MONTREAL — The Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC) last week marked the United Nations’ fifth annual International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust with little of the attention or fanfare that accompanies the regular community Yom Hashoah event in the spring.
Yet both Jewish and non-Jewish panellists at a Jan. 27 MHMC program – the date designated by the UN because it coincides with the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945 – nonetheless conveyed in their own way what the day means to the younger generation tasked with carrying the mantle of remembrance forward for the years to come.
“This is a very special thing for me,” Stefan Feiser told an audience of about 75 at the Gelber Centre.
A 19-year-old Austrian student, Feiser is interning at the centre as part of his country’s Gedenkdienst program, which permits young Austrian volunteers to fulfil their military service obligations by working at Holocaust centres abroad.
Feiser has been working with the centre’s Witness to History database of almost 500 survivor testimonies and with an MHMC program that “twins” children about to celebrate their bar and bat mitzvahs with children who perished in the Holocaust and never got the chance.
“If there is something we must learn from history, it is that we must not make the same mistakes again,” Feiser said, noting that Holocaust education is mandatory at public schools in Austria.
In a 15-minute video screened at the event, Feiser, along with the other young adult panellists, explain to survivor Thomas Strasser the significance of the Holocaust for them. The panel then elaborated on their statements.
Witnise Estimable, a longtime worker with the 12-year-old Caravan of Tolerance, which tours Quebec high schools with a travelling exhibit that teaches about tolerance, remembered being about seven or eight years old when she first learned of the Holocaust.
Estimable, now 24, was so shocked by photos she saw at the time that she could not complete a school project on the subject.
She said exposure to the Holocaust as intolerance and discrimination at their most extreme has served to “sharpen the understanding” of Quebec high school students.
“I think this UN day is very important, because we have to remember what happened,” she said, adding that even school issues that seem minor by comparison, such as bullying, take on added resonance when they are put in the context of prejudice, discrimination and genocide.
“The kids see Schindler’s List and read The Diary of Anne Frank,” Estimable said, “but the important thing is the need to act right away when you see prejudice or intimidation, to seek role models. We learn the lessons of what happened in Europe and project what discrimination can do in our own milieu.”
For 16-year-old Bialik High School student Adam Shapiro, it’s vital to remember not only the Holocaust – unique as it is – but all genocides. In 2006, Shapiro founded The Human Promise, whose goal is to heighten awareness and organize proactive activities in light of the “genocide by attrition” in Darfur.
With the help of Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, Shapiro and his family began the celebration of his bar mitzvah at the Maj-danek death camp in Poland.
“It was the most meaningful experience of my life,” Shapiro said, recalling how stunned he was later to learn of continuing genocide after seeing the film Hotel Rwanda and then learning of Darfur.
“At that moment,” I knew I had to do something,” said Shapiro, whose grandmother survived Auschwitz. “It’s not only important to remember the Holocaust on a certain day, but every day, and actively instead of passively.”
Holocaust survivors are a continuing source of inspiration because of their courage. “They are all heroes to me,” Shapiro said.
MHMC director Alice Herscovitch said the obligation of the UN day is “to commemorate, educate, transmit and act.”
In the video, survivor Thomas Strasser asks aloud, “Who will continue the mission we started?” Who will carry the Holocaust message forward?
By the end of the panel discussion, he had his answer.
“We found people here who will take our place and go on,” Strasser said.