Record (Kitchener-Waterloo) | Jun. 18, 2004 | Joseph S. Bloch

Remember the tragedies, as well as victories, of war

Human memory is quite fickle. Some incidents remain with us for our entire lives while others are forgotten within hours or days.

The task of the historical record is to preserve and perpetuate those events that have significance not only during the lifetimes of those who experienced them, but for the world as a whole, for generations to come.

It is only natural for us to want to forget our tragedies and disasters and remember our victories and triumphs; the challenge of history is to remember the bad with the good.

This challenge went unanswered, for the most part, in Waterloo Region this month. Two weeks ago, the world marked the 60th anniversary of D-Day, a source of great pride for the nations whose soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy -- and rightly so.

No one can take away what these brave fighters did to break the stranglehold of Nazi tyranny. Yet we cannot forget that, at that very time, the Nazi death machine was still operating at full strength, killing thousands of Jews and other "undesirables" daily.

The Federal Court of Appeal has clearly forgotten this fact. Less than a week before D-Day's 60th anniversary, it restored the Canadian citizenship of Waterloo's Helmut Oberlander, despite the fact that he was found to be a member of the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi death squad that murdered tens of thousands of civilians, the majority of them Jews, in the early days of the Second World War.

Even more shocking than the ruling itself are the sentiments expressed by some members of the community, including a good number of politicians and political candidates, who are crowing about this result.

Particularly repugnant is the statement of Ernst Friedel of the German-Canadian Congress, Ontario region, who was quoted in The Record not only as declaring the prosecution of Oberlander "a witch hunt" and "a waste of taxpayers' money," but also as explaining that "All he did was translate for the German forces when they interrogated someone. Working as a translator is certainly no crime. In fact, it helps both sides to communicate."

The ignorance that this statement reveals is appalling. Apparently, Friedel believes that the Holocaust was the result of a vigorous and even-handed debate between the Nazis, who wanted to kill Jews and others whom they deemed unworthy of life, and the victims, who preferred not to be murdered.

When Einsatzgruppen translators told Jews to dig a ditch, strip off their clothing and valuables, and walk over to the edge to be shot to death -- and repeated this message for the second, third, and fourth rows -- they were "help(ing) both sides to communicate." One wonders if we should give such translators a medal for facilitating this dialogue.

We cannot afford to let such statements pass unremarked upon. We must be honest about our not-so-distant history. The Second World War had its heroes, but also its villains; it is as much our duty to confront and vilify the latter as it is our duty to glorify and celebrate the former.

We must remember -- not just by passively keeping in mind what happened, but also by actively recalling the tragedies of the Holocaust.

Unless we speak out, we will find ourselves woefully unprepared the next time racism rears its ugly head and genocide becomes the subject not of history, but of current events. Indeed, this has already happened twice in the past decade, in Bosnia and in Rwanda. Are we willing to let it happen again, or are we prepared to send the message that Canada cannot be a haven for war criminals -- and that the length of time which they have managed to maintain a lie does not mitigate their crimes?

This is why the Waterloo Region Holocaust Education Committee is dedicated to teaching the residents of Waterloo Region, young and old, about what happened in Europe 60 years ago and its significance for all people of conscience.

The point has repeatedly been made that this June 06, 2004 was probably the last significant anniversary of D-Day to feature first-hand testimony by veterans. The same is true of next January 27, 2005, which will mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Now is the time to hear the stories that the survivors have to share -- and to learn the lessons that they have to teach.

Joseph S. Bloch is the rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Kitchener and is a member of the Waterloo Region Holocaust Education Committee. Second opinion articles reflect the views of Record readers on a variety of subjects.