Remembrance was the theme, May 3, as hundreds gathered at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre for the community commemoration of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
‘We know that whilst we cannot bring the dead back to life, we can ensure their memories live on and that their deaths were not in vain. And so, on this Yom HaShoah, we commit ourselves to one simple act: Yizkor, Remember.’
Those words, from a prayer written by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, were read by Allan Shefrin near the beginning of Ottawa’s Yom HaShoah commemoration.
“Remembering is not only the responsibility of survivors and their relatives, but the duty and obligation of everyone in the worldwide Jewish community and beyond,” said Debbie Halton-Weiss, chair of the Shoah Committee of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, which presented the commemoration in collaboration with the Azrieli Foundation.
“History must not only be studied, but experienced, and Yom HaShoah is a time to do that,” said Israeli Ambassador Rafael Barak, who brought greetings on behalf of the Jewish state.
Keynote speaker Robbie Waisman, 84, shared his experiences as one of the 426 teenagers liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11, 1945.
Waisman described being liberated by Leon Bass, a 19-year-old African American soldier from the United States. Waisman said he thought Bass was an angel because he’d never seen a black man before.
Bass died a few months ago, and Waisman said he misses him. After both being silent for decades, “We travelled together to tell our story.”
Waisman described how “after emerging from the abyss, questions bombarded me.” His life was shattered, and he wondered, “How will I recapture feelings so I can cry again and laugh again? … We existed for the moment and every effort was made to survive. We had to relearn how to be human again.”
In his early life, he was “spoiled and loved,” and he still cherishes those memories. “The power of memory provided the template to lead a caring life.”
Waisman quoted author Elie Wiesel, another of the “boys from Buchenwald,” who said: “The Nazis did the killing. The Jews did the dying. The world was indifferent.”
“It was left to us to serve as a reminder of what can happen and is still happening again. We have a responsibility to ensure it doesn’t happen again to anyone,” added Waisman.
Waisman believes the young people of today will work diligently for a better world.
“When I speak at schools, I see hope in their faces,” he said.
“What you’re doing tonight gives me hope for humanity,” he said of the Yom HaShoah commemoration. “This evening, you are following the long-held Jewish concept of ‘from generation to generation, L’dor va’dor.’ It gives me hope. I am very proud of you.”
Waisman was introduced by Shira Benlolo and Cody Miller, Ottawa students who formed a special relationship with him when he accompanied their group on the March of the Living in 2012.
The event also included a video presentation by students who participated in March of the Living last year in which they gave their impressions of their life-changing experience.
“Eleven Ottawa students are presently in Poland participating in this year’s March,” noted Halton-Weiss. “We are enormously proud of the students who take part in this challenging, and, as you heard, life-altering experience.”
Perhaps the most poignant moments of the evening came as Holocaust survivors – Elly Bollegraaf, Tova Clark, Jessica Fiksel, Nester Hobe, sisters Agnes Klein and Elena Keen, and Raoul Korngold, assisted by students of Temple Israel Religious School – lit the six memorial candles, each representing one million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.
The evening began with the March on the Colours by members of the Ottawa Post, Jewish War Veterans of Canada and veterans of the Israel Defense Forces, and the singing of “O Canada” and “Hatikvah,” led by the Ottawa Jewish Community School Choir.
The evening concluded solemnly with “Kel Maleh Rachamim,” a remembrance prayer for the soul of the departed led by Cantor Pinchas Levinson and “Kaddish,” led by Cantor Moshe Kraus.
The national Holocaust Remembrance ceremony took place May 5 at the Canadian War Museum. A report will be published in the May 30 edition of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.