Axworthy makes surprise announcement at Holocaust Symposium


By Rebeca Kuropatwa (Courtesy Jewish Post and News)

Dr. Lloyd Axworthy, University of Winnipeg (U of W) president and vice-chancellor, announced at the May 16, 11th annual Holocaust Symposium that the U of W partnering with the Holocaust Education Centre (HEC) will be bringing in Father Patrick Desbois for next year's 12th annual symposium and bestowing on him an honorary doctorate degree.

Grandson to a WWII French prisoner held in the Rawa Ruska camp on the Poland-Ukraine border, Desbois has devoted his life to confronting antisemitism. He began his research in 2002, on the story of Jewish, Roma, and other victims murdered in Eastern Europe during WWII by the Nazi mobile killing units, known as the Einsatzgruppen.

In 2004, Desbois co-founded Yahad - In Unum (meaning "together" in Hebrew and Latin), an organization that supports dialogue between Jewish and Catholic authorities.

His extraordinary work to preserve the memory of Ukraine's former Jewish community and to advance understanding of the crimes committed there during the Holocaust has received international attention and given voice to those that were lost during this dark time in history.

At this year's symposium, Axworthy said, "It's part of the responsibility of a university to have open discussion, dialogue, and share experiences regarding the pains of others to work on an antidote to all kinds of discrimination, bigotry, and antisemitism."

He urged students to, "Speak out when you witness an injustice - whether it's a bully in a schoolyard, the defacing of a synagogue, a racial slur, or simple indifference...Put your voice and your actions to work...Fight against restrictions, discrimination, and exclusion."

Quoting Hannah Arendt, Axworthy added, "'When we are in dialogue, we are most human.' That's why we're here today - to listen, to talk, and to take action."

The symposium took place at the U of W Duckworth Centre on May 16.

From 9:30-11:45 a.m., opening remarks were made by Belle Millo, HEC chair, and Axworthy. Keynote speaker introductions were made by Roberta Malam, symposium coordinator, followed by speaker, Max Eisen, addressing some-2000 students assembled from across Manitoba (followed by Q-&-A and a candle lighting ceremony by March of the Living participants).

"Fifty-five million people died in World War II, six million of whom were Jewish men, women, and children," said Millo, Chair of the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre (HEC) of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada (JHCWC).

Describing the Shoah as something with "a history of hate over 2000 years in the making," Millo asked, "What can we learn from all this?" answering, "In a word, vigilance."

Eisen shared with attendees that when he was only 15 years old, "under the Hungarians, [his] family and [he] were forcibly removed from [their] home in Czechoslovakia.

"There were no laws to protect Jews in continental Europe. We were dehumanized, dispossessed, transported, tortured, shot, and gassed.

"I will go on as long as there is a single denier saying it never happened and hate against the Jews in the world.

"Think about this - this big, beautiful country we live in - think of, God forbid, it was taken away...This freedom is not guaranteed...You are the future of this country, and each and every one of you can make a difference."

Attendee, David Cohen, said, "I'm continually impressed by the commitment of teachers and school divisions to attend and learn about the Holocaust, in particular, and discrimination, hatred, and bigotry, in general.

"Today's speaker [Eisen] made reference to [how] much of his story related to the fact that he was around 15 years old at that time. And, when I looked around, many of the students are of the same age. So if they can make the connection to themselves and try to visualize how they'd be able to deal with that type of situation, that to me is quite impactful.

"Hopefully this message of hatred will resonate and stay with them for many years to come and steer them to a path of tolerance and respect."

"We must not despair. There are many good and decent people who care and who are doing good work. Hopefully that will override those who hate and kill."

Rev Dr. James Christie, Prof. of Dialogue Theology, Director, Ridd Institute for Religion & Global Policy, added, "Max Eisen's testimony to the nightmare of the Shoah through his personal story is all the more riveting, the horror more devastating, because of his almost matter-of-fact way of offering his witness and his 'victim impact' statement.

"Two-thousand students of every colour, shape, size, and persuasion sat together in the middle of the prairies listening to a man of courage tell a story about which I knew almost nothing at their age. That alone is a giant step in the right direction."

The symposium was made possible by the support of the Grosberg Family Fund at the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba, the Ridd Institute for Religion and Global Policy of the Global College, the U of W, and the Asper Foundation.