” said Isserow in his address, stressing that the evening was intended to be a fun night to celebrate the achievements of the cardiac team with whom he works, as well as his heartfelt support and love for the state of Israel.
There were more than three million reasons for celebration by the end of the night – to be exact, $3,046,350 was raised to support two initiatives. The money will be divided between CFHU’s Inspired by Einstein student scholarship program and, locally, Isserow’s Sports Cardiology B.C. program at UBC Hospital. Barbara Grantham, chief executive officer of the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation expressed her gratitude to Isserow for agreeing to be honoured at this event. She said Isserow is a humble man who works tirelessly for his patients and credits his team for his successes.
A short video tribute to Isserow and his journey from South Africa to Canada revealed that he and his wife, Lindsay, began their lives in Canada in Nipawin, Sask. His journey from rural Saskatchewan to the upper echelon of Vancouver’s cardiology community is a testament to his talent and perseverance.
In addition to Grantham and Isserow, CFHU national board chair Monette Malewski gave brief remarks, which were followed by a performance by the Emily Chambers band while dinner was served. The crowd was treated to a short African drumming performance prior to a brief address by Ambassador Ido Aharoni, who spoke about the strong connection between the principles of Hebrew University founding member Albert Einstein and Hebrew U’s function as a launch pad for creative innovation in all areas. After Isserow addressed the group, the evening was rounded off with a DJ and dancing.
For the past few years, Richmond Jewish Day School’s Student Council committee has been collecting donations to support different charities throughout the Lower Mainland. As part of their ongoing fundraising, the school was able to donate $1,150 to the Variety Club Sunshine Coach program and the school’s name was recently inscribed on the side of a 15-passenger Sunshine Coach, which will be used by Richmond Society for Community Living. The vehicle will transport youth with diverse abilities to various programs throughout the city.
Last month, several Canadians – or former Canadians – attended the 50th anniversary of Hadassim Children and Youth Village in Israel. Reunion organizer Rabbi Shawn Zell and the other attendees were among the first young Diaspora Jews to spend a year in Israel on a sponsored program – in their case, one organized by Canadian Hadassah-WIZO.
The Sir Charles Tupper Secondary School Grade 11 history class for which King David High School teacher Anna-Mae Wiesenthal (middle row, second from the right), did a presentation on the Holocaust. Their teacher, Bonnie Burnell, is to Wiesenthal’s left. (photo from Anna-Mae Wiesenthal)
“They were in awe of the Holocaust survivor,” said Bonnie Burnell, a teacher at Sir Charles Tupper Secondary, describing the reaction of her students to survivor Robbie Waisman’s talk at a Yom Hashoah assembly at King David High School (KDHS) on April 24. “Looking at him as he spoke at the podium, they could scarcely imagine him on the inside of a Nazi concentration camp.”
Students from Prince of Wales Secondary School and, of course, from KDHS also joined the assembly, which was organized by KDHS teachers Anna-Mae Wiesenthal and Aron Rosenberg, and included Cantor Yaakov Orzech chanting El Malei Rachamim.
The multi-school initiative was led by Wiesenthal, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Holocaust and genocide studies. Last year, she went to Austria and Poland with the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre of Toronto. In addition to teaching about the Holocaust at KDHS, she has been giving presentations at various public schools. She told the Jewish Independent that students have been very engaged and have asked many questions. This outreach led to the recent assembly at KDHS, where other schools’ students were invited to attend.
“My students, in general, were impressed with the ceremony and glad that they had made the decision to come,” Burnell said. “We have had a real focus on racism in our curriculum this year, and this visit definitely adds something of central importance to that subject.”
Wiesenthal, who has taught at KDHS since 2006, became interested in focusing more on Holocaust education after attending an educators seminar at Yad Vashem in 2012.
“I feel Holocaust education is about giving voice to the millions of victims who were murdered simply because of who they were, and honouring their legacy and our history,” explained Wiesenthal. “It is about remembering the vibrancy of Jewish life both before and after the war. It is about preserving memory for future generations and across cultures. It is about taking the knowledge of unprecedented horrors, and keeping them in front of us so that we remain vigilant about our humanity in the face of genocides today.”
Wiesenthal also admitted to being inspired by a possible kinship with renowned Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Her great-grandfather, Mattityahu Wiesenthal, was a Russian boy saved from forced conscription in the Russian army by being “thrown across the river” from Russia into the town of Skala in Austria-Hungary, as many boys were at that time. As an orphan in Skala, he was taken in by Moshe Efroyim Wiesenthal, who supported many such refugee orphans, and the young boy took the family name Wiesenthal to honour his patron. Wiesenthal does not know if Moshe Efroyim was directly related to Simon Wiesenthal, but the latter remains one of her heroes, and she has been in touch with his granddaughter, Racheli Kreisberg.
