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Monday, December 29, 2014

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Kristallnacht, SS St. Louis remembered

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HALIFAX — It was a double-whammy of remembrance in Halifax on Nov. 8 as the horrors of Kristallnacht and the shame of the world’s rejection of the SS St. Louis were combined in a ceremony at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax.

Susanna Kokkonen

The event, which drew an overflow crowd of more than 200 people, concluded a very busy Holocaust Education Week that comprised education workshops for teachers, talks to students and the public by Holocaust survivors, films about refugees trying to escape the atrocities and a talk by the director of Christian Friends of Yad Vashem.

The Dignity Day program commemorating Kristallnacht 71 years ago brought together the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, Mayann Francis, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter and other dignitaries to light memorial candles.

Rachel Handlesman of Toronto, a fourth-year sociology student at Dalhousie University and president of the Jewish Students Association of Atlantic Canada, has been a member of the Atlantic Jewish Council’s (AJC) Holocaust Education Week committee since her freshman year.

At the Kristallnacht ceremony, she recalled the eternal unhappiness of her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who lost eight siblings in the war.

“I knew part of her life, but she never really talked about [the Holocaust],” Handlesman said in a later interview. “I really didn’t understand what she went through until I heard my father do her eulogy at her funeral.”

An extensive exhibit of the SS St. Louis was officially opened soon after the candles were lit. The exhibit, which is expected to run for about a year, was co-ordinated by the museum and the AJC.

Dan Conlon, the museum’s curator of marine heritage, tied Kristallnacht to the voyage of the St. Louis in 1939.

“Kristallnacht caused many families to leave Germany to find safety in late 1938,” he said. “That led to the St. Louis taking almost 1,000 passengers on its fated journey to Cuba where, despite all papers being in order, they were turned away. They were denied entry to the United States and, even though a group of Canadians had pleaded for their admission to Canada, anti-Semitism at the highest levels of government again turned them away.”

He said more than 25 per cent of the passengers were killed in death camps after being captured when the ship returned to Germany.

“Ignorance and indifference were the causes,” he said.

On Oct. 29, at University of King’s College in Halifax, Susanna Kokkonen, director of the Christian Friends of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, explained her group’s purpose.

“We educate Christians worldwide on the Holocaust, what happened and why, and what has to be done today to fight anti-Semitism,” said the 35-year-old native of Finland, who earned her PhD in Holocaust studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

She said Christian Friends invites Christian pastors and leaders to Yad Vashem for special courses on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. “We think we know about [the Holocaust], but there are things we don’t think about – why it started because of social unrest, how the people of Germany felt they needed a saviour and a scapegoat, and how Hitler made the Jews the scapegoat.”

Kokkonen blamed Christian anti-Semitism for making the Holocaust possible, with events such as the Crusades, the Inquisition and the French Revolution all contributing to Christian hate for Jews.

“Today, we need to learn of the Holocaust so we can understand our responsibilities, so we can no longer be bystanders,” she said.

She praised “rescuers” who were strong non-Jewish people, making quick decisions, knowing what faced them if they were caught, “but who acted like good human beings.”

She quoted a highly-ranked Portuguese official in France who said, when asked why he risked being a rescuer, “If so many Jews could suffer because of one Christian, one Christian can suffer because of so many Jews.”

Survivors Philip Riteman and Helena Jockel each spoke to more than 200 in separate talks about their experiences.

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