of the displays in the exhibit Canada Responds to the Holocaust, 1944-1945,
which was at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre in 2016. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
Nearly half of Canadians are not able to name a
single Holocaust concentration camp. A large number of Canadians do not know
that six million Jews died in the Shoah, offering up numbers like two million,
with nearly one in four admitting outright that they just don’t know. Among
millennials, those aged 18 to 34, the numbers are particularly disturbing: 22%
have not heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they have (which seems
like much the same thing). One in three Canadians thinks that this country had
an open immigration policy for Jewish refugees in the 1930s, unaware that very
few Jews were permitted into Canada in the lead up to genocide.
These are some of the details found in a survey conducted on behalf of the Azrieli Foundation and the Claims Conference. The study was based on 1,100 interviews of Canadians to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day Sunday. (See story, “Emerging from terrible abyss. ”)
On the positive side, 85% of respondents said
it’s important to keep teaching about the Holocaust in order to prevent such a
thing from happening again, while 82% said that all students should learn about
this part of history.
In reality, it is unlikely that all Canadian
students will learn about the Holocaust. In British Columbia, for example, the
Holocaust only became part of the core curriculum with the overhaul of the
entire provincial curriculum three years ago – and only if the teacher chooses
to include it. The history of genocide is one module that teachers are able to
select from a range of subject components at particular grade levels.
Therefore, it is still a crapshoot whether a student graduating from the
British Columbia education system will have much or any knowledge on the
It is extraordinarily unlikely that the
curriculum will be revised again any time soon to make Holocaust education
mandatory across the system. Educators complain, with good reason, that they
are expected to teach more content than there are hours in a day. Competing
needs, including career preparation and life skills, contend with subjects like
history for class time.
In Canada, where the educational curriculum is
determined by every province, similar discussions take place across the country
and a patchwork of curricula exist.
At the same time, a massive shift in the larger
culture has taken place, eliminating what had been, until the last few decades,
a largely shared body of knowledge. In the days when there were only a couple
of television networks, and hard copy newspapers were most people’s sources of
information, everyone would generally be aware of similar issues and events.
Half of all televisions in the United States in 1978, for example, were tuned
in to the nine-and-a-half-hour miniseries Holocaust (a program that was
admittedly not without its critics among Jews, historians and others).
The internet and the proliferation of cable TV
channels has refracted our attention in unlimited directions. People now
largely self-select the information they receive and that can blind us to
matters outside of our spheres.
In a better world, knowledge of the Holocaust
would be universal. In the world we live in, it remains vital to continue to
focus attention on the subject whenever possible – and to use this history to
educate about other genocides and violations of humanity while not diminishing
the uniqueness of the Shoah itself.
Organizations devoted to the critical work of
Holocaust education, including the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, are
carrying a heavy burden for the larger society and depend on public support to
meet their mandate. The Azrieli Foundation, which undertook this study,
publishes survivor memoirs and funds a variety of Holocaust-related projects
across Canada. Other groups, to varying degrees, share the burden of teaching
this history, including universities, synagogues, Hillels, book publishers and
authors, and so forth.
Unquestionably, the most powerful form of
Holocaust education is firsthand testimony from survivors and witnesses.
British Columbians who are survivors of the Holocaust have spoken to tens of
thousands of students but, in a handful of years, this method of transmitting
history will no longer be possible. Innovative strategies are being developed,
such as the New Dimensions in Testimony oral history project, a collaboration
involving Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation, which includes holographic
representations of survivors with whom students and others can interact
virtually. This project recognizes that the issue is not only to continue
educating, but to find ever-advancing means of doing so effectively.
The breadth of the challenge was underscored by Prof. Jan Grabowski,
who delivered the Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British
Columbia last November. He and a team of scholars and researchers are visiting
town and city archives across Poland, doing primary research on the events that
led to the murder of three million Jews in that country. In other words, we’re
still compiling the most basic facts of that history and, it may be safe to
say, we are just as far away as ever as to understanding the larger moral
questions – How? Why? – the Holocaust raises. Much work remains to be done.
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.
The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre has developed a collections management system (CMS) that integrates the components of the centre’s diverse holdings into an online platform featuring educational resources aligned with the B.C. secondary curriculum to support teaching with primary source materials.
The CMS allows visitors to the VHEC and online users to explore the various holdings in a way that eliminates divisions between the museum, archives, library and audio-visual testimony collections.
“When you search for a keyword term, it will return records from each collection,” said Caitlin Donaldson, the VHEC’s registrar, who was on the project team that coordinated the development of the system. “We worked collaboratively to design the metadata so that catalogue records are fulsome and so that users will get really rich relationships between items.”
