The other day, I was visiting my cousin’s house and we were looking at the portrait of our great-grandfather Moritz hanging on the wall. “Do you ever wonder how this portrait got here,” my cousin asked.
My great-grandfather and great-grandmother were murdered in a concentration camp during the Holocaust along with countless other members of my extended family. This was not a plague unique to my family. More than six million Jews in Europe were killed in the Holocaust.
My cousin continued, “We have these family heirlooms, this portrait, a couple of photos, furniture and dishes. I just accepted they were here. But recently I started to wonder how they got here.”
He decided to ask his father, my 95-year old great-uncle, a Holocaust survivor. This is how our family learned, for the first time, that my great-grandparents, my grandfather, and his brother, who were 16 and 13 at the time, had acquired visas to come to Canada in March of 1938 — before the dual horrors of war and Holocaust marched across Europe.
They had packed up their belongings, rented a shipping container and sent them to their cousin’s farm outside of St. Catharine’s. All that remained in Czechoslovakia, were their boat tickets to Canada, their passport-stamped visas, their suitcases and themselves. They were eager to embark on their journey to Canada — to safety and to freedom.
Then, on March 15, 1939, the Nazis came. The furniture arrived in St. Catharines, but my family was trapped under Nazi rule.
My great-grandparents would never make it to Canada. Miraculously, my grandfather and great-uncle — against all odds — survived. They experienced the unspeakable horrors of Terezin, Dachau, Auschwitz and finally, Kaufering concentration camps, where they were liberated by the U.S. Army on May 1, 1945. Eventually, both my grandparents and my great-uncle made it to Canada.
I tell this story, because it is hard to understand the murder of six million people. Six million is a huge number, but each one of those numbers was a human being, someone who was loved, who loved, who had dreams, and whose dreams were destroyed by hate, by viewing someone as not human, by genocide.
As a direct descendent of Holocaust survivors, it is my duty to tell their story, to never let their memory fade and to make sure the world remembers. This week marks Yom HaShoah. It is a time of remembrance and solemn reflection. It is deeply painful for the Jewish community, but deeply important. It is also a time for education and dialogue.
As time passes, we are seeing more and more Canadians less informed about the Holocaust. Many have not heard the horrific stories of Auschwitz and other concentration camps, where millions of people were imprisoned and murdered. Yom HaShoah is about taking the time to remember their stories, the people, and educating others on the dark history of antisemitism and hate.
This is also a time for us to reflect on our current rhetoric. Over the past few months, we have seen some try to equate public health measures taken by governments to keep Canadians safe with the genocidal policies of Nazi Germany. Such comparisons disrespect and diminish the suffering of the millions who perished, who lost loved ones and who survived at the hand of Nazi atrocities.
These comparisons also come at a time where we have seen an increase in antisemitic hate crimes and discrimination across the nation. Jewish Canadians comprise only 1 per cent of the Canadian population yet are the target of 62 per cent of all religiously motivated hate crimes
Too often we are hearing stories of synagogues being defaced, people being called slurs, and businesses being the victims of harassment. It must stop.
At the National Summit on Antisemitism last year, to tackle hate in all its forms, our government committed to take further action. This has led to further planned funding commitments in institutions, like the Montreal Holocaust Museum, Vancouver Jewish Community Centre and Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto.
These institutions are beacons in our communities and keepers of knowledge. They keep the stories and the lessons of this chapter in history alive so that we may remember for generations to come. These investments in building community are also paired with proposed legislation to amend the Criminal Code to ensure that denying or downplaying the Holocaust is captured.
I also look to other leaders, like our Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and combating Antisemitism, the Honourable Irwin Cotler, in the important work of remembrance. Through Mr. Cotler, Canada is working hard to implement the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s definition of antisemitism.
There is much work ahead. As we all acknowledge Yom HaShoah, I also implore my colleagues and friends across Canada to continue standing as allies. To think carefully about the words they use and the impact they have.
If there is one thing my grandmother, who was reunited with my grandfather after the war, taught me, it is never look at another person as if they were not human. Our humanity is what binds us, it is what must always guide us in our actions, irrespective of religion, race, creed or gender.
Together, we must remember the horrors of the past and fight to ensure safety and freedom of religion for all.