ByBERNIE BELLAN On January 25 approximately 150 individuals were in attendance at the Asper Campus for the reopening of the Holocaust Education Centre.
As Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada Executive Director Belle Jarniewski noted in her opening remarks to the audience gathered in the Berney Theatre for the event, “the museum’s very existence is thanks to the efforts of Holocaust survivors themselves who contributed to the original Holocaust Education Centre 25 years ago” when the Campus first opened.
Today, Belle noted, “the memory of the Holocaust is under siege…Survivors of the Holocaust,” of whom some 1500 – the vast majority of whom are at least in their nineties now – settled in Winnipeg after the war. (The names of all those Holocaust survivors are displayed on one of the walls of the newly renovated museum, as John Longhurst explains in the adjoining article.)
Another component of the museum, Belle added, are displays focusing on the history of anti-Semitism in Canada, beginning from the 1920s to the present day.
Jewish Federation of Winnipeg President Gutstavo Zentner, while looking out at the audience, remarked that he was “thrilled to see so many young people here tonight. I hope they put to good use the touch screens in the Holocaust Education Centre.”
Special guest speaker Irwin Cotler, Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism, who was in Israel on January 25, had recorded a 20-minute message for audience members, which was played on a large screen.
In noting the significance of the reopening of the HEC this particular week, Cotler observed that January 25, 1945 was a very important date in history for two reasons: It was on that date 78 years ago that Auschwitz was liberated, but it was also on January 25, 1945 that Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg was arrested and disappeared in Budapest – but not before he had helped to save over 100,000 Hungarian Jews from death camps.
Cotler went on to enumerate a number of lessons to be learned from the Holocaust, including that, “the abiding universal lesson to be acted upon, wherever we are, is that we are each the guarantors of each other’s humanity.”
The second lesson, Cotler stated, is that “the Holocaust was a paradigm for radical people and anti-Semitism is a paradigm for radical hate.”
“As we meet on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz,” Cotler said, “let us remember that 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz, but 1.1 million of those were
ews. Jews were murdered at Auschwitz because of anti-Semitism but anti-Semitism did not die at Auschwitz. It remains the bloody canary in the mineshaft of global evil.”
The third lesson is the danger of “state sanctioned incitement to hate and genocide.”
The fourth lesson is “the proliferation of Holocaust denial.” Cotler referred specifically to the trope in recent years of accusing Jews of “manufacturing the Covid virus and profiting from it” as a manifestation of an outgrowth of Holocaust denial.
“Fifth is the danger of silence in the face of evil,” Cotler said. “Silence means coming down on the sound of the oppressor, not on the side of the victim.”
“Number six is the danger of indifference and inaction – as in the example of the Tutsis” (in Rwanda). “What makes the Holocaust and other genocides so unspeakable are not just the atrocities themselves, it is that this could have been prevented. Nobody could say ‘we did not know.’ We knew but we didn’t act.”
What one person, Raoul Wallenberg, did, in saving 100,000 lives, “the whole international community did not,” Cotler observed.
In closing, Cotler suggested that it is not true that “if there had not been a Holocaust there would not have been a State of Israel, but rather it is the other way around: If there had been a State of Israel, there would not have been a Holocaust.”
Other speakers in the Berney Theatre on January 25 included: Mark Kantor, President of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada; Peter Flegel, Executive Director, Government of Canada’s Anti-Racism Secretariat; Andrew Smith, Manitoba Minister of Sport and Cultural Heritage; Janice Lukes, Deputy Mayor, City of Winnipeg; and Candace Hogue, who was the guest curator for the Holocaust Education Centre.
The final remarks were delivered by Holocaust survivor – and longtime educator, Edith Kimelman, who began with a wry nod to the lengthy list of speakers who had preceded her when she said: “You are quite fortunate that I am the last one to speak. I can well remember from my years as an educator the short attention spans of students the last class of the day.”
Edith noted that when she has spoken to many student groups over the years, “I was always trying to convey the perspective of a six-year-old girl and her experiences in the Holocaust.” It was her goal, she said, to explain the Holocaust to groups that are three and four generations removed from the Holocaust – and especially newcomers to Canada,” who would likely have very little knowledge of the Holocaust.
She would tell those students – also to new Canadians who had either very little knowledge of the Holocaust or none at all, that “when I arrived here (in Winnipeg) at age 14, I had nothing. All I had was the baggage of the Holocaust. Indelible trauma, however, did not prevent me from seeking a better future.”
And with that astute observation which can well sum up the experience of almost all Holocaust survivors, the portion of the evening in the Berney Theatre came to a close. At that point, while many who had been in attendance partook of refreshments, various individuals made their way to the HEC itself, where they were able to see firsthand the tremendous amount of work that had gone into its renovation.
The HEC is open during all hours that the Asper Campus is open,