The user-centred design approach prioritized the needs of the centre’s educational mandate and community.
“The VHEC’s system has some administrative modules and features that can track conservation, storage location, loans, accessions and donations,” said Donaldson. “So it’s a really powerful tool for us as a nonprofit organization with a small staff.”
A researcher, student or visitor to the VHEC can view the video testimony of a survivor, then easily see all the centre’s holdings that relate to the individual, such as books written by or about them, documents or artifacts donated by them and broader information about their place of birth, their Holocaust experiences and the camps, ghettoes or other places they survived.
The VHEC is committed to assisting teachers to use primary sources effectively in the classroom to teach about the Holocaust and social justice broadly. The centre has created materials to guide students through searching the CMS and analyzing artifacts. Lightbox is a tool within the CMS through which users can create, manage and share collections of items from the catalogue. Students can use this digital workspace to collaborate on projects and further independent research.
The CMS was developed using Collective Access, an open-source collections management and presentation software created by Whirl-i-Gig, which provided development services for the VHEC. Collective Access is also used locally by the Vancouver Maritime Museum and the newly opened Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia.
“The open-source software allowed us to benefit from the collected knowledge of other institutions and to also contribute back to that base of knowledge through the development of some modules that were created just for our needs,” said Nina Krieger, executive director of the VHEC. “This collections management system allows us, our visitors, researchers, students and anyone in the world unprecedented access to our collections, with the opportunity to contextualize artifacts and information in ways that were not remotely possible when the centre was created two decades ago.”
The VHEC is continually adding records and digitized items to the catalogue. Researchers are encouraged to contact VHEC collections staff to inquire about its full holdings and to access non-digitized materials.
The development of the online catalogue and CMS was made possible through a gift from the Paul and Edwina Heller Memorial Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Vancouver. To explore the VHEC collections online, visit collections.vhec.org.
A version of this article was published in Roundup, Spring 2018, issue 272, by the B.C. Museums Association.
Claire Sicherman began writing Imprint: A Memoir of Trauma in the Third Generation after her grandmother passed away. (photo from VHEC)
Claire Sicherman’s grandmother didn’t share much about her experiences in the Holocaust. There were three stories – one about bread in Auschwitz, another about her tattoo, a third about washing – none of them overly traumatizing. It was in the silences, though, in what her grandmother did not share, that Sicherman sensed the deep trauma permeating her family.
“When I grew up, there was a constant heaviness that I couldn’t name,” Sicherman told the Independent. “I grew up knowing about the Holocaust but not really knowing too much about my family’s personal struggle with it, the stories.”
Her understanding of the Shoah came more from reading Anne Frank and watching Schindler’s List than hearing firsthand accounts from her grandmother.
These unspoken traumas, conveyed across generations, are what Sicherman will speak about at the High Holidays Cemetery Service, an annual commemoration presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, Schara Tzedeck Congregation and Jewish War Veterans. The event takes place this year on Sept. 16, 11 a.m., at Schara Tzedeck Cemetery, in New Westminster. Her presentation is titled Honour and Remember: Breaking the Silence in the Third Generation.
“After my grandmother died, it was safer to start uncovering the silences,” she said. “I think it’s much safer for the third generation to explore the stories of their families. For the second generation, especially for my mom, for example, there was this not wanting to hurt her parents.
“I experienced a bit of that when my grandmother was alive in that we just knew automatically not to ask certain questions, not to go there. For some of the second generation, the silence was a normal part of life. For others, the opposite is true. It was constantly talked about to the point that it became unhealthy that way. But, for my family, the silence was the norm. I think, in third generations, now you’re seeing more people wanting to talk about it, wanting to get back and explore the roots and figure out what they are carrying.”
Sicherman cites the relatively new science of epigenetics to suggest the weight of family history. As a response to that possibly inescapable legacy, Sicherman practises forms of yoga that release stresses in the body, journaling as a form of therapy and an Ayurvedic diet, which incorporates healthy foods and mindful eating rituals, all of which can potentially ameliorate the effects of inherited trauma.
Sicherman’s grandparents, who were from Prague, were the sole survivors in their respective families. They escaped communist Czechoslovakia in 1968 and settled in the Vancouver area. When Sicherman was 4 years old, her grandfather passed away. The cause of death, she was told, was a heart attack. In her 30s, Sicherman learned that her grandfather had committed suicide. This was another of the family’s secrets.
Despite the hidden past, Sicherman thought her family was entirely ordinary.
