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Yom Ha'shoah, The Visually Impaired And A Return To Aushwitz

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Eli Ben Boher

Recently, the Jewish world paid homage to the Holocaust through Yom Ha'shoah -- The Day of Remembrance.

On this day and others I realized I am a member of an incredibly creative people, the Jewish people who have raised the consciousness of millions of individuals about the Holocaust, genocides and our need to stand up tall and brave against evil. I say this not out of arrogance, but more so, out of great pride.

One wonders, however, with all the Holocaust books, films, theatre, lectures etc., is there more to say and if so in what capacity.

Recently, this question was answered through the creation of a documentary entitled, Blind Love: A Holocaust Journey to Poland with Man's Best Friend, (Blind Love). Blind Love focuses on Nazis persecution of both Jews and the disabled through the story of the remarkable pilgrimage of six blind Israelis, and their guide dogs, to the former sites of Nazi genocide.

The film, directed by Eli Rubenstein, the director of March of the Living Canada, sensitively describes the journey of six Israelis and their guide dogs to Poland to visit former concentration camps and once thriving sites of Jewish life and culture. (March of the Living is an international program that brings students and Holocaust survivors to Poland to study the history of European Jewry and the Holocaust. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, the participants march from Auschwitz to Birkenau in memory of all victims of Nazi genocide and against prejudice, intolerance and hate.)

The genesis of this trip and the film occurred ten years ago during Eli's visit to the Israel Guide Dog Centre for the Blind in central Israel. When the clients of the Centre heard about Eli's involvement with the March of the Living, many told him it was their life long dream to visit Poland to learn, first hand, about the Holocaust. One person stated most of her family had perished in the Holocaust and she wanted to honor their memory by walking on the same ground where they had fallen.

Eli was told, "We blind people have many challenges, but I know when I hear the stories of the Holocaust survivors, my life will feel like honey in comparison."

Blind Love is truly an eye-opening and compelling film. At one point during the documentary the participants were standing in a circle in a remote forest in northeastern Poland, the site of a mass grave, where 1400 Jews were shot. One of the blind women, her voice breaking, read a testimony in Braille of a mass shooting, ending with the heartbreaking question of an innocent little Jewish girl asking the Nazi, while he was burying her alive: "Why are you throwing dirt into my eyes? " The blind participants remained standing in stunned silence, their patient guide dogs by their sides, innocently unaware of the brutal legacy of this clearing in the forest.

One often wonders how visually impaired people 'see' the world and what conclusions they draw through touch. 'Blind Love' lets us into their vision of life when we see participants led by their guide dogs through the massive Warsaw Jewish cemetery, stopping to trace their hands across the inscriptions of the tombstones, so they can decipher the writing. Similarly, we watch as the blind participants feel the wooden bunks in the former Auschwitz barracks and the metal grate around the gas chambers where so many suffered and perished.

One of the other salient points of Blind Love is the reality that 'man's best friend' is often used for the betterment of person-kind, and sometimes, as the Nazi' did, toward the torment of humanbeings. This point was highlighted when a Holocaust survivor met the blind delegation in Auschwitz. He expressed to the group his memories how dogs were used by the Nazis over seventy years ago to maim and kill their hapless Jewish prisoners, and how moved he was to see dogs on that day, helping, not attacking, those who are now visiting Auschwitz.

In perhaps the most moving scene in the film, Liron Artzi, a young blind Israeli female lawyer, falls to her feet in the former gas chambers of Majdanek, crying incessantly. Her dog, Petel, lovingly licks the tears from Liron's face, as Michael Enright (CBC), the narrator of the film explains: "Here a dog tries to comfort her master showing endless love and affection in a place of endless hate and cruelty. Blind love instead of blind hate."

Blind Love is a finely woven documentary framing the tragedy of the Holocaust and the senseless murder of Jews, non-Jews and people with disabilities (deemed by the Nazis as "life unfit for life"and often viciously attacked by trained dogs). But the film does not stop there. The viewer is also given a healthy dose of hope and compassion for the visually impaired, their four-legged companions and the human-race. Here, seventy years after the Holocaust, Israeli Jews returned who are visually impaired returned to former sites of mass murder, with their gentle guide dogs whose entire life is dedicated to helping -- not harming -- their owners and others. What a wonderful site!

We are left with the understanding that blindness does not stop someone from wanting and deserving to be a completely equal member of society, participating in experiences that one might have thought not possible. We comprehend that participants, like any other participant on the March, witnessed and learned as much, if not more, than the fully sighted people who go on the same pilgrimage to Poland. Essentially, we learn that is not just with one's eyes.

Blind Love is being shown at the Edmonton Jewish Film Festival (Monday, May 23rd), in Ottawa in the fall, as well as on Israel TV. Currently the film is being show on CBC's Doc Channel. It has already been shown in Victoria at a special screening and in Toronto as part of a Toronto Jewish Film Festival event. Eli Rubenstein, the Director of the film Blind Love: has been National Director of March of the Living Canada since 1989. This is the first documentary he has directed.

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