Speaking at the first official Yom Hashoah commemoration at city hall, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre vowed to make the eradication of anti-Semitism a high priority for his administration.
Before an audience of over 300 in the grand marbled Hall of Honour on May 4, Coderre declared “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism, hateful actions and hate speech.”
Coderre had just returned from Germany during a European mission. In Berlin, he met with representatives of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and they discussed the fight against anti-Semitism and the role of cities in ensuring security while finding the balance between “vigilance and inclusion.”
He invited the council to join his Roundtable on Combating Anti-Semitism, which he launched last June with a meeting at city hall of leaders of the Montreal and Paris Jewish communities.
Coderre also announced at the ceremony that the formation of a designated hate crimes unit within the Montreal police force, something the Jewish community has long recommended, is coming close to realization.
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After opening the ceremony with an excerpt from Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his horrific experience in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the mayor saluted the “heroism and resilience” of Holocaust survivors, who have “built communities and institutions from which we all benefit.”
He specifically named philanthropist Michal Hornstein, a major benefactor of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, who died the week before. Montreal, he noted, had the third-largest number of survivors after Israel and New York.
He also spoke out against the “new anti-Semitism.” Citing his “friend and brother” Irwin Cotler, Coderre said this includes “singling out one state among the family of nations for discriminatory treatment.”
Israeli Consul General Ziv Nevo Kulman, the son of a survivors, saluted Coderre for his unequivocal stance against anti-Semitism.
Rabbi Reuben Poupko said, “We are truly blessed to have a mayor of such great courage and wisdom, who understands the value of words but also their limitation, who know what needs to be said and, more importantly, what needs to be done.”
The resilience of the survivors, Rabbi Poupko said, “is without parallel in history.” They never lost their dignity, despite enduring the worst of human nature, he continued, and went on to build after so much destruction.
Two survivors spoke: French-born Georgette Brinberg and Eric Bissell, a native of Vienna. Brinberg (née Tepicht), a child during the war, and her older sister survived in hiding by posing as Catholics. Their parents perished. Bissell and his family fled Austria in 1938 after the Anschluss, moved to France, left Europe in 1942 on the last ship west, and eventually immigrated to Canada in 1948.
“I feel life has come full circle, as my son Marc is now honorary consul general of Austria, the very country I escaped,” Bissell said. “It shows how much society has changed, but, unfortunately, we still have a long way to go.”
Montreal municipal council has observed Yom Hashoah since 2002 during meetings. Eight years ago, then-mayor Gérald Tremblay, began taking part in a reading of the names of Holocaust victims outside city hall at an event organized by B’nai Brith Canada. Coderre, elected in 2013, continued the tradition.
“I can’t tell you how meaningful it is for me to have [the commemoration] moved from the front steps into the Hall of Honour,” Bissell said.
The other speakers included executive committee members Lionel Perez, Russell Copeman and Jim Beis. Perez wore a yellow star with the word “Jude” on it.
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The Bialik High School choir performed, while about 50 students from the English Montreal School Board’s Marymount Academy also participated, including in the lighting of the six memorial candles.
Cantor Gideon Zelermyer of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim sang K’El Maleh Rachamim, the memorial prayer.
That evening, six other survivors, born in different countries, took part in a Yom Hashoah memorial service at Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, organized by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. They were: Leon Celemencki, Guta Fleising, Willie Glaser, Yetti Glassman, Rena Schondorf and Marcel Tenenbaum. They and their relatives lit the memorial candles.
The theme was the struggle and ability of survivors to begin their lives anew after the Holocaust.
On May 5, Grade 6 students from Hebrew Foundation School in Dollard des Ormeaux were invited by the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem to sing at the national Holocaust Rembrance Day ceremony held at the Canadian War Museum, the only school so honoured.