by Maxine Fischbein
(AJNews) – The Nazis murdered nearly her entire family. They attempted to rob her of her humanity by shaving her hair and reducing her to the number they tattooed on her forearm shortly after she was herded through the gates of hell at Auschwitz.
But prisoner #27523 had the last laugh.
On January 11, 2020, Holocaust survivor Freda Plucer died peacefully at the age of 97 surrounded by her loving family. Despite the enormous tragedy that befell her during the Shoah, Freda survived and thrived, becoming a family matriarch, a successful businesswoman and an advocate for Holocaust remembrance and education.
Her path was not an easy one. Before they perished, Freda’s mother and sister pleaded with her to survive so she could share their story. It was this sacred duty that compelled her to choose life rather than the electric fence.
Some four decades later, in the mid-1980s, Survivors like Freda who had settled in Alberta were shocked by headlines about Jim Keegstra – an Eckville teacher who for years poisoned students’ minds with anti-Semitic rants and Holocaust denial. Keegstra’s highly publicized trial (which eventually led to his conviction under hate crime legislation) put some serious momentum behind plans for Holocaust education in Calgary.
The Annual Holocaust Education Symposium, launched in 1984, has reached maturity thanks, in greatest measure, to the courage and tenacity of Holocaust survivors like Freda Plucer and, more recently, second and third generation survivors who are sharing their stories.
That growing list includes Freda’s granddaughter, Marnie Bondar who, this past spring, was named co-chair of the Calgary Jewish Federation Human Rights and Holocaust Education Committee together with Dahlia Libin.
Sadly, due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the 36th Annual Holocaust Education Symposium could not go ahead as scheduled this past May, but the double-chai milestone is a fitting time to revisit some of the history of Symposium while looking ahead to the future of Holocaust education in Calgary.
In 1981, Calgarians Barb and Ron Krell attended the first Worldwide Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Families in Israel together with Ron’s brother Rob and their parents. During the gathering, the Dutch family that had saved Rob Krell (b. 1940) from the Nazis was honoured as Righteous Among the Nations in a ceremony at Yad Vashem.
Hidden by Albert and Violetta Munnik and their daughter, Nora, Rob Krell later became a respected Psychiatrist in Vancouver and the driving force behind a Holocaust education symposium there that Barb and Ron Krell sought to emulate in Calgary.
“We thought it would be effective here too, and it has been,” Ron Krell told AJNews.
“Our interest was on the education side,” recalled Barb Krell who, together with Ron, began speaking with the Calgary Public and Catholic school boards to gauge their interest. The Krells also spoke with Mount Royal College Biology professor Izak Paul who took the idea of a co-sponsorship to the leadership at MRC (now Mount Royal University). Their support, from Humanities Chair Hugh Macleod to President Don Baker, was unequivocal.
Paul coordinated Mount Royal’s participation through the first 32 years of the Symposium until his retirement in 2016. In 2008, his outstanding contribution was recognized when he was honoured with MRU’s inaugural Human Rights Award.
“I felt it was a very important educational program,” recalled Paul, who is the grandson and great-grandson of Holocaust survivors.
“I wanted to be involved in memory of all the Jewish people who were murdered so ruthlessly in the Holocaust. It is especially important that young people learn the facts of the Holocaust . . . and not be silent bystanders when they see any form of racism. There is a broader lesson to be learned that is so important.” – Izak Paul (MRU)
A pilot program held in the JCC auditorium in 1983 attracted 100 students from Calgary Catholic schools. The program was so well received that the Symposium was launched the following year by the Calgary Jewish Centre and MRC in cooperation with the Calgary Catholic School District, Calgary Public School Board and the University of Calgary. Symposium has grown steadily over the years with more and more public, separate, charter and private schools signing on. Today the massive undertaking, which takes place during the first or second week of May, attracts some 3,000 students.
One statistic stands alone in its enormity. It is estimated that more than 70,000 Grade 11 and 12 students have attended the Holocaust Education Symposium since 1984.
Despite the huge footprint when it comes to human resources, theatre and classroom space, tech support and even parking, MRU has hosted the Symposium without charge throughout the history of the event.
