“If you didn’t have anyone to hold onto, you were lost,” keynote speaker Pinchas Gutter told the hushed audience of more than 450 gathered at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre, April 15, for Ottawa’s Yom HaShoah ceremony.
A child survivor of the Holocaust, Gutter was born in Lodz, Poland, and was just seven years old when the Second World War broke out.
“I was very happy,” he said of his pre-war childhood memories, adding that the trauma of the Holocaust affected children very differently than adults.
“We had no [previous] emotional baggage,” he said, adding that, instead, many children who survived the Holocaust were emotionally stunted and had to deal with the horrors in their own way in their own time.
Gutter’s well-established Chasidic family, known for its winery, fled to what they thought would be safety in the Warsaw Ghetto after Gutter’s father was severely beaten by Nazis and left for dead in his wine cellar. It was due to the kindness of the winery’s caretaker – who carried Gutter’s father home on his back – that he survived the beating.
“My eyes were cameras,” documenting everything, he said as he described scenes of life and death while living in the Warsaw Ghetto before going into hiding with his family. They were later discovered and deported to the Majdanek death camp.
Gutter was the only member of his immediate family to survive. Both his parents and his twin sister, Sabina, were murdered the day they arrived at Majdanek.
Gutter recounted how he relied on his resourcefulness and the kindness of others to survive. He developed a close friendship with a boy named Jacob, and the two relied on each other in the camp.
Gutter and Jacob eventually lost contact, and he assumed Jacob was murdered like so many others. But, ending his talk with what he described as a moment of hope and optimism, he told the seemingly miraculous story of finding Jacob again, 53 years after the end of the war. Many in the audience gasped and applauded when they heard of the reunion.
The Yom HaShoah event’s other main speaker was Julien Klener, president of the Consistoire Central Israèlite de Belgique – the Belgian Jewish community’s umbrella organization.
Klener spoke about the grim situation for European Jewry today as it witnesses resurging anti-Semitism manifested in such recent events as the co-ordinated attacks on France’s satirical publication Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket near Paris, the shooting that left four people dead at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, and the murder of a Jewish volunteer guard at a synagogue in Copenhagen.
Klener, who said his view of events is influenced by the fact that he was also a hidden child during the Holocaust, bemoaned the lack of safety when expressing one’s faith, and especially the impact it can have on children.
“What kind of a life is this?” Klener asked when Jewish children hide their faith in public and must attend Jewish schools surrounded by guards and barbed wire for their own safety.
“The story of European Jewry is one of prosperity and achievement, of despair and humiliation, with our deaths scattered all over the continent,” he said. “Europe is – was – a killing field for Jews,” he added.
“Auschwitz never again is no certainty,” he said. “There is a very ill wind blowing across Europe.”
The Yom HaShoah commemoration was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa with the support of the Azrieli Foundation, a philanthropic organization that funds a variety of Holocaust education and remembrance programs. Naomi Azrieli, CEO of the Azrieli Foundation, acted as MC for the event.
“In 70 years – three-and-a-half generations – in that time I think it is the hope and dream of all decent human beings that the word ‘anti-Semitism’ would not be so well known. And, yet, it still is, Azrieli said. “After 70 years, we are witnessing a rise in anti-Semitism around the world.”
Azrieli also noted that Yom HaShoah, this year, fell on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany by Allied troops.
A focal point of the ceremony was the lighting of six memorial candles – each representing one million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The candles were lit by survivors Elly Bollegraaf, Vera Kovesi, Judith Kune, Vera Gara, Eva Gelbman, and Gustav Hecht.
Others speaking at the Yom HaShoah commemoration included event chair Jennifer Kardash, who welcomed attendees, and Israeli Ambassador Rafael Barak, who said the world’s Jewish communities have been strengthened by the actions of Holocaust survivors who “enrich their societies with wisdom and their passion for education and remembrance.”
The Yom HaShoah Prayer was read by Judy Young, a child survivor of the Holocaust born in Budapest, while “The Acceptance,” a pledge from subsequent generations to continue honouring the memories of those who were lost and to continue teaching the lessons learned from survivors, was read by Noa Kardash, a Grade 12 student at the Ottawa Jewish Community School who participated in the March of the Living last year.
A video produced by 2014 March of the Living participants was shown.
The program also included the reading of just a few of the names of European Jews whose lives were lost during the Holocaust, and the March on of the Colours by members of the Ottawa Post of the Jewish War Veterans of Canada, who were joined by three Ottawans who had served as lone soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. The singing of “O Canada” and “Hatikvah” was led by Floralove Katz.
At the conclusion of the program, keynote speaker Gutter, who serves as the volunteer cantor of his synagogue in Toronto, sang a moving rendition of “Kel Maleh Rachamim” and recited “Kaddish.”