Home Perspectives Opinions How Peres and visiting Auschwitz shaped me as a leader

How Peres and visiting Auschwitz shaped me as a leader

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Auschwitz. AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU STATE MUSEUM PHOTO

(Editor’s note: The following remarks were delivered by the prime minister at Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim on Yom Kippur.)

READ: TRUDEAU ATTENDS KOL NIDRE SERVICES AT MONTREAL SYNAGOGUE

As many of you know, I travelled to Israel just a few weeks ago. I was there to pay my respects to a great leader and an even greater man, Shimon Peres. Shimon Peres was a beacon of light amidst conflict. He was a broker of peace, dedicated to the State of Israel and the entire Jewish community. Israel has long been a great friend and ally to Canada. And Shimon Peres exemplified this in his efforts to build and maintain the relationship between our two countries.

When I visited the president on my first visit to Israel, he spoke about his long-standing friendship with my father. He told me about the first time they met. They ate lunch together on the lawn of my father’s house, sitting on a blanket and enjoying a beautiful Ottawa day. Later, Mr. Peres talked about that moment, saying, “We sat like two young children and had our lunch. And then we developed a really good friendship.”

Shimon Peres leaves behind a legacy of collaboration and exemplary statesmanship. It was an absolute honour for me to represent Canadians at his funeral. The extent to which world leaders came together to celebrate his life and accomplishments was a privilege to witness. And it was something I won’t soon forget.

Just as I won’t soon forget a conversation I recently had with my son.

You see, I was in Warsaw recently for the NATO Summit. While there, I decided to take my eldest son, Xavier, to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. As Xav and I toured through the displays, he – like any eight-year-old kid – had a million and one questions. And when we got to the section on the Holocaust, his big question was, “Did everyone die?”

He had a hard time grasping the true horror of this tragedy. And I was struck not only by the innocence of his question, but also the immense weight of the required response. As a dad, how could I even begin to explain this to him? It was that exchange that helped me ultimately decide not to bring Xav with me when I toured Auschwitz. I knew in my gut that I had to experience that solemn site for the first time as an individual and as a leader, but not as a father mindful of shaping my son’s experience. I will absolutely take my children back there when they’re a little older. But on this visit, I needed to understand and assess for myself, and then bring my experience back to fold into what I do as a leader.

I tried to prepare myself mentally in the days leading up to my visit to Auschwitz. But the moment I stepped onto the grounds of that camp, all that preparation washed away. It was overwhelming, and so utterly heartbreaking.

READ: MY VISIT TO AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU WITH PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU

Over the course of our tour, myself, Rabbi Scheier, and an inspirational Auschwitz survivor, Nate Leipciger, heard all about the history of the camp. We stood by the crematorium and cried together for Nate’s mother and sister, and all the innocents like them. But as I think back, one small moment – one specific site – stands out.

The Railcar.

"Tolerance is never sufficient," Trudeau wrote in the Auschwitz guest book. "Humanity must learn to love our differences." TWITTER PHOTO SCREENSHOT
“Tolerance is never sufficient,” Trudeau wrote in the Auschwitz guest book. “Humanity must learn to love our differences.” TWITTER PHOTO SCREENSHOT

Being in a place with such a devastating and terrible history, it’s hard to really comprehend the enormity of what went on there. I tried to wrap my head around the experiences of all those people who were innocents, yet had their lives cut short. Families that were shattered, all because of hatred, intolerance, and persecution. And I was constantly challenged with a sense of inability in knowing that I can never truly understand it.

But that old wooden railcar brought me close.

I’m a pretty tactile person, and when I was at Auschwitz, being able to place my hands on this railcar that brought people to this evil place – that grounded it for me. Being able to touch this vessel that so many passengers thought would bring them to freedom, but instead delivered them to their deaths – that grounded it for me.

And similar to the railcar, my experience was made tangible by hearing from Nate.

Nate bravely spoke about the loss of his family. And he spoke of the darkness, and the heaviness, that he carries with him each and every day. Those moments – at the railcar, and hearing Nate’s story – they brought this tragedy to life for someone like me. Someone who can never truly know the devastation.

The feelings I felt were visceral and raw: I felt immense sadness at the scope of such great loss. The anger at the idea that such atrocities were committed at the hands of a so-called “leader” – a leader who violated the responsibility and trust placed in him in the most despicable way. And I felt a sense of helplessness in knowing that shades of that hatred still exist around the world to this very day.

As a global community, we have the power to generate change, and to fight fear with love. But this kind of large-scale movement starts with us – with each and every one of us here tonight. It starts with loving our differences, not simply tolerating them. And demanding better – both of ourselves, and of others.

It remains our collective responsibility – as leaders, as Jews, and as friends of the Jewish community – to ensure that, through education and awareness, “Never Again” is never forgotten.

Attending the commemoration of a proud Jewish statesman and a founding father of the State of Israel; fielding innocent, but heavy, questions from my son; and bearing witness to a site that will always speak to humanity’s capacity for cruelty – these experiences will forever shape me as a leader, as a father, and as a human being.

READ: TRUDEAU ATTENDS KOL NIDRE SERVICES AT MONTREAL SYNAGOGUE


Justin Trudeau is the prime minister of Canada.