Yom HaShoah in Edmonton commemorated the past and strengthened community bonds

Dr. Leon Kagan presented a moving Second Voices Project Video of his father Paul Kagan's harrowing experiences during the Holocaust.

by Regan Treewater-Lipes

(AJNews) – Yom HaShoah marks a somber date of remembrance in the Jewish calendar year.  Communities gather to remember the stories of past generations, and to unify in a single commitment: Never Again. This year an exceptionally diverse crowd convened at Beth Israel Synagogue to pay tribute to the six million lost. Not only did members of the Edmonton Jewish community from all denominations attend, but so did the Deputy Premiere of Alberta, Mike Ellis, trustees from the Edmonton Public School Board, and a sizeable contingent of allies representing the local Evangelical community.

Delegates from the Jewish Federation of Edmonton’s Holocaust Education Committee facilitated the proceedings to a nearly packed room. Talmud Torah’s choir led the audience in O Canada and later, more poignantly, in the singing of Ha Tikvah. Those who attended the community’s memorial for Kristallnacht (November 2023) will remember Dr. Francie Cyngiser and the story of her father Sidney who passed just over a year ago at the age of 99.  She, Gillian Horwitz, and Anna Linetsky led generational survivors in lighting candles followed by a prayer offered by Rabbi Guy Tal.

The keynote presentation was given by Dr. Leon Kagan, a member of the Holocaust Education Committee, who helped to narrative his father Paul’s Second Voices Project documentary. The Second Voices Project (SVP) continues to bring survivor testimony, and second-generation speakers to Alberta schools, grades 8 through 12.  SVP films have also been screened to university classes as part of Holocaust awareness units. The SVP bridges a generational divide to help younger learners gain a more tangible and current comprehension of the devastation left by the Holocaust. Joined by members of his family, Dr. Kagan guided the audience through his father’s story assisted by Paul Kagan’s recorded testimony. Raised by survivors, Dr. Kagan provided insight into his father’s life before and after the Holocaust, while Paul Kagan’s own voice rang out with stunning clarity as he narrated his own struggle to overcome the unimaginable.

Paul Kagan survived the Vilno Ghetto, forced labour, and the struggle to rebuild after losing his family. The individual stories woven together as the larger tapestry of his survival still resound vividly first through the recording of his testimony and amplified by Dr. Kagan’s discussion of his father. Moments like when young Paul Kagan recognized his own cousin as the Judenrat official stealing his food echo chillingly. His pain at leaving his mother and sisters behind to certain death after lying about being a mechanic to be selected for work detail, felt palpable as attendees looked around at their own loved ones sitting with them.

The Talmud Torah Choir led the singing of Ha Tikvah at the end of the program.

Paul Kagan’s story fused with the historical narrative of the Edmonton Jewish community when Dr. Kagan shared a touching wedding photo of his parents taken at the old Beth Israel location.  Quite notably, both of his maternal grandparents survived and were present for the chupah.

Paul Kagan’s childhood was stolen from him, and as he himself noted in his testimony, by the time he reached Edmonton, he had already lived more than his chronological years. Through Dr. Kagan’s physical presence as he helped to introduce listeners to his father’s story, the vision for the SVP was showcased marvelously. For those who never had the privilege of meeting Paul Kagan, his son’s discussion of his father’s survivor’s journey in real-time with assistance from video archive footage made the testimony almost as strong as if the courageous man had been there to tell his story himself.

After the formal event proceedings concluded, attendees filed into the foyer to greet one another and reflect collectively about the presentation. This gave younger audience members the opportunity to ask questions of Dr. Kagan and thank him for his efforts on behalf of the community. What was astounding was that in this moment to remember so much loss, there was actually so much life – Jewish life. Local teens from NCSY had only just returned from a shabbaton in BC and congregated in a corner of the lobby to chat, people stopped to show one another pictures from recent convocations and life-cycle celebrations, and others caught up exuberantly with friends. Perhaps to an outsider this spectacle might initially seem odd, but at an event to mark the near total loss of European Jewish civilization, the boisterous carryings-on trumpeted: Am Israel Chai!

Regan Treewater-Lipes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter in Edmonton.

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