International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Ottawa: A Timely and Poignant Event

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On January 27th, International Holocaust Remembrance Day was commemorated around the globe by world leaders, Holocaust survivors, educators and, most importantly, people from many walks of life.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is traceable back to January 27th, 1945. On that day, the Soviet army liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where an estimated 1.1 million people had died, one million of whom were Jews. Sixty years later, the United Nations (UN) designated the date “a day for member states to honour the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism,” including Poles, Romas, Soviet prisoners of war, and others.

Since 2010, the UN has designated themes for each year’s commemorations, focusing on a particular aspect of the Holocaust. The 2019 theme was “Holocaust Remembrance: Demand and Defend Your Human Rights.” This theme encouraged youth to learn from the lessons of the Holocaust, act against discrimination, and defend democratic values in their communities at a time when the spread of neo-Nazism and hate groups fuels rising antisemitism and other forms of hatred around the world.
In Canada, the commemoration coincided with the release of a study, conducted by Shoen Consulting on behalf of the Azrieli Foundation, that exposed “critical gaps when it comes to Holocaust awareness and knowledge among Canadian adults.” Writing in The Globe and Mail, Naomi Azrieli, Chair and CEO of the foundation, said “Our findings uncovered a fundamental lack of detailed knowledge.” She noted: “Our study shows unambiguously that the more Canadians know about the Holocaust, the less likely they are to think that neo-Nazi beliefs and actions are acceptable … a broad-scale strategy to optimize Holocaust education at the high school level can fundamentally combat the increase in neo-Nazism and antisemitism.”

Another survey, conducted by the United Kingdom’s Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and also released on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, found that in Britain, one in 20 adults do not believe the Holocaust happened. A 2018 poll conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found 22 percent of millennials said they had never heard of or weren’t sure they had heard of the Holocaust.

This data is chilling. It is essential that the Holocaust never be forgotten, and International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a timely and poignant reminder of the tragedy.

Library and Archives Canada was the scene of Ottawa’s well-attended commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, despite record-breaking cold and biting winds. The audience included local survivors Elly Bollegraaf, Judy Young Drache, Murray Citron, Ruth Katz, and Kati Morrison as well as representatives from the embassies of Israel, the Republic of Kosovo, Latvia, Hungary, Greece, and Poland.

The emcees were Neilah Shapiro and Anne Khazzam, participants in the 2018 March of the Living. Dani Taylor, a participant in the 2015 March, sang O Canada.

Eli Rubenstein, National Director of the March of the Living Canada delivered a lecture about the Holocaust and how to respond to hatred without losing our humanity. Included in his presentation was an educational and anecdotal account of “ordinary” people who stood up and did the right thing, people such as Nicolas Winton, whose Kindertransport rescued 669 children, most of whom were Jewish, from Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II. “No one survived the Holocaust without the help of another,” said Rubenstein.

A special feature of the program was the presentation of the latest acquisition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) entitled Statistics, Media, and Organizations of Jewry in the United States and Canada, compiled in 1944 by German linguist Heinz Kloss and found in the personal library of Adolf Hitler. Tables in the book list Jewish populations from coast to coast, in cities large and small, and make painfully clear the fate that awaited Jews had the Nazis reached our shores.

In introducing the book, Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada, explained that it was purchased thanks to private and public donations amounting to $4,500 USD. “It is fundamental for an institution like Library and Archives Canada ─ and other memory institutions around the world ─ to acquire, preserve, and make available documents, no matter how controversial or contentious they may be,” he said. “It allows us to educate and to advocate for the most complete historical record possible. The truth of history is woven from many sources, and it is only when history is presented in its entirety that it can support the free exchange of ideas that lie at the heart of a democratic society.”

Dr. Michael Kent, curator of the institution’s Jacob M. Lowy Collection, a rare and old Hebraica and Judaica book collection, explained that the book will be digitized and posted online through the LAC. “This information would have been the building blocks in a rolling out of the final solution in Canada, allowing perpetrators of the Holocaust to know what cities to go to find Jewish people, and how many Jews to round up,” he said.

Annette Wildgoose, a committee member of the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship (CHES) based at Carleton University, said the book is important “because it clearly identifies that Hitler had a Final Solution Plan for North America. It comes close to our shores and breaks the myth that the Holocaust was only Europe’s problem.”

Musical interludes were provided by Ralitsa Tcholakova, an internationally known, Ottawa-based violin and viola player.

In his closing remarks, Martin Sampson, the vice-president of communications for the Centre for Jewish and Israel Affairs (CIJA), spoke in support of the purchase, calling it “a tool to fight Holocaust denial.” He thanked the organizations that partnered with CIJA to host the event ─ CHES, Jewish Federation of Ottawa, LAC, and the Wallenberg Citation Initiative.

Members of the audience were then given sheets of white paper with the words “We Remember” for a group photo to be distributed through social media and projected at Auschwitz.

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