Holocaust Remembrance Day: Collective Memories and the Vow to Never Forget

Today we commemorate Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) to honour the memories of the over six million victims of the Nazi genocide of World War II, an unprecedented event in human history that saw a third of world Jewry wiped out.

In Toronto and around the world, this day provides a solemn occasion for us to remember these unspeakable horrors and to reaffirm that this tragedy will never be forgotten, and importantly, never be repeated again.

With the 70th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, I am reminded of Hitler's call for Vernichtung, loosely translated as the "complete annihilation" of the Jewish people. How the Nazis sought to wipe out not just all Jews worldwide, but even the very memory of the Jewish people.

This day provides an important reminder about how mankind can be capable of committing unspeakable acts of horror. How in Europe's most modern and civilized societies, six million people were systematically slaughtered while humanity sat idle by.

Memory. It is our collective duty and our moral obligation to never forget. To forever etch this conviction into our resolve and to stand up to bigotry, intolerance, and baseless hatred wherever it occurs.

Cicero once said "The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living." The faculty which the mind stores and remembers information, memory, reminds me of the important work being conducted at One Kenton, the Alzheimer's Centre for Excellence located in North York, Ontario. A facility spearheaded and operated by Bnai Brith Canada in partnership with the Ivey International Centre for Health Innovation at the University of Western Ontario.

Through our work at One Kenton which provides first-class care for residents with dementia, I learned that 20% of Holocaust survivors suffer from Alzheimer's, some who are tragically reliving the brutality, starvation and killing of their family members in their minds, day in and day out. A most cruel irony is that cognitive impairments like dementia don't necessarily protect Holocaust survivors as their long-term memories remain largely intact. In Israel, for example, one-fifth of an estimated 192,000 Holocaust survivors suffer from Alzheimers.

For others, it's this devastating disease, rather than the Nazis, that leaves them imprisoned in their minds. Unbeknownst to most, Alzheimer's is the third deadliest disease in the United States. Each year, Alzheimer's takes nearly a half-million American lives. In Canada alone, 747,000 people suffer from this disease and by 2020, some 250,000 Ontarians are expected to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

I am honoured to share two stories of brave Holocaust survivors who are current residents at One Kenton, that of Masha Markowitz and Lola Rotter.

For Masha Markowitz, it was a time of hardships and struggle, a memory that she will never forget. Masha Markowitz remembers being in her late teens being taken away on a train to the Auschwitz concentration camp. She was coming home from school one day when a friend told her not to go back to her city for it was burned into ashes. After the war was over she went looking for her brother. Many had said that he died when a bomb fell on their house. However, towards the end of the war, Masha found herself in the city of Lodz where she heard her brother's name being called out and she desperately tried to find him. After countless efforts, she reunited with her brother in Lodz. After the war was over, Masha married and moved to Canada where she settled down to build a family with her late husband, David Markowitz.

Lola Rotter was just a young girl in school when the bombs fell in her village in Poland. She was sent to the concentration camps where she worked day and night in forced labour camps. Lola always kept strong and prayed. When the war was over she married and moved to Canada where she had three girls. Lola will never forget her harrowing ordeal in the Holocaust, but says she will always have god by her side. The Holocaust taught her that hate is a double-edge sword. "You can never win when you fight hate with hate."

By personalizing the individual tragedy of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, the League for Human Rights of Bnai Brith tries to challenge the dangerous trends of indifference and ignorance. At Bnai Brith's One Kenton memory-care facility, it's an effort to restore dignity to those who were stripped of their identities and robbed of their lives by Alzheimers. After all, collective memories of the past shape our futures.