Unveiling of refurbished Shoah memorial draws 600 people

Adria and Barrett Forberg, both 7 (foreground) and their brother Nathan, 10, stand before a wall paying tribute to the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust. RON CSILLAG PHOTO

TORONTO — Some 600 people gathered in Earl Bales Park Oct. 4 for the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem’s annual Yizkor service and the unveiling of the society’s vastly refurbished Holocaust memorial site.

An array of political figures and diplomatic representatives from 10 countries were in attendance for the moving service. Greetings on behalf of the federal government were brought by Finance Minister Joe Oliver, who repeated earlier pledges that the Conservatives have “zero tolerance” for anti-Semitism.

Holocaust survivor Thomas Hecht of Montreal recounted his rescue by Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a gentile who served as Portugal’s wartime consul-general in Bordeaux, France and defied orders by issuing some 20,000 protective visas to Jewish refugees.

Today, de Sousa Mendes is designated as Righteous Among the Nations, one of 25,000 or so gentiles so recognized by Yad Vashem.

The service paid tribute not only to the Holocaust’s victims, but also to partisans, Allied governments, ghetto fighters and the Righteous Among the Nations, who are represented by a wall that lists 50 nations from which the heroes originated, and their flags.

The awards were handed out to the founders of the original memorial site and to the sponsors of the new features, who later unveiled those elements.

What began in 1991 as a towering, flame-topped bronze obelisk designed by sculptor Ernest Raab and some markers has spread out to a two-acre site that now holds eight curved commemorative walls, memorial gardens and several smaller pillars and monuments.

One of the central new additions is a memorial to David Smuschkowitz, a onetime partisan fighter who helped found the Canadian society. He died in 2011.

In all, the two-year fundraising campaign yielded some two dozen new features at the site.

The site “is a place where the community at large, educators and their students, and people of all faiths can come to remember the past, reflect on the legacy of the Holocaust, and recommit to a better future,” remarked Fran Sonshine, national chair of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem.

“Today, more than ever, this site is of utmost importance to this community, to this city, and to this province. We hope that all educators who are in charge of teaching history to our children come to this site as part of their curriculum, so that no one can say that they were ignorant of the Holocaust and didn’t know what Auschwitz was,” Sonshine added.

Among the highlights is a wall in memory of the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Shoah. It features the names of 365 children who perished, each of whose birthdates corresponds to one calendar day. A Canadian child celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah and a child who perished in the Holocaust can be “twinned” based on their common birthdates, as part of the Yad Vashem Twinning Program.