MONTREAL – The already desperate situation for European Jews became even more dire in 1944, a crowd of close to 1,400 was reminded at this year’s community Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration April 27.
The Nazis knew they were losing the war, but that only made them step up the pace of killing Jews, such as in Hungary, where in less than two months after the Germans invaded, they murdered 437,000 Jews. By war’s end, the tally was 550,000.
The year 1944 “was the year the Nazis culminated their plan of unparalleled slaughter,” said Judith Nemes-Black, co-chair with Joyce Rapaport of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre’s (MHMC) Yom Hashoah committee.
“The trains kept going, and the crematoria were at full strength while the world looked away,” she added.
“And the trains kept going” was the theme of the official 75-minute community commemoration at Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem.
The evening placed special emphasis on the destruction of Hungarian Jewry, but also on miracles such as the actions of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat credited with saving tens of thousands of Budapest Jews.
One of them was Agnes Kent, who kindled – as did five other survivors and their families – the first of six yahrzeit candles representing the number of Jewish millions who perished in the Holocaust.
Wallenberg was “one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century,” Kent said in one of the six brief videotaped testimonies recorded by the candle-lighters.
She described how several of her family members perished in a death march and concentration camps while she survived to cherish her two granddaughters.
The evening included somber readings, prayers, psalms, partisan songs, and performances by the Bialik High School choir under Lorna Smith (as well as a Ladino song by Sharon Azrieli).
CJAD radio host Tommy Schnurmacher and Csaba Nicolenyi – both of Hungarian descent and representing the “second generation” – did the “recitation of names,” and several generations issued “The Promise” to remember the Holocaust forever.
Those in attendance included community, religious, political and diplomatic figures from all levels. Among them were new D’Arcy McGee MNA David Birnbaum, Russian Consul General Yuri Badzhanyan, Cote-des-Neiges-Notre Dame de Grace Mayor Russell Copeman, and Hungarian Consul General Gyula Szebtnihaly.
Despite the large crowd and the presence of young people from the March of the Living and the post-Holocaust generations, the event showed how rapidly shrinking the number of survivors is in Montreal – which has the world’s third-largest survivor community after Israel and New York City.
Each year, the number of seats occupied by survivors dwindles.
That reality is what makes the “passing of the torch” more vital than ever as anti-Semitism refuses to abate, said Israeli Consul General Joel Lion. He listed 21 specific incidents around the world – including in Canada, the United States and Ukraine – that occurred in the last two weeks.
“We have to be the canary in the mine,” Lion said, arguing that the continued existence of Israel is the “only guarantee” the Holocaust won’t happen again.
Israel “is our own personal revenge on the Nazis,” he said.
Yom Hashoah was also to be commemorated April 28 in separate events by students from Herzliah High School (at the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue), by Grade 6 students from Jewish People’s and Peretz Schools (at Shomrim Laboker synagogue), and on the steps of Montreal City Hall at a B’nai Brith Canada event with mayor Denis Coderre in attendance.