Seventy-six years ago, on Jan. 27, 1945, Soviet troops entered Auschwitz concentration camp, liberating some 7,600 emaciated prisoners. In the five years of the infamous camp’s existence, between 1.1 million and 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, had been murdered there.
For decades after the war, these murders lacked a formal English title and were sometimes referred to by the Nazi term,“Endlösung”, meaning “The Final Solution”. In Hebrew, Shoah, meaning “the catastrophe”, was commonly used. By the 1960s, scholars and writers began using the word “Holocaust” and that gradually became the generally accepted term for the terrible events.
Initially, interest in Holocaust education was minimal. Then, in 1998, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a 34-country organization was founded by former Swedish prime minister Göran Persson to ensure Holocaust education, research, and remembrance worldwide. Canada was a signatory.
On Jan. 24, 2005, the United Nations General Assembly convened a special session to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It was the first time the international community met formally “to commemorate the Holocaust, its victims, and the bravery of those who fought and defeated the Nazis.” Later that year, the General Assembly created International Holocaust Remembrance Day to be marked annually on Jan. 27.
This year, the IHRA is the focus of Holocaust remembrance in Ottawa, through a virtual ceremony developed by the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship (CHES). The commemoration will air on Library and Archives Canada’s YouTube channel on Jan. 26 at 6:30 p.m.
Several speakers will discuss “IHRA, Antisemitism, Holocaust Denial, and Distortion,” including Michaela Kϋchler, Germany’s Special Representative for Relations with Jewish Organizations, Issues Relating to Antisemitism, International Sinti and Roma Affairs, and Holocaust Remembrance; Professor Yehuda Bauer, a renowned Israeli historian and Holocaust scholar; Irwin Cotler, founder and chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights; and Jody Spiegel, director of the Holocaust Survivors Memoirs Program of the Azrieli Foundation.
Germany holds the IHRA presidency in 2020/2021 and Ambassador Kϋchler serves as its chair. She will discuss the history of IHRA and describe the focus of the German presidency.
Bauer, the honorary chair of IHRA, will focus on Holocaust distortion. He is a professor of Holocaust Studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A native of Prague, he serves as an academic advisor to Yad Vashem and to the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research, and as senior advisor to the Swedish government on the International Forum on Genocide Prevention.
Irwin Cotler, an expert in international and human rights law and former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, will speak about Canada’s contribution to IHRA. In November 2020, he was named to a one-year position as Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combatting anti-Semitism.
As part of the Azrieli Foundation’s Sustaining Memories Project, a manuscript honouring the late Mendel Good has been compiled. Jody Spiegel will read excerpts in memory of Good, an exceptional contributor to Holocaust education in Ottawa who endured seven years in numerous ghettos and in labour and concentration camps. His liberation in Ebensee concentration camp by American troops was followed by three years in Austrian hospitals regaining his health. He was the sole survivor of his immediate family (parents and three siblings) and of his large extended family. At the age of 23, he arrived in Ottawa under the sponsorship of the Garment Workers Program (Tailor Project). He died in Toronto on Nov. 23, 2020.
CHES’ partners in the commemoration are Library and Archives Canada, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the Ottawa Jewish Federation, the Wallenberg Citation Initiative, the Embassy of Israel, the Azrieli Foundation, and the IHRA.
Sheila Hurtig Robertson is a director of CHES and Marion Silver is secretary and manager of the CHES Speakers’ Bureau.