Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada must always acknowledge the country’s lamentable policy during the Second World War, which prevented Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust from coming here.
Trudeau was speaking to a large assembly – including Holocaust survivors, parliamentarians, dignitaries, students and members of the public – gathered, May 8, at the Canadian War Museum for the National Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony.
“We cannot, we must not turn away from this uncomfortable truth and Canada’s part in it,” said Trudeau. “We must learn from this story, and its lessons must guide our actions today and the days to come because, as stories like these remind us, cruelty, indifference and the hatred that made the Holocaust possible are still possible today, even here in Canada.”
The emotionally moving and poignant tribute to Holocaust victims and survivors has been an annual event organized by the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem since Parliament passed a bill establishing Holocaust Memorial Day in 2003. Although Yom HaShoah was on April 24, the ceremony was held later because Parliament was not in session then.
The theme of the 2017 National Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony was “Survivors’ Testimonies”: The Fate of the Individual during the Holocaust.”
Leslie Vertes, a 93-year-old survivor from Hungary, described his experience in both Nazi and Soviet forced labour camps. He now regularly talks to groups of students because he wants to inspire them to action.
“I tell them freedom is not free,” said Vertes. “My message is simple. Silence is not an option … I want to show them that they need to speak up to eliminate discrimination, fight anti-Semitism and all other forms of prejudice.”
In a video testimony, survivor Felix Opatowski, now deceased, described in stark and heartbreaking detail his life in the Polish Lodz Ghetto and, in Auschwitz, where he witnessed the children of Drancy, France being marched to the gas chamber.
Other speakers included Israeli Ambassador Nimrod Barkan, Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair.
Students from Hebrew Foundation School in Montreal led the singing of “O Canada” and “Hatikvah,” and also sang “Eli, Eli,” a song based on a poem by Hannah Senesh.
Six memorial candles were lit on the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem menorah by groups of dignitaries and Holocaust survivors in memory of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, and to pay homage to survivors and freedom fighters, as well as honouring future generations.
In a moving D’var Torah, Rabbi Reuven Bulka said, “The only way that we can fight evil is by being good. The only way to fight intolerance is not by being tolerant, but by being welcoming, by being embracing, by being loving and by appreciating others.”
The sombre ceremony concluded with a moving rendition of “Kel Maleh Rachamim” and the Mourner’s Kaddish by Cantor Pinchas Levinson, and blowing of the shofar by Rabbi Bulka.