On Monday, April 17, Jews from all over the world gathered to commemorate Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Marked yearly in our calendars, this day offers a chance for Jews and non-Jews to reflect on the atrocities committed around 80 years ago. While these days of remembrance bring up immeasurable pain for many, keeping Holocaust education alive is more important than ever. Ensuring society is literate about this unimaginable genocide is imperative to show how antisemitism is not an isolated moment in history but an ongoing force that continues to plague our everyday lives.
According to Statistics Canada, hate crimes against Jews have been on the rise in recent years. In 2021, there was a 47 per cent increase in police-reported hate crimes against Jewish people. Of the 884 religion-based hate crimes that year, 487 of them targeted the Jewish community.
That is why the new Toronto Holocaust Museum, opening June 9, will be an important hallmark in the city, says Dara Solomon, executive director of the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre. Stocked with primary documents, archival footage, and personal testimony of survivors, the museum—like many around the world—will educate the public on this tragic chapter in the world’s history; making us confront the ugliest parts of humanity in order to forge a more peaceful future.
I talked with Solomon on the importance of commemorating the Holocaust, educating the public, and why historical preservation can help combat antisemitism today.
This is a simple question to start, but why is it important to commemorate Yom HaShoah?
Yom HaShoah is the Jewish date of remembrance for the Holocaust, but there are now a number of dates that Jews and non-Jews mark throughout the year to commemorate the Holocaust. Yom HaShoah has been a community tradition for several decades and started in Toronto early on, as early as the late 1940s. These commemorative activities and services were important for survivors and their families but it’s important to continue the tradition for all Jews. Now we also have International Holocaust Remembrance Day that falls on January 27, to ensure the non-Jewish community commemorates this time in our history.
How do you educate those in the non-Jewish community who don’t know the Holocaust as intimately as Jews do?
There’s also Holocaust Education Week in early November, which typically closes on the commemoration of the anniversary of Kristallnacht on November 8. Holocaust Education Week—which was founded by volunteers who were involved with our centre years ago—has a mandate to ensure Holocaust education takes place in intercultural spaces such as churches, mosques, and faith-based groups. The goal was to build relationships with those groups to carry on that education to other religious communities. And education continued to happen in public libraries and schools. It’s shifted in recent years because we want to make sure Holocaust education takes place throughout the year and not just one week. The Toronto Holocaust Museum will make it possible for everyone to learn and commemorate together.
Yom Hashoah is a bit different because it typically takes place in a synagogue. There are memorial prayers and it feels like a traditional service with lots of singing, a rabbi provides keynote remarks, we light candles . . . It really feels like a religious ceremony. It has a much more traditional structure. Whereas we commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs by bringing in scholars, so it feels more academic and less religious in nature for the general public.
I often hear, anecdotally, the Jewish community fears a significant resurgence in Holocaust deniers as survivors pass away. How do you address that and try to quiet those fears?
The museum that will open on June 9 is built on the idea of preserving the voice of the survivor and continuing to share the narrative of the Holocaust through a trauma-based lens of survivors who made it here in Canada. When you come to the museum there are 11 large scale testimony kiosks based throughout the galleries that go from pre-war Jewish life, to the years of persecution and atrocities, then to liberation, ending with life in Canada. Throughout this history, it’s told through the lens of the survivor and backed up by graphics, data, and artifacts, which are another primary source that supports the testimony being told and acts as evidence to counter any Holocaust denial.
How can we relate the Holocaust to the present day for younger generations who might feel disconnected from it?
We’re really careful about crafting experiences that are age appropriate, especially now that the Ontario government has mandated Holocaust education from Grade 6 onwards. It has to be done carefully by creating a number of programs and educating teachers on how to do it. For example, we focus on topics about separation from family rather than the mechanics of genocide. In the new museum we have two intro films, one for early learners and one for the general audience. For early learners it’s from the lens of a young girl as we trace what happened to her and her brother during the Holocaust. We show their experiences in a sensitive and touching way that feels more like a storybook with beautiful visuals and it’s narrated in first person.
I’ve also seen over the years there’s been more emphasis on promoting Jewish resistance during the Holocaust—is that something you find important to highlight?
We have put a lot of thought into curating the museum to show that Jews had agency and didn’t have a passive experience. They were very present. We highlight different kinds of resistance. For example, this year Yom HaShoah commemorated the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, so we chose to highlight voices of resistance by having living survivors share their memories of it. We also wanted to show people that when Jews were in hiding they still managed to hold Seders and Shabbats—that spiritual resistance is important to share .
And how do we relate the Holocaust back to the present day, specifically to the rise of antisemitism in Canada and the world at large?
It’s always important to bring it back to today to draw connections from history to the present moment. Now, we can’t make direct comparisons but we can talk about them in parallel and discuss the feelings Jews have when antisemitism happens today. When there’s antisemitic graffiti on a synagogue, oftentimes being defaced by swastikas, it gets a visceral reaction from the Jewish community. If the public is truly knowledgeable about the Holocaust and understands the full weight of what a swastika means, then they’ll understand why Jews’ reactions are so visceral, and why so much fear is brought up when they see it on a synagogue or a tombstone. Making those connections is so important and it’s what we try to facilitate at the museum with our learning lab. We aim to make those connections through dialogue and reflection so we can understand the full weight of what we’re seeing today.
Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.
Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Toronto Star. She previously was a reporter for Metroland Media where she covered education in Peel Region. Her other work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.