Wiesenthal also recently initiated a pilot project at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC), in which KDHS students trained as docents (museum guides) lead other students through the exhibit.
Another project was an art exhibit at KDHS, where her Jewish History 11 class viewed a video of a Holocaust survivor’s testimony, chose an aspect of the testimony that stood out for them and then created a work of art based on that aspect. Each work was accompanied by an artist’s statement, a picture of the survivor and why the student chose the testimony they did. Contributions included painting, sculpture, writing and music. “The quality of expression was very moving,” said Wiesenthal.
Rabbi Stephen Berger, head of Judaic studies at KDHS, said he is thrilled with the work Wiesenthal has been doing.
“She shares her passion with her students and fulfils the talmudic dictum, ‘Words that leave from the heart, penetrate the heart,’” he said. “Our school and students benefit immeasurably by having her as a teacher of history and Holocaust studies.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
On Nov. 18, Robbie Waisman spoke at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia. (photo by Pat Johnson)
The head of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is crediting Robbie Waisman, a Vancouver man and a child survivor of Buchenwald concentration camp, with making a significant impact on the work of the landmark national initiative.
Justice Murray Sinclair, the first Aboriginal judge appointed to the Provincial Court of Manitoba, headed the commission that handed down its report earlier this year. It is a compendious study of the legacy of Indian residential schools in Canada, with recommendations for redress. Over the course of a century, an estimated 30% of Aboriginal children in Canada were taken from their family homes and placed in residential schools. Funded by the federal government and run by Christian churches, the schools forbade children from speaking their native languages. Countless numbers were physically and sexually abused, even murdered, starved to death or died from lack of medical attention. Of the estimated 150,000 children who went through the system, 4,000 are believed to have died. Survivors have struggled for decades with the legacies of the experience. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was the first comprehensive nationwide effort to address the history.
Sinclair told the Independent that Waisman made a crucial suggestion that informed the work of the commission. It can be extremely difficult for survivors to tell their stories directly to their children, Waisman told Sinclair. He himself did not tell his own children about his experiences in the Holocaust; they learned some of the details by witnessing their father tell his history to others. The commission took this advice to heart, said Sinclair.
“Based on that, when we go to a community, we bring all the [residential school] survivors in and we always make a point to bring their children in so that when the survivors are talking to us, the children are hearing them,” Sinclair said. “That proved to be an exceptionally strong piece of advice for us to open the lines of communication within families. From the perspective of residential school survivors, often the most important process of reconciliation that they wanted to engage in, that they needed to engage in, was to apologize to their own families for how they behaved after residential schools and to be given an act of forgiveness by their children, their spouses, their family members.”
Waisman participated in the entire TRC process, traveling to every part of Canada to speak with residential school survivors about his own story of survival and about creating a life after experiencing the most unimaginable horrors.
“I told them that I am one of the 426 teenagers that was liberated at Buchenwald,” Waisman explained. “We couldn’t go home, we went to France and, in France, the experts that analyzed us told the French government that these kids, first of all, won’t amount to anything because they’ve seen too much and they’ll never rehabilitate. Get a Jewish organization to look after them, they told the French government. Number two, they won’t live beyond 40. So here we are. Six years ago, I phoned [Nobel laureate and fellow Buchenwald survivor] Elie Wiesel, who wasn’t going to amount to anything, and I wished him a happy 80th. And little Lulek [Yisrael Meir Lau], who became chief rabbi of Israel. This is what I related to them. You see what we have achieved? So, then I quote [Barack] Obama: ‘We did it … yes you can.’”
On Nov. 18, Waisman spoke at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia about his experience in the Holocaust and about participating in the TRC.
Waisman has been involved with First Nations communities for years. He was first contacted by Canadian Jewish Congress when David Ahenakew, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, uttered antisemitic comments in 2002. CJC engaged with First Nations leaders and brought Waisman to meet with them. Waisman’s relationship with CJC goes back further – as an orphaned child survivor, he was sponsored to come to Canada by CJC.
Because of his effectiveness as a speaker, Waisman was invited to speak to residential school survivors in the Northwest Territories. As he spoke, he noticed maybe a dozen people in booths, speaking into headphones. It turned out his words were being translated into local dialects and broadcast across the territories. A trip that was supposed be a daylong in-and-out turned into a four-day sojourn as residential school survivors came from surrounding villages to meet him.
