On May 8, 400 Jews and non-Jews gathered together in the Shaarei Shomayim hall in Toronto, to pay homage to the 30th anniversary of March of the Living. We were there to honour 47 survivors, some of whom have left us. We were paying tribute to Eli Rubenstein, the national director of March of the Living.
The evening was glorious. Not a creative idea had been spared by Jewish Federations of Canada, United Israel Appeal (JFC-UIA).
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was present. He danced with Nate Leipciger. He kissed other survivors. He was very present. The prime minister spoke purposely and tenderly to those in attendance, especially the survivors. He seemed to recognize the great responsibility of bestowing kavod (honour) upon those Jewish men and women who once wore lice-infested pyjamas as prisoners in concentration camps; who were packed into cattle cars and transported to hell, but who now sit together with us dressed to the nines with faces aglow and obvious contentment at having survived and done so with such stellar accomplishment.
The prime minister stood on the stage and spoke about our country’s shame stemming from out “none is too many” refugee policy, and the crime of turning away the MS St. Louis in 1939. The St. Louis was a ship that was forced by the Canadian government to return to Nazi Germany, where many of the Jews on board were murdered.
Trudeau had tears in his eyes as he thanked the survivors for their courage to relive their horrors over-and-over, while educating Canadians from coast to coast about the Holocaust. He respectfully and deliberately looked out at us, the crowd, as he stated that an apology would be forthcoming in the House of Commons for the St. Louis.
The 30th anniversary of the March of the Living was truly magnificent. To be there was to witness the grace, the refinement, the elegance and the courage of our Jewishness. To be there was to remember the horrors our people and so many others had been subjected to. To be there was to witness the witnesses, the survivors and their offspring and to see them very much alive.
The event was conceived of by Abe Glowinsky, Marci Abramsky, Mark Gryfe and Evan Zelikovits. It reflected the sharp contrast between the evil Nazi ideology of humiliation and destruction and the Jewish way of creating and loving one’s neighbour. At some point during the program, three of the survivors’ progeny addressing the audience, yelling out, “Hitler, you lost!” I had never heard such a thing. I felt joy. I sensed my Jewish chest expanding with dignity.
And then there was Rubenstein. We were all there to give a group hug to this man, who has managed to bring depth and dimensionality to the March of the Living for three decades. He’s someone who has sculpted a national program in the way that composer Allen Shawn described Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps: “A universal outcry ripping through the fabric of proprietary, joyful and tragic simultaneously.” We were there to honour Rubensteinm who sees his work as “a sacred obligation.”
The room was filled with Canadian March of the Living alumni, survivors, educators, chaperones, community leaders and donors, all of whom expressed a sense of awe and gratefulness to Rubenstein for his passionate speeches at the gates of Auschwitz. We in attendance stood and applauded Rubenstein, who’s also the spiritual leader of Congregation Habonim, for his stirring musical services in Europe’s former ghettos and his compelling storytelling about the Holocaust. We were there to thank him for his inclusivity, as he extended the March of the Living to include native Canadians, visually impaired Israelis, Christians, Muslims, Rwandans, Polish Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists and many non-Jewish groups.
Rubenstein received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his commitment and unceasing dedication to promoting and enhancing the program. A student scholarship fund was also established by The Ben & Hilda Katz Charitable Foundation, in Rubenstein’s name, to permanently recognize his contributions.
At some point in the evening, I turned to his mother, Esther, and said, “You’ve raised a good boy.” She responded with a big smile and said, “He raised us!”
The 30th anniversary gala celebrated the success of the March of the Living and created student scholarship funds in the name of each survivor by raising $2 million.
The true beauty of the gala, however, was its symmetry and harmony. No one person or group took centre stage more than any other. There was a finely woven balance within the program, one that highlighted the idea that nothing is accomplished alone. It was understood that our survivors were the guests of honours that night, but we also knew that such an evening, such a program, such a people, could not survive or thrive without one another.
The gala was a distinct moment in Jewish history. It represented the gift of our Jewishness, our love of our people, our neighbours and of Israel. It represented forgiveness, generosity of spirit and the fortitude of individuals, the brilliant creations of God.
As Rubensein said, “We, the Jewish people, stand for exactly the opposite values the Nazi represented: they stood for blind hatred; we stand for blind love.”