SASKATOON — Over 2,000 students from Greater Saskatoon Catholic and Saskatoon Public Schools heard the powerful testimony of Holocaust survivor Robbie Waisman March 15 at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon.
Heather Fenyes of Congregation Agudas Israel welcomed students to the annual Holocaust Education Program. “For more than 10 years we understood that to truly learn and act on the lessons of the Holocaust we need an audience of young people,” she told the students gathered for the event. “Without you in the room we won’t ever see change.”
She described how the program was originally held in the synagogue, with Holocaust survivors telling their stories up to four times in two days to groups of youth. Three years ago, in order to permit the aging survivors to speak to just as many youth on one day, the bishop of Saskatoon (now Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina) and Rev. David Tumback offered the larger venue of the cathedral as a setting for the Jewish community’s annual education event.
“We were worried,” admitted Fenyes. “This piece of history, like all genocides, is a global responsibility, but the story of six million murdered Jews is our story, and we worried that we would lose an essential piece of ourselves and our message if we stopped telling it in our home. And then the first year here happened, and we the teachers became the students. We learned that by sharing our story of the Holocaust, it will always be personal, but in the sharing, the learning is far more powerful, and the change is much greater.”
In Judaism, the charge to repair the world is called Tikkun olam, Fenyes explained. “Today, Robbie’s story will become our common prayer, and, as such, far more powerful than the one we could have created alone.”
The Holocaust is one of the darkest periods of human history, in which “pure racism” led to the murder of six million Jewish people, she said.
“The Holocaust didn’t begin with death camps. It began with small, dangerous hate speech and grew into a massive killing machine,” Fenyes noted, adding that the world must continue to fight the hatred and racism that still plagues our culture. The treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada, the shooting of men praying at a Quebec mosque, the bombing of synagogues, and a rise in terrorism around the world demonstrate that the scourge of hatred continues in Canada and beyond.
“Every single one of you can and must be the change to end the hate that has no place in our homes, our community or our world. I beg you, be the change,” Fenyes told the 2,000 students gathered at the cathedral and hundreds more viewing the event via live-streamed video.
Turning the cathedral ambo over to Waisman, Fenyes told the students, “Chances are in your entire lifetime you will never meet somebody who has survived all that he has, and yet you will quickly hear how his spirit, his resilience and his pure goodness are brighter than his darkest memory.”
Born in Skarzysko, Poland in 1931 to a close-knit family, Robbie Waisman was just a boy when Nazi forces invaded Poland. Except for Robbie and his sister Leah, the entire Waisman family was murdered during the Holocaust.
Waisman survived different concentration camps as a slave labourer in munitions factories, and was ultimately liberated from Buchenwald on April 11, 1945 by American forces. Asked his name by the liberating soldiers that he saw as angels, the traumatized Waisman blurted out his concentration camp number.
“I am a survivor of that infamous place, where death was my constant companion. I celebrate April 11 as my birthday, although I was only 14 years old, for that day I was reborn into freedom,” he said.
He came to Canada as a young man, living in Saskatoon for many years. He now lives in Vancouver and has spoken to thousands of youth and adults around the world.
“Imagine being a 14-year-old boy, imagine having been in hell and back over four years,” he said. “Being starved, emotionally exhausted, physically weakened, deprived of every human emotion — imagine being so brutalized, so dehumanized that you begin to believe you are no longer human. And in spite of it all never losing hope of being reunited with family.”
Waisman described the slow realization about the enormity of the Holocaust, which was so difficult to comprehend. “And we had to find a way to deal and cope with the loss of all our loved ones murdered by the Nazis. How were we going to live with all these horrors?”
He shared details of his horrific experience, his separation from his mother, and her murder; the death of his older brothers, of his sister-in-law and his three-year-old nephew; and the despair and suffering of his father.
“I don’t tell you these things to sadden you, but to empower you,” Waisman told the attentive crowd, encouraging his young listeners to battle hate and bullying wherever they find it. “Life to me is so important,” he said, sharing his sadness reading about a young woman who committed suicide because of bullying.
