This year is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. For the past 35 years Toronto has hosted “Holocaust Education Week”- a week of lectures, performances, and discussions. Some of the presentations are given by survivors of the Holocaust- Jews who survived unimaginable misery- persecution, labour camps, death marches, death camps, and witnessed the murders/ executions of friends family and neighbours.
This year’s theme is “Liberation: Aftermath & Rebirth”. The title is promising, after all rebirth is something positive. However the pain and trauma continues even when there is rebirth.
The presentations have been extraordinary. (for the list of programmes go to http://holocaustcentre.com/HEW) On Wednesday night, November 4, I attended a panel discussion entitled, “Holocaust Legacies: Born in Bergen -Belsen”. The four panelists, all of whom are Jewish, were born either in Bergen Belsen before the liberation or in the Bergen Belsen DP Camp (Displaced Persons Camp) after the liberation. They immigrated to Canada as small children. At the presentation they shared their experiences of being raised by parents traumatized by the Holocaust.
photograph of young children at the Bergen Belsen DP camp, from the JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee archives. http://archives.jdc.org/history-of-jdc/?s=archivestopnav
Their parents didn’t have families to support them emotionally. They had to process their trauma by themselves without guidance or mentors. It wasn’t until the very public Eichmann trial in 1961 (http://remember.org/eichmann/intro ) that the extent of the Nazi atrocities became public knowledge. Until the trial survivors usually kept their stories to themselves. Often the stories were too atrocious to be believed or the survivors couldn’t bear to tell their stories. Although the blanket of silence was lifted by the trial in 1961, a majority of survivors continued to keep their pain and scars secret, causing emotional hardship for themselves and their children.
In a film clip shown at the lecture one “Bergen Belsen baby” related how people don’t understand the depth of horror of the Shoah (Holocaust). People say, “There have been other genocides and mass murders- Hiroshima, Rwanda, Cambodia, and more…” Pondering the difference between those genocides and the Shoah are clear. The Shoah was the only genocide that was carefully planned to be the international destruction of an entire religion. It was the only genocide that degraded people to the level of a commodity to be killed and resold- reusing the clothing of victims, using hair as cushion stuffing, bones as soap, skin as lampshades, human beings as science experiments. Unbelievable, yet that was the depth of the depravity.
HEW is an amazing and important programme. We are given the opportunity to hear stories and witness history. We see before us heroism, strength, courage, optimism and growth.
With the cruelty being enacted in the world around us we can learn from the victories of those who survived. The lesson is: be strong. Do good things. Don’t stand idly by. And I think we also have to endeavour to look at the world and see the beauty around us every day.
And this is one of the best times of the year to enjoy the beauty around us.
Have a Shabbat Shalom and remember to appreciate your family, friends, freedom and the beauty of nature.