Remembering my murdered brothers

The following article by Bernie M. Farber, former CEO of CJC and CJC Charities Committee, appeared as an op-ed in the National Post on Yom haShoah ve haGvurah, Holocaust Remembrance and Heroism Day, May 2, 2011.


Farber, the author's father, is at the back right in this photo from the 1930s. From left: Malka, the author's aunt, with Yitzhak; Mordechai Farber, an unidentified woman with baby, Shalom (with ball), Max, and his wife, Zisela, mother of the boys.

Today at sunset, as Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) concludes, thousands of Canadians will have participated in commemorations that represent a precious opportunity for reflection, meditation and mourning -both public and private. It also presents an important challenge to us all to fulfill the obligation of remembrance.


As it always is at this time of year, my heart is full with the stories my father Max told me of his experiences during the war. He was one of two Jewish survivors of Botchki, a small Polish town whose Jewish inhabitants were transported by rail to Treblinka, and to oblivion. Included in that transport was my father's first family, including two young half-brothers I would never know -Yitzchak and Sholom.


It is important to replace numbers with names, which is why I feel the need to name my lost brothers. Each victim of the Holocaust had a name, felt love, was loved, laughed, cried and ultimately was murdered by the Nazi hordes. This lack of names is like a deafening silence -the silence of a murdered generation, including 1.5 million Jewish children.


German philosopher Friedrich Nietsche once observed that one needs to be careful when staring into the abyss, because sometimes the abyss would stare back. The Holocaust is the triumph of nothingness. We perhaps cannot realize today how nearly complete that triumph was.


In 1993, at a chance meeting in Arolsen, Germany with the director of the international headquarters of the Red Cross, I learned details of the fate of my father's family. I found my father's Displaced Persons Camp file that contained bits and pieces of information I never knew before. A few years later, I was overwhelmed to find a book on my father's village written by a former Jewish inhabitant who left Poland years before the Holocaust began. The postscript to the book, written by the author's daughter, after his death and just prior to publication, reads as follows:


"Wellie Farber . and one companion jumped off a transport train on the way to Treblinka and hid in the forests for the remainder of the war after which he obtained a visa for Venezuela, together with a brief transit visa for the United States. While there, he managed to locate my father in Washington and told him of the fate of the Botchki Jews. All had been transported to Treblinka on Nov. 2, 1943. So far as he knew all had gone immediately to the gas chambers. There were no other survivors."


Wellie Farber was my father's nephew. The two were the only Jewish survivors of the Botchki ghetto. When my father found him years after the war, living in France, he was no longer the man he used to be. Wellie lost much of his memory of that horrible time and was never able to tell my father his story of survival after they lost each other in the woods of the Bielski forest.


It is too late for the murdered Jews of Europe. The world had its opportunity to save them and did too little, too late. The deeds of those Christians who protected Jews from persecution, the righteous among the nations, represent a flickering spark of humanity in a world that had gone dark. They offer a sharp rebuke to those who say "we had no choice," or "we did not know," or "it was not our business."


No words can bring meaning or sense to the Shoah (the Hebrew term for the Holocaust). But commemoration can bring hope to those who survived and those who remember. And in so doing, we can at least show the victims of the Nazi madness that their deaths had some effect on us, caused us to reflect, reconsider and even hope. We must honour those who were lost with forthright action and a commitment to ensure that never again will the demons of the human spirit gain ascendancy -never again will we turn a blind eye to the torment of others.


Many survivors, like my dear father, found a haven in Canada. They were and are the true heroes of this sad epoch in history. Through their courage, they found the strength to start over again; to build new families and to leave a legacy of hope, love and determination for their children and their descendants to follow.


In the end, we must show a fidelity to history and memory. We do this for ourselves and for those whose echoes were so murderously silenced -for the Yitzhaks and Shaloms -whose still, small voices call out from the grave to all of us to remember.


- Bernie M. Farber, CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress, is the son of Holocaust survivor Max Farber.


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