TORONTO — As a Holocaust survivor, Peter Silverman is often asked if he wants revenge on the Nazis. His answer is simple. He’s already gotten his revenge.
Gabriella Starker Saxe and Robert Saxe lit the candle for the Righteous Among the Nations on behalf of her grandmother at the Holocaust commemoration ceremony in Toronto. [Rita Poliakov photo]
“When I went to Israel, to a public school, I saw hundreds of kids yelling and jumping. This is my revenge. We won. We are here,” he said.
Silverman, a co-founder of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, was one of about 2,500 Torontonians to attend the Yom Hashoah v’Hagvurah community Holocaust commemoration on Sunday in Earl Bales Park. The memorial – which is sponsored by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem and the federation’s Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre– is the second-largest of its kind in the world, followed only by the ceremony in Israel.
As one of the organizers, Silverman spent three months working on logistics. He did it for the same reason that he helped found the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem in 1985.
“We realized that Holocaust deniers are very smart. If they can deny [the Holocaust] when I’m alive, what’s going to happen when I’m gone?… At our age, we’re losing a few [survivors] every year,” said Silverman, who participated in the event’s candlelighting ceremony. “[We need to] make sure this is remembered forever.”
Lorraine Sandler, chair of the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, sees the event as a chance to educate the community.
“We have many aging survivors who we need to commemorate,” she said. “We also have children and grandchildren who understand their obligation… to be the bearers of [survivors’] stories.”
For Sandler, hearing these stories is a way to put a face to a staggering number.
“The idea of six million is so enormous,” she said. “For six million people, there are six million stories.”
Judy Weissenberg Cohen, a Holocaust survivor who was the keynote speaker at the event, agrees.
At the ceremony, which included a speech by Amir Gissin, Israel’s consul general in Toronto, Weissenberg Cohen discussed the role of women during the Holocaust and their unique struggles, which she saw first-hand in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“The most degrading phase for women… was played out in the death camps. As a survivor of the camps, I’m a witness to this,” she said, adding that, for the Nazis, a woman’s life was intertwined with her child’s.
“To enter Auschwitz visibly pregnant was a definite death sentence,” she said. “One of the most heart-breaking tasks was for women to collect empty strollers from the gas chambers.”
Keren Romm, 29, who attended the ceremony, sees the event as an opportunity for Toronto youth to humanize the Holocaust.
“I think it allows the survivors to come together and be respected,” she said. “[For kids], it takes it out of the classrooms.”
“We represent what happened in a dignified, truthful way. [The community] sees and hears stories of survivors, people who entered camps and survived the horror,” she said.
“It’s important when a community stands up and says, ‘We remember and we want to show the world the effects of bigotry and racism.’”
The Law Society of Upper Canada, in partnership with B’nai Brith Canada, held a Holocaust memorial event on Monday to mark National Holocaust Memorial Day. The event included a panel discussion about whether or not civil and international courts are equipped to deal with war criminals, as well as a performance by Ruth Fazal, a Canadian composer.