In mid-December of this past year, Lubomyr Luciuk, a respected academic specializing in Ukrainian history, wrote an op ed piece in the Ottawa Citizen. In it he laments the lack of recognition for non-Jews in the National Holocaust Memorial when it was unveiled on September 17, 2017.
Originally the dedication plaque read, “The National Holocaust Monument commemorates the millions of men, women and children murdered during the Holocaust and honours the survivors who persevered and were able to make their way to Canada after one of the darkest chapters in history. This monument recognizes the contributions these survivors have made to Canada and serves as a reminder that we must be vigilant in standing guard against hate, intolerance and discrimination.”
Criticism from all sides of this overly sugary testimonial led to the revised inscription that read, “The National Holocaust Monument commemorates the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered during the Holocaust by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.”
While agreeing that emphasizing the six million Jews was necessary, Prof. Luciak questions the need to exclude the millions of Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, gays, Roma and Jehovah Witnesses. By adding collaborators, he wonders if the implication is that Russians, Ukrainians and Poles were seen as antisemitic and welcomed any excuse to help in the Final Solution. He reminds his readers that far more fell fighting fascism than collaborating.
Ever since the term ‘Holocaust’ was used after WWII it has become super charged term. Who is included as victims and who is excluded? Did the Armenians suffer their own Holocaust in WWI or does the term only apply to WW II?
It seems like different groups, all with their own agenda, desperately want to use the Holocaust for their own ends.
There are three yellow school buses pulling up in front of the museum and there are three docents watching the scene through the large floor to ceiling windows. The bus doors fold open and there are some sixty teenagers and a few adults disgorging onto the plaza entrance. I am one of the docents, a fancy name for a guide to the Montreal Holocaust Museum. This is my third year doing this voluntary job. I was a high school teacher for almost four decades and I am used to interacting with this age group. There is a new docent next to me. She is in Jewish Studies at McGill and she is nervously looking at her notes. We were introduced twenty minutes ago but I already forgot her name. The other docent, Esther, is someone I have worked with many times before. She’s almost one of the original guides and has been at it for some two decades. She looks like everyone’s grandmother. She has her spiel down pat. It does not deviate by a single word or hand gesture, and unlike me, her tour is like clockwork. She does not fall behind by questions.
What looks like the head teacher leads the students in, past the security desk towards us. We shake hands with the three teachers and the three parents accompanying the school field trip. The school is some Catholic school I never heard of that has come all the way from Ottawa. We are told they are on a tight schedule, having a tour at St Joseph’s Oratory starting at 1:00. I look at my watch. It’s 10:15. The tour takes about an hour, then there is a 40-minute talk with a Holocaust survivor, a lunch, and a 15-minute trip to the Oratory.
They are already 15 minutes late, so we rush them to a coat check area for their coats and bags.
They are divided up and Esther takes the first group in. I will be the last, helping the new guide in the middle to keep to a certain pace. We enter the museum in groups at five-minute intervals, it’s like train departures. I look at my group. They look like 15-year-olds, which makes them grade 10 students. They have a uniform of some sort. The boys are wearing grey slacks and maroon sweaters while the girls have grey skirts, navy-blue socks and navy-blue sweaters. All the sweaters have a crest with a cross and some script. I was told the school was originally an all-girls school but had gone coed four years ago. As a group they look very prim, proper, and polite.
As we are waiting to enter the museum, I ask my group what they have read about the Holocaust. They mention the usual school reading list: Hana’s Suitcase, Anne Frank, and the Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
We descend into the basement. It is somewhat dark, though the displays are behind glass and lit from within. The walls are covered in rough looking wooden boards and the space is claustrophobic. All this is intentional. It is to give the feeling of either being in a cattle car or a death camp barrack. The objects in the display units have all been donated by survivors who immigrated to the city after the war. There are journals, ID papers, photographs, stripped prison uniforms, and all sorts of religious objects. Some have special honor, like a birthday card made in the shape of a heart. Things that are uplifting or show the will to survive in such a hell get extra attention by the docents.
The basement maze covers the period between WW1 up to Kristallnacht. There are also grainy black and white videos but we can’t play them all. We would need a few hours, so we pick and choose. The second half of the tour is upstairs, and there the real horror of the death camps is revealed in frightening detail. We see the emaciated bodies, the tattooed arms, the shaved heads, the bodies electrocuted in the barbed wire, the mounds of baby shoes, and the pictures of the gas chambers and the ovens. We don’t show the majority of these grainy videos to the elementary school children.
We are about a third of the way through, still in the basement, when I am thrown off track. We stop at the display case of colored triangled fabrics.
“Different groups”, I say, “were forced to wear different colored badges while in labour or prison camps. Jews wore yellow, Socialists and Communists wore red, Jehovah Witnesses wore purple, Homosexuals wore pink”….
It is loud enough for all of us to hear it. Part of me says to ignore it, carry on with the tour. In our training as docents, we were told we were not the disciplinarians, that was the job of the teacher. I see she is not reacting. There is an uncomfortable silence. The faces look in my direction. There is a nervous titter. I will not make eye contact with anyone. I will not accuse anyone. Instead, it has to be a teaching moment. My legs tremble.
