Dafina Savic, executive director of Romanipe, and Michaëlle Jean, former governor general of Canada. Image: Karl Nerenberg/rabble.ca

I came of age among many children of Holocaust survivors, in Montreal, in the 1950s and early 1960s. A large number of survivors had settled in Montreal after the Second World War, and became part of the city’s large and long-established Jewish community. 

At that time, almost nobody discussed the horror of the Nazis’ systematic enslavement, torture and murder of millions of children, women and men. In schools run by the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal, classes full of Jewish kids learned to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” lustily, while in history class the teachers portrayed the Crusades as a noble enterprise. 

The curriculum made no mention of the thousands of Jews massacred by zealous Christian warriors on their way to seize the holy sites from their Muslim inhabitants.

The words Holocaust or Shoah did not even exist, back then, at least not as they are now used. There were no university programs of Holocaust studies, and virtually no films or television shows that treated the subject with any degree of rigour. 

Diversity was not a ‘thing’

Within the Jewish world there were modest and solemn moments of Holocaust remembrance, but they did not extend to the larger society. There were no massively observed days of commemoration, such the one we just witnessed for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. 

My maternal grandmother came to Canada before the First World War, from the Austro-Hungarian province of Galitzia, now in southern Poland, but she left most of her family behind. All of them subsequently perished at the hands of the Nazis, with one exception. She never lived to see a day when the Holocaust was recognized and remembered in a collective way by society at large.  

The idea of celebrating, or even respecting, religious, ethnic and cultural diversity was not a thing when I was growing up. 

We had no Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada, and open, legal discrimination against Jews, Blacks and other minorities was commonplace. There were clubs and hotels where Jews and other “undesirables” were not accepted, including the venerable Granite Club in Toronto and Rideau Club in Ottawa. 

There were companies which refused to hire members of racial and religious minorities; and entire communities, such as Town of Mount Royal in Montreal, where restrictive covenants prevented the sale of property to Jews. By the time I got to McGill, that university had lifted its quota on Jews, but in my parents’ and aunts’ and uncles’ time they still existed.

In Canada, the restrictive, wartime, anti-Jewish immigration policies that Irvin Abella and Harold Troper documented in their book None is Too Many continued, in large measure, after the war. At the same time, Canadian authorities enthusiastically welcomed many who fought on the Nazi side. Years later, Canada prosecuted a handful of those as war criminals. 

At a colloquium in Ottawa, a few days before the Auschwitz anniversary, a number of speakers raised these uncomfortable issues — as they did the almost ignored slaughter of the Roma during the Holocaust. 

Powerful and candid statements on the meaning of Auschwitz

Holocaust survivor, activist and former federal public servant Judy Young Drache talked about the institutional anti-Semitism and racism that endured in Canada for many decades following the Second World War, and she related the long struggle to get the vicious smear and libel of Holocaust denial classified as criminal hate speech. 

She explained the phenomenon of transgenerational trauma, experienced not only by the children, but by the grandchildren of victims and survivors. And she emphasized that, for her, the job of preserving and sharing the memory of the Holocaust will never finish. 

We know we have not yet learned the lessons of Auschwitz, Young Drache said, when we consider the Rwandan genocide that took place so many decades later or the even more recent massacres and mass expulsions of the Rohingya people of Burma. 

Another survivor, Eva Kuper, drew even broader lessons from the catastrophe of Auschwitz. 

Kuper, whose mother gave her away to Roman Catholics and who did not discover she was Jewish until after the war, alluded to the impending planetary catastrophe of climate change. She also praised the brave young people of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, who refuse to accept politicians’ hypocritical “thoughts and prayers” as an adequate answer to the massacre of innocents made possible by all-too-available and powerful firearms.

Historian Rebecca Wittman praised contemporary Germany for putting a solemn memorial to the Holocaust right in the middle of its capital. But she also pointed out that it took decades for Germany to get to this enlightened state. 

In the years immediately following the war, Wittman related, the only Holocaust perpetrators Germany prosecuted were those who displayed cruel, sadistic and aberrant behaviour, who committed atrocities and murders outside the regular, routine order. There were no sanctions of any sort for the many “order-followers,” as Wittman called them, who obediently and bureaucratically led millions to their deaths in gas chambers, or took part in organized mass shootings at sites such as Babi Yar in the former Soviet Union — what we now call the Holocaust by bullet. 

Dafina Savic, founder and executive director of the not-for-profit Roma organization Romanipe, detailed the almost forgotten torture, enslavement and massacre of hundreds of thousands of the people many still heedlessly call “Gypsies.” Savic is lobbying hard for Canada to become the fourth country to officially recognize the Roma suffering as part of the Holocaust.

Savic also alluded to the openly bigoted refugee policies of the previous Conservative government, which appealed blatantly to the still prevalent anti-Roma bigotry in Europe (and among European diaspora populations in Canada), by attempting to legislatively bar all Roma asylum seekers who come to Canada. (I have written much about that issue in these pages over the past seven years, and produced a documentary film on the Roma.)

Savic complained that despite the somewhat more open attitude of the current Trudeau government, leaders of the Roma community in Canada have not succeeded in getting a meeting with any of Trudeau’s immigration ministers (we are now on our third such minister).

Rwandan holocaust survivor, singer and musician Jean-Paul Samputu talked movingly about his own personal need to heal himself by exercising something resembling forgiveness. In Samputu’s case, forgiveness has been especially difficult because the murderers of his parents and other close relatives were people he had considered to be friends and good neighbours. 

Samputu channeled his emotions through music, and sang a song of forgiveness and remembrance.

Former governor general Michaëlle Jean did the same. She sang a Haitian song of healing and love — with perfect intonation. 

Jean also talked about her own experience, as governor general, with enduring anti-Roma sentiment in Europe. 

On an official trip to central and eastern Europe, Jean insisted on visiting the small Roma museum in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second largest city. When the Czech president heard about this plan, he asked the then-governor general: “Why are you bothering with those people?”

Jean replied that it was important to show respect for people who have been, for so many centuries, the victims of systematic persecution and exclusion, and whose suffering during the Holocaust has never gained the worldwide recognition it merits. 

Then Jean asked the Czech president: “Have you ever visited the Roma museum?” Sheepishly, he had to answer no.

Subsequent to her museum visit, Jean insisted that the Czech government include leaders of the Roma community in the state dinner it was organizing in her honour and the Czechs complied. Roma leaders reported it was the first time they had ever been included in any official event.

Lessons we still have not learned

Michaëlle Jean also drew universal lessons from the horror of Auschwitz. 

She underscored how seemingly small gestures of harassment and discrimination that target specific groups can grow and expand to take on vicious and violent forms. Jean carefully made no mention of Quebec’s Law 21, but it was impossible not to consider, on hearing Jean’s words, how a legislative measure that targets Muslim women’s right to work at certain jobs can easily become a kind of tacit, official sanction for all kinds of public and private acts of hostility toward Muslims. 

The organizer of this event in Ottawa is the head of the Association for Canadian Studies, Jack Jedwab, himself the son of Holocaust survivors. 

Jedwab has worked tirelessly to educate Canadians on the continuing relevance of the unspeakable, almost unimaginable horror visited upon millions of innocent people, more than 75 years ago. And he never fails to recognize that while the Holocaust is, essentially and profoundly, a Jewish story, it is also a meaningful and unavoidable story for many others, notably the Roma.

Jedwab also understands the need to frankly confront the cruel fact that humanity has yet to fully assimilate and learn the lesson of Auschwitz — as witnessed by the genocidal massacres that have occurred since the Second World War, not only in Burma and Rwanda, but also in eastern Nigeria (Biafra), Bosnia, Cambodia and Sudan. 

All speakers at the colloquium spoke mournfully and with concern about the rise of the bigoted, populist right in many countries, including Germany. 

In Canada, the spirit of resentment and the need for scapegoats that fuel the populist right might not seem strong right now. 

But make no mistake, they are here, not too far below the surface. And whenever there is a crisis or confrontation involving Indigenous peoples, refugees or other groups outside the mainstream, we can expect there will be opportunistic politicians and leaders ready to whip up the simmering backlash.

The lesson of Auschwitz is that we cannot pussyfoot with bigotry, racism or scapegoating and exclusion of any kind. When they raise their ugly heads, politicians will often panic, and seek to pander to bigotry born out of fear, resentment and frustration. 

Courageous leadership would mean fighting back against all of it mercilessly, without hesitation and without compromise. 

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: Karl Nerenberg/rabble.ca

Editor’s note, January 30, 2020: An earlier version of this story described Dafina Savic as a young leader of the Canadian Roma community. That description has been updated to specify her role as founder and executive director of the not-for-profit Roma organization, Romanipe.​


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...