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Limmud 2018: The Responsibility of Remembrance - Review of Five Limmud Sessions

By Penny Jones Square, March 25, 2018

 

To remember means to lend an ethical dimension to all endeavours and aspirations.

Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.  Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.

—Elie Wiesel

 

Remembrance is central to Judaism, binding the Jewish people, conferring divine “blessing” for their “lasting soul” and for their “survival” as a people. The insistent summons to not only remember, but also not to forget, is reiterated throughout Hebrew Scripture, enjoining Jews to take the commandments to heart, to commemorate the foundational memories that define them as a people and instruct them to live righteously. The Jews’ faithful adherence to this biblical injunction is the source of their survival through thousands of years of history. As Elie Wiesel has remarked: “I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people,” a resilience which he attributes to their “best characteristic”: “their desire to remember.”  It is the ethical response implied by the appeal to remember which has guided and sustained the Jewish people. Since the Shoah, the responsibility of remembrance has expanded as the call to remember the victims, issuing from the unmarked graves of over six million murdered Jews, and from the survivors, joins the divine call of the biblical command to remember.

 

At this present moment, when antisemitism, as well as the recent iterations it has assumed as a means of concealing or even legitimizing hatred of Jews, is undeniably on the rise throughout the world, when extremist Islamist ideology is advancing, and with it, the attendant menace of terrorism, and when Israel’s very existence is threatened by its detractors in the West and its enemies in the Middle East—those in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran calling for its annihilation—this responsibility to remember has never been greater. Limmud serves the essential exhortation to remember in its celebration and transmission of Jewish learning and culture. The sessions I chose to attend this year spoke to the necessity and value of this ethical desire defining Jews and Judaism.

 

Museums, as the repositories of memory, designed to protect, preserve, and commemorate particular past histories, ask us to remember, to learn, and to bear witness. When the memory being represented is of a traumatic past such as the Shoah, that responsibility is amplified. In conducting the tour of the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre, Belle Jarniewski (Chair of the Centre and Canadian representative of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) emphasized the critical commemorative and educational function of the museum, which was established and funded entirely by Holocaust survivors, whose intention was to share their lived experiences during the Shoah with students of all ages and with the community-at-large through in-person interviews, recordings of their stories in video and written format, and through their personal gifts of artifacts, each of which “tells a story—of loss, of suffering, and of courage.”

 

Before entering the museum, we stopped before the wall of names of the survivors and of the Righteous among the Nations who helped them, above which is inscribed: “We will never forget; we strive for brotherhood amongst nations”—the survivors’ pledge never to forget implying their intention to transmit awareness and understanding of the Shoah in order to move others “to seek brotherhood.” At the entrance to the museum, foot prints of various sizes on the floor convey a sense of how closely the victims had to stand before being herded into the cattle cars. These and the replicas of boxcar doors (recalling those “which sealed the fate of so many of those transported to the death camps during the Holocaust”) through which we entered enable one to feel, not simply observe, something of the survivors’ lived experience. Inside the museum, text panels and maps relate the history of the ghettos, the resistance, and the camps, and cases of artifacts give evidence of the rich cultural life that was eradicated during the Shoah. The reality of Jewish resistance, which is often overlooked, is highlighted in the Star and Medals Case, describing the Belgian resistance fighter Samuel Reisman. Other cases relate the experiences of Maurits Kiek and Marianne Manheim Kiek, Barbara Goldfischer Schneid Goszer, the Rubenfeld family, and of Jarniewski’s own parents, Samuel and Sylvia Jarniewski. The centre conveys the tragic history of the Shoah in an affecting manner through these personal stories and objects while also affirming the spirit of resilience that sustained the survivors, and which persists in their hope that through the education the centre provides, “brotherhood” may be achieved.

 

Eran Plotnik’s presentation on the “Human Rights and Holocaust Study Program: A Journey from Bystander to Upstander,” which he developed and initiated at Sturgeon Heights Collegiate ten years ago, also gives hope that in remembrance progression is possible. In this extra-curricular program, students in grades nine to twelve take part in various educational activities that culminate in a trip to Washington, DC—with visits to the World War II Memorial, Washington Monument, the Freedom Is Not Free Memorial, the Martin King Jr. Memorial, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and other sites, and in alternate years, a trip to various destinations in Europe, including Dresden, Berlin (including a visit to the Topography of Terror museum), Prague, Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Rather than focus on one event as the March of the Living does, Plotnik’s intention is to provide a more comprehensive history which encompasses the evolution of WWI through WWII and after. By “walking history,” his students learn this critical history and the importance of remembering it, becoming sensitized to world issues. Because European history is not a part of the high school curriculum, this knowledge is in real danger of being forgotten and so of bolstering holocaust deniers and revisionist historians. 

