Alumni at Home: Listen, learn, don’t repeat
When it comes to history, ignorance is not bliss. Belle Jarniewski, the Executive Director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, knows this all too well.
For decades, the Holocaust educator has made it her life’s work to bolster curriculums and contribute to international resources so that the genocide of the Second World War is never forgotten or repeated.
Sunday, January 27, marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1945 – a day set aside by the United Nations to commemorate the Holocaust.
UM Today spoke to Jarniewski [BEd/93, CertTrad/02] from her office in Winnipeg about the importance of honouring this day in the face of growing acts of intolerance around the world.
UM TODAY: YOUR PARENTS WERE BOTH HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS, WHICH CLEARLY GAVE YOU AN INTIMATE PERSPECTIVE ON THIS HISTORICAL EVENT. WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO MAKE IT YOUR MISSION TO HELP EDUCATE OTHERS?
JARNIEWSKI: My undergraduate degree at the U of M was in Education with a minor in Judaic Studies. As I began to work with students, it became very apparent to me that many of them knew very little, if anything, about the Holocaust. In fact, some had never met a Jewish person before encountering me as their teacher. I quickly realized how important it was to promote and engage in Holocaust education.
IS THERE A PARTICULAR LESSON THAT YOU THINK IS CRITICAL FOR PEOPLE TO LEARN?
The most important thing in my opinion is that indifference or silence is equivalent to complicity. Unless we speak out, especially given the rise of extremism and hate today, we risk having history repeat itself. Sadly, “never again” rings hollow.
THERE’S BEEN A MARKED RISE IN ANTI-IMMIGRANT, ANTISEMITIC, AND NATIONALIST SENTIMENTS AROUND THE WORLD. IT MUST BE PARTICULARLY DISTRESSING FOR HISTORIANS LIKE YOU TO WATCH, KNOWING WHAT SUCH MOVEMENTS HAVE LED TO IN THE PAST.
The rise of populism, nationalism, and hate are very worrisome. Scholars (and even graduate students) in some countries are being harassed and/or threatened for writing or speaking about the complicity of their countries during the Holocaust. Holocaust distortion is becoming as much or more of a problem than Holocaust denial. The intense anti-immigrant sentiment in some countries and the hatred for and false characterisations of certain groups bear chilling parallels to the situation in the 1930s and 1940s. Therefore, it is more important than ever to remind people of what happened in the not-so-distant past and of the importance of speaking out on these issues.
YOU ARE DOING THAT NOW, AS PART OF THE CANADIAN DELEGATION TO THE INTERNATIONAL HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE ALLIANCE. CAN YOU TALK A BIT ABOUT WHAT YOU DO?
I serve on the Academic Working Group (AWG) and the Committee on anti-Semitism and Holocaust Denial. Both groups are working very hard to preserve the historical narrative and to fight against attempts to distort it. The Committee on anti-Semitism and Holocaust Denial elaborated and adopted the first intergovernmental definition of anti-Semitism, which has now been adopted by several countries and institutions within those countries. Recently, Western University became the first Canadian campus to adopt the definition. The definition is very important as it provides examples of what anti-Semitism is, and what it isn’t.
IS THERE A PROJECT THAT YOU’RE ESPECIALLY PROUD TO HAVE BEEN A PART OF?
The adoption by the Plenary in Bucharest in 2016 was a particularly important moment for me – I felt history was being made. This year, the AWG asked its members to participate in a project which outlines anti-Semitic measures and legislation in our 31-member countries since the beginning of the 20th century. I completed and submitted the research on behalf of Canada, which included the quota system for Jewish students at the School of Medicine in the 1930s and 40s.
SOME HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS ATTENDED THE U OF M, AS STUDENTS AND PROFESSORS, WHICH YOU CAPTURE IN YOUR BOOK VOICES OF WINNIPEG HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS. WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO TELL THEIR STORIES?
A local survivor felt strongly that their stories should be preserved in a format that would be widely accessible, especially to local students. We felt that reading about men and women who live or had lived in Winnipeg would make history more “real” to them.
As I was writing the book, it made me so sad to think about the suffering these wonderful people had endured. In many cases I had known them for years. Some provided me with old family photographs and seeing these photos which portrayed what they had lost were in many ways as upsetting as the horrific photos we see of the suffering and destruction.
IN YOUR OPINION, WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO HAVE AN INTERNATIONAL DAY OF REMEMBRANCE FOR THE HOLOCAUST?
In the Jewish community, we have Yom Hashoah (in the spring) which commemorates the Holocaust. However, an internationally acknowledged day encourages more than just commemoration and reaches a broader audience. Resolution 60/7 of the United Nations, which established International Holocaust Remembrance Day, encourages the development of educational programs to help prevent future acts of genocide. The resolution also condemns “without reserve” all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief, whenever they occur.
While many of the UN member countries continue to engage in Holocaust denial and distortion as well as promoting anti-Semitic rhetoric, the day is observed solemnly and respectfully in many countries. I see this as an important weapon in the fight against Holocaust denial and distortion and a means of preserving the historical record.
WHAT ARE SOME PRACTICAL WAYS PEOPLE CAN HONOUR THIS DAY?
The Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre partners with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and this year’s theme is “the music of remembrance”. There are free events on January 27 and 28 (visit FFFHEC’s website for more information). If you can’t get out to an event, I would suggest going online to the Visual History Archive and viewing one of the more than 52,000 testimonies.