“Before going on,” I say softly into the dim space, “something has to be said about what just happened. People lash out against what they don’t understand. This is based on fear. We all have fear of things. We fear snakes and spiders. Are we born with this or is it taught? Fear can easily morph into hate. And hate turns to violence. That’s how all this started.”
I wave my hands towards the displays all around us.
“This first step, that you all heard, ultimately led to the murder of six million men, women, and children. And to say nothing, to avoid saying this is not right, is condoning it. This museum was built to say, hate must stop. This place was built so we can learn from history, otherwise it repeats. We must be vigilant. Words are not in the same category as gas chambers but they can hurt. Words have consequences.”
I look at my watch.
“Please remember this moment as we continue the tour.”
I say my well-rehearsed lines at the appropriate location. The book burnings and the fear of the written word. Why Helen Keller’s book was burned by the Nazis. But my heart isn’t in it. The spiel is on automatic pilot. Saving the survivors in Auschwitz by Soviet troops, the relocation to Montreal, the third largest destination of survivors after Israel and NYC.
The last room is where we sum up the tour. The other two groups are there waiting for us to join them. It is the only room where natural light pours in. Covering the large floor to ceiling windows, on some transparent mesh, are the names hundreds of European cities, towns and villages that once housed Jewish communities before the Holocaust. On two of the interior walls, made of dark grey stone, are engraved the names of the work camps and extermination camps. The interplay of light and dark in the room is quite breathtaking. In the middle of the room there is perched a stone urn on a pillar rescued from a destroyed shul in Warsaw. The urn is filled with the ashes of burned bodies taken from the Auschwitz crematoriums. Above the urn an eternal light is flickering to commemorate those who perished in the Shoah. On the fourth wall is a shelf holding six candles, for the six million that were slaughtered.
Esther stands by the urn and talks about the history of the museum and why the survivors felt it was important to have such a place. The new docent explains the symbolism of this room and then I then join them by the urn and give a brief speech about how we should all be involved in coming to the aid of those being bullied, and how turning away makes the situation worse. I end with the famous quote that those who forget history, are condemned to repeat it. When it ends there is the usual clapping and the group goes to meet a survivor in one of the adjoining rooms.
The mom who was with my group hangs back and tentatively approaches me.
“I thought you handled that incident so well. I just wanted to thank you for your coolness. I would have exploded.”
“I didn’t feel cool,” I grimace. “My heart rate still hasn’t returned to normal.”
“This incident will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”
“I hope that’s a good thing,” I say. I keep the doubts to myself. I know teenagers.
Outside the sun shines in my face. My heart beat slowly returns to normal as I walk towards my car.
“These books were used in grade three from the late 30’s to 1945. You will note the difference between the blond, blue-eyed handsome German farmer on one page and the greasy, hooked nosed Jewish merchant on another. One works the soil with a hoe, the other carries a suitcase full of money. Stereotypes are learned very early. Hitler often said in speeches, ‘Give me the young and I will establish a Third Reich that will last a thousand years.’”
It is a Monday morning and I am guiding a group from an American mid-west Christian college touring Montreal. The students seem to be in their early twenties and clean cut. The males wear white shirts and ties and the females wear skirts just below their knees. It would be easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions. This is especially ironic considering the museum was dedicated to countering stereotyping and prejudice.
The questions they ask are good and keep me on my toes: I like that. I hate being a robotic guide. Why did Jewish holidays keep moving around in relationship to Christian holidays? Can an uncircumcised boy still be considered Jewish? Why did some Torahs need to be buried? Why do some Jewish boys have those curls by their ears? Did Hitler have any Jewish blood? Was the Nazi Party in favor of sending Jews to Palestine? Did Hitler shake Jesse Owen’s hand? Did any of my family die in the camps? I respond quickly and confidently. This material is way beyond what docents usually cover.
The very last part of the tour ends in the room with dark walls on one side with the names of the concentration camps engraved into the dark stone, while on the opposite wall light shines through from outside illuminating the names of Jewish communities that had once existed in Europe before the war. It is the only window in the entire museum and it symbolizes hope for the future. As we pause to reflect, a young man actually wearing a bow tie and a quick grin says he has a question.
“Do you believe that people who suffered in the camps have a greater sensitivity towards the sanctity of life?”
Something in the way he asks and the smirk on his faces alerts me that something is amiss. The others look at me expectantly. Some are trying to cover a grin on their face.
“In general,” I answer tentatively, “I think they would realize how fragile life really is”.
“If that is the case,” he grins quickly, “How do you explain someone like your local abortionist, Dr. Morgentaler, who survived the death camps? Logically he should have been more sensitive to preserving life yet he is one of the architects of the Baby Holocaust!”
I am about to say that for most Jews the beginning of life does not begin with conception but when the child emerges from the womb. I am thinking to say that Dr. Morgentaler saw the results of desperate women aborted with clothes hangers and felt he had to come to their aid. But then I picture the back-and-forth debate and the eventual battle of semantics and I wonder what going down this path would accomplish. Neither would convince the other so I hold back my words and grin back at him.
