TORONTO — The theme of this year’s Holocaust Education Week, to run Nov. 3 to 9, is “national narratives.” If the world-renowned series of programs, speakers and cultural events wanted to add a line, it would be “before it’s too late.”
The 33rd annual HEW will explore, as its website explains, “different national, generational and cultural narratives of the Holocaust and its aftermath… the personal and collective narratives of individual survivors and communities who rebuilt themselves elsewhere in the world.”
To that end, the program will feature at least a dozen sessions of direct conversations with individual Holocaust survivors, and others highlighting first-hand accounts and testimonies.
“One Story at a Time,” the opening night program on Nov. 3 at the CNE’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre, co-sponsored by the Azrieli Foundation, will see the release of five new survivors’ memoirs published by the foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program, and the screening of five accompanying short films.
This year’s HEW “is about giving voice to the survivors,” program co-chair Joyce Rifkind told The CJN. Why now?
“Survivors are aging and dying,” she said. “We wanted to give an opportunity to focus on them and their stories while we still have them.”
The program also takes note of Canada’s chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental body comprising state officials and experts from 31 countries. It supports Holocaust education, remembrance and research. Canada is chairing the IHRA in 2013–2014.
This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the nationwide Nazi pogrom against pre-war German Jews. Both will be commemorated in the closing program on Nov. 9 at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation, with a candlelighting service to mark the milestone of Kristallnacht, which happened Nov. 9-10, 1938.
Also observing an important anniversary is None is Too Many, the groundbreaking book by professors Irving Abella and Harold Troper that chronicled Canada’s dismal war-era record of admitting – or more like not admitting – Jewish refugees fleeing Europe.
Marking 30 years since the book’s publication, HEW offers two programs with Troper (who is serving as the week’s scholar-in-residence): On Nov. 4 at Beth Tzedec Congregation, he’ll lead a discussion on his latest research: the Canadian Jewish community’s failure to move the 1936 Nazi Olympic Games from Berlin, and its attempted boycott of the event.
And on Nov. 5 at Ryerson University’s Heaslip House, Troper will appear on a panel alongside Jacqueline Celemencki (HEW’s educator-in-residence) and Rochelle Rubinstein (its artist-in-residence) to discuss “Holocaust Legacies: The Canadian Connection.” The program will examine how we understand the historical significance of the Holocaust in a modern context.
HEW’s central theme – the individual’s narrative – is “an incredibly important resource for historians,” Troper told The CJN. But – and it’s a touchy point – how accurate are survivors’ memories? How do they stack up against the hard historical record?
“This is a major discussion point among historians,” Troper replied, and he supplied a few questions of his own: “Is a survivor’s testimony enough? Should we also, as historians, try to reach out and gather testimony, not just of survivors, but of bystanders, perpetrators… all those who had some direct connection to the events?”
He has still more questions: What is the impact of the intervening years? How does memory change? Does it become selective? “And of course,” Troper adds, “how much do you balance the memories against the kind of traditional historical record that historians are used to?”
Ultimately, he relies “a lot” on oral or memory history, “but always with a full awareness that it is only one source. But it’s an incredibly important source, because, while the testimony that a survivor gives us may be short on peripheral vision – they may have not known what was going on in the neighbouring town or inner sanctums of the Nazi machine – they can give us historians all of a kind of intimate knowledge of what the human experience was like.
“It gives a picture or understanding of things we won’t get any other way.”
One session, on Nov. 5 at Shaar Shalom Synagogue, will examine a new development that has jarred survivors and Holocaust academics alike.
Last March, the New York Times, in a story headlined “The Holocaust just got more shocking,” reported on the results of research by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which 13 years earlier, began tabulating all the ghettos, slave-labour sites, concentration camps and killing factories that the Nazis had set up throughout Europe.
The reality was much worse than anything imagined.
The study found there were more than 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe from 1933 to 1945. Among those were 30,000 slave-labour camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 prisoner of war camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; thousands of other transit and re-education camps, and centres for euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions or transporting victims to their deaths.
The overall figure of 42,500 ghettos and camps was “so staggering,” the Times reported, “that even Holocaust scholars had to make sure they had heard [them] correctly.” The story quoted one scholar as saying: “The numbers are so much higher than what we originally thought. We knew before how horrible life in the camps and ghettos was, but the numbers are unbelievable.”
Historian Robert Jan van Pelt of the University of Waterloo and University of Toronto will examine the research and provide some of his own at the program, which starts at 8 p.m.
Troper said he’s not surprised at the new research unearthed 70 years after the fact. After all, he said, summoning an old nugget about the Third Reich’s fanatical record-keeping: “The Nazis committed genocide in triplicate.”
HEW is presented by the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. For a full listing of programs, go to holocausteducationweek.com.