“For me, growing up, it was really normal,” she said. “I didn’t know that what my family went through, what I was carrying, what everyone was carrying and not talking about, was not quite normal. For me, I thought I came from a Leave it to Beaver kind of family.”
Sicherman’s dawning realizations of her family’s story and the weight of that history represent a sort of metamorphosis, she said. The cover of her book features a caterpillar, a cocoon and a butterfly.
“This sort of represents being third generation,” she said. “The symbolism around the butterfly is one of transformation and I feel, in writing this book, I was able to carry the story of my ancestors in a different way, and that’s where the transformation comes from.”
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.
Langara College recently held the closing ceremony for Writing Lives: The Holocaust Memoir Project, a two-semester collaboration between Langara College, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) and the Azrieli Foundation.
At the April 26 event, Dr. Rachel Mines, a member of Langara’s English department and coordinator of the project, described Writing Lives.
“In the first semester of this project,” she said, “students learned about the European Jewish culture and the Holocaust in the classroom, through studying historical and literary texts. They also researched and wrote a paper on prewar European Jewish communities.
“In the second term, students were teamed up with their survivor partners. They interviewed the survivors, transcribed the interviews and turned the transcriptions into written memoirs. The memoirs will be archived and possibly published, and they will also serve as legacies for the survivors and their families.”
Mines also relayed a message from Melanie Mark, B.C. minister of advanced education, skills and training.
“The Writing Lives project gives a voice to Holocaust survivors and teaches us about the type of courage and resilience it takes to overcome injustice,” said Mark in her statement. “These emotional and moving stories help connect people from different cultures and inspire us to do better for each other. I am proud to be part of a government that is committed to building a vision of reconciliation through the adoption and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. As an indigenous minister whose grandparents went to residential school, as the first person who ever graduated from high school in my family and went to college and university, I know the power of education. I know how transformative it is and how impactful it can be on our communities. Thank you for being truth tellers and helping to keep these stories alive in the minds of people.”
Gene Homel, former chair of the liberal studies department at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, encouraged students to consider entering the fields of history, politics or literature.
“History is very important in providing context to some disturbing developments, not so much in Canada but other parts of the world, which are not as fortunate as Canada,” he said. “History is a scientific-based discipline, and that kind of approach is all the more important in the context of fake news and alternative facts. It is very important that the stories be told, and for us to take an inclusive but evidence-based and scientific approach to history.”
“When I invited the survivors in this program,” said Dr. Ilona Shulman Spaar, education director at the VHEC, “I mentioned two things: first, I expressed that the VHEC is confident that the experience of meeting with a Holocaust survivor will prove meaningful for the students and, secondly, I mentioned that I hope the survivors, too, will benefit from this opportunity. Listening to the positive feedback that I received from both the students and the survivors, and looking at the overall outcome of this project, I am glad to see that my hopes for this program became true.”
Serge Haber, a Holocaust survivor and a Writing Lives participant, talked about the significance of his memoir. “It is very crucial to me, because, for the last 35 years, I have been thinking of writing my experience in this life,” he said. “I never had a chance, the time or the person to listen to me. I hated the machines that record, so [a] personal touch was very important to me. And here it was, presented by Langara. I worked with two students, and I think we created a relationship, a personal understanding of what I went through.”
Haber added, “In fact, I have never been in a concentration camp, but it is important to know that the Holocaust happened not only in camps but also in many cities around Europe, where thousands upon thousands of Jewish people, young and old alike, perished for nothing, only because they were Jewish. I profoundly remember three words that [I was told] while I was watching what was happening on the streets below, where thousands of people had been killed – my father mentioned to me, ‘Look, listen and remember.’ And I remember.”
Heather Parks, reflecting on the passion and dedication that she and her fellow students contributed to the project, shared an emotional speech.
“For their trust in us, we poured our hearts into building their legacy,” she said. “We spent our days and long nights taking words told to us in confidence. We poured our hearts – and sometimes tears – into making a story fit for the most incredible people we have had the honour of meeting. Every part of this was hard work, and every part of this was worth it. We learned so much from them.
“Besides the lessons on history, we learned what true strength means,” she said. “We learned that love can remain even after trauma, loss or heartbreak; that new love grows as lives move forward, and that time can heal many wounds, even though they may leave scars. We were lucky to have been included in this love, this trust and this experience. I am not the only one in this project – in the experience of all of us, this project was illuminating and enlightening. It was surreal and awe-inspiring in every sense of the word. The experience taught us compassion, how to listen and what it means to love in the face of hate.”
