TORONTO — Collaboration. Collaborator.
Both words can stir strong feelings – in both positive and negative directions. Scientists have collaborated to produce great achievements; so have artists. Young schoolchildren are graded on how well they collaborate.
But placed in the context of the Holocaust, the words conjure images of ordinary people – clerks, housewives, farmers, militias – plotting with the Nazis to send Jews to their deaths.
They can also refer to those who collaborated to rescue Jews.
Collaboration is the theme of this year’s Holocaust Education Week (HEW), which runs Nov. 2 to 9.
The 34th annual program of lectures, art exhibits, films, concerts and panels will explore “the distinct ways in which individuals, groups and governments collaborated during the Shoah,” according to a statement from the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre.
The program will address “many forms of collaboration: from the experiences of those who purposely chose to collaborate with the Nazis in genocide and crimes against humanity – precipitating events such as Kristallnacht and the Hungarian deportations – to those who defied the Nazis and collaborated instead in resistance and even rescue, as in the Kindertransport, and by those now designated as Righteous Among the Nations,” the centre said.
It will also examine “how individuals and groups responded to the Nazi persecution and genocide in general,” HEW co-chair Dori Ekstein told The CJN. “It makes us think about human behaviour and understanding our own behaviour – how we might have reacted [in the same circumstances].”
Collaboration speaks to “accountability and responsibility,” Ekstein said. “It also allows us to draw on new understandings of the Holocaust.”
In an essay, Doris Bergen, professor of Holocaust studies at the University of Toronto and one of three HEW “experts-in-residence,” writes that Adolf Hitler “could not have killed six million Jews on his own.” Germany “needed partners – collaborators – to co-operate with them in theft, enslavement and murder, and they found such people everywhere Nazi German power reached.”
But the word is more complicated and multifaceted than many may believe, Bergen goes on, and it took many forms: ideological versus opportunistic; intentional, coerced, occasional, systemic.
She asks whether there was Jewish collaboration during the Holocaust.
“Few would use that term today,” she wrote, “to describe the role of Jewish councils, ghetto police, kapos or informers.”
Yet, at the time, “Jews wrote scathing accusations of other Jews.”
One panel, on Nov. 2 at Bialik Hebrew Day School, will examine the touchy subject. Even its title is explosive. “Jewish Leaders in Hell: Looking Back on the Judenrat” will explore the behaviours and strategies of leader of the often hated Judenrats, or Jewish councils put in charge of ghettos.
Another hotly debated issue to this day is the story of Rudolf “Rezso” Kasztner, who negotiated with the Germans to rescue 1,684 Hungarian Jews aboard a train in 1944. Kasztner was assassinated in 1957 in Tel Aviv after an Israeli court accused him of having collaborated with the Nazis.
Whether he was a rescuer or collaborator will be examined by Anna Porter, author of Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of Rezso Kasztner, Unknown Hero of the Holocaust on Nov. 8 at Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation.
To Eric Cohen, HEW’s other co-chair, Kasztner presents a good example of ambiguity when it comes to collaboration.
“Even today, people are undecided whether he was good or bad,” Cohen told The CJN. “My point of view is pragmatic: if you are one of the people he saved, you think he’s good. If you were one of the people whose family didn’t get on the train, I don’t think you think he’s so good.
“I don’t think we have a clear-cut answer.”
The theme of collaboration is further explored in programs that will examine the heroic actions of so-called Righteous Gentiles and the complicit roles played in the Holocaust by Nazi doctors, Catholic priests and ordinary German women.
What motivated collaborators will be explored on one busy day, Nov. 9, with panels on three individual cases: Rabbi Solomon Schoenfeld, who worked with the British and Jewish leaders in Vienna and Slovakia to rescue thousands of Jews; Benjamin Murmelstein, the last elder of the Judenrat in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and subject of the Claude Lanzmann film The Last of the Unjust, and Mordechai Rumkowski, appointed by the Nazis to oversee the Lodz Ghetto.
Cohen notes that among the most impactful lectures during HEW are those by Holocaust survivors. This year, there will be some 50 first-hand testimonies.
“There were over 60 last year,” he points out. “Numbers are dwindling every year, and it’s really important for people to listen to survivors.”
Opening night, on Nov. 2, will pay tribute to the 70th anniversary of Jewish deportations from Hungary, and will feature Ayelet Waldman, author of Love and Treasure, a work of historical fiction about the so-called Gold Train, a train carrying stolen property that was intercepted by U.S. troops just after the war. The event will be at the Royal Ontario Museum at 7:30 p.m.
Closing night on Nov. 9 at Beth Tzedec Congregation will commemorate the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of mayhem and murder across Germany and Austria that marked the beginning of the end for European Jewry.
For details, including information on programs before and after HEW, visit holocausteducatioweek.com.