Features | Lest we forget

The 28th annual Holocaust Education Week honours Shoah victims, and calls on our generation to remember and retell their stories

When you see the mountain of human ashes at Majdanek Death camp in rural Poland, maybe you’ll understand. When you stand inside the small room with low ceilings, stained green from continuous Zyklon B use, maybe you’ll understand. When you place your hand on that filmy wall, and find five scratch marks from a small hand, maybe you’ll understand. But when you hear the testimony of those who survived the Holocaust, the Shoah, you will understand.

When asked if he believes that there is another Holocaust occurring today, Auschwitz survivor Hermann Gruenwald responds that “yes, unfortunately human beings have not changed as much as we would have liked. The Holocaust as we know it, the actual killing machine of the Nazis, won’t happen again to the same extent. The whole world knew that Jews were being singled out and still they did not help. Today, with communication systems so advanced, we know what is going on in every part of the world almost as soon as it happens. Unfortunately, we are still not as effective as we could be in helping developing countries deal with their conflicts.” The world looked away nearly 70 years ago, and did not look back until 11-million lives were taken. Our minds are saturated today with images of death and destruction, leaving many of us desensitized to present and past violence occurring worldwide. Although we are quick to send cheques and journalists to countries where genocide and crimes against humanity are being committed, we are often so far removed from these situations, or so self-involved, that we turn the other way.

This is no lecture, nor is it a clichéd sermon about how to fix the world. There is mass carnage going on today, robbing the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. If we continue to turn a blind eye toward the atrocities occurring on our planet, there is no telling how many innocent lives will be lost.

Holocaust Education Week began its 28th consecutive year on November 2. Throughout the week, survivors of the Holocaust will share their stories through interactive programming and addresses throughout the week. Many programs also include film and documentaries.

In my senior year, a friend of my grandmother’s, survivor George Brady, visited my class. After he had finished speaking to us, students bombarded him with questions, and to each one, he gave an answer. My grandmother, a survivor of Ravensbrück who lost her mother only days after the liberation of the camps, has also spoken many times to student groups, organizations, and high school programs. She embraces a “carpe diem” lifestyle – waking up at 7 a.m. daily for a round of tennis, running around with her grandchildren, and spending time outside.

Although many survivors are willing to share their experiences and teach about the Shoah, it’s important to realize that they will not be around forever, and soon Holocaust Education Week will soon be a matter of second-hand learning and teaching. The power of listening to a survivor testimony in person cannot be compared to hearing a recording, watching a film, or reading about it in a book. We must listen to survivors’ stories now, so we can retell them when they are gone. Carrying on the memory of the Holocaust respects those who suffered, but also because, in remembering, we close the door for new holocausts to occur. “[We must] help people be educated and hear the stories from those who may not be here 15, ten, or five years from now,” said my Holocaust survivor grandmother, Vera Gold. It is crucial that our generation listen to the survivors, because soon we will be the only ones to tell their stories. The absence of humanity during the Shoah is what reminds survivors of how monstrous human beings can be, and how the brutal slaughter of millions was justified through the racist notion of “cultural cleansing.” Yet the survivors’ stories allow our generation to understand that human compassion and courage were not lost, even during the worst of the Holocaust’s horrors. “As prisoners, we had hope – we knew we had to survive and carry on to tell the story to the rest of the world,” says Gruenwald. “I have come to realize that during inhumane times, helping others makes us feel human again.”

In 2006, I traveled to Poland on the March of the Living, an organized trip with several classmates. After I visited the Majdanek death camp, which could be brought back into full operation in a matter of hours, we made our way through barracks covered with initials etched into the walls. In one of the camps, piles of human hair, shaved from Jewish victims, were encased behind glass walls. Although I didn’t see the camps where members of my family were prisoners – Bergen Belsen, Buchenwald, and Ravensbrück, all located in Germany – I read aloud my grandmother’s story while standing in a forest clearing that was once Treblinka, one of the deadliest concentration camps in Poland where only one inmate was ever rumoured to have escaped.

When asked what the first thing that comes to mind when she hears the word “Holocaust,” fellow March of the Living alumnus, Sarah Guberman’s answer is simple: “It is the survivors – a generation of strong, dedicated, and passionate Jews,” she says.

“I live each day to its fullest, as I have all my life,” says Gold. “I do not worry excessively about things over which I have no control.” By living each day to its full potential, my grandmother has rebuilt her life after the Holocaust, while remembering the horrors of the Shoah. My grandmother presses on another reason why we need to hear survivors’ stories, a lesson I rarely have time to consider, between coffee runs, midterms, and class: “you have to look for happiness for yourself, because everyday you should find something that makes you happy. You cannot forever mourn, and in every sad situation, make a point of making something good out of it,” she insists.