The Writing Lives closing ceremony, however, may be an end that ushered in a new beginning. According to Dr. Rick Ouellet, director of Langara College’s indigenous education and services, his department is currently taking initiatives to continue the program. Writing Lives was a collaboration in the two years it ran. Similarly, the future project would be in collaboration with organizations that are working closely with residential school survivors, such as the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society and the British Columbia Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, to establish necessary protocols and ensure the stories of survivors are respected and the students are well prepared. Though not yet finalized, Ouellet aims to initiate the new Writing Lives program in fall 2019 at Langara.
Marc Perez, a Writing Lives student participant, lives and works on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. His creative nonfiction and fiction appear in Ricepaper Magazine and PRISM international 56.3. His personal essay “On Meeting a Holocaust Survivor” is published in Zachor (May 2018).
Jannushka Jakoubovitch, a Holocaust survivor, looks at her portrait, taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Marissa Roth, part of the Faces of Survival exhibit at the VHEC. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Two new original exhibits opened at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre recently, concurrent with the opening of the centre’s redeveloped space.
Following the annual general meeting of the Vancouver Holocaust Centre Society for Education and Remembrance on June 20, attendees moved from the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Rothstein Theatre to the Holocaust centre for the official opening of the exhibits and a first look at the revamped space. (An article on the centre’s renewal project will appear in a future issue.)
Both exhibits emphasize local relevance of broader Holocaust history.
In Focus: The Holocaust through the VHEC Collection includes items that the Holocaust centre has assembled over decades. Thematic aspects of Shoah history are illustrated through documents, photographs and artifacts. Interactivity is incorporated through replica items in adjacent drawers, which visitors can handle and explore. Electronic kiosks encourage deeper and broader exploration of topics, including cross-referenced databases that connect, for example, all holdings related to an individual, a place, an event or other search query.
Among the items on display are a yellow Star of David worn in the Theresienstadt camp in Czechoslovakia, a fragment of a prayer book burned during Kristallnacht in 1938 and found on the street in Berlin after the violence temporarily subsided, and a photo album of life in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation, created from negatives that were developed in 1981 and donated to the VHEC.
Also on display is a Torah scroll from Prague, which, along with 100,000 other Czechoslovakian Jewish religious objects, was gathered by the Central Jewish Museum in Prague at the behest of Nazi officials.
A souvenir pin from the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, featuring a replica of the Brandenburg Gate, and a porcelain figurine of an idealized Aryan woman produced around the same time speak to that portentous international sporting event.
Artifacts from life in hiding include a wooden toy dog that belonged to local child survivor Robert Krell. Among the most unusual items on display is a chess set modeled from chewed bread and sawdust, then painted and varnished.
“These finely articulated pieces are believed to be the work of a Polish Jewish man interned in the Warsaw Ghetto,” according to the exhibit descriptor. “He likely offered the set to a soldier stationed as a guard in the ghetto, in exchange for food.”
Photographs illustrate life in the ghettos, life in hiding and the “Holocaust by bullets,” the process of mass murder in Eastern Europe perpetrated by Einstatzgruppen (Nazi death squads) and collaborators.
Also on display is a recipe book compiled by Rebecca Teitelbaum, the aunt of Vancouver-area Holocaust survivor Alex Buckman. While working in a Siemens ammunition factory in the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück, the exhibit explains, “At great risk of being discovered and killed, she stole pencils and paper to record her recipes and those of other inmates.”
A child’s shoe recovered from the Kanada barracks at Auschwitz II-Birkenau is on exhibit. “This shoe, belonging to a child of age 3 or 4, was retrieved after the Second World War. Young children deported to Auschwitz were among the first to be selected for the gas chambers. An estimated one million Jewish children were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust – 220,000 children died in Auschwitz alone.”
Also on display is a letter, dated April 20, 1945, from U.S. soldier Tom Perry to his wife Claire after arriving in the liberated Buchenwald concentration camp.
“I want to write you tonight about one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had, as well of as one of the most horrible things I have ever seen.… With the idea not of pleasing you, for what I saw there was really too horrible to be seen by any decent human being. But with the thought that as my wife you would want to share with me my most horrible as well as my pleasant experiences. And because I think the rest of the family and our friends should know from personal observations what bestial things the Nazis have done, and what a dreadful menace they have been to people all over the world.” The letter proceeds in graphic detail.
The second exhibit is even more intimately connected with the local community. Faces of Survival: Photographs by Marissa Roth consists of portraits of British Columbians who survived the Shoah. Roth, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who created a similar exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance / Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles, took portraits of survivor volunteers, including both past and present VHEC outreach speakers and board members. In cases where the survivors themselves have passed away, the portraits feature family members holding a photo of the survivor.