“They figured that nobody cared,” said Waisman. “Many of them have begun to talk about their horrors after they listen to me.”
Sinclair is full of warm words for Waisman. “He’s a stalwart supporter and a warm and kind and loving man who always understood what the survivors were talking about and let them know that,” said the judge.
Tonight, the Canada Palestine Association, BDS Vancouver, Canadian Boat to Gaza, Independent Jewish Voices and a few other groups will come together to address the topic Stolen Land: First Nations and Palestinians at the Frontline of Resistance. The obvious intention is to equate the history of colonial settlement in North America, Canada in particular, with the actions of Israel toward Palestinians.
The concept is flawed at its core, of course, because, as the Palestinian narrative often does, it portrays the Jews as colonial occupiers of Arab land, while denying the legitimacy of ancient and modern claims to the Jewish homeland. The logical failure here is that such a narrative recognizes the legitimacy of a 200-year-old land claim, but not a 2,000-year-old land claim, which seems like an arbitrary position.
Nevertheless, there is a larger issue here. The anti-Israel movement insists on appropriating the historical experience of other people and using it in an attempt to fortify their narrative. The most obvious example is the apartheid libel, which tries to paint Israel as the ideological descendant of South African racism. This is offensive not only to Israelis. It debases the experience of black South Africans who suffered from genuine apartheid.
Even more egregiously, the anti-Israel movement routinely uses the imagery of Nazism and the Holocaust against Israel, attempting to equate the victims of the Third Reich with its perpetrators. This deliberate rubbing of salt in Jewish historical wounds is common and, as we discussed in this space last week, the objective is clearly to inflict pain rather than to resolve grievances.
This is a deliberate strategy of the anti-Israel movement, which apparently finds its difficult to make a legitimate case of their own and, therefore, co-opts the historical experiences of others. As another example, last summer, when people in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere in the United States were protesting police shootings of young African-Americans, the “pro-Palestinian” movement attempted to infiltrate that movement as well, trying to portray Israeli soldiers and police in the same light as American killer cops.
The event this week has a similar purpose. Not satisfied to let Canada’s First Nations people tell their stories and have their experiences validated, the “pro-Palestinian” activists want to elbow their way in and demand that Palestine get equal time (at least).
An infinitely more constructive approach can be seen in the remarkable story of a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who traveled across Canada as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, sharing his story of survival and accomplishment after tragedy. (See the story “Survivors helps others.”)
There are ways to positively advance First Nations experiences, the Palestinian experience and the Jewish experience in order to create a more understanding and tolerant world. The organizers of this week’s event – and the anti-Israel movement more broadly – do not seem interested in that sort of progress, in that sort of world.
In the early 1980s, Alberta teacher James Keegstra was charged with wilful promotion of hatred for teaching high school students that the Holocaust was a myth and that Jewish people were responsible for much of the world’s evil.
For Robbie Waisman, a Vancouver businessman, news of Keegstra’s teachings revived an exchange from decades earlier that he had repressed. Waisman – at the time he was Romek Wajsman – was one of the youngest prisoners in Buchenwald concentration camp, in eastern Germany. While trying to get to sleep in the crowded barracks one night, young Romek had an interaction that would resonate decades later in the lives of tens of thousands of young North Americans.
As Waisman recalled: “This one voice said, ‘Hey kid,’ addressing me, ‘if this is over and you survive, remember to tell the world what you have witnessed.’ I didn’t answer. Again, a second time. And then another voice says, ‘Leave the kid alone. Let’s all go to sleep. None of us are going to survive.’ I’m trying to fall asleep. Again: ‘Hey kid, I haven’t heard you promise.’ I wanted him to leave me alone so I said, ‘OK, I promise.’”
Yet, for 36 years, as Waisman rebuilt his life in the aftermath of the Shoah that destroyed nearly his entire family, everything he knew and most of European Jewish civilization, he remained publicly silent about what had happened to him and what he had seen. As it was for most survivors, the pain of the past was unbearable. The motivation to move ahead, to make good on the promise of survival, consumed Waisman and other survivors. Those who had spoken out in the first years after liberation were often hushed up, accused of being macabre, of living in the past, of not moving forward. Many adopted silence.
For Waisman, and some other survivors who had kept their stories private, it was the Holocaust denial that sprang up in the 1970s and ’80s that ended their silence.
