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Christian commemoration of Holocaust began in 1980

By Eric Durocher


Rev. John Baxter looks on as Jorge Falla Luque, an ecumenical animator with the Université de Québec à Montréal, lights the seventh memorial candle. (Photo by Eric Durocher)

MONTREAL (CCN) — Decades before nations started observing Holocaust Remembrance days — Germany (1996), Canada (2003), United Nations (2005) — Montrealers have been gathering to remember, to build bridges and to remain vigilant so that no group be subject to such atrocities again.

More than 400 packed Holy Family Church in Montreal’s Little Italy for the 38th Christian Commemoration of the Shoah (Holocaust). The city is home to Canada’s oldest Jewish community; the nation’s first synagogue was established here in 1768.

The 90-minute eucharistic celebration, held April 30 at the conclusion of Holocaust Remembrance Week, included the lighting of seven memorial candles and the recital of the traditional Jewish prayer for the departed, Kaddish, sung by cantor Heather Batchelor.

Holy Family pastor John Baxter presided at the liturgy; Rabbi Sherril Gilbert from Synagogue Dorshe Emet joined him for the commemoration service.

Following the homily, which emphasized inviting the loving God into our lives, Eva Kuper focused on the theme of love as well in her poignant testimony as a “hidden child” and Holocaust survivor.

Born in Warsaw in 1940 just months after the German invasion, Eva narrowly escaped death several times during her first five years of life, all due to the selfless courage and sacrifice of her Jewish parents, a cousin, a kind woman and a Franciscan nun. It was through the latter, Sister Klara Jaroszynska, that Eva was protected for three years from the raging inhumanity that saw 12 million people butchered in concentration camps, among them six million Jews.

Reunited with her father after the war — her mother perished at Treblinka — the family emigrated when Eva was eight.

Wanting to be “just another Canadian kid,” Eva did not actively seek information about her difficult childhood until 2005, when she made her first of several return trips to Poland.

To her astonishment, she discovered that Sister Klara was still alive. Although Eva remembered neither her face nor her voice, she experienced an instant “emotional connection” once again in the arms of her 94-year-old protector. It was a life-changing moment for Eva. “It made me aware of the most precious gifts she had given me . . . not only the gift of life but also, the gift of love.” (See related story.)

Eva’s powerful witness was followed by the lighting of seven memorial candles. The Holocaust survivor lit the first candle, dedicated to the memory of all Jewish Holocaust victims.

Successive candles were lit by designated representatives in memory of: Jewish survivors; Holocaust victims; those persecuted because of difference (origin, culture, religion, etc.); Righteous Gentiles (those who risked their lives to save others during the Holocaust); soldiers who liberated the camps; and finally, the millions for whom there is no one to mourn.

In a Jewish gesture of remembrance, about 10 youth placed memorial stones before each candle signifying that future generations will continue the tradition of remembering.

The event was organized by the Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Montreal, which meets monthly and is comprised of eight Christian denominations and representatives of the major Jewish traditions in the city.

The dialogue was formally established in 1971, after Archbishop Paul Grégoire, Roman Catholic leader of Montreal, and Rabbi Langner, president of the Board of Jewish Ministers, expressed a mutual desire for their clergy to have a forum to share information and to collaborate.

The group soon became ecumenical and included lay members. In 1980 it organized the first Christian Commemoration of the Shoah, held at Christ Church Anglican Cathedral.

During the last 38 years the commemoration has been held in different Montreal-area churches, both French- and English-language. It is usually incorporated into the regular worship service of the host church, Dialogue vice-president Jean Duhaime explained, “to make the memorial experience available to the widest group of people within their own faith context.”

While Christian leaders in some Canadian cities attend Holocaust memorial observances organized by their fellow Jewish citizens, Montreal appears to be the only city that organizes a Christian commemoration of the Shoah, as far as Duhaime knows.

Mary Deros, the mayor of the Montreal borough where Holy Family is located, attended the event and lit the sixth candle. No provincial or federal representatives were present, although invitations had been sent.

Durocher is the editor emeritus of Catholic Times Montreal.

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