TORONTO — Historical memory in the service of combating anti-Semitism and fostering dialogue in the wake of the Holocaust was the theme of a panel discussion at the consulate of Poland late last month.
Marek Ciesielczuk and Sabine Sparwasser
The event, co-sponsored by the German consulate in Toronto, was part of this year’s Mark and Gail Appel program in Holocaust and anti-racism education, “Learning from the Past, Teaching for the Future.”
The program, an initiative of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies and the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at York University, explored the topic of “Cultures of Memory in Canada, Germany and Poland.”
In the audience were, among others, 32 Canadian, German and Polish university students selected to take part in the program and expected to forge careers in education and journalism in their respective countries.
They arrived in Toronto on Feb. 11 and left Canada on Feb. 21 after attending seminars, lectures and workshops, visiting a synagogue, churches and an Islamic and Chinese community centre and going to Niagara Falls and a resort in Muskoka.
The Polish consul general in Toronto, Marek Ciesielczuk, kicked off the proceedings by recalling the “culture of mutual inspiration and enrichment” in pre-World War II Poland – which was home to 3.3 million Jews – and by stating that the Holocaust should not be treated as “an incidental incident.”
Observing that the participation of Polish students in the program was rendered possible by the 1989 democratic revolution in Poland, he said they would plant “the seeds of truth and reconciliation” in the battle against xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism.
Sabine Sparwasser, Germany’s consul general, said, “The Holocaust was an event of unparalleled evil. To know that the crimes were committed by one’s own fellow citizens has been a terrible burden to bear, not just for Germans of the wartime generation, but for all succeeding generations as well.”
Praising German university students of the late 1960s for raising painful issues and thereby changing the way Germans relate to their past, she said the study of the Holocaust has become “a central feature of school curricula and university research” and a focus of the mass media.
As she put it, “The culture of memory became part of who we are. It is part of our national DNA. For young Germans, the passage of time has made the memory of the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes less a question of personal responsibility and more a matter of collective and individual responsibility, a national commitment of ‘never again.’”
She added: “Our culture of memory has not been imposed on us. It has indeed been crucial for us to become a better people and a better country. Only because of it could modern Germany develop strong and spirited friendships with peoples who suffered so terribly at the hands of Germans, most especially in Poland and Israel.”
Sparwasser described Berlin, the capital, as an open-air museum of German history and of monuments and plaques paying homage to the victims of Nazism.
Lorna Wright, York University’s associate vice-president of international affairs, described the program as “one of the most successful and innovative” in terms of its global reach.
Bartosz Wisniewski, who studies modern languages, literature and Hebrew at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, spoke for his fellow students. In an apparent reference to Nazi concentration camps, he said, “We were in places that shouldn’t have existed.”
Calling the program “a wonderful experience” whose lesson is tolerance, he said it gives young Poles like himself the strength to deal with the future.
Michael Brown, former director of York University’s Centre for Jewish Studies, said the culture of memory should be no less important in Canada than in Europe, given Canada’s shameful record in admitting Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 1940s.
Brown said None Is Too Many – a path-breaking book by Irving Abella and Harold Troper published in the 1980s about Canada’s former immigration policy – left a deep impression on Canadians.
“We can see that education helps, and that’s a good lesson for us,” he noted.
Peter Trummer, a Heidelberg University historian specializing in German history, genocide and remembrance and a recruiter of students to the program, said that Germany has a well-established culture of memory in the form of memorial sites and monuments and school curricula.
But in the last decade, in a new development, various “victim groups” have begun competing for government funds, he said. Among them are Jews who were persecuted during the Nazi era and Germans who were displaced after World War II and suffered under communism in the former East Germany.
Aleksandra Boron, a professor of comparative education at Adam Mickiewicz University who also has recruited students to the program, said the previous Communist regime only memorialized Poles affiliated with Communism. Ethnic minorities such as Jews were ignored.
During the 1990s, she added, words such as “Holocaust” and “Shoah” began appearing in Polish school texts for the first time, and Poles started coming to grips with anti-Semitism. Poland’s membership in the European Union has made it even more open to the dark stains in its history, she said.
In Canada, the Holocaust is perceived through the prism of human rights and social responsibility, observed Naomi Azrieli of the Azrieli Foundation.
She, too, said that None Is Too Many heightened Canadians’ awareness of the Holocaust.
Azrieli said the personal stories of Holocaust survivors are quickly becoming “our [memorial] monuments” in Canada. “This has been a very good thing for the culture of memory in Canada.”