The subjects were asked two questions: “Why do you think it is important to remember the Holocaust?” and “What message do you want to convey to students?” From their answers, captions were created to accompany the portraits in the exhibition, which was made possible by the Diamond Foundation.
Accompanying Agi Bergida’s portrait are the words: “My great hope is in the young people, the new generation. Racism is ignorance, to which the answer is education.”
Marion Cassirer, who died in Vancouver in 2014, is pictured in a photograph held by her daughter, Naomi Cassirer. “The Holocaust happened a long time ago, but for our family and for many others, it never ended,” said her daughter. “Marion spent the rest of her life speaking to groups about her family’s experiences, hoping that people would learn and understand that no society is immune.”
Serge Haber said, “It is important to remember the Holocaust because it can happen again, and it can happen here.”
A photograph of the late Paul Heller, held by his daughter Irene Bettinger, is accompanied by her words: “Dangerous human behaviour continues to this day, including antisemitism. Every one of us must participate in efforts to combat such behaviour if our freedoms and democracies are to survive.”
Accompanying Evelyn Kahn’s portrait are her words: “In a world where the media reports events absent of historical truth, the most essential tool becomes survivor testimony.”
The photograph of Peter Parker, who survived Birkenau and Dachau as well as a death march and died in Vancouver in 2015, includes words from his 1987 testimony: “Every human being has good and bad in them, we are capable of the highest noble things and the lowest deeds.”
Claude Romney, who survived in hiding, said: “We, as the last witnesses, have a duty to warn the world of the dangers of targeting any ethnic or religious group; for discrimination and persecution can lead to extermination, as it did under the Nazis.”
The late Bronia Sonnenschein was a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto, Birkenau and Stuthoff concentration camps and a death march from Dresden to Theresienstadt. Dan Sonnenschein, her son, said, “In her many years of Holocaust education, my mother honoured not only the memory of the murder victims and the other victims who survived, but understood the virulent intensity of antisemitism as ‘the longest hatred’ and the need to combat its current forms.”
Louise Stein Sorensen, a survivor of the Amsterdam Ghetto who survived in hiding, said: “The Holocaust teaches us to arm ourselves against the abuse of human rights.”
Both exhibits continue until next year, and information on opening hours and other details can be found at vhec.org.
After the routine business of the annual general meeting, Dr. Ilona Shulman Spaar, VHEC education director, presented the 2018 Meyer and Gita Kron and Ruth Kron Sigal Award to educators Sharon Doyle of South Delta Secondary and Julie Mason of David Oppenheimer Elementary in Vancouver. The award recognizes excellence in Holocaust education and genocide awareness in B.C. elementary and high schools.
Ed Lewin, past president of the organization, conferred life fellowships on Ethel Kofsky and Dr. Martha Salcudean.
Introductions and explanations of the new exhibitions, as well as of the renovated centre, were presented by Nina Krieger, VHEC executive director, architect Brian Wakelin, principal of Public: Architecture + Communication, and Shulman Spaar. Hodie Kahn offered reflections from a second-generation perspective.
This academic year marks the second session of Writing Lives, a two-semester project at Langara College, coordinated by instructor Dr. Rachel Mines. Writing Lives is a partnership between Langara, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, and the Azrieli Foundation. Last fall, students learned about the Holocaust by studying literary and historical texts. In January, students began interviewing local Holocaust survivors and are now in the process of writing the survivors’ memoirs, based on the interviews. Students are keeping journals of their personal reflections on their experiences as Writing Lives participants. They used their most recent journal entry to reflect on the topic of The Importance of Memoirs. Here are two excerpts.
Memories are our experiences: our interactions with people we love or hate, our communication with the ever-changing world. Our memories remind us of our moral values, our knowledge, our appreciation of our own lives, and perhaps our own inadequacy in being the person that we wanted to be. Our memories are a true reflection of who we are, and that is exactly why they are our most valuable asset.
Writing down our memories is a great way to retain them and, hence, it is meaningful to write a memoir on behalf of David, a man who has experienced one of the most controversial and complex events in history – the Holocaust – so that his memories will be retained in concrete form and can be passed on to many generations. I believe David’s descendants, and anyone who cares about other human beings, will be inspired by what David fought for in the past and will be grateful for what they have. Sometimes, we take food and safety, peace and dignity, the privilege to love and to be loved, for granted, and we forget about the unfortunate ones.
