SASKATOON — Some 2,100 students gathered in Saskatoon’s Catholic cathedral April 18 to hear Holocaust survivor Nate Leipciger speak about his experience in Nazi concentration camps, in an event organized by the local synagogue, Congregation Agudas Israel.
Listening in rapt attention at the Cathedral of the Holy Family, students heard how Leipciger’s family members were killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and the horrors and hardships he and his father endured before being liberated by the American army on May 2, 1945.
Throughout his presentation, Leipciger engaged his listeners by inviting them to imagine themselves in the situation that he found himself in, as a boy in Poland living with persecution and fear after the Nazi invasion, and then as a 15-year-old told to pack one small bag and board a box car with his family, “jammed together like sardines,” and taken to Auschwitz (Birkenau).
Leipciger described the despair and suffering of his years of captivity, and how the prisoners would cry to God: “How come people are being murdered in cold blood and the whole world is not turning upside down? How come the water is not turning to blood? How come there is no miracle to save millions of people? And how come the world is silent?”
Leipciger and his father survived the camps and the forced march of prisoners by the Nazis when they began retreating from the advancing allied forces. More than once it was the determination of his father to keep them together that saved their lives.
Among their large extended family, only two of his mother’s sisters survived the Holocaust, because they were hidden at great risk by “unusual, special, extraordinary people . . . bright stars in an otherwise black sky,” said Leipciger.
“There is charity and there is such a thing as compassion, and that is what we are asked,” he told the gathering.
“We are asked to be compassionate toward the new immigrants, toward our fellow citizens, that may have different traditions, a different background, a different religion. And we are asked to have compassion and accept them the way they are, provided they accept us, and that we have mutual respect. Those are the operating words: mutual respect.”
Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky of Congregation Agudas Israel said that partnering with the Catholic Church to hold the annual Holocaust awareness event at the Cathedral of the Holy Family would have seemed unbelievable to previous generations.
“Many things have changed, and I am so happy to be here, and I am so proud of our relationship with the Catholic Church,” said the rabbi. He recalled the biblical story of the conflict between Jacob and his brother Esau, and how when Jacob awoke from his dream of a ladder to heaven, he declared the spot a holy place, saying, “Certainly, God is in this place, and I didn’t know that” (Gen 28:16).
The cathedral is “a house of God for us, too,” said Jodorkovsky. This is not because God is in the walls or in the bricks, but because “God is in the relationship; God is where we live in peace. God is when we live in friendship.”
The 50th anniversary of the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate was recently celebrated, marking a transformation of Jewish-Catholic relations, he noted. “But more important than declarations, is what we do with the declarations,” Jodorkovsky said. “And in Saskatoon we have such a deep and beautiful relationship between Jews and Catholics — we are so proud and thankful for that.”
Invited by Jodorkovsy to offer greetings, Bishop Donald Bolen said it was a privilege to partner with Congregation Agudas Israel to host the event.
“I think this is as important an event as any that has ever taken place in this cathedral,” said Bolen. “And hearing the memory of what happened, hearing the witness, hearing what human beings are capable of doing, is sobering for all of us.”
The Catholic community has a role to play in preserving that memory and in working for healing, said the bishop. “Many Christians were complicit in what happened. Many Nazis were Christians, many were Catholics. Presumably even during the terrible period of persecution of Jews, many of the Nazis would have gone to church. Many more were silent, while evil happened in their midst.
“There is a wound that needs to be addressed and a healing that is needed; and (there is) a summons for us today to stand in solidarity; to carry and give witness to that memory,” he said, thanking Leipciger for the blessing of his words and of his presence.
Leipciger then stepped forward and embraced the bishop, laying his hands upon Bolen’s head and quietly conveying a blessing.
Judge David Arnot, chief commissioner of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, described the event as historic. “This is part of reconciliation. Saskatoon is a model for Canada, it is a model for this country,” Arnot said, pointing to the leadership of Jodorkovsky and Bolen. “These two spiritual leaders are committed to social justice. What they want for this community — what they want for this province and this country and this world — is harmony.”
Just as the events of the Holocaust led to the creation of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and the “rights revolution,” ongoing steps toward reconciliation will bring about a 21st-century “responsibility revolution,” Arnot told the students gathered for the event. “Every citizen must take responsibility,” he said.
“I hope, having heard this story, you strive to be the best Canadian citizen you can possibly be, to be an engaged citizen, to be an empowered citizen, to be an empathetic citizen, and to be an ethical citizen,” he said.
The event concluded with a “march of the living” around the cathedral by the students, led by Leipciger, his wife Bernice, leaders from Congregation Agudas Israel, Jodorkovsky and Bolen.
“Truly, it was an epic day,” observed Rev. David Tumback, pastor at Holy Family Cathedral. “We stood arm-and-arm with our Jewish brothers and sisters, joined in a solidarity beyond words, sharing the brutality of the Holocaust story and pledging that we would work together so that the world would never have to experience such a tragedy again.”
He added: “God was in this space.”