An important event took place in Vancouver last weekend, as hundreds of child survivors of the Holocaust convened at a downtown hotel for the conference of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants. A Shabbat dinner, moving speeches, presentations and other events were attended by survivors, their children and grandchildren, with specific programs organized with the interests and needs of each group in mind.
Attendees felt the heavy presence of time, as some reflected that these conferences are seeing fewer survivors and that the firsthand knowledge of these events will soon be carried only by the second and third generations. (See next week’s paper for coverage of the event.) Attendees, who fortunately witnessed Vancouver over a few days of autumn sunshine, raved about the welcome they received from locals and the quality of the program and the achievements of the organizers. But it is Vancouverites who should be most honoured to have been able to meet and experience the spirit and resilience of these remarkable individuals. Each survivor has a very different survival story and life history, yet they come together in part because of a need to connect with others who are most likely to understand not only the facts of their Holocaust experiences, but the unique hurdles – and, notably, the many, many achievements – of having survived and thrived after an early life of often-unimaginable challenge.
We are now amid a week of solemn remembrance – the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, on the night of Nov. 9-10, followed by Remembrance Day, Nov. 11. These weighty commemorations are an opportunity to reflect on the past and to rededicate ourselves to a world free of hatred, war and genocide.
The past cannot be undone, but restitution and reconciliation can help to take that past and, in some small ways, find meaning that restores honour and dignity to the victims and those who carry their legacies. That is one of the themes of the new exhibit just opened at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC).
Treasured Belongings: The Hahn Family and the Search for a Stolen Legacy opened Thursday, launched at the annual Kristallnacht Commemoration with a presentation by Dr. Michael Hayden, a renowned Vancouver medical researcher. Hayden’s grandparents, Max and Gertrud Hahn, who were murdered in the Holocaust, had one of Germany’s most significant collections of Judaica. The story of the survival of parts of that collection – and the ongoing efforts to locate and restitute other items – is not so much, he says, about the artifacts themselves, but about reclaiming the individuality and dignity of his grandparents and the lives that were stolen from them. (Again, next week’s paper will feature coverage of this event.)
For Hayden, the process has been emotional, sometimes rewarding, sometimes disheartening. But it is an act of dedication to restore the individuality of two of Nazism’s victims. Sheer numbers of genocide victims are almost incomprehensible, especially to young minds, which are the most critical target of contemporary Holocaust education. Intergenerational narratives like those of the Hahn-Hayden family, illuminated with tangible artifacts, are a vital means to bring this history in a meaningful way to the generations who will not have the opportunity to meet and hear testimony from those who witnessed and experienced that cataclysmic history themselves.
Those of us who have had the privilege of being entrusted with the stories of survivors, or the experiences of veterans of the wars against tyranny, must appreciate the importance of being witnesses to the witnesses. We should take a moment over this weekend to consider how we can act in our daily lives to advance a world that does justice to their memories and experiences.