Most importantly, memoirs of Holocaust survivors are a stern reminder of the fact that we humans can turn into perpetrators for not so obvious reasons. It would be wrong for us to think that, since we are civilized, rational, educated people, we cannot become perpetrators. We have come to realize that it is not the case that only psychotic or inherently evil people can harm others in callous and appalling ways. The Holocaust has demonstrated that hatred, racism, conflicts between religions and a sense of insecurity can easily be used to justify our wrongdoings. With the real-life experiences of survivors recorded in memoirs, hopefully people will never forget this painful lesson in human history.
– Bonnie Pun
Storytelling is a phenomenon that all manners of societies and cultures have practised since the hominid species first learned to communicate. We use stories to convey social values and wisdom. In Western society, thanks to pioneers such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers, storytelling forms the bedrock of modern counseling practice. The intimacy of sharing a story with a compassionate and safe person can literally transform a life. Stories transmit meaning, both individually and socially. It’s as simple and complex as that.
Memoirs are a place where individuals can encounter and transform their experience into one that has larger meaning. On a societal level, projects like Writing Lives present the human experience and personal costs of the atrocities that have occurred. The personal narrative transforms historical facts into real and impactful events that can be felt, if not fully understood.
The Holocaust is so often constructed and taught as an historical anomaly, a mysterious evil; however, the fact of the matter is that it is a story of social relationships. Sadly, “stories” such as this have occurred far too frequently over the last 70 years. Globally, we have seen genocidal processes of hate in countries such as former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Russia, Sudan … the list goes on. As our neighbour to the south, the United States, struggles with an ideological divide that has become so significant it is now one of the countries monitored by the NGO Genocide Watch, memoirs from the Holocaust become particularly important here in the Western world. I think it is sometimes easy to look at racially motivated brutality in the second and third worlds and feel a certain sense of safety. These memoirs confront us with a different reality, one which is too important to ignore.
Many child survivors of the Holocaust did not identify as survivors – and were not deemed so by other survivors, including their parents – until decades after the end of the Second World War. The emergence and evolution of the unique experiences of child survivors was the subject of the Yom Hashoah keynote address in Vancouver by Dr. Robert Krell, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.
Local survivors of the Shoah and their families, as well as the premier, cabinet ministers and other elected officials, joined hundreds more in Vancouver and Victoria to commemorate Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, earlier this month. An event presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre took place at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on April 11 and another took place at the B.C. legislature in Victoria the following day.
In his presentation, Krell spoke about how he was liberated at the age of 5, having been a hidden child in the Netherlands. From the only family he knew, he was returned to the parents of his birth.
“My father and mother’s parents – my grandparents – and their brothers and sisters – my uncles and aunts – had all been murdered,” he said. “I learned about being Jewish at home, hearing stories from survivors who returned. They spoke of Auschwitz and other mysterious places in Yiddish, ably translated by my second cousin, 8-year-old Millie, who had returned from Switzerland with her parents. We heard things no child should hear and, therefore, listened all the more attentively.
“That was my introduction to Judaism, an unforgettable litany of horrors visited upon Jews that imprinted on my mind,” said Krell. “So far as I knew … being a Jew meant death, for everyone was dead, save one first cousin and Millie.”
Finding one’s way through the present with such a burden was an added challenge. “The task of being normal when you know you are not is all-encompassing,” he said. “What I did not realize then was how deeply affected we children were by the events of the Shoah and how intimately the traumatic consequences were entwined with our daily existence.”
While at UBC, in his small private practice, Krell began to see the children of Holocaust survivors. “And, from them, I learned of the impact of the Shoah on survivor families.”
During this period, he was spearheading Holocaust education initiatives in the province, including the Holocaust Symposium for high school students, which will have its 42nd iteration on May 2, and video recording survivor testimonies. “But there was one overriding issue that became the driving force of my preoccupations,” Krell said. “I discovered child Holocaust survivors. That may sound strange…. They did not need to be discovered. But they had disappeared from view. For almost 40 years, child survivors did not identify themselves as survivors. Immediately after the war, children were discouraged from talking about their experiences. In any case, said adults, you were too young to have memories, lucky you. Therefore, you did not suffer like we did.
“Other well-meaning adults urged children to forget in order to get on with their lives. That is not how it works,” said the psychiatrist. “Traumatic memories experienced in early childhood are not forgotten. They remain and they return.”
Throughout the 1980s, child Holocaust survivors began to speak with each other and to the public. In 1991, 1,600 people, primarily child survivors and their families, gathered in New York. “The workshops provided a safe environment in which participants gained self-awareness and much-needed relief,” said Krell.