 

Students from the program who were present, none of whom is Jewish, attributed their interest in the program to Plotnik’s personal connection to the history of the Shoah—his mother was a Holocaust survivor, and his father, who left Europe in 1939, was a paratrooper with the British Army SA. His passion for educating students on this crucial history is clearly affecting and contagious; it is what drew them into the program and what inspired them to become involved in other social justice and just cause activities within and without the school. The students expressed how the program was transformative, motivating them in their post-secondary school choices and volunteer activities. The slide show accompanying the presentation featured photos of the trips to Washington and Europe as well as of the various activities at the school “in which students act both locally and globally to make this world a better place.”

 

Dr. Adam Muller (Professor of English, Theatre, Film, and Media and Director of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Manitoba, First Vice-President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and Research Fellow with the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Defense and Security Studies), in his presentation “Digitalizing the Holocaust: Genocide and New Technology,” discussed how emerging digital technologies, such as Augmented Realty (AR)—an overlay of digital reality supplementing our reality—and Virtual Reality (VR)—a computer-generated world or experience in which a user is immersed—have changed the way genocides are being explained and understood—how scholars, heritage workers, peacebuilders, and the general public are able to encounter, remember, and memorialize the traumatic past. He described recent attempts to re-map genocides digitally, efforts to virtually immerse “users” in sites of mass atrocity such as concentration camps, “Synagogues in Germany: A Virtual Construction”—an exhibit of twenty-five digitally reconstructed synagogues (more than fourteen hundred were destroyed by the Nazis) by architecture students and scholars from Germany’s Darmstadt Technical University, the use of drones at atrocity sites, and the virtualization of survivor testimony. Acknowledging the benefits to be derived from some of these remarkable technologies, especially when first-person testimony will soon no longer be available to us once the last of the survivors are gone, Muller admitted to having “ambiguous” feelings about whether the digitalization of traumatic memory can actually make us feel more; according to him, the research is evenly split between findings of empathy enhancement and findings of empathy fatigue.

 

Muller explained how Geographical Information System (GIS) technology has enhanced our understanding of what really happened during the Holocaust, providing new information on ghetto spaces (Tim Cole), on intersections between war and genocide—between the camps and the sites of iron and steel and machine tool production, between the demands of industrial mass murder and the demands of industrial mass production (Anne Knowles and Paul Jaskot), and on the system of deportations in Italy (Alberto Giordano). He spoke of the inestimable value of the virtual synagogues exhibit (part of an ongoing Holocaust remembrance) in reclaiming these lost spaces that were the epicentre of Jewish religious and cultural life—the eradication of culture commonly precedes the extermination of a people in genocides, as Muller noted. By restoring the synagogues digitally through animations, making spatial relations comprehensible, colour and beauty visible, and the feeling of soaring space tangible, the project restores something of the community life of a people, making it possible to imagine their centrality to Jewish life and how the community felt. It also “clarifies the very real cultural costs and effects of the Nazis’ destruction of the synagogues.” What is missing though are the human bodies, the sound of music and voices. When I visited this exhibit, I found the presence of absence palpable.

 

Muller also cited an example of the use of AR, not for educational and commemorative purposes, but as evidence in a court case against the Nazi perpetrator Reinhold Hamming, a guard at Auschwitz who led transport victims from the trains to the gas chambers who claimed he had no visual access to what was going on. The sight lines were made visible from an aerial perspective by using drone flights over Auschwitz; with the digital models that were re-created, it was possible to prove he could see.  

 

A final example of “digitalizing the Holocaust” in order to preserve memory that Muller discussed was the “hologram” of Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter designed by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum "as an interactive [the term Muller said the USHMM prefers to “hologram”] educational tool to permit students far into the future to ‘talk’ with Holocaust survivors about their experiences,” to create a living connection between survivors and future audiences, to preserve memory and educate. Though apparently intrinsically positive, considering that the generation of direct witnesses is declining, Muller expressed reservations about this particular digitally interactive testimony of Pinchas Gutter, which consists of one hundred and thirty-five pre-selected and pre-edited questions. He left us with a number of questions to consider regarding this example of digitalized memory preservation: How valuable is such highly contrived testimony? How authentic are digital renderings? Can video do this work better? Can imagination do better work morally? And more generally: What of the vast resources of testimony that still remain untouched, unstudied? Are we prioritizing digital representation over authentic artifacts? What of the human element? Are we risking the “gamification of suffering?” Though these digital representations are doing important educational and commemorative work, we may need to consider “the ethical stakes” of remembering and reanimating the traumatic past in this way.

