Remembering the Past

Barbara Pressman has been an individual couple and family therapist in private practice, and for many years the president of the Waterloo Region Holocaust Education Committee

Remembering the Past
Vol 9 2000

Since 1989, the Waterloo County Holocaust Education Committee has organized a yearly spring seminar for high school students. At this seminar, keynote speakers have included Holocaust survivors; a soldier who had helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp; actors, depicting through drama, the suffering generated by discrimination; and an internet expert exposing the racist hatred disseminated by this media. The thrust of these programs through the experience of the Holocaust is always to foster awareness of the enormous pain and destruction caused by discrimination and prejudice. Holocaust is the chosen series of events because it is the best documented example of the pernicious outcomes of socially and culturally endorsed racism.

There are some who question the insistence on keeping alive the memory of events of a most hideous and perverse nature. The answer is quite simple: we must study the most troublesome and ignoble events of the past not to bring shame or dishonour on those who carried out these events and supported them, but in order that we learn from the mistakes of the past and not repeat them in the future. Therefore, we must study not only the events of the Holocaust but also our own history. Every student must learn of the apartheid of Black Canadians practiced in our own country. In addition to the racism practiced in housing and employment, Black Canadians were frequently denied full use of provincial educational facilities, restaurants and movie houses. Segregated instruction was legalized in Canada in1849 by a statute that authorized municipal councils to establish separate schools for black Canadians.

Throughout the years of segregated schooling, the separate education afforded black students was inferior to that provided to white students. Though black schools began to disappear after 1910, not until 1965 did the last black school in Ontario actually close.

No one should be allowed to leave school without learning about the attempt to destroy First Nation people in this country: their culture, religion, language and way of life occurred through forced removal of native children to residential schools where the curriculum disregarded First Nation culture, values, history, religion and customs. To ensure parental cooperation in sending beloved children to schools very far from native lands, parents were threatened with imprisonment. In the residential schools, children were beaten for speaking their native languages, depersonalized by uniforms, and forbidden to see their parents except under strict regulation.

No one should be allowed to leave school without having learned that during World War II, not only were Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and political dissidents persecuted and murdered by the Nazi regime in Germany, but also here, in Canada, the Canadian government persecuted Japanese-Canadians.

Although at war with Italy, Germany and Japan, only the Japanese-Canadians, a non-white people, were forced from their homes and placed in internment prison camps. While the white German and Italian Canadians were spared this racist discrimination and degradation.

We must study such horrific events, not to shame the people who enacted the laws and those who supported these policies. It is to learn how democratic societies can and do enact unjust, unethical or patently racist laws on the basis of the completely erroneous belief that minorities, people of colour, and those “different” from the mainstream are inferior; and therefore, it is permissible to treat them as less than real humans.

Not only do the Holocaust Education seminars focus on the monstrous outcomes of racism, but also on how each individual has the responsibility and the power to challenge and ultimately put an end to racism. When the majority acts unjustly to others because those others have a different colour skin or different religion or different sexual orientation, it is facile and self-serving to ask “What could I do? To oppose would mean I too would be in danger”, it is also self-serving to avoid responsibility to one’s brother and sister human beings by declaring, “I was forced”

When faced with the immoral actions of the majority, each one of us is being asked to make this moral choice:

“Do I hurt others because everyone else is doing it?

This was the choice of the father of the Holocaust Seminar speaker of May 2000. Faced with the choice of standing by while thousands of Jews were destined for brutalization and murder or jeopardizing his own safety, his own life, and the lives of his wife and children, Japanese consul to Lithuania during the Nazi era, Chiune Sugihara made the moral choice not to participate in the suffering of others by standing by and doing nothing.

Mr Kiroki Sugihara (son of Japanese consul to Lithuania in 1940, Mr Chiune Sugihara) during his visit to Waterloo in 2000
Mr Kiroki Sugihara (son of Japanese consul to Lithuania in 1940, Mr Chiune Sugihara) during his visit to Waterloo in 2000

In 1940, Jews living in Lithuania were to be deported to concentration camps. Although a Japanese-German alliance was being forged, Chiune Sugihara sought permission from his government in Japan to issue visas to Jews for destination to Japan or Japanese controlled lands. This permission was never granted. Despite the enormous danger to himself and to his family, in defying government decisions and disobeying his government’s policies and the Nazi regime, Mr. Sugihara issued thousands of exit visas to Jews and consequently saved them from certain death.

Upon returning to Japan, he lost his consular position and suffered profound hardship before again finding work that would sustain his family. His son, Hiroki, was witness to his father’s feverish efforts and relayed the events of this period in a compelling, moving presentation of selfless humanity.

Despite the hardships Chiune Sugihara suffered in consequence of his act of compassion, his belief in the rightness of his decision was never shaken. Throughout his life, he never regretted his actions to support and protect the Jews.

Professor Oscar Cole-Arnal and Mrs Barbara Pressman in the forefront, among the audience who were captivated by Mr Hiroki Sugihara's presentation after showing the movie recently produced of his father's war-time efforts in Lithuania
Professor Oscar Cole-Arnal and Mrs Barbara Pressman in the forefront, among the audience who were captivated by Mr Hiroki Sugihara’s presentation after showing the movie recently produced of his father’s war-time efforts in Lithuania

In the Nazi era when humanity seemed suspended, an individual like Chiune Sugihara is a monument to the human courage and regard for others which transcends one’s own fears and need for safety. His memory is a model for future generations