Yom Hashoah corresponds to the 27th day of Nissan in the Hebrew calendar, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the uprising, which began on April 19, 1943. “The ghetto fighters were able to hold out for nearly a month,” said Vivian Claman, a member of the second generation at the Vancouver event. “On May 16, 1943, the revolt ended and a total of 13,000 Jews died. It was the largest single revolt of Jews during the Second World War.”
Jody Wilson-Raybould, federal minister of justice, also addressed the audience. “I want to say that we hear you, we honour your lived experiences and your stories, and we renew our commitment, and we reaffirm our vigilance to speak out against antisemitism, to speak out against xenophobia, to speak out against any form of racism or intolerance as unacceptable in this country and throughout the world,” she said.
Councilor Raymond Louie, acting mayor of Vancouver, read the proclamation from city hall. Kaddish was led by Chaim Kornfeld, a survivor. Eric Wilson played cello, and singers included Advah Soudack, Kathryn Palmer and Mia Givon. Wendy Bross Stuart played piano and, with Ron Stuart, were artistic producers. The ceremony ended, as is tradition, with “Zog Nit Keynmol,” the Partisan Song.
* * *
B.C. Premier John Horgan quoted Elie Wiesel: “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
“That’s why it’s so important,” said Horgan in the legislature’s Hall of Honour, “that, on Yom Hashoah, we acknowledge, as a society … that this may never happen again provided – provided – we don’t let time and the sands of history go through our fingers and we remember the words of the survivors that I was fortunate enough to hear today and we remember the millions and millions of lives that were lost because of hate, intolerance and because people didn’t stand up fast enough.”
Selena Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing, who is Jewish, emceed the commemoration. MLAs of all parties were present. British Columbia is the only province with a Yom Hashoah commemoration in the legislature.
“We are here today to think deeply on one of the darkest moments in human history so we can remember and, in our remembering, stop it from happening again,” she said.
Opposition MLA Sam Sullivan said, “It is only through knowledge and recognition of humanity’s worst capabilities, including the profound banality of evil, that we can strive for ensuring justice and good in the world and ensure that such heinous acts will not happen again.”
Judy Darcy, minister of mental health and addictions, shared the story of how her father hid his Jewishness with the intention of protecting his family after he survived the Second World War in Europe. Darcy shared the story with the Independent last year. (See the Feb. 24, 2017, issue.)
Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Carey Brown chanted El Maleh Rachamim and an adaptation of the Kaddish, also by Wiesel, which includes the names of camps and other places Jews were interned. Members of the audience spoke out names of places that they or family members came from or experienced.
MLA Nicholas Simons played Kol Nidre on the viola while Holocaust survivors Daniel Wollner, Alex Buckman, Rita Akselrod, Suzi Deston and Edith Matous lit candles. Another candle was lit by Nathan Kelerstein, a member of the second generation. A seventh candle was lit by representatives of other groups targeted by the Nazis, including people with disabilities, who were represented by Meyer Estrin and his mother Tzvia Estrin; Peter Csicsai of the Romani Canadian Alliance; and Jonathan Lerner, in memory of gender- and sexuality-divergent peoples. A group of young people, led by Hannah Faber, sang.
Micha Menczer, a Victoria lawyer who deals with First Nations and aboriginal rights, spoke as a child of a survivor of the Shoah. His mother, he said, spoke frequently of the non-Jews who risked their lives to save or help Jews.
“I learned also that, while Jews were a central target, others were attacked, deported and killed because of their race, political or religious belief, disability or sexual orientation,” he said. “Very importantly, my mother taught me that this does not diminish the memory of the Shoah or those who perished to give full recognition to the pain of other people and to the heroism of non-Jews who helped at great risk to themselves. It takes nothing away from our collective memory as Jews to honour those people and remember others who suffered.”
This academic year marks the second session of Writing Lives, a two-semester project at Langara College, coordinated by instructor Dr. Rachel Mines. Writing Lives is a partnership between Langara, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Azrieli Foundation. Last fall, students learned about the Holocaust by studying literary and historical texts. In January, students began interviewing local Holocaust survivors and are now in the process of writing the survivors’ memoirs, based on the interviews. Students are keeping journals of their personal reflections on their experiences as Writing Lives participants. They used their most recent journal entry to reflect on the topic of Multicultural Perspectives. Here are a few excerpts.
It’s been more than half a year since I decided to join the Writing Lives program. The historical context should have been enough motivation for me to join when I first heard of the program about a year ago, but I hesitated. I’d never done a writing project as large or as important as this. I felt that my skills and experience were inadequate in preserving the stories of Holocaust survivors. I still feel that way.
