Atrocities begin with the forgetting of each other’s humanity. At the annual Holocaust and Genocide Symposium this week, the personal stories shared by two survivors of such atrocities – the Holocaust and the Residential Schools system – were vivid reminders that preventing genocide and other atrocities is not only a moral and human imperative, but also that remembering is a collective exercise.
“Today is about learning of the horrors of the past and committing to a common bond of humanity – and learning about how post-genocide societies and nations can strike a way forward through truth and reconciliation,” said Headmaster Lamont in his opening remarks. “Today is about educating ourselves about both global and Canadian history and ensuring that ‘Conversation, Compassion and Community’ prevail no matter what.”
The annual Shawnigan Holocaust and Genocide Symposium, which is presented in partnership with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre through the generous support of Zev Shafran ’74, welcomed students from nearby Queen Margaret’s school and three featured speakers to the half-day event.
After introductions, historian Dr. Sebastian Huebel laid the foundations for how we can make sense of the senseless catastrophe that was the Holocaust. Using the historian’s lens, Dr. Huebel reached back in time to outline the long history of antisemitism, and the myths that were brought forward to the Nazi period. “The Nazis amplified prejudice, but they did not create the prejudice,” explained Dr. Huebel. “We are never without prejudice where we look at someone as being ‘other’ to us.”
Again using the perspective of the historian, Dr. Huebel outlined eight stages that gradually led to the Holocaust. From classifying who was “deemed to be Jewish”, to discriminating against and dehumanizing Jews, to organizing and preparing for mass extermination, Dr. Huebel repeatedly stressed that: “This was not an unstoppable train. This could have been stopped at any time. What lesson does that leave for us? We must learn. We must think. But most importantly, we must act."
The chapel was absolutely still as Mr. Alex Buckman, child Holocaust survivor, began to speak. “I will share with you what happened to my family and I…”
As a four-year old, Mr. Buckman was taken to an orphanage, where he was hidden for three years, along with his cousin Annie. The pair pretended to be brother and sister so they could stay together.
The woman who initially helped his family to hide Alex and Annie later denounced his parents and his extended family, and they were rounded up by the Gestapo and taken to Buchenwald and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Mr. Buckman described that when liberation came, no one came for them, and the orphanage delivered them into the care of the Red Cross in Brussels. They were eventually found by his aunt’s brother and brought back to Annie’s family.
“I was seven years old when I found out that my parents had died at Auschwitz. I felt so alone,” said Mr. Buckman. “At seven, I found out I was an orphan and I knew then that life for me would be so different, so completely different.”
In 2010, Mr. Buckman went on the March of the Living with a group of students, spending one week in Poland and one week in Israel. The journey included a visit to Auschwitz. “It is too tough to describe the feeling I had walking into that place,” said Mr. Buckman. “We walked past so many shoes – even little shoes, a mountain of glasses, and an enormous mountain of hair taken from women and young girls. We stood in the room where my mother had been, where women and children and babies and elderly died. They murdered my mother at the age of 32 in Auschwitz 2. They murdered my father in Auschwitz 1. He was 31 years old.”
“What we tend to forget at times was that there were 1.5 million Jewish children there too – 93% of the Jewish child population at the time,” said Mr. Buckman to a hushed room. “I am a child survivor of the remaining 7% of Jewish children.”
Mr. Buckman closed his talk with a compelling thought: “I was a witness as a child to all of this. When I share this with all of you, you become witnesses to it too.”
After a short break, students heard from Alex Nelson, a survivor of the Alert Bay residential school.
Acknowledging the power of Alex Buckman’s story on everyone in the room, Alex Nelson began by asking: “How do you recover? You have a heart that feels the pain of a history. I am so glad we had the chance to be outside in the break, because Mother Nature has a way of saying ‘we’re ok now’.”
Before telling his own story, Mr. Nelson shared a song written by his brother, a cultural leader, that was dedicated to survivors and future generations, noting that: “there are times that we cannot forget the history – but we can learn to forgive.”
Mr. Nelson drew a sharp parallel between his life before and after the residential school. “I am from the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw First Nations in Kingcome Inlet, a remote inland village east of Alert Bay and Port McNeill at the northern tip of Vancouver Island.”
“For the first years of my life, I had everything I needed: the arms of mom and dad, family, safety, love, and care. My life was the air, sky, water, and forest. I would swim in the river, pick berries, and play soccer,” described Mr. Nelson. “I loved Kingcome because I was free. Everything was nice and green, and everyone in the village looked after each other. Your family gives you the foundation to speak and to stand. In Kingcome our family was complete and I was happy.”
“When I was eight it all changed,” said Mr. Nelson. “I was sent to residential school, to Saint Michael’s in Alert Bay. It was a six-hour journey by boat. The building looked so big to me and I was so scared. I was there with my brother, and we were proud to have folded our clothing nicely in our brown suitcases. We registered and those suitcases were put away and we were given new clothes… and a number. I was number 23.”
There were four residential schools on Vancouver Island. Alex was sent to Saint Michael’s in Alert Bay. “We were divided by age, and by gender. There was a wing for boys
, and a wing for girls. There was a separate floor for junior, intermediate, and senior students,” said Mr. Nelson. “I had been part of a small village with my family. I was now thrown into a room with 30 other boys.”
“We lined up and stood at attention for everything: bed inspection at 6:30 in the morning, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Over time, you became numb to the daily punishments, the public shaming, and the bullying,” described Mr. Nelson. “Sports was my savior – it helped me in life and it helped me survive seven years at the residential school.”
Mr. Nelson closed by saying: “Telling and retelling my story helps my healing journey. For you to be here, listening respectfully and being in the moment, is very healing for me, and is an act of reconciliation.”