MONTREAL — Most of the community’s 5,000 Holocaust survivors won’t be around 10 years from now.
In the face of that, how will future generations continue to be engaged with what the Holocaust, as well as other contemporary genocides, have meant, and how will they fight forces of intolerance and hate that led to human destruction at such vast scales?
Those questions were posed last week at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC) on Jan. 27, as it commemorated 65 years to the day since the liberation of Auschwitz. The International Day of Holocaust Commemoration, designated in 2005 by the United Nations, also fell on Jan. 27.
A panel about “taking action 65 years after Auschwitz” agreed on some basic strategies – such as making vital “connections” between people.
That strategy already seemed at play at the MHMC.
As part of the day, members of the National Theatre School of Canada gave French- and English-language public readings from Address Unknown, Kressman Taylor’s classic 50-page novella from the 1930s chronicling the deterioration of a close friendship between a Jew and a German, as the latter gradually comes to ardently support the Nazis.
Earlier in the day, the group performed the same readings at two public high schools.
At the commemoration, representatives from the groups Darfur/Sudan Peace Network; Page Rwanda; the Human Promise; the Tony Blair Faith Foundation; the Canadian Centre for International Justice and Humain Avant Tout sat at tables, handing out literature and chatting with members of the public.
At the bilingual panel discussion, MHMC executive director Alice Herscovitch said that Taylor “engaged her skills for the good of humanity. It’s a matter of communicating the message.”
The new tendency to link Holocaust memory to other groups’ experiences was noted in a recent article by veteran JTA journalist Ruth Gruber.
“There is an increasing emphasis,” she wrote, “on what the experience of the Holocaust can teach in the face of other genocides and persecution, such as in Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia and Darfur.”
At the panel discussion, Susyn Borer, president of the Holocaust centre’s board of directors, pointed to the importance of pursuing “partnerships” and of staying “relevant” to younger generations.
This might be accomplished, she said, by providing the “connections” with other genocides and providing the historical context.
Even the recent earthquake in Haiti evoked horrible imagery from history that could be for learning and understanding, such as bodies being bulldozed into mass graves, Borer said.
“What does that make you think about?” she asked.
Borer said that once people learn about the Holocaust, “they want to know more.”
A study by the Association for Canadian Studies demonstrated that awareness of genocide affects attitudes toward diversity in a positive way, she added.
Another study suggests that acts of altruism appear to help make for a “meaningful” life of fulfilment and happiness, she said.
Sandra Gasana, of the Community University Research Alliance (CURA), which records the life stories of Montrealers displaced by war, genocide and other human rights violations, spent nearly two years recording the testimonies of survivors of genocide, including of the Holocaust, in partnership with the MHMC and other agencies.
“This is part of the duty to remember,” she said. “We are all involved.”
The process of connecting has to include “keeping oneself informed and mobilizing,” she said.
Steven Baird, of the Darfur/Sudan Peace Network, a coalition of 30 volunteer groups that includes the Canadian Jewish Congress, sees the role of the average citizen as vital in the fight against hate and intolerance.
“The greatest thing is when you can engage with other peoples and groups,” he said. “Individual citizens can be the driving force. You need the human-to-human connection.”
Borer and Gasana disagreed on the role the virtual world could play in creating connections between people.
Borer thought that “it all comes down to the relationship you have with other people. Technology can be a one-act show, limiting in a certain way.”
But Gasana said the ubiquity of technology takes away all excuses not to get involved.
Herscovitch quoted from a letter the MHMC received from Kressman Taylor’s son, writer C. Douglas Taylor, offering his view of what his late mother (she died in 1956) would have said in regard to preventing genocides.
He wrote: “I think she would suggest that each of us must regularly examine and re-examine our own conviction – political, social, moral, religious – weighing them constantly, and listening carefully and openly to the opinions of others, not only to those whose ideas appeal to us, but especially to those whose beliefs might first offend us or run counter to our own.”