Holocaust survivors and the memories of the six million murdered Jews were honoured at a poignant International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Ottawa City Hall on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp by the Soviet army in 1945.
The date has been designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the United Nations. This year marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation.
“To commemorate the Holocaust is very important to me because it affected my life so much and because most of my relatives, about 150 of them, were taken out of Holland and murdered in Poland, in the various concentration camps,” said Elly Bollegraaf, one of about 25 Holocaust survivors in attendance at the event.
While the ceremony was a sombre reflection on the unfathomable losses of the Holocaust, it also reflected concerns for current realities of Jewish communities, particularly in Europe where there has been a significant resurgence of anti-Semitism in recent years.
A solemn and diverse crowd of about 400 packed Jean Pigott Place to standing room only. Attendees included members of Ottawa’s Jewish community, non-Jews paying their respects, 30 ambassadors to Canada, many elected officials and other dignitaries.
Speakers included Ambassadors Rafael Barak of Israel, Werner Wnendt of Germany, Marcin Bosacki of Poland and Selcuk Unal of Turkey; Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney; Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau; Mayor Jim Watson; Salma Siddiqi, president of the Canadian Coalition of Progressive Muslim Organizations; and B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn.
Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka was master of ceremonies for the event and afterward said the damage done during the Holocaust was “incalculable.”
“On a personal level, I never met my grandparents. Hitler took care of that,” Rabbi Bulka said. “My father and mother were miracles, but there were so many that didn’t happen.
“There are heroes here – ordinary, daily heroes. Every survivor is a miracle, every survivor is a hero, and hopefully an inspiration.”
Many commended the German ambassador for acknowledging the role of average Germans in perpetrating the Holocaust, and for contemporary Germany’s firm commitment to eradicating anti-Semitism.
However, the invitation of the Turkish ambassador to speak drew sharp criticism from some, including several of the politicians and members of the public in attendance because of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel views expressed by some Turkish leaders in recent years.
Earlier on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, at a meeting of the speakers of 30 European parliaments held in Prague, Czech Republic, Turkey was the only European country that did not sign a declaration against contemporary manifestations – including Holocaust denial – of anti-Semitism.
“I share those concerns,” said event co-organizer Floralove Katz. “However, during the Holocaust, the Turkish government was the only government in Europe that instructed its diplomats to save as many Jews as possible.”
Katz, who organized the event with Fred Litwin and Anna-Lee Chiprout, emphasized that the ceremony was intended to commemorate the Holocaust and to encourage the diplomatic community to sign the Ottawa Protocol on Combating Anti-Semitism, which condemns and denounces anti-Semitism in all forms.
“So, one honours diplomats that stood up and put their own lives and those of their families at risk to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust,” Katz said.
During the ceremony, Katz sang “Shtiler, Shtiler (Quiet, Quiet),” a song written in the Vilna Ghetto in 1943, moving many audience members to tears.
Tears also flowed from survivors and other attendees when Cantor Moshe Kraus, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, sang “Kel Malei Rachamim” and recited Kaddish.
The ceremony concluded with Holocaust survivors symbolically placing six red roses in a vase; and with the recognition of the Holocaust survivors and Jewish war veterans in attendance. The survivors and veterans received an emotional standing ovation.
Bollegraaf said she was grateful to attend the ceremony in Ottawa, and said she hopes Canadian politicians continue to keep Jewish communities safe.
“I feel very sad about what’s happening in the rest of the world. That’s the only way I can express it. I ask myself, why doesn’t it stop? Why are people so crazy? … There’s something wrong that I don’t comprehend.”
Later in the day, Kenney hosted an International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony and reception on Parliament Hill.
Among the speakers was University of Ottawa student Jaclyn Friedlich, a 2012 March of the Living participant.
A new film produced by the March of the Living Digital Archives Project, Auschwitz-Birkenau: 70 Years After Liberation: A Warning to Future Generations, was shown, and memorial candles in memory of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust were lit.