They are now in their 80s and 90s, but they were just kids when their lives were irrevocably changed by Nazi tyranny and atrocity.
The stories of six Holocaust survivors living in Montreal were told at the annual Yom ha-Shoah commemoration, held at Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Montreal on April 11. They represent the last generation of living witnesses to the catastrophe that befell European Jewry and, equally, the will of the survivors to rebuild their lives, even though their scars can never completely heal.
They were surrounded by their children, grandchildren and an increasing number of great-grandchildren, as they lit six memorial candles.
“My family is the living example that Hitler did not succeed completely,” said Eva Verebes, who was born in Budapest in 1935.
The awe was palpable when the 1,200 who were present heard that 90-year-old Auschwitz survivor Zissel Farkas has 70 great-grandchildren. Two of them, Raizy and Miri Farkas (a baby in her mother’s arms), joined her on stage.
The survivors, whose stories were told via video, come from across Europe and their backgrounds and experiences vary.
As a toddler, Mario Polèse, who was born in the Netherlands, was on the run and in hiding with his mother, even though his father was not Jewish.
“The war has never left me,” he said. “I am afraid of happiness, knowing it is a temporary condition because evil still exists.”
The others were Muguette Myers from France, Ernest Ehrmann from Czechoslovakia, who went through four camps, and Leo Kliot, who survived the Vilna ghetto.
“We survived, not because we were smart or heroic, but because we’re lucky,” said Ehrmann, 90.
Quebec Premier Phillipe Couillard, who was the guest speaker, revealed that his uncle was a resistance fighter who was captured and shot to death by the SS. As a result of his family’s resistance, one of his other family members was interned and died in Ravensbruck, and another was deported to Dachau, but survived.
Couillard was accompanied by MNA David Birnbaum, who wore a kippah in the National Assembly, to observe Yom ha-Shoah.
I am afraid of happiness, knowing it is a temporary condition because evil still exists.
– Mario Polèse
“Today, I respectfully wear the kippah knowing that, under the hateful regime of Nazi Germany, I would have signed my death warrant by doing so publicly,” he said.
“I wear it in order to remind myself, and all of us, that in Quebec today, it is possible for me to do so, without an ounce of fear, without any hindrance, to my full and active participation as (a) Quebec citizen.”
The commemoration, held under the auspices of the Montreal Holocaust Museum, was co-chaired by Doris Steg and Ruth Najman, the daughters of survivors.
Israeli Consul General David Levy, speaking at his first Yom ha-Shoah commemoration in Montreal, talked about how his mother, who was born just before the war in Paris, and her mother, were saved by non-Jews. Others in her immediate family were not so fortunate – they were among the 13,152 Jews who were rounded up by French authorities and deported to Auschwitz.
The next morning, a Yom ha-Shoah commemoration was held at Montreal city hall, in the Hall of Honour, a ceremony that was initiated two years ago by then-mayor Denis Coderre.
Mayor Valérie Plante was not present. Executive committee vice-chair Magda Popeanu, under whose auspices the event was held, told The CJN that the mayor had a prior engagement that could not be altered.
The highlight was a vivid testimony by Elie Dawang, who was born in Paris in 1934. Both his parents were sent to Auschwitz, where his mother perished, while he escaped deportation and endured in hiding.
Outremont Borough Councillor Mindy Pollak, 29, thinks about the Holocaust every day because, although her four grandparents survived, many of her other relatives did not and the loss is everlasting. Her maternal grandfather was the only one left of 13 siblings.
“Our family tree is amputated,” she said. “There are no heirlooms, no pictures, no documents and few stories.”
We should not presume that this cannot happen again.
– Lionel Perez
Opposition leader Lionel Perez said, “The Holocaust did not start with the Final Solution in 1941, or Kristallnacht in 1938, or even the Nuremberg laws. It started with hate speech in the 1920s, in the country with the most advanced civilization. We should not presume that this cannot happen again.”
Levy also spoke and Rabbi Avi Finegold and Cantor Adam Stotland gave the homily and led the commemorative prayer, respectively.
The Yiddish choir of Bialik High School sang and students from Herzliah High School, Ecole Maïmonide and Marymount Academy participated in the proceedings.
Six memorial candles were lit, the first by Pollak and Popeanu, who described the Holocaust as “the worst of what humanity can do.… Remembering what happened enables us to better understand the warning signs of genocide.”
Meanwhile, Coderre was in Poland on the March of the Living with thousands of Jewish youth from around the world, including 200 from Montreal, as they walked from Auschwitz to Birkenau.
“I feel humbled, deeply moved and livid in the face of such atrocities, but participation in the March of the Living fills me with hope and thirst to be an active witness so that it never happens again,” Coderre tweeted.
Rabbi Reuben Poupko, who is with him, stated: “To join Denis Coderre on this journey is to witness the deep sensitivity, warmth, and wisdom of a good friend and a great Montrealer.”