David Thompson Secondary School hosted the Human Rights Symposium on Wednesday, April 2nd in the school theatre with 140 students in attendance. The message of intolerance toward hate and discrimination was heard loud and clear.
Holocaust survivor Robbie Waisman, Holocaust story keeper Julius Maslovat and Herman Alpine, a survivor of the St. Eugene Mission School, gave insightful, heartwrenching and inspiring anecdotes of their respective journeys through painful histories. Their personal stories were followed by a presentation by Laura Hannant, a children’s rights advocate, who also spoke to the student gathering.
“I was no longer human—17098 was my number; my name as a human being was erased,” said Mr. Waisman of the loss of identity and humanity he experienced at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.
The memories he recalled were contradictory: “Some were good, some horrific.”
With his presence at the symposium and his account of enduring the experience of genocide , Mr. Waisman stoically imparted a profound sentiment to the senior high school students in attendance.
“I want to empower you — I want to strengthen you with my words,” was his message.
The softspoken and intelligent man illuminated the students with his tragic story. Mr. Waisman was born in Skarszysko, Poland and was the youngest of eight children. At the age of eight, the Nazis invaded his home.
“Soldiers in black showed up wearing the SS insignia — these were roundups, people were sent to factories and other places.
I saw a man running away and one of the soldiers raised his rifle and shot him. It was the first time I saw someone die; there was blood on the sidewalk. I had witnessed the end of freedom.”
Escaping extermination in the ghetto by hiding at a farm his brother took him to (he was perceived as too young to be considered labour-appropriate at the time), he worked at a munitions factory with his brother and father until 1944 when he was transferred to the Buchenwald Concentration camp. Buchenwald was a labour camp. According to Mr. Waisman, the camps were divided into three categories: holding, labour, and extermination.
“Hiding Jewish children was against the law — I couldn’t find anyone who had survived. If you were caught, they would kill the child and the entire family hosting the child. People were incented to give up children. A Jewish child was worth a sack of flour or sugar.”
At the munitions factory, Mr. Waisman was cautioned to do as he was told because his life depended on it. The work consisted of anti-aircraft stamps and shells: “over 3,200 — I worked until my fingers bled.”
“When it’s life or death, you learn to adjust quickly,” he said.
Eventually, his brother was murdered when he came down with typhoid.
“I wanted to say ‘I love you’ to Haim; I’m sorry that I never had the opportunity. They filled up a truck with prisoners and when it was gone from sight I heard the muffled sound of machine gun fire. The truck came back and it was empty — I realized then what the shots were about.”
Mr. Waisman spoke lovingly of his family and divulged that his upbringing was sternly traditional.
“I was the baby of the family, being the youngest I could do no wrong; however, on occasion, dad took by the ear and when he was done with me he made sure I listened to him — it was an act of love.”
Cherishing those memories, Mr. Waisman acknowledged that at the time that everything was happening, he didn’t realize the enormity of it.
“My incentive to survive was my family — I expected that I would come home and everyone would be at the table and they would say look, the baby made it.“
The resiliency of the human spirit was evident in Mr. Waisman, who noted that “the 426 surviving children (of whom he was one)) were analyzed and deemed psychopaths who could never be rehabilitated.”
“Then came the rage and the anger — we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, or how to trust people — we had lost so much and we didn’t know how to behave normally.”
Award-winning authors, distinguished members of government, and Nobel peace prizewinners originated from the 426.
“Not bad for a bunch of psychopaths,” Mr. Waisman commented defiantly of his peers.
Of the six million brutally murdered during Hitler’s reign, “one and half million were children. The Nazis were thorough.”
Of the surviving children was Julius Maslovat, who also recounted the horrific tale of a young Jewish baby named Yidele Henechowicz, whose parents’ bravery and selflessness saved his life.
“His mother threw him over the fence to his father,” stated Mr. Maslovat of the day Yidele was saved from Treblinka (a death camp). Yidele’s mother was sent to Treblinka with countless others.
The horrors young Yidele suffered were unspeakable. Mr. Maslovat spoke kindly of four women who took care of over 50 young children who were sent to Bergen-Belsen, which was known for its sadistic torture. It was the same camp Anne Frank died in.
That young polish boy was Julius Maslovat. At the end of the war he was liberated, adopted and eventually immigrated to Canada as a professional engineer. Of the innumerable atrocities that went on, he recalls only one profound image that stands out in his mind.
“I remember being in an open cattle car — the reason I remember this is because it was the first time I was away from my father.”
Mr. Maslovat spoke of an obligation to inform the public and to impart what happened as honestly as possible. On hatred, he had one thing to say to the astounded and captivated students.
“My attitude towards the Germans is not one of hatred — if it was hatred, I would be doing the same thing as the Nazis did and that would mean that they had won.”
Herman Alpine also spoke poignantly about hatred in his powerful recollection of the indignities and abuse he was subjected to at St. Eugene Mission School in Cranbrook. When the federal government mandated in 1920 that every Indian child aged seven and older must be remanded into the custody of residential schools, the cultural genocide he suffered was extreme.
Mr. Alpine was severely abused. He remembers having a beautiful black braid and the first thing they did was cut it all off.
“They did it to take the savagery out of us,” he said.
At one point, Mr. Alpine admitted that he was consumed with hate.
“Hate; it’s so easy to be instilled. Hate; it doesn’t let you advance. I came out of that school after 11 years and I didn’t have a future.”
“I had to let go of the hate if I was going to survive. After six years of therapy, I completely changed — I let go of hate, I became colour blind,” he said on racism.
Of all the powerful messages on human rights heard at the symposium, the one that was most unanimous among all four who spoke to the students was to never give up.
“You may have something you’re going through but there is always someone who can help,” said Mr. Waisman.
Story by Erin Knutson
Valley Echo Intern