Now, after speaking hundreds of times to audiences, most often of high school students, but also to churches and First Nations communities, Waisman is being honored for contributing to understanding and tolerance in Canada. He is to receive the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award, which recognizes volunteers who help others and build a “smarter and more caring nation.” He was nominated for the honor by his longtime friend, Derek Glazer.
Waisman cannot estimate the number of times he has spoken or the accumulated number of individuals who have heard his story. But he has thousands of letters – most of them from young people – telling him how the experience of meeting him has changed their lives and caused them to commit themselves to humanitarianism and social justice. And, as much as he is pleased to receive the commendation from Gov.-Gen. David Johnston, it is these letters, and the hugs and words he receives from young people, that he says are the real compensation for what he does.
“These kinds of letters are my reward. Never mind the award that I’m going to be getting. This is the reward. This is what keeps us going. If I can inoculate young people against hatred and discrimination, I honor the memory and I give back for my survival,” he said.
“In most cases, when I go to speak, I get hugs from people, and I get tears, and they come and they are so grateful. I always hear this: ‘You’ve changed my life. Thank you.’”
“We encourage them. We empower them. And we make them appreciate life and what they have around them. I feel we are doing noble work. We are changing some of the kids’ lives,” said Waisman, referring to himself and other survivors who speak.
He added, “Some people think that we sadden the children,” referring to himself and other survivors who speak. “No. We encourage them. We empower them. And we make them appreciate life and what they have around them. I feel we are doing noble work. We are changing some of the kids’ lives.”
Yet, even as he is being recognized for speaking to thousands, Waisman recalled that the first time he publicly spoke of his experiences, he vowed it would be his last. Motivated by the Keegstra affair, Waisman contacted Robert Krell, a founder of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, to say he was ready to speak. A school visit was arranged and Waisman told the students of his experiences. The reaction was poor. Some students fell asleep – though Waisman thinks it was not because the narrative was boring, but the opposite: it was too graphic. The students tuned it out as a sort of emotional defence.
“I came home and I was completely out of it,” Waisman said. “I had to lock myself in a room because it was so painful.”
Krell talked him into trying it once again and, this time, Krell, a psychiatrist, was in the audience. On Krell’s advice, Waisman developed a different approach. “I tell my story, but I don’t go into details,” he said. “I tell them about my life at home [before the Holocaust], with my family, and I tell them about my life afterwards.” He usually shows a video clip that provides a graphic depiction of the Holocaust, but his own presentations put a face to the Shoah but do not dwell on the atrocities he personally witnessed and experienced.
“All in all, as you can see from the letters, I seem to connect, telling the importance of being a decent human being and the responsibility they have toward humanity to make this place a better world,” said Waisman.
It is estimated that between 89 and 94 percent of Jewish children who were alive in Europe in 1939 had been murdered by 1945.
Waisman’s survival is an example of how many extraordinary incidents, fortunate coincidences and unlikely near-misses were required for a Jewish child to endure that era. In the dystopia of Nazism, children were deemed non-productive “useless eaters.” They also represented the future of the Jewish people, so the Nazis took special steps to ensure the deaths of as many children as possible. It is estimated that between 89 and 94 percent of Jewish children who were alive in Europe in 1939 had been murdered by 1945.
The Wajsman family were stalwarts of the community in Skarzysko, Poland. After the Sabbath candles were lit, neighbors would pour into the Wajsman home to listen to the wisdom of Romek’s father, Chil, a haberdasher and an admired leader in the synagogue and community. Romek was the youngest, aged eight when the Nazis invaded Poland, with four brothers and a sister.
Romek’s first break came when the ghetto in Skarzysko was about to be liquidated, in 1942. One of Romek’s older brothers had been forced into labor at a munitions factory. At four in the morning on the day the ghetto was to be liquidated, Romek’s brother appeared and took him to the factory, where he would survive as a useful – if extremely young – munitions worker.
When the Russians advanced on Poland in 1944-45, the Germans moved the munitions workers into the German heartland – and Romek was taken to Buchenwald. There, he met another boy, Abe Chapnick.
“We sort of supported one another,” Waisman said. “We had numbers that we were called by in Buchenwald, but we called each other by name and kept our humanity intact.”
Buchenwald was not primarily an extermination camp, yet Waisman was well aware that if they were not useful to the Germans, they would not survive. What helped the two boys live was the fact that Buchenwald was a camp originally intended for political prisoners, not necessarily Jews, and while the Nazis ran the overall affairs of Buchenwald, many internal matters were left to a committee of prisoners. “They protected us,” said Waisman.
He remembers a particularly fateful moment.