We stare at each other and I nod in his direction in the dim room with the six burning candles and the ashes from the crematoriums.
There are some two-dozen people in a circle of chairs in a nondescript meeting room at the Jewish General Hospital. This is a meeting of a group of Second Generationers. These are the children of individuals who suffered the trauma of the Shoah, the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.
In the mid 70s psychologists at the hospital were convinced the offspring of the survivors showed similar psychological issues as their parents. Montreal, after WWII, had received a large number of survivors, third in total numbers only after New York and Tel Aviv.
Groups were formed in the hospital under the guidance of a number of therapists to discuss common issues. We soon discovered that our upbringing was quite different from other ‘Canadian’ families. It was not unusual to be awoken by parent’s nightmares and screaming. Many talked about the silence of what happened during the war. The children were overprotected to the point of being smothered with love and fear. There was a distrust of anyone outside the family unit. We were warned to be careful, ‘it could happen again’. The survivors had, to various degrees, been psychologically “damaged” and we, their children, ended up parenting our own parents. And we are now at an age where we were raising the Third Generation, and what were we passing on?
I had joined this group that meets for two hours, once a week, four years earlier. I learned that my mother’s craziness was not that unusual. It was good to learn I was not alone and there was an explanation to the madness that made our family so different from ‘Father Knows Best’ and other TV shows.
On this evening there are two new people joining the meeting. Like any group, people come and go and we appreciate new blood. One is a young mother who says she’s not sure if she can join the group because her husband thinks she shouldn’t be wasting her time digging into the past rather than being in the present with their two young daughters. Those of us around the room point out that learning about our parents’ lives is important so we avoid continuing the same upbringing with our own children. The term, ‘sandwich generation’ comes up often as we each give feedback.
The other is a man in his late twenties or early thirties, about half a decade younger than me. What makes him unusual is that he has many of the trappings of the ultra-orthodox. He has a long beard and moustache, a black hat, a white shirt and a black suit. This is the first time I have seen someone from this community joining or even considering to join such a group.
A few years earlier we had a rabbi from the Hassidic community come and speak to us. What he said left most of us upset. He said the Holocaust, like everything else, is part of God’s plan. Nothing happens without a purpose. And its purpose was to warn us that we had strayed from the word of God. There had to be a purification of the tribe. The questions that came after were angry and emotional.
“Hitler is part of God’s plan?”
“How can you suggest such nonsense?”
“You’re blaming the victim?”
“Auschwitz was part of God’s plan?”
The therapist reminded us that this was a safe space to exchange ideas and the rabbi is only expressing his philosophical tenants.
When the orthodox looking man introduces himself, he confesses that he tried very hard to be accepted by the Hassidic community but that they rejected him. No one asks why. We accept everyone no matter what his or her baggage is. After all, aren’t we all in a way marred souls?
He talks about his mother being a survivor from the Treblinka camp and how his parents divorced when he was ten, and his mother suffered from depression. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, he stops and looks at all of us in the circle. I am sitting right next to him.
“What I don’t understand,” his lips tightening and looking towards me, “Is why you aren’t speaking about the Second Holocaust.”
I could see a faint grimace at the corners of his mouth. He stares at me and I feel his dark eyes behind his thick wire rimmed lenses swallowing me.
“I’m not sure what holocaust you are referring to,” I answer.
“You really don’t know what I am referring to?” he asks.
He leans closer towards me.
“I am referring to intermarriage. The Jewish race is slowing killing itself. At least fifty percent of North American Jews are lost this way each generation.”
I could feel the blood rising to my face. I am at a loss for words. Something about it, the certainty in his voice that he speaks the truth, reminds me of the Hassidic rabbi who spoke to us. The circle of faces stare at him in stunned silence.
“I have trouble,” I begin slowly, trying to calm down, “equating marriage outside one’s faith with gas chambers. People get married because of love, not because of hate. I find it an affront to hear the term ‘holocaust’ used the way you use it.”
He shook his head from side to side.
“You’re naïve. The role of the Jew is to survive as a people. The Second Holocaust that is going on now is in many ways worse than the original.”
“You will have to explain that to us,” someone in the circle says.
“The ones they found each morning on the electric fences at Auschwitz took the cowards’ way. They were weak and they made the choice to remove themselves from their own people. They had the responsibility to survive. To survive as Jews! Not to do so is a sin to God who chose us to be a light unto the world. Those who intermarry commit a similar suicidal sin. The worst part is they do it voluntarily!”
The words sound well-rehearsed. Any logical response is blocked by the anger welling up inside. Obviously, I’m not the only one in shock by this outburst. The room falls silent. No one has anything more to add.
Maurice Krystal is an 80 year old retired high school English teacher living in Montreal, Canada who, after retirement, became a docent at the Montreal Holocaust Museum. This work examines the use and misuse of the term ‘holocaust’. He writes a monthly column in The Informer, a local Montreal West newspaper.
He can be reached at [email protected]