Yom ha-Shoah ceremonies returned in-person across Canada after two years in virtual mode

For the first time since 2019, Jews across Canada were able to observe Yom ha-Shoah in person, and unseasonably cold late-April weather wasn’t going to stop them.

UJA Toronto’s Holocaust Education Centre held a Yom ha-Shoah remembrance ceremony on the evening of April 27 in front of the Holocaust Memorial at Earl Bales Park. The seats were full with people grateful to be sharing these moments together again.

Naomi Parness attends the event every year. She is the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, both of whom are still alive but were not able to attend the in-person ceremony. However, she did bring her son, who is having his bar mitzvah later this year, to the event for the first time. They watched the virtual livestreams together the prior two years, and Parness felt fortunate to be able to bring him to the real thing.

“It’s extremely meaningful to have my son here. I’ve done a lot of work in my life so far to try and carry on my grandparents’ legacy. But I know that it’s going to be up to the next generation, and that’s my kids,” Parness said. “My grandparents call their family their riches. They lost so much family, so the family they have now are their riches. And they are so proud that they have four generations now that will carry on their legacy.”

Parness was also proud of how many people showed up to the commemoration even despite the cold weather, calling it “a testament to the community.”

Dara Solomon, executive director of the Holocaust Education Centre, said the community was the reason they decided to hold the ceremony in person this year. Planning another virtual event didn’t feel right, because so many people seemed ready to open up their lives again after two years shuttered away.

Perhaps more importantly, though, was how important in-person events would mean to Holocaust survivors, many of whom found the repeated lockdowns and quarantines especially tough.

“I think isolation was really hard when we were in those serious lockdowns. I think for many of them, they felt very alone. It was very triggering for some of them, bringing back memories of being in hiding and other memories,” Solomon said. “And to be away from family during Pesach, during the High Holidays, was incredibly difficult for them. I think they know these are their twilight years and they want to be with people. They want to continue teaching.”

Solomon said she always looks forward to the candle-lighting service, when the survivors come together and speak about the family members they lost to the Holocaust, before lighting candles in their memories while surrounded by multiple generations of their families. It’s a moment that would be moving no matter the context, but certainly more powerful when the survivors can gather in-person and an audience can view it live.

Hedy Bohm, one of the survivors who participated in the candle-lighting ceremony, had mixed emotions about this year’s Yom ha-Shoah ceremony.

“It is a wonderful sign of our togetherness, our memories, our will to remember, not to forget,” Bohm said. “But also, it’s sad because, while we remember the terrible times, they’re happening all over again. So, it’s difficult not to be negative, to keep your positive attitude and hopes, which I have. And I try to tell the young people that I speak to, to believe in themselves, and to go and do and to be brave, never to stand by, and then maybe we will have a better world for them and their children.”

In Vancouver, the Holocaust Education Centre also held an event on the evening of April 27—although this one was indoors. The commemoration also included a candle-lighting ceremony, as well as speeches from survivor Amalia Boe-Fishman, who spoke about her experiences during the Holocaust, and author Marsha Lederman, a child of survivors, who spoke about her parents’ experiences.

In Ottawa, a Yom ha-Shoah commemoration was held in the morning of April 28, in front of the National Holocaust Monument, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in attendance and gave remarks.

In Edmonton, a commemoration was held at noon on the same day, at the Holocaust Memorial on the grounds of the Alberta Legislature.