Vancouver-On Sept. 18, Holocaust survivor Robert Waisman stood before an audience that included former students of Canada’s Indian residential schools and spoke about the horrors that he experienced as a teenager at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany during World War II.
When he’d finished speaking, some of the students asked him the same questions that they themselves might have been asked: “How were you able to move on with your life?” and “How does one overcome hatred?”
Waisman-who spoke at the B.C. National Event hosted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC)-acknowledged that the answers aren’t that simple.
Born in Skarczysko, Poland, as Romek Wajsman (later changed to Robert Waisman), he was eight when he was separated from his close-knit family. He spent years of slave labour in a munitions factory in Germany before being moved to Buchenwald.
His incentive in staying alive was the thought that one day he would be reunited with his loving family, said Waisman. But when the American army liberated Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, he found out that both his parents had been killed by the Nazis, and of his five siblings, only one, like him, had survived the Holocaust.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why did I survive? What for?’ “said Waisman, who was one of 426 teenagers who survived Buchenwald. “I represent seven per cent of Jewish children that survived; one and a half million were murdered,” he noted.
He and the other orphans were later taken to France to start a new life, but Waisman, who was then 14, recalled that, “we were so full of rage and anger that the caregivers that were trying to help us couldn’t figure us out.” They were asked to forget what they had experienced and just go back to school, but that only made him and the other survivors angrier, Waisman said.
An incident involving one caregiver, a professor from the Sorbonne, who “didn’t want to give up” on Waisman and his friends, was instrumental in helping him to move forward. As they dismissed his advice to move on with their lives, the professor started to walk away but then turned around and told Waisman, “Oh, by the way, if your parents were alive and standing where I’m standing right now, what do you think they would want for you?” Waisman said he and his friends realized that the professor had a point. “And so we started to put our anger and our sorrow aside and began to catch up on our schooling,” he said.
In 1949, Waisman moved to Canada. He lived in Calgary and Saskatoon before moving to Vancouver, where today he is recognized as a community leader, philanthropist and educator. A former president of the Vancouver Holocaust Centre Society, he continues to visit schools, where he lectures about the Holocaust and the Indian residential schools legacy of Canada.
Inducted in 2011 as an honorary witness by the TRC, Waisman told the Anglican Journal in an interview that he feels a “sacred duty and responsibility” to bring healing to residential school survivors.
By giving a message of hope and encouragement that they, too, can survive and thrive, he said he is honouring the memory of the 1.5 million Jewish children who were murdered.
How did Waisman, a Holocaust survivor, become involved with First Nations issues? Waisman said it all began in 2002 when former Saskatchewan aboriginal leader David Ahenakew made anti-Semitic remarks. Ahenakew, who died in 2010 after a long battle with cancer, had referred to Jews as a “disease” and said that Adolf Hitler had been justified in killing six million of them to make sure they didn’t take over Germany and Europe.
Many aboriginal chiefs phoned the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) to ask how they could atone for Ahenakew’s remarks. “The CJC said, ‘By contacting us, you’ve done a lot already,’ ” recalled Waisman.
After a series of dialogues, the CJC invited some chiefs on a goodwill tour of Israel; when they came back, one of them asked whether any Holocaust survivors lived in Canada. Waisman got a phone call from the CJC and off he went to Fort Providence, N.W.T., at the chief’s invitation. His visit was broadcast on the local radio and when he arrived, among those who greeted him were former residential school students. They formed a circle around him and for the first time, spoke about their own horrors at the schools, he recalled.
“I feel sorry for those that never returned, those that were murdered. It’s horrific,” said Waisman. “I also learned that we cannot, and we should not, compare sufferings. Each suffering is unique…I don’t compare my sufferings or the Holocaust to what happened in residential schools.”
All he wants, said Waisman, is to bring his own experience to challenge others. “Look, we made it. And among my friends we have Nobel Peace Prize winners. We have people that have gotten to great heights and accomplished many things. So it is possible,” he said. “We did it-so can you.”
Prior to visiting Fort Providence, Waisman said that what he knew about First Nations people he had learned from Hollywood movies, which he described as “terrible.” Since spending time in Fort Providence and later in Inuvik, he has made “wonderful friends and got to know the spirituality” of indigenous people, he said.
“I’m very proud of my association with First Nations people,” he said, adding that he will keep sharing the history of Indian residential schools to students. He has been among those advocating for the incorporation of the schools’ history in the curriculum of B.C.’s schools. “I have a lot of hope from our young people…They should learn about the Indian residential schools; it is part of our history.”