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How Canadian Jewry Got a Holocaust Monument

05/20/2014 02:25 EDT | Updated 07/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Last week a design was confirmed for the remarkable Holocaust Monument to be erected in Ottawa in 2015.

In March 2011 Executive Director of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, Yoram Ashkenazi and I on behalf of Canadian Jewish Congress had the great honour of representing the Canadian Jewish community before the Senate Hearings to confirm the need for a monument in Ottawa to remember the Holocaust.t. After we presented to the Senate Committee, they voted overwhelmingly in favour of the project.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the ongoing and remarkable work put in by my CJC colleague Eric Vernon, then CJC's Director of Government Relations in making this initiative a reality. It was a goal Eric set for himself and without his advocacy and determination this never would have happened.

Here is an edited version of that presentation. If you want to read the entire transcript CLICK HERE

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Honourable senators, at the outset of my remarks, I wish to articulate to you clearly and unequivocally our position with respect to Bill C-442. CJC, the Jewish community of Canada and the leadership of the Holocaust survivors in our midst wholeheartedly support the legislation exactly as you received it from the other place. We ask for no changes; we ask for no amendments.

I can assure you that in my two decades-plus of advocacy on the Hill, I have developed a deep respect and admiration for the important work of the Senate, and I have seen some brilliant contributions to legislation and public policy from the upper chamber. Indeed, we have too much respect for the Senate to ask that you merely rubber-stamp a bill from the other place, but that is not what we see happening here. While we regard the Holocaust monument as a critical site for all Canadians, you are hearing today from the primary stakeholder community that we support the legislation that you have before you.

Senators, time is also our enemy because the generation of Holocaust survivors that came to Canada after the war and made extraordinary contributions to all aspects of Canadian society is up against the actuarial tables. With the memories of their experiences seared in their minds, they bear witness to the hate and brutality that was unleashed in the name of the "final solution." With their quiet dignity, they beseech us not only to remember, but to look forward and apply the lessons learned.

The monument will speak eloquently for them when their voices and personal testimony are stilled. However, if I may speak bluntly again, they deserve to see this monument erected and dedicated while they live and we must not fail them.

In his remarkable speech of March 23, 2000, at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial and museum, Pope John Paul II stated:

The world must heed the warning that comes to us from the victims of the Holocaust and from the testimony of the survivors.

I am here before you in their name. I am here for Mendele, who survived the mass execution of his village by feigning death under the corpses of his family and friends, and fought with the partisans against the Nazis. I am here for Nathan, who saw his mother and younger sister marched to the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau from the ill-fated turn of a thumb of Josef Mengele. I am here for Bronya, who bravely fought the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto against all odds and then survived the death camps.

I am here for Max, who lost his entire family in the Shoah, fought with the partisans, then came to Canada to rebuild his life and witness his eldest son become the CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress; and I am here for my two half-brothers, Yitzhak and Shalom, whose cries I still hear in my sleep.

Honourable senators, Canada is virtually the only country among the Western Allies not to have a monument to the Holocaust in its national capital and this bill will rectify that. The monument will provide a fitting tribute to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, but it will also honour the tremendous sacrifice of the Canadian military's role during the Second World War and its outstanding contribution to the defeat of Nazism.

It will further preserve the sacred memory of the "righteous among the nations," those selfless, dedicated non-Jewish individuals who risked their lives and the lives of their families to save Jews during the war.

As Canada's capital, Ottawa is a city for all Canadians, as well as the base of the international diplomatic corps. This monument will undoubtedly become a landmark in the capital and a highlight for the thousands of students and other visitors who come here each year. A Holocaust monument sponsored by the national government in the National Capital Region would serve to remind all visiting Canadians and tourists alike of the impact of the hate and xenophobia that is present still to this day around the world.

It will serve as a reminder of the need to combat racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination in all of its manifestations in Canada and around the world. Such education is critical to promoting core Canadian values of respect for diversity, social justice and equality, and to inculcating in our young people the importance of human rights and human dignity.

The Holocaust represents the starkest illustration of what happens when ethnic and religious hatred are allowed to permeate society while individuals and peoples remain bystanders.

In her remarkable novel, The History of Love, author Nicole Krauss tells of a boy and a girl in a small village in Poland growing up in the pre-war period and coming of age after the Nazi invasion. The boy, now a man and the narrator of the novel, recalls that for her 16th birthday, he gave her an English dictionary and together they learned the words.

Later, when things happened that they could never have imagined, she wrote him a letter that said,

When will you learn that there isn't a word for everything?

It is true, my friends, as it has been said, there have been things in Jewish history too horrible to be believed, but not too horrible to have happened. Nothing epitomizes this more than the Shoah, the Holocaust.

Indeed, the Holocaust represents a watershed in human history, a period of horror that redefined the limits of the depravity of human nature, and expanded humanity's consciousness of evil. The Holocaust has become the seminal point of departure for understanding the general potential of humankind for such inhumanity.

The Holocaust was unprecedented in the sheer scope and nature of its murderous agenda. Though not the first genocide in human history and, sadly, also not the last, the Holocaust serves as the definition of the utter negation of human rights.

It was a slaughter organized on bureaucratic principles and executed on an industrial scale. It was undertaken with contemptuous disregard for the humanity of its victims, let alone for any inherent rights to which they might be entitled by virtue of that humanity.

In the end, dear senators, the Nazis murdered the vast majority of Jews that were under their control during the Second World War, including the killing of 1.5 million children as part of the horrific scheme to eradicate the Jewish genetic pool. It is true that the Nazi war machine was responsible for millions of other civilian casualties, including the mass murder of political opponents, the Sinti and Romany people, homosexuals, and persons with mental disabilities. We mourn these senseless deaths and this monument will honour their memory as well; but it was only the Jews who were fated for total destruction.

In the words of Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel, "Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims."

The book on 20th century genocide that should have closed with the Holocaust has subsequent chapters titled Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and the hopeful promise of lessons learned entering a new millennium has given way to a new ugly chapter still being written called Darfur, one that may at last be moving to a conclusion.

Honourable senators, the writer, James M. Barrie, once said, "God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December." I would argue that in the case of the Shoah we must commit ourselves and future generations to precisely the opposite. That is to say, in the summer when we have roses we will never allow ourselves to forget the genocidal winter that descended upon the world some 70 years ago.

In its concluding declaration, the January 2000 Stockholm international forum on the Holocaust recognized that, "The Holocaust (Shoah) fundamentally challenged the foundations of civilization. The unprecedented character of the Holocaust will always hold universal meaning. . . The magnitude of the Holocaust, planned and carried out by the Nazis, must be forever seared in our collective memory."

In conclusion, honourable senators, the Holocaust memorial in the great city of Ottawa will help sear the Shoah in our collective national memory. It will stand as a permanent symbol of our national will to remember and hallow, yes, but also to study and learn the lessons of the Holocaust and to apply these principles to steer humankind toward a brighter future of peace, equality and justice.

It will honour Bronya, Mendele, my father, Max, and my 10-year-old and 12-year-old half-brothers. This will be our testament, my friends; this will be our legacy. Thank you very much.