TORONTO — An estimated 1,500 people gathered April 7 for Toronto’s community Holocaust commemoration, said to be the largest of its kind outside of Israel.
The solemn program, which also commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, took place for the first time at the new Schwartz-Reisman Centre on the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Jewish Community Campus in Vaughan, Ont. The morning event was co-sponsored by the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem and the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.
Keynote speaker Amek Adler, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau, said that, contrary to popular perception, Jews did fight back. “We fought every day and every night, every minute and every hour to be alive and to survive.”
He said it is hard to describe the shock of seeing the ghetto for the first time at age 11 in 1939, when he arrived with his parents, grandparents and older brother. His father and brother later perished in Dachau.
“The situation was impossible,” an emotional Adler said of the ghetto, recalling dead bodies lying in the street, people selling personal belongings in order to buy necessities on the black market and living on food rations of 180 calories per person per day. The Polish population, in contrast, received 2,300 calories per day, he said.
He remembers being beaten until he blacked out for refusing to take his hat off for a Nazi. Another time, a member of the Hitler Jugend (Youth) hit a friend of Adler’s with no provocation. Adler jumped on the attacker, hit his head against the asphalt, and would probably have killed him had onlookers not stopped him, he said.
“Three hundred thousand men, women and children were taken from Warsaw and shipped to Treblinka, where life expectancy was one to one-and-a-half hours,” he said. To prevent a repeat of the Holocaust, he stressed, “we must keep Israel strong.”
DJ Schneeweiss, consul general of Israel to Toronto and Western Canada, said one of the fundamental reasons for Israel’s existence is to ensure a calamity such as the Shoah never occurs again.
Israel owes survivors an immeasurable debt, Schneeweiss said. The Israeli government has just announced a 50-million shekel increase in assistance to survivors, he added.
He said it’s a source of great strength for Israel “to always see Canada by our side, indeed often taking the lead,” in the global fight against antisemitism and anti-Israel initiatives. He thanked Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government for its support.
Other participants included Louis Greenbaum, co-chair of the 2013 Yom Hashoah v’Hagvurah steering committee; cantors Avraham Sultan and Tibor Kovari; violinist Ori Solomon; rabbis Chaim Strauchler and Micah Streiffer; March of the Living alumna Rebecca Aziza, General Wingate Branch 256 Royal Canadian Legion and Jewish War Veterans of Canada, Toronto Post. Representatives of NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth), the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, Hillel of Greater Toronto, Bnei Akiva Schools and March of the Living did readings as six commemorative candles were lit by army veterans, Shoah survivors and the granddaughter of the late Julia Ciurko, a recipient of Yad Vashem’s designation as Righteous Among the Nations.