If all human history were laid out as a tapestry, one of the darkest stains would be the Holocaust that involved the death, persecution, and torture of more than six million Jews and other marginalized communities like the Romas at the hands of the Nazi party. One of the horrors of the Holocaust include the existence and use of gas chambers and concentration camps, where prisoners were either executed or forced into hard labour, living in cramped quarters, given little to no food and water or medical attention. Thousands died simply due to disease and illness. Others were cruelly executed for the slightest signs of indiscipline. Many medical experiments were also carried out on Jewish people and other captives, without their consent.
This terrible period was put to an end when the Allied Forces defeated the Axis Powers, ending the Second World War. While the atrocities that were faced by the Jews during the Shoah (as the Holocaust is referred to in Hebrew) will continue to haunt all of humanity for centuries to come, it is important to commemorate the victims of this terrible genocide. Many countries do have certain dates that are designated as a Holocaust Memorial Day or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Still, to have one standard day when the whole world could come together and commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, the United Nations declared January 27th as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005.
Why is International Holocaust Remembrance Day observed on January 27th?
One of the most infamous concentration camps during the Holocaust were those in and around Aushwitz-Birkenau in German-occupied Poland. It was here that a permanent gas chamber was erected, as well as the gruesome Black Wall against which thousands were shot to death and executed by the Nazi officers. It is said that more than a million Jews were executed in its gas chamber. It also saw some of the worst cruelties in terms of forced labour, living conditions and terrible ‘pseudo-scientific’ medical experiments. On January 27, 1945, this Aushwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was liberated. The date thus marks the end to the suffering of the prisoners and their rescue from Nazi persecution. As such, this day was selected as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the United Nations. It is important to note that many countries, especially in Europe, also observe other days of commemoration for the victims of the Holocaust, depending on the events that took place during their national borders during this period.
Why we observe Holocaust Remembrance Day
There are many reasons to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day. Let’s delve into a few of the most important ones:
To commemorate the victims and survivors:
As already mentioned above, one of the primary reasons we observe Holocaust Remembrance Day is to commemorate the victims of this hateful genocide. Over six million Jewish men, women, and children were killed during the Holocaust. These innocent victims lost their lives for no other reason than their religion and ethnicity. It is important to honour their lives and grieve their deaths as an act of humanity. Those survivors who were able to escape or were rescued lost their families, friends, neighbours and entire communities to Nazi persecution. Their traumatic history is one that needs to be acknowledged and given due attention.
To fight against hatred and anti-Semitism
Even though the Nazis were defeated in 1945, their ideology of white (Aryan) supremacy continued to be fostered. Alarmingly, even in 2022, there are pro-Nazis (referred to as Neo-Nazis) and hold anti-Semitic and racist views. Anti-Semitism refers to the belief that those who are of Jewish descendance are impure or evil. Many of these untrue and hateful stereotypes were propagated by the Nazi Party to further their ideology of Aryan supremacy during the Holocaust. By observing Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is possible to remind people of the horrors such types of thinking and wrong beliefs can lead to. It also provides space and a basis to open a dialogue on anti-Semitism in the present day. Apart from anti-Semitism, observing a day such as Holocaust Remembrance Day allows for dialogue on other kinds of genocides and racism to be furthered.
It is part of Canadian law
The other reasons to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day are more than valid enough. However, did you know that Holocaust Remembrance Day or Holocaust Memorial Day was actually established by a State Act in Canada? That’s right. The Holocaust Memorial Day Act was passed in 2003. According to the act, “Yom ha-Shoah or the Day of the Holocaust, as determined in each year by the Jewish lunar calendar, is an opportune day to reflect on and educate about the enduring lessons of the Holocaust and to reaffirm a commitment to uphold human rights”.
How do we observe Holocaust Remembrance Day in Canada?
Apart from officially designating January 27th as Holocaust Remembrance Day, Canada (as a country) tries to fight anti-Semitism in many different ways. This includes legislation, creating awareness, and supporting international alliances for Holocaust Remembrance.
According to official government sources, “The Government of Canada will always stand with the Jewish community to fight anti-Semitism and hatred in all its forms.” The Honourable Irwin Cotler is Canada’s first Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Anti-Semitism. He has been working since November 2020 to, “promote Holocaust education, remembrance, and research, as Canada continues working with partners at home and around the world to fight against hate and intolerance, including convening the National Summit on Anti-Semitism in July 2021.”
The Government of Canada has also categorically stated that they are against anti-Semitism, whether in Canada or anywhere in the world. In 2021, the Government of Canada also made certain pledges, which include:
- Combatting anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and distortion, hate crimes and all other forms of racism and protecting at-risk communities - This involves various actions such as engaging with Jewish communities and developing a National Action Plan on Combatting Hate, establishing a Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Anti-Semitism (as mentioned above), strengthening the Canada Human Rights Act to combat hate online and introducing new legislation that would further help to combat harmful online content.
- Promoting awareness about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in Canada - This involves expanding material related to the Holocaust that is accessible to the wider public and to raise awareness about how dangerous anti-Semitism can be. It also includes “building on lessons regarding the increase of anti-Semitism and of Holocaust distortion.”
- Supporting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) - This involves encouraging broader international cross-regional representation at the IHRA to increase the organization’s inclusivity, furthering the adoption of the working definition of anti-Semitism, and more. You can read more about Canada’s Pledges on Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Anti-Semitism by visiting the Government of Canada website.
The Canadian Prime Minister also releases a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. In 2021, Prime Minster Justin Trudeau said, “Today, I join Canadians in paying tribute to the over six million Jews who were murdered and the countless other victims who suffered under the heinous crimes perpetrated by the Nazi regime. The pain and loss endured during the Shoah will never be forgotten. We also honour the survivors whose stories and memories paint a vivid portrayal of suffering, courage, and hope in the face of such despicable acts.
“The atrocities of the Holocaust have left an unfathomable stain on our history, yet anti-Semitism, discrimination, xenophobia, and violence remain a lived reality for Jewish communities, both here at home and around the world. That is why the Government of Canada will not waver in its commitment to combat anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred.”
He added, “Learning from our past is key to building a more inclusive future. On this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I encourage Canadians to remember the victims, survivors, and heroes who bore witness to the Shoah.” (Read the full statement here).
What can I do to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day?
Taking cue from the Prime Minister’s statement in 2021, you can learn more about the past and remember the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Here are some ways to get you started:
- Visit a physical or virtual museum to learn more about the Holocaust: The Canadian Museum of Immigration has an online gallery of stories from Jewish war orphans, while the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg has several galleries, some of which includes exhibits that cover the Holocaust. Besides these, you could also visit the Canadian War Museum to learn about Canada’s role in liberating the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp or the Virtual Museum of Canada which also houses exhibits on the Holocaust and World War II.
- Pay your respects to Holocaust victims and survivors at a monument: If you’re in Ottawa, you could make your way to the National Holocaust Monument to pay your respects. Or, if you happen to be in Nova Scotia, you may consider paying a visit to the Wheel of Conