Yom HaShoah marked in Ottawa
with a solemn commemoration at the SJCC
and a panel discussion on genocide
at Saint Paul University.
In a keynote address at Ottawa’s Community Yom HaShoah Commemoration, April 27 at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre, and the following day during a Yom HaShoah panel discussion on genocide at St. Paul University, Father Patrick Desbois, a Catholic priest from France, discussed his work in locating and identifying the mass graves of Jews and Roma murdered during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.
In moving and heartbreaking detail, Father Desbois described his studies of “What was the crime? Not before, not after,” and the thousands of interviews he’s conducted with those who were present at the crime scenes where whole villages came to watch.
“Never were the Nazis missing workers,” he said. “Before, I was imagining the helpers were happy and welcoming and the killers were bad. But I know now they are the same face. Everybody can be a killer. Everybody can be a victim … It was legal to kill a Jew, a Gypsy. It was an order and an authorization.”
The Yom HaShoah Commemoration also included solemn music, the lighting of six memorial candles by Holocaust survivors, a floral procession by students, marches on and off of the Colours by members of the Jewish War Veterans of Canada – Ottawa Post, and brief remarks by Israeli Ambassador Rafael Barak and Mina Cohn, chair of the Shoah (Holocaust) Committee of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.
The panel discussion on genocide, titled “Duty to Remember and the Rebuilding of Nations,” was a powerful mix of skepticism, but also of hope.
Father Desbois explained that, in 2004, he joined with other leaders in the French Catholic and Jewish communities to found Yahad-In Unum, which means “together” in Latin and in Hebrew, an organization he now leads.
The purpose of Yahad-In Unum is to further relations between Catholics and Jews. Its largest and most ambitious initiative is to locate the sites of mass graves of Jewish victims of the Nazi mobile killing units, the Einsatzgruppen, in Ukraine and Belarus.
The panel also included Jan Grabowski, professor of history at the University of Ottawa; Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka of Congregation Machzikei Hadas; Vern Redekop, professor of conflict studies at Saint Paul University; and Emery Rutagonya, a Rwandan Genocide survivor and co-founder of the Rwanda Survivors Foundation. The moderator was Andrea Knight of the Azrieli Foundation.
In her words of welcome, Chantal Beauvais, rector of Saint Paul University, said Saint Paul aims to “walk the talk.
“We want to transform our culture so this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. Knowledge is freedom.”
“To say ‘never again’ is not enough,” said Shoah Committee Chair Cohn in her welcoming remarks. “In the room, we have students who will take the messages of the panel discussion back to their schools.”
“The theme of this evening is ‘Duty to Remember,’” said moderator Andrea Knight. She quoted film director Atom Egoyan on the Armenian genocide: “These are the ghosts of my people and this is my history … Nothing could be simpler. Nothing could be more complex.”
“With each passing year, I become more and more skeptical that history can teach us anything at all,” said Grabowski. “In terms of the Holocaust, we are in a dire situation because these are the last of the last. They are a disappearing memory. We have the utmost urgency and it’s my duty and that of other historians.”
Offering up terms such as “Holocaust deflection” and “misappropriation of the Holocaust,” Grabowski lamented that “everything will open up again when the survivors are no longer with us.”
Rutagonya described the horror of experiencing the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi people in Rwanda at the age of 18.
“I couldn’t make sense of what was happening … They were our neighbours, good Christians who went to mass every Sunday … I looked into the eyes of a killer and he remembered me. People became completely evil.”
Rutagonya said he struggled to make sense of his experience and it was almost impossible because there wasn’t much written about it.
“So I read about the Holocaust, like Night by Elie Wiesel, to understand what had happened to me,” he said.
Rutagonya created a program to
teach about genocide in a way that “doesn’t shock people,” describing “a place to come and sit down and listen to stories.”
Redekop stressed it’s not just the facts that need to be remembered, it’s the emotions.
“The victims were surrounded by fear. They felt a profound humiliation. There was no dying with dignity,” he said. “They felt a profound sense of loss; the whole community was wiped out. Gone in 24 hours … There was powerlessness, a sense of terror.”
Rabbi Bulka said a Catholic newspaper called him to ask about Father Desbois’ presentation and whether it would help.
“Silence certainly doesn’t help,” Rabbi Bulka said he told the reporter.
“The best bet we have for the next generation,” continued Rabbi Bulka, “is to teach kindness to our children. Those who risked their lives to help others came from those kinds of families.”
Nicole Jozsa, a Grade 10 religion teacher at École secondaire Béatrice-Deslogues in Orleans, the largest French Catholic high school in Ontario, was seated next to me taking notes during the panel discussion.
“It enriched my life,” she said. “I’ll be exhausted tomorrow morning telling my students everything.”
The panel discussion was sponsored by the Shoah (Holocaust) Committee of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, the government of Canada, the Embassy of France, the Embassy of Israel, Saint Paul University and the Catholic Archdiocese of Ottawa.