VIDEO: Children from the Netivot HaTorah choir at last week’s Yom Hashoah commemoration.
But the estimated 2,000-plus people at the annual event, co-sponsored by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Holocaust Centre of Toronto and the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, broke that rule with palpable respect to give a standing ovation to the family of Jan and Grietje Hiddema.
Israel’s consul general in Toronto, Amir Gissin, right, presents Eelke Hiddema with a “Righteous Among the Nations” certificate, as Hiddema’s family looks on, at last week’s Yom Hashoah commemoration at Earl Bales Park. [Ruxandra Petolescu photo]
The Dutch couple hid Moshe Not, now Moshe Ben Zvi, on their farm in Friesland, Holland, from 1943, when he was 11 years old, until 1945.
The Hiddemas’ son Eelke, who now lives in Kingston, Ont., with his family and who visited Ben Zvi in Israel in 2007, accepted a posthumous “Righteous Among the Nations” medal and certificate from Israeli Consul General Amir Gissin on behalf of his parents.
Gissin said the family treated Ben Zvi like their own son. “That family took a great risk for themselves and for their seven children.”
Eelke’s son John, who said his family was “deeply humbled” by the honour, read a moving letter from Ben Zvi to his father, Eelke, Ben Zvi’s childhood friend.
“Today, I do not thank your parents. They would not want to be thanked. But rather, I thank God, who gave your parents a loving heart… They not only saved my life, but the lives of many others who were sheltered in their home,” Ben Zvi wrote.
After the war, the Hiddemas offered Ben Zvi a permanent home on learning that he was the sole survivor of his family, but he eventually left to live with a family friend before making aliyah.
Gissin, in his remarks toward the beginning of the service, noted that 250,000 Holocaust survivors still live in Israel.
“Israeli governments were not that efficient in making sure that Holocaust survivors would have the best life possible,” he said. “Nowadays, there is a growing understanding for this need, and more active action from the government.
“The second and third generations are the backbone of the State of Israel and of the Toronto community,” Gissin said.
He urged audience members to do their “utmost” to ensure that people visit Israel, and to make the connection between “the Holocaust and the existence and continuation of the State of Israel.”
Keynote speaker David Azrieli – an architect, real estate developer, philanthropist and Holocaust survivor who spent three years on the run as a teenager during World War II before arriving in Palestine in 1942 – stressed the lessons that survivors provided by embodying decency and dignity in the face of destruction of their families and communities.
“We have also found ways to give back to our communities and to our countries,” said Azrieli, who was born in 1922 in Poland and settled in Montreal in 1954.
He paid tribute to survivors’ “enormous contribution to the establishment and development of the State of Israel.
“They helped lay the foundation of the [Israel Defence Forces]. They became farmers, lawyers, journalists, athletes, educators, generals, rabbis and spiritual leaders,” said Azrieli, who also recalled his happy, secure childhood infused with Jewish culture and Zionist values.
In Canada, he said, “tens of thousands of survivors who came after the war made an important impact on the Canadian Jewish community, in many ways making it more active, and contributing to the vibrant institutions of the Canadian Jewish community and in Canada generally,” Azrieli said.
“After years of trauma, we found here an environment of freedom and security in which to rebuild, and in that rebuilding there is triumph.”
Addressing survivors directly, Azrieli said they were “extraordinary” for finding it within themselves to “rekindle the spark of life, to love again, to celebrate holidays and anniversaries.”
The most important way for survivors to honour their experiences, he said, is to teach the next generation about what happened.
For others, he said, the most important way to honour survivors is to collect and preserve as many testimonies of wartime and postwar experiences as possible, an effort his family foundation is pursuing.
The event also included renditions by the Netivot HaTorah Day School Choir and the Boys’ Choir of Grace Church-on-the-Hill. Other participants included Cantor Eric Moses; Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich; General Wingate Branch 256 Royal Canadian Legion; Jewish War Veterans of Canada, Toronto Post; survivor Arnold Friedman; shofar blower Marty Spring; Farnam Bigdoli and Elayna Fremes of Hillel of Greater Toronto, who read names of Holocaust victims, and Esther Buzaglo and Jeffrey Gottesman of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem’s new leadership division, who read readings as six commemorative candles were lit.