Since Izak Paul’s retirement, the torch has been passed to Pearl Herscovitch, Chair of Mount Royal Library, and Carrie Scherzer, Professor of Psychology, who together coordinate on behalf of MRU, working in close partnership with Calgary Jewish Federation staff and volunteers who plan and organize the overall program.
Video documentation of survivor testimony got a big boost in the 1990s with the establishment of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. Long before that, Dwight Lemky, then the head of Audiovisual Services at Mount Royal, began videotaping the testimony of Survivors speaking at the Calgary Symposium. Many of those tapes have been rediscovered and there are plans in the works to reformat them so they can be shared with future generations of students.
A typical morning at Symposium begins with the arrival of a sea of yellow school busses and hundreds of students pouring through the West Gate doors at MRU.
It is a scene that former Holocaust Education and Remembrance Co-Chair Terry Groner says she will never forget.
“It felt good when we saw all the busses driving up and hundreds of students coming in,” Groner said.
A Survivor who was hidden as a child in France, Groner expressed gratitude for the Survivors who have spoken at Symposium.
“I admire them to be able, year after year, to speak. It is difficult, but without them there would have been no program.”
Each half-day session at Symposium includes an introduction by a Historian from MRU or the U of C and viewing of a documentary (most recently The Path to Nazi Genocide, from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum). The highlight for most attendees is the personal testimony of Holocaust survivors, prompting students to form long lines at the conclusion of the program so that they can share private, often emotionally charged moments with the Survivors they have heard.
Following one session at Symposium, former Calgary Jewish Federation Director of Human Rights and Holocaust Education Ilana Krygier Lapides noticed a young man as he encountered Survivor Fira Oussatinski.
“He kneeled, took her hand and told her how much what she said meant to him and promised her he’d never forget it,” recalled Krygier Lapides. “The love that passed between the two of them was palpable.”
Krygier Lapides recalled another incredible moment in 2009 when Calgary Jewish Federation hosted a community event marking the 25th Anniversary of Symposium. Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella, herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors, was the keynote speaker.
During the Q and A that followed Abella’s address, a teacher from a nearby rural school told the audience how moved she was when she attended Symposium and heard the testimony of a woman who had hidden in the forest.
“Suddenly Fanny Wedro jumped up and identified herself as that woman,” Krygier Lapides recalled.
So great was Wedro’s impact, that the woman was now bringing her own high school students to Symposium. Similar stories are shared by a growing number of educators.
Former Calgary Jewish Federation Holocaust Education and Remembrance Co-Chair Eva Hoffman recalled one very emotional young lady who spoke with Survivor Bronia Cyngiser after hearing her personal testimony. A victim of abuse, the student revealed that she had been on the verge of suicide when she walked through the doors.
“She told Bronia that hearing what she went through and seeing how she overcame it, she knew she would be able to get through her own problems. She derived strength from what Bronia said,” recalled Hoffman.
In addition to speaking at Symposium, Survivors like Bronia and her husband, Sid Cyngiser, have frequently shared their stories with students in sessions at their schools or at the JCC.
When Darrell Ingeveld’s Sundre High School class came to Calgary to hear Sid Cyngiser speak, He was so inspired by Cyngiser’s testimony that he asked if he would pose for a photo with him. Cyngiser agreed, asking the young man to send him a copy.
Ingeveld – today in his mid-30s and living in Calgary – recently returned to his childhood home in Sundre. While sorting things there, he rediscovered the photo and felt compelled to reach out.
That took some doing. While he had vivid recollections of a Survivor named Sid, and his story, Ingeveld no longer recalled Sid’s surname. After a Google search and some phone calls, he was finally able to connect.
Cyngiser couldn’t believe his eyes when he received the photo in the mail. Ingeveld’s inscription on the back read: “Our High School visited the JCC in 2002 and Sid asked me for a copy. 18 years later, here we are.”
What Ingeveld remembers and admires most is how Cyngiser overcame the loss of his entire family, built a family and succeeded in business.
“He has lived a long, productive life despite having those challenges,” said Ingeveld who marvels that Cyngiser’s message is one of resiliency and hope rather than bitterness or revenge.
Deeply moved by Ingeveld’s efforts to reach out, the Cyngisers look forward to meeting with him once it is safe to do so.
“I want to be able to shake his hand,” Sid Cyngiser said.