Waisman shared stories of the resilience of the human spirit of those who survived the concentrations camps, and the power of memory.
His own early years as the beloved youngest son of a loving family gave him the strength to go on during the darkest days in the concentration camp, and in the days after the war.
“Glimpses of heaven kept hope alive,” he said.
Coming to terms with the Holocaust and the death of his family was a long, slow process for Waisman and for other survivors. But Waisman noted that in spite of predictions that the children who survived Buchenwald would never live normal lives, the survivors went on to find places in the world and contribute to society. Many survivors became active witnesses of the Holocaust in a world that was indifferent when it was happening, and too often forgets or even denies the reality of the Holocaust even now.
“We the survivors were certain that the leaders and the citizens of the world would say ‘never again’ and would commit themselves to turning those words into reality. ‘Never again’ — noble, thought-provoking words — but only if we act upon them do these words become meaningful.”
Some 70 years after his liberation the promise of “never again” has been broken again and again, Waisman said, listing other genocides that have continued in the world. “I am a witness of men’s inhumanity to other human beings,” he said. “
“What happened then, long ago in my time, wasn’t supposed to occur ever again, and yet it is happening in many parts of the world. Our own experience of the Holocaust has taught us that evil must be recognized and that we have a responsibility to ensure that it never happens again to anyone. Have we learned nothing from the past? What are we doing about it now?” Waisman challenged.
“We wanted to make sure that no one’s future would be like our past,” he said, stressing that there is hope in remembering. “By being a witness to history I believe that young people like all of you here this morning, will learn the lesson from us, and all of you will become witnesses and work diligently for a better world. When I look at you, I see hope in your faces.”
During a question-and-answer period with the students, Waisman urged the youth not to take their family for granted, and to go home and hug their parents. “Appreciate what you have at home. Never take it for granted.”
He asked the students to dedicate themselves to end hatred and racism. “Do good things in life. In doing this, sharing my pain with you, you will have compensated me.”
Other speakers at the event included Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky of Congregation Agudas Israel.
“Not forgetting means taking what you just remembered and doing something in your life with that,” said Jodorkovsky. “We have two missions to accomplish: to remember the story that Robbie told you, and to take it to your heart and to try to be a different person now that you know the atrocities that happened, now that you know what racism and hatred can cause. To try and be a kinder person, to step up for others when they are suffering, to not only be a bystander and feel sad for others, but to get involved.”
The rabbi also expressed his pride and his thanksgiving in sharing the event with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, adding that it is not only about the space, but it is a tangible sign that “we can do things together.”
As cathedral pastor, Rev. David Tumback brought greetings from the bishop and the diocese and expressed his profound appreciation to Waisman. “To hear your story, a painful reminder of the past, is also a painful time for us as Roman Catholics,” he said. While many Catholics and Christians stood against the bigotry and hatred of Nazi Germany, “we also know there was complicity on the part of our church,” Tumback said.
“Today, motivated not only by you, but by a spirit that is within us and in our souls that is enkindled by your parents and your brothers and by the six million, we stand today in absolute solidarity,” Tumback said.
He then asked the students to stand as a show of support for Waisman. “Robbie is giving us a gift, and that gift is that we have his permission to tell his story, to let the world know,” he said.
The event concluded with the presentation of a “Think Good, Do Good” award to two teachers by David Arnot of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.
The award is presented to educators who “demonstrate compassion, understanding and leadership” in their classroom and in the community, Arnot said. This year’s winners were Lezlie Goudie-Cloutier of Saskatoon Public Schools and Sheena Adams of Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools (GSCS).
Goudie-Cloutier has served as a teacher, a literacy coach and volunteer in the public school system, as well as a curriculum writer for the Lakota-Dakota First Nation.
Adams has been a GSCS teacher for some 10 years, beginning at Bethlehem High School as a drama teacher, completing her master’s degree in religious education and now serving as a teacher-chaplain at E.D. Feehan Catholic High School in Saskatoon, which includes working with E.D. Feehan’s Youth Alliance Circle and social justice committee.