 

Peninnah Schram, internationally known story teller, teacher, author, recording artist, and Professor of Speech and Drama at Stern College of Yeshiva University, opened her storytelling session with an entreaty to “Listen,” intentionally echoing the same recurring biblical command to listen and to hear with the attendant command to remember. Schram directed us to “listen” because “the world is made up of stories, not atoms,” because we need the spoken word and face-to-face contact more than ever in this this digital age, because stories are a source of wisdom, reminding us of what is important, what matters. Stories, secular and sacred, folklore and oral tradition, she pointed out, answer the “heart questions,” the moral questions: Who am I?; By what values do I live?; How do I live?; How do I die?; What do I transmit to my children? And as vehicles for the transmission of this wisdom and for the preservation of memory, they teach us how to act and live wisely and ethically. She delineated the power of story to heal, to give different perspectives and perceptions, to create empathy, to teach, and to preserve memory.  “Since story telling is a dialogue, shared stories create understanding, bring people closer together as a community, and serve as a string that binds one heart to another.” Schram closed with a request that we “remember” the stories that shaped and defined us and suggested we create an “ethical will” to share what we believe in, what we value—our story—as our legacy. For Schram, “talking is remembering.”

 

Lisa Kroft and Anita Wortzman’s presentation “Why Go to Poland? also focused on the need for remembrance, to make a connection with the past. They traveled to Poland to understand the golden age of Jewry’s past in Poland and to experience its revival in the present, but in learning how vibrant, advanced, and vital the Jewish community was in Poland, their experience of its loss was intensified. Lublin was a highlight for them. Once known as the Jerusalem of the Polish Kingdom, Lublin was a centre of Jewish learning, with forty-five percent of the Jewish population living there. Though few Jews remain in Lublin, there are memorials to the Jews who perished (approximately three million Jewish Poles were murdered during the Shoah). The Memory Lamp, lit in the former Jewish Quarter in 2004, like the Ner Tamid (“eternal light”) hanging above the ark in every synagogue, never goes out. The inscription on the concrete slab placed near the lamp explains: “a symbolic ‘eternal lamp’ was lit as a commemoration of the world that is now gone. The street lamp shines day and night and is here to remind us of the Jewish town and its inhabitants.” The old sixteenth-century cemetery has been rediscovered and restored, and a museum, operated by non-Jews and funded by the municipality, located in the gate separating Christian and Jewish districts, remembers and honours the Jews of Lublin. The Galicia Museum in Krakow, located in the historic Jewish district of Kazimierz, celebrates Jews of the area through photographs documenting the remnants of Jewish culture and life in Polish Galicia. Kroft and Wortzman emphasized how important it is to go to Poland to understand the scope of the loss but also to understand “where we come from.” “It’s part of who we are,” and therefore it is necessary to remember the past to make sense of the present and to make a better future.

 

The last session I attended, the joint presentation,  “Standing Up for Israel,” by Ilan Jacobowitz, Shanel Jacobs, Sarah Jacobsohn, Emily Kalo, Emily Kroft, Sam Kroft, Hannah Levit, and Geoffrey Pitch, members of the Winnipeg chapter of StandWithUs—an international, non-profit Israel education organization, founded in 2001 in Los Angeles in response to the growing negative publicity about Israel, its mission to support Israel and fight antisemitism through education—epitomized Wiesel’s claim that remembering “lend[s] an ethical dimension to all endeavours and aspirations.” These young peoples’ dedication to defending Israel and to educating about Israel as a means to peace demonstrates the ethicizing power of remembrance—showing how commitment to one’s identity, past, and purpose can serve to cultivate a more compassionate humanity and motivate towards a more moral response to the world.

 

Through their pro-Israel advocacy, these students aim to counter the antisemitism, and anti-Israel and anti-Zionism propaganda, that is increasingly prevalent on university campuses among students and faculty alike. They admitted the failure of Jewish students to “show up and tell their story” has contributed to the proliferation of blatant falsehoods and distortions of the truth about what is really happening in the Middle East, allowing events like Israeli Apartheid Week and groups like the Muslim Students Association to encourage hatred and prejudice to flourish on campus. The students were remarkably articulate, their presentations delineating the evolution of Israel’s global image since its re-establishment in 1948, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign, and on the Palestinian refugee crisis were perceptive and insightful, precisely and succinctly delivering the accurate facts necessary to correct the predominating prejudices, slander, and lies common on university campuses and in the media. The skill they exhibited bodes well for the success of their pro-Israel advocacy work and gives hope that their ultimate goal of peace in the Middle East, and with it the survival of Israel and the Jewish people, may yet be achieved.

 

Such commitment to memory and commemoration as was celebrated at Limmud and affirmed in these presentations gives assurance that the promise of blessing for the soul and survival of the Jews and Israel, conferred by remembrance, will persist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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