When the 2020 Holocaust Symposium was sidelined by the pandemic, Marnie Bondar and Dahlia Libin worked quickly with Federation staff to provide online resources to teachers.
Bondar had already been telling her Babi Freda’s story at Symposium and in classrooms for five years, having embraced that sacred task when her grandmother was no longer able.
A videotaped version of Bondar’s presentation, including clips from Freda’s videotaped testimony and an introduction by Calgary Jewish Federation staffer Diana Kalef, was offered to schools that had registered for Symposium. Bondar then went the extra mile, offering online Q and A sessions.
Each the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors, Bondar and Libin are proud to be at the vanguard of a third generation devoted to preserving the memories of the murdered and the legacy of Survivors.
“Marnie and I are both in awe of our grandparents, what they overcame and how they built lives and moved forward,” Libin said.
She and Bondar recently discovered an early videotape containing the testimonies of sisters Fay Kifer, Elizabeth Ksienski and Sima Herman. It is a rare treasure, they say, given the unusual circumstance of three sisters having survived the Shoah together.
To ensure that these and other stories are widely shared, Bondar and Libin are currently engaged in the creation of a digital library.
The Second Voices project, initiated under the watch of Ilana Krygier Lapides, is now also in the capable hands of Bondar and Libin. The project – supported by two grants from the Alberta Human Rights Commission – arose from a simple question, says former Calgary Jewish Federation Associate Executive Director Judy Shapiro:
“How do we continue to tell Holocaust survivors’ stories when there are no longer Holocaust survivors to tell their stories?”
In addition to Bondar’s presentation, there are now four more Second Voices presentations in which children or other close relatives tell their loved ones’ stories of survival.
Additional Second Voices presentations are planned. Shapiro is currently writing a script that tells the story of the late Oscar Kirschner – a Survivor with no direct descendants – ensuring that those who knew and loved him can continue sharing his testimony.
While nothing can ever truly replace the living presence of Holocaust survivors, the voices of their second and third generation descendants are proving very effective and add a unique perspective – what it is like to be raised by a Survivor.
Shapiro recalls one Second Generation speaker describing to students how it felt to be frequently awoken in the night by the screams of his father who relived his trauma in vivid nightmares.
Afterwards, a student whose family had immigrated to Canada from Rwanda told the speaker that she always wondered whether that kind of terrifying experience happened only to her.
Bronia and Sid Cyngiser are among a dwindling number of Calgary Holocaust Survivors who continue to share their stories when possible.
Sid, who is 96 years young, told Alberta Jewish News that he plans to speak for four more years.
“One hundred seems like a good time to retire,” he said.
The Cyngisers take comfort in knowing that when that day comes their grandchildren will continue to share their story in both Calgary and Edmonton as part of the Second Voices project.
A new initiative spearheaded by Marnie Bondar and Dahlia Libin will soon allow Calgarians to “. . . see the faces of those whose stories must be heard and never forgotten.” The duo is currently coordinating a photo exhibit featuring images of survivors both living and deceased. Accompanying the photos will be brief descriptions of each survivor’s experience together with their words of wisdom or, in some cases, those of their descendants.
The project speaks to the hearts of a whole new generation.
“It is the grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors that are really stepping up to the plate. The resurgence of interest is beautiful to see,” Bondar says adding that her peers are coming forward with gifts or gifts in kind to stretch available resources and ensure that Holocaust Survivors continue to be seen and heard in perpetuity.
The world needs those voices, perhaps now more than ever. After all, there is a disease more virulent and deadly than coronavirus. Ideologies of hatred continue to threaten millions of people around the globe. Like COVID-19, the contagion can be found anywhere and there are no borders.
Fortunately, there is an antidote.
May the legacy of Holocaust Survivors – and those who follow in their footsteps – continue to inspire students, compelling them to speak out when they encounter racism and antisemitism, to practice good citizenship, and to always, always bear witness.
Holocaust Survivors and descendants who wish to participate in the photo exhibit honouring Survivors are asked to contact Marnie Bondar and Dahlia Libin at firstname.lastname@example.org/. For more information about this and other Calgary Jewish Federation Holocaust and Human Rights Education and Commemoration initiatives, go to www.jewishcalgary.org/our-community/federation-programs/holocaust-and-human-rights-commemoration-and-education.
Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalist Initiative reporter with Alberta Jewish News.