Holocaust educator to receive Pioneer Award

Toni Silberman

TORONTO — Human rights advocate and Holocaust educator Toni Silberman is one of five Canadian immigrants who will be honoured next month for her outstanding contribution to her community.

Skills For Change, a non-profit organization that helps internationally educated immigrants acquire work and succeed in Ontario, will present Silberman – the vice-chair of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and the national chair of B’nai Brith’s Commission on Holocaust Education – with a Pioneers for Change award on June 5. The New Pioneer Awards celebrate inspiring newcomers and bring together a large and diverse community of people who believe that immigration is an important part of building Canada’s future.

Among her many accomplishments, Silberman has spent 16 years working for the Ontario Human Rights Commission, is an adviser on the National Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, and recently served as chair of the Jewish-Canadian advisory committee for the Community Historical Recognition Program, which is a government initiative to acknowledge Canada’s denial of the SS St. Louis – a ship carrying German Jewish refugees desperately seeking a safe haven in 1939 – entry into Canadian waters. 

Silberman credited her Holocaust survivor parents, as well as other survivors and scholars, for fostering her passion for researching and learning about the Shoah.

“For me, Holocaust education and challenging Holocaust denial are visceral,” Silberman said.

“As children of Holocaust survivors, born in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany, my sister and I were raised in a home in which, over the years, our myriad questions about my parents’ prewar lives and their horrific experiences in the camps were answered truthfully, albeit tearfully. They recognized that we had an obvious need to know, as well as a right to know.”

Silberman explained that her parents spent four years apart in concentration camps. Although they survived, as did Silberman’s grandmother and uncle, most of their family, including their two-year-old son, was murdered during the Holocaust. Their struggles continued when they were sent to a displaced persons camp in Germany.

Her father, who obtained a law degree in Poland a year before the war broke out, wasn’t granted entry into Canada until he trained himself to be an underwear cutter.

Silberman and her family arrived in Canada in 1950 on her second birthday. Her passion to learn more about that dark chapter in her family’s history shaped her professional life and continues to do so.

“I continued researching and learning as much as I could and, in addition to speaking at commemorative events, got involved… in developing resources and programs, lobbying the government for recognition, and creating opportunities for the reality and lessons of the Holocaust to reach as wide a spectrum of the Jewish and non-Jewish population as possible.”

Judy Csillag, Skills For Change education and project leader, whose parents are also both survivors, said honouring Silberman is meaningful to her.

“This is the first time in the 20-year history of the awards that a Jewish person is being honoured,” Csillag said. “We wanted to pay homage to the large and successful Jewish immigration that has added so much to this city and this country, culturally, economically and philanthropically.”

Csillag explained that for the past 19 years, the organization hosted New Pioneer Awards to honour new Canadians who overcame the challenges of immigration to succeed in their field.

“This being the 20th year, we decided that we’re going to go back to the people who were the nation builders, the ones who cleared the road and made it possible for the huge immigration we’re seeing today to be successful,” she said.

The CIBC-sponsored event will also honour former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, who came to Canada as a refugee from Hong Kong with her parents in 1942; Navin Chandaria, who immigrated to Canada from Kenya in 1975 to become CEO of the Conros Corporation; Colombian born and educated Dr. Alex Jadad, who is a physician, educator, researcher and public advocate, and Vahan Kololian, the managing partner of TerraNova Partners LP.

Each of the five recipients are the subject of a short documentary. The films will be screened at the June 5 award ceremony.

Silberman, who was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her service to the community earlier this year, said being recognized by Skills For Change is humbling.

“To be recognized formally and publicly for doing something for which I feel such passion, which is so inbred in my DNA, is truly humbling,” she said. It acknowledges not just the end product, but the process – the history, my familial background and upbringing, my parents and my beloved late husband Sam’s lessons about humanity and compassion, gratitude and appreciation…  that compelled the choices I’ve made, that have allowed me to reach this point.”

For more information about Skills For Change, visit www.skillsforchange.org.