As a child and then later, as a student of history, I regarded my sources as just that: sources. The stories I listened to were filtered, edited for a younger audience. The books and films I read and watched were similarly altered. As I delved into the history and historiography of it all, I had an inkling in the back of my mind that people actually lived through these events, experienced them. But the moment our survivor partner started telling his story, it really struck me that yes, this is real, these are real people.
This project isn’t just a curiosity, an interest – it has become more of a duty. It has been mentioned many times since the program started that it is crucial for these stories to be told, written down and passed on, for time is running out. I never felt the gravity of that responsibility until we heard the history from someone who saw it with his own eyes.
– J.V. Malabrigo
Courses like Writing Lives are a reminder of the damage complacency can cause. Without knowledge, without tolerance, we are doomed to walk in circles until our hatred ends our capacity to recognize each other as human beings. We will fail to recognize that we all bleed, cry, laugh and need each other to survive.
I have learned the beauty of a human story. I have learned what it truly means to be triumphant and what it means to be a survivor. I am learning what it means to achieve true greatness and compassion, despite the lack of it that is shown to so many. I have explored the reality of how complacency may be our true enemy. I have learned that ignorance and acceptance of extremism means turning off our humanity and letting hatred rule minds and hearts alike.
We see history as ancient stories…. Through this class, I understand how to immortalize living, breathing history and to show a history of peace and love coming out of trauma and violence.
– Heather Parks
The Writing Lives program has had a significant impact on me. I hope to become an elementary school teacher, specifically teaching a primary grade (kindergarten to Grade 3). Holocaust education may be out of my hands in terms of the curriculum, but there is a major, never-ending lesson that I take away from this experience. I hope to teach my students the importance of embracing and celebrating our differences.
When someone looks different from us, celebrates different holidays, eats different food – whatever the case may be – these are opportunities to learn and to love. If there are things we notice about each other that we don’t understand, there are ways to respectfully ask questions. We will always have differences of views and opinions, but the most important thing to remember is that no single person’s opinion is “proper” or more important than anyone else’s. Our differences make us unique. Our differences are what make the world such an amazing place. If we remember the importance of respect and understanding, we can ensure that we will never see another Holocaust.
– Chelsea Riva
My father is Chinese South African. Born in 1965 in Johannesburg, South Africa, he grew up in the final stages of apartheid. This racist system denied people of colour, namely black people, basic human rights and dignity. Laws were based on the race or colour of a person and, while laws were well-defined for most ethnic groups, Chinese people in South Africa were such a small minority that most of their daily lives fell into a legal grey area. In this system, Chinese people were above black people, below white people. Chinese people in some cases would be allowed into white institutions but could be refused service at the discretion of the owner. While Chinese people were given certain privileges, at the end of the day, my family was denied the full rights of humanity. They had to carry identification cards, they were victims of racism and their lives were constructed in fear of punishment from a racist system whose punishment was seemingly random.
My mother is Japanese. Born in 1965 in Hiroshima, Japan, she grew up in a conservative society that often refuses to talk about its violent history of invasion, colonialism and war. This is not to say that my mother herself denies this history, but, in general, Japanese people become uncomfortable when discussing the role of Japan as an invading force in Asia. Numerous Japanese war crimes remain unacknowledged to this day, and even those that have been acknowledged have never reached the same global recognition as the crimes of the Holocaust.
It is unfair to compare separate instances of invasion, imprisonment or murder. The discrimination my father experienced was distinctive and had similarities to the Holocaust, but by no means was it the same. The invading history of my mother’s homeland was horrific, but to compare the actions of the Japanese army and government to those of the Nazis dilutes the complicated issues of Japanese society while disrespecting the unique experience of those terrorized by the Japanese. However, it was with knowledge of these two sides of my family, both Chinese and Japanese, that I took this class.
Taking this class did not change my perspective of the Holocaust. Instead, the Holocaust became more real, more detailed. I came to this class with the utmost respect for what we were studying and with an intense desire to do something that “mattered,” which is a common goal for many people my age. What I didn’t expect was to form such a personal connection with our survivor. I didn’t expect for it to become so real that I would break down crying.
My experience in this class has been enriching in ways that I didn’t expect. I don’t think that I can say this class changed me, but it deepened the ideas of legacy that I held because of my background, and it helped personalize the Holocaust. My family’s history helped me form a deep respect for my elders. Because of them, I learned that there is power in the retelling of stories told with fear, shame and beauty. I have family that comes from the side of both the oppressed and the oppressors, and this informed my perspective and my need to take this class.