SASKATOON — At the annual Yom Ha Shoah commemorating the six million who died in the Holocaust, president of Congregation Agudas Israel Harold Shiffman noted that anti-Semitism continues to rise across the globe.
“I encourage you to remind your friends about this event and others like it; don’t take anything you read at face value and check your sources; stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves,” said Shiffman, before welcoming the dignitaries and the main speaker, Holocaust survivor Robbie Waismann.
“We are one human family,” said Commissioner David Arnot of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, noting that human rights came to the forefront because of the Holocaust, and rights and responsibilities must be part of every student’s pedagogy.
“Racism was the justification to murder six million Jews,” noted Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky. “The Holocaust didn’t begin with death camps, but with small, dangerous hate speech, and from these seeds it grew into a mass killing machine.”
Last January, the Polish parliament introduced a law that criminalizes any suggestion that Poland had any complicity in the Holocaust, claiming that it was never a free actor because of the invasions of Germany and Russia. Three million Jews were killed in Poland, noted Jodorkovsky, and while many Polish citizens risked their lives to rescue Jewish people, laws like this whitewash history.
“Many Poles helped Jews. Many were afraid, and didn’t get involved. But many were eager to collaborate. Any attempt to deny or relativize that fact is a lie and a manipulation of history,” said Jodorkovsky. “We are here to listen to a man who experienced anti-Semitism and persecution in Poland, even before the pogroms. He was beaten up by his own friends because he was a Jew.”
Robbie Waismann was born in Skarzysko, Poland, in 1920 to a close-knit family. He lost them all, except his sister Leah, spending time in different camps as a slave labourer. He was liberated from Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, by the first black man he’d ever seen, African-American soldier Leon Bass.
“Imagine being a 14-year-old boy having been through all these horrors over a six-year period, being hungry, starved, deprived of every human emotion, so brutalized and dehumanized that you begin to believe that you are no longer human, and yet still somehow living in hope that you will be reunited with family.”
When they asked him his name, he blurted out 117098, his number. He was surprised that they wanted to know his name. But with this new freedom and hope came the realization that there was no home to return to, that they were all orphans whose families had been murdered.
“Today in excess of over 70 years since my liberation, the promise of ‘never again’ has become ‘again and again.’ A number of situations has tested the world’s resolve — in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, Syria. My eyes have seen unspeakable horrors.”
After the war, 426 young people among 20,000 adults in Buchenwald were rescued and taken to France, where experts concluded they had become psychopaths and would never amount to anything.
“I am proud of the boys of Buchenwald, such personalities as Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Prize-winner, and the chief Rabbi of Israel, and Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Not bad for a bunch of lunatics, don’t you think?” said Waisman to laughter.
The hope of seeing family was what helped him survive, the baby of the family, when his parents and all but one of his older siblings were killed, some before his eyes. His elder brothers and his beloved sister-in-law were all killed.
“My nephew Nathan was not three years old the last time I saw him. Golda could easily have gone to work in a munitions factory but refused to be separated from her little boy, and was sent to the Treblinka gas chamber with him.”
His older brother was put on a truck when he contracted typhoid fever. Waismann had an overwhelming urge to join him but he was stopped, and waved away by his older brother. A few minutes later shots rang out from the nearby forest.
“Never will I forget the devastation in my heart, the horror of the truck returning empty.”
Waismann noticed an immediate change in his father the following Sunday, the only day they saw each other while working 12- hour opposing shifts in the munitions factory. The following Thursday he did not see his father on the opposing shift, and still has no idea how he died.
Waismann noted that, while many questioned their faith and asked where God was in all this, that faith also sustained them in later years, and what they had been taught in childhood stayed with them as a reassurance.
“Evil must be recognized, and we have a responsibility to ensure that it never happens to anyone. And yet I must ask, ‘Have we learned nothing from the past? What is the world doing about it now?”
Waismann asked, “What can I add to your knowledge? Perhaps this: children can grow old overnight; warm memories of a successful childhood can sustain you in later life; staying silent after deep wounds internalizes the injury; and one heals better by sharing the pain with others.
“From my experience, I help First Nations people find healing and reconciliation. For over 100 years, indigenous children were taken from their parents. The latest figures show that over 3,000 never came home and some that did have tales of physical and sexual abuse.”
He urges resilience in the face of adversity, and for all to continue to bear witness both to atrocities and to hope and resilience in the face of those atrocities.