“We were marched out in line and an SS comes up and screamed at the top of his voice ‘All Jews step out!’” Romek and Abe looked at one another. “I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’” Waisman said. “Before we could make up our minds, Willie [Wilhelm Hammann, the German prisoner who was in charge of the barrack] stood in front of us and screamed at the top of his voice at the SS: ‘I have no Jews!’”
The same process unfolded in other barracks and when the Jewish inmates stepped out, they were shot. “That was two or three days before liberation,” Waisman said.
When liberation finally came – at 3:45 p.m. on April 11, 1945, the day Waisman counts as his “birthday” – their troubles were not yet over. They were moved to better quarters but remained at Buchenwald for two months, while authorities attempted to determine what to do with millions of displaced persons across Europe.
Romek had looked forward to going home, to being reunited with his family. “After liberation, we couldn’t grasp the enormity of the Holocaust,” he said. “I saw people around me die, but I didn’t see the whole picture. I wanted to go home because I thought everybody would be at home.”
Eventually, 426 of them, all boys, would be taken to France, to a makeshift orphanage where they were expected to resume their lives and studies as if their experiences had been merely some sort of routine disruption.
While Waisman and Chapnick had been the youngest in their barrack, at liberation they would discover there were hundreds more children, from 8 to 18, in the camp. Eventually, 426 of them, all boys, would be taken to France, to a makeshift orphanage where they were expected to resume their lives and studies as if their experiences had been merely some sort of routine disruption. They acted out in ways that made their new caretakers fear them as animalistic and potentially dangerous.
“We were angry and full of rage when we couldn’t go home after liberation,” Waisman said. “We came to France and there were all these people that wanted to help us out and came to deal with us. Professionals and volunteers to help us out, people that spoke our language [but] when we wanted to speak and share some of the pain, they weren’t interested. It was too soon. Psychiatry wasn’t as advanced as it is now. They’d say, ‘We are not interested. Just never mind. Forget about it. Move on. Go back to school. Continue your schooling.’
“I can’t repeat what we told them what to do,” Waisman said, laughing. “After all, we knew best.”
Waisman would discover decades later that a report commissioned by the French government declared that these “boys of Buchenwald” would never rehabilitate, they had seen too much, been too damaged and would not live beyond 40. The report recommended that the government find a Jewish organization to look after them.
In fact, in addition to the most notable boys of Buchenwald – Elie Wiesel, the renowned author and humanitarian, and Yisrael Meir Lau, who would become a chief rabbi of Israel – almost every one went on to succeed in life beyond all expectations. For Waisman, who is still active in the hotel industry, this was a direct result of a single determined man.
“Manfred Reingwitz, a professor at the Sorbonne – he wouldn’t give up on us. He used to always give us these wonderful discussions and spoke to us about the importance of moving on. It didn’t register. He took a lot of abuse, but I remember the one crucial time. There were four of us, including myself, and he sort of said, ‘I give up’ and then he turned around … ‘By the way, Romek, if your parents stood where I am standing right now, what do you think they would want for you?’ he said in an angry voice. And, of course, we don’t answer anything and he walks away. We looked at one another and it resonated. We didn’t say anything. But we sort of began a different attitude, a different way of looking at things.”
This was the moment when Waisman and most of the others, like so many survivors, began a process of throwing themselves into careers, family and community work.
He and his sister Leah were the only survivors from their family of eight. (Leah married in a DP camp, moved to Israel and Waisman sponsored them to come to Canada in the 1950s.)
Slowly, Romek’s life took on a form of normalcy. Under the auspices of Canadian Jewish Congress, he would arrive in Halifax and travel by train to Calgary, where he would begin Canadian life with the help of a local family, start his career and meet his wife, Gloria. The couple would move to Gloria’s native Saskatchewan for two decades before coming to Vancouver.
“For, I think, close to 36 years I went on with my life,” Waisman said. The other boys of Buchenwald progressed similarly, many settling in Australia, as well as in Israel, the United States and elsewhere. “I made a life … my Holocaust experience was there, but I put it aside…,” Waisman said. “And then Keegstra came along teaching his students that the Holocaust was a myth, that it didn’t happen.” And Waisman became one of the most active survivor speakers, putting a face to history for thousands of young people.
“One and a half million Jewish children were not as lucky as I was, and the other boys of Buchenwald [were], and so I sort of began to think about it and said, ‘I made it. I have a sacred duty and obligation to [share my experiences with younger generations] and when I’m doing this I honor the memory of the one and a half million.’
“Our survival meant something,” he said. “After all these years, I felt that I had to do it, that it’s a sacred duty.”