– Kortney Shapiro

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In a recent conference, we discussed the notion of information as a panacea, essentially functioning as a cure-all for the world’s ills. We often find ourselves bombarded by facts or anecdotes about poverty rates in Sub-Saharan Africa, about starving children in major cities in North America, about genocides being perpetrated the world over; and we are appalled time and time again. Unfortunately, there is a certain level of comfort in believing that we are somehow making a difference simply by being aware of these atrocities. We have been raised with the assumption that knowledge is power, but we must realize that knowledge alone is no longer enough. Information can no longer function as an excuse for inaction.

So, why Holocaust Education Week? How can we justify yet another drawn-out history lesson in a world vainly admonishing us to learn from the mistakes of the past? We are inundated with the message of “never again,” but somehow remain apathetic. The only answer is for us to finally go one step further. Our generation’s task is not to learn from history, but ultimately to apply what we have so often been instructed. Knowledge may be power, but perhaps it is time for us to live by a new adage – there can be no doubt that actions speak louder than words. A week devoted to understanding the lessons of the Holocaust is merely a starting point, but it is a significant one. And if we can make that leap, let’s have the courage to put our McGill education to practical use. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Great thoughts speak only to the thoughtful mind, but great actions speak to all mankind.”

– Hartlee Zucker

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Amidst falling stocks and disappearing investments many of us have contemplated what spawned the current global economic crisis. Common responses include some mention of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the sub-prime interest level. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization that fights anti-Semitism, other responses found on popular finance web site message boards have accused Jewish people of taking control of Wall street, and potentially even the entire economy. At first glance, these statements bear a chilling resemblance to those made over seven decades ago by a rising Adolf Hitler. The reality is that despite retaining a tinge of Hitler’s 1919 statements about Jews who only want “money and power,” they were in fact made only a few weeks ago. What is still more alarming is that these claims do not stand alone. As Abe Foxman, national director of the ADL said in a press release from Anti-Semitism: USA, “we know from modern history that whenever there is a downturn in the global economy, there will be an upturn in the level of anti-Semitism and bigotry.” The worldwide financial meltdown has triggered a significant escalation in anonymous anti-Semitic comments posted on several popular and highly visited websites, including Yahoo! Finance and AOL Money and Finance.

Although these comments often come under heavy fire from other web site users and by no means represent the majority opinion, I believe that the sudden increase in their incidence calls for both recognition and self-reflection on all of our parts. This is particularly true today, at the beginning of a week devoted to remembering the lessons learnt from the Holocaust.

In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Convention on Genocide to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust do not repeat themselves. The promise of “never again” was unanimously pledged. But it has happened again – not against the Jewish people, but against the Tutsis, the Kosovars, the Darfurians. It is surely up to us and our leaders to make sure that this list does not continue to grow.

The promise of “never again,” however, is not simply a vow to prevent and punish genocide. It is an oath of tolerance, acceptance, justice, righteousness, and an end to bigotry and racism. This promise was made on behalf of every man and women in the 137 countries that ratified the Convention on Genocide. Today, preserving this promise rests squarely with us: in our daily discourse; at our dinner tables; in our classrooms; and even in our comments and reactions on the Web. Lord Acton, a well-known British historian, stated that “all that is needed for the triumph of evil is that good people be silent.” This is no less true today than it was 70 years ago. In our day and age, however, the sound of tolerance need not even be loud; the subtle clicking noise of an individual typing a countervailing response to an anti-Semitic comment may suffice.

– Corey Omer

Holocaust week calender

November 3

Information and memorial tables, lighting of Yahrzeit candles
11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Bronfman Bldg., 1001 Sherbrooke W.

Address by Holocaust survivor and author Hermann Gruenwald, followed by Q&A
7 p.m., Hillel House, 3460 Stanley

November 4

Annual eleven-hour “Reading of the Names,” commemorating all known Holocaust victims
10 a.m. to 9 p.m., crossroads, lower campus

November 5

Information and memorial tables, lighting of Yahrzeit candles
11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Bronfman Bldg., 1001 Sherbrooke W.

November 6

Blue clothing day
In honour of Holocaust victims and survivors
All day

November 7

Information and memorial tables, lighting of Yahrzeit candles
11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Redpath Library

Shabbat dinner with Holocaust survivors
7 p.m., Hillel House, 3460 Stanley, $10


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