Participating in the March of the Living (MOL) “changes your life forever,” said former Montreal mayor Denis Coderre, and has put his unexpected loss in the November election into perspective.
Coderre spoke, at times emotionally, about being at Auschwitz on Yom ha-Shoah and in Israel, to celebrate the state’s 70th anniversary.
He was the keynote speaker at the Victor and Sheila Goldbloom Symposium – held at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Westmount, Que., on May 8 – an annual event dedicated to promoting interfaith and intercultural relations.
Declaring, “Tonight I’m Jewish,” from the bimah and proudly wearing a kippah, Coderre stressed that he returned more convinced than ever of the necessity of Holocaust education as a means of preventing other atrocities.
“It’s imperative to understand the past, so we do not repeat it in the future,” he said.
Coderre, who initiated a Yom ha-Shoah commemoration inside city hall two years ago, expressed his desire to go on the MOL last October, when he spoke at a Federation CJA event honouring Holocaust survivors.
“I knew it would be tough, but that it was important to become a witness,” he said. “If we remain silent, we are an accomplice.”
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs arranged Coderre’s trip and its Quebec co-chair, Rabbi Reuben Poupko, accompanied him during the two weeks.
“The MOL made me understand the richness of life and the importance of not wasting time,” Coderre said.
Coderre was especially impressed by the stories and the resilience of the survivors who accompanied the hundreds of young Jews on the MOL.
He was struck by what he learned about Dr. Gisella Perl, a Romanian-Jewish obstetrician at Auschwitz who treated female inmates without even the most basic equipment. Coderre was awed by the fact that she performed thousands of abortions to prevent pregnant women from being subjected to the atrocious experiments performed by Dr. Josef Mengele.
The MOL helped Coderre understand why the State of Israel is needed. “I believe in two states, but Israel has the right to exist and to defend itself,” he said. “Now I understand why it is so important to protect the Jewish people.”
It’s imperative to understand the past, so we do not repeat it in the future.
– Denis Coderre
Coderre said that Poland’s Holocaust speech law, which was passed earlier this year, is an example of “cynicism in politics.”
“It’s important not to try to revisit, to banalize, what truly happened,” he said. “There were good Poles, but some people who participated, too. We have to make sure a fact is a fact.”
Coderre is disturbed by the rise of the extreme right and left, as well as the rhetoric on social media.
Asked about media reports that an influential neo-Nazi on the Internet, a native Quebecer, had been recruiting in Montreal, as well as the fact that someone displayed a Nazi flag on the roof of a Park Extension condo during the May Day rally, Coderre said the police should be allowed to determine if hate crime charges should be laid.
“The law is pretty clear, the Supreme Court has been clear. The police are doing their job,” said Coderre, who noted that it was he who created a hate crimes unit within the Montreal Police Service, as well as the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence.
“This is a non-partisan issue. Any form of intolerance has to be denounced. We need to educate and sensitize, starting with the school curriculum,” he added.
Coderre reiterated his opposition to restrictions on wearing religious symbols. “If I’m in front of a judge with a kippah, I see a judge, not somebody Jewish,” he said.
Now I understand why it is so important to protect the Jewish people.
– Denis Coderre
“We’re not talking about special treatment. We just need to respect (minorities). It can’t be ‘one size fits all’ – ‘Oh, you look different, you’re the enemy, you’re stealing our jobs.’ We don’t want to repeat the 1930s.”
Coderre would like to go to Armenia and Rwanda now, to better understand the genocides there.
Asked about his future, Coderre replied: “Are you asking me if I’m going to run again? … I don’t know what I’m going to do. There are a lot of ways to make this city shine.… I have a sense of duty after 35 years in public life.
“But I have to work on myself. When you’re working seven days a week, there are sacrifices, collateral damage. I need to think of my family now.”
Coderre paid tribute to the late Victor Goldbloom, whom he said has been a model for him in building bridges between people.
Jonathan Goldbloom, son of Victor and Sheila Goldbloom, praised Coderre’s undiminished commitment to public service: “The past few months have not been easy.… It’s difficult to have a setback in the public eye, but Denis has dusted himself off and is contributing again.”