Memory is a powerful seducer. As I turned onto University Drive one recent evening, the entrance to my old alma mater Carleton University, where I was attending a dinner honouring memory and Holocaust survivors, recollections came flooding back.
As a son of a Holocaust survivor, I have always felt an awkward responsibility to be the bearer of my father's memory. Awkward because I understood how difficult it was to put his tragedy into words.
While he was alive, I agonized with him as he tried to impart to me the inhuman brutalities he faced: the murder of his family, the hiding in the forests, the stench of death constantly surrounding him, the fear of being discovered.
This was balanced with his redemption after the war. While cruelty and degradation haunted him he found the strength to move forward. He did so by putting the past painful memories into a box buried deep within his unconscious and steeled himself to live his life. This he believed was the only way to face the future.
And yet he knew there would come a time when he would have to reach back into the recesses of his mind and unpack his sadness. It took him many years to do so. I was 22 years old when my mother, herself having come to Canada from Ukraine as a child just barely escaping Hitler's madness, who was facing her own mortality -- a terminal breast cancer diagnosis -- insisted that my father tell his children that which he could not until now divulge.
I learned about his two children, my half brothers Yitzchak, eight years old and Sholom aged 12, his first wife Zisele, his six brothers and sisters, friends and family all vanquished in the gas chambers of Treblinka, victims of Hitler's madness.
And over the many subsequent years he filled in the gaps of his own survival culminating with his immigration to Canada and how he met my mother who taught him how to smile again.
And as he poured out his heart over the years we both came to understand the danger of silence. As another Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel once intoned, "the memory of evil will serve as a shield against evil."
These were my personal memories on this crisp April evening as I was walking towards the Carleton University River Building to attend a dinner honouring the Azrieli Foundation. This Foundation sponsors the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program and the dinner this evening was part of a two-day conference entitled "If Not Now When? Responsibility and Memory after the Holocaust."
Established in 2005 by its brilliant and driven CEO, Dr. Naomi Azrieli, its goal is to collect, publish and distribute memoirs of survivors of the 20th century Nazi genocide of Jews who eventually made their way to the freedom of Canada.
Published in both official languages, professionally edited and fact-checked, the memoirs have given life to memory. Explains Azrieli:
"Millions of individual stories of the Holocaust have been lost to us forever. By preserving the stories written by survivors and making them widely available, the Azrieli Series of Holocaust Survivors memoirs not only sustains the memory of all those who perished at the hands of hatred, abetted by indifference and apathy, but carries forward the important lessons they have to teach us about tolerance and the acceptance of diversity."
To date 24 memoirs have been published, 18 in English and 13 in French.
I regret to this day that I did not have the forethought to work with my father in the dusk of his years to commit his entire story to paper. I have spoken to many survivors who have told me that the harsh difficulty of telling their stories is in the end cleansed by the knowledge of providing for future generations a map to understanding evil, to working toward "Never Again." Had there only been such a project a generation earlier, my father's story could have been told in full.
In a short unthinkable time the survivors among us will be gone. The work of the Azrieli Foundation ensures that survivors have a vehicle to tell their stories to leave their legacy. When they are gone that is all that will remain, so indeed if not now, when?