OTTAWA – At the tender age of 11, Robbie Waisman of Vancouver was one of the youngest prisoners in Buchenwald. Though he promised another boy in the camp that if he survived, he’d tell the world what happened there, he did not speak publicly about his experiences for nearly 40 years after World War II.
On May 3, Waisman shared his story of survival at the Ottawa community Yom Hashoah commemoration. The event, co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and the Azrieli Foundation, was held at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre.
Shira Benlolo and Cody Miller, teens who met Waisman when they participated in the March of the Living, introduced him and told of the profound effect his story had on their lives.
It was only when Holocaust deniers James Keegstra and Ernst Zundel began making headlines in the 1980s that Waisman began to speak about his own experiences. Since then, he has spoken to thousands of students in schools, juvenile offenders in prison and at anti-racism outreach programs involving First Nations. He is committed to spreading his message in an effort to combat hatred and racism through education.
Though separated from his family – he was the youngest of five brothers and the only one to survive – at age 10, Waisman maintained hope throughout his ordeal that he would eventually be reunited with his loved ones.
Once he was finally liberated, he had many questions.
“What now? Where is my family? Did anyone survive? If not, what was the point of my own survival?” he wondered. “We wanted to go home and to be reunited with family, but we soon realized that home was no more and that families we loved had been brutally murdered.”
Waisman lamented that the lessons of the Holocaust had not, in fact, changed the world. “We, the survivors, were certain that the leaders of the world would say ‘Never again’ and would commit themselves to making sure it would never happen again… but today, 71 years after my liberation, the promise of ‘Never again’ became ‘again and again,’” he said. “There are so many places still all over the world that people continue to be victims of genocide.”
“I am a witness to the ultimate evil,” Waisman said. “To this day, I cannot grasp how I managed to go through pure hell and to survive.”
“The world must learn from the past in order to make this a better place for now and the future,” he said.
Israeli Ambassador Rafael Barak also spoke of the need tell the stories of the past. “As anti-Semitism continues to be a growing force around the world… we have an obligation never to be silent,” Barak said, adding that “I feel so proud to represent the State of Israel – my home, your home and the shelter of Jews around the world.”
Six candles, representing the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, were lit by survivors Elly Bollegraaf, Tova Clark, Jessica Fiksel, Nester Hobe, Agnes Klein and Elena Keen, and Raoul Korngold.
Three veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces and three veterans of the Israel Defence Forces took part in the March on the Colours, and Cantor Pinchas Levinson chanted Kel Maleh Rachamim, followed by the recitation of Kaddish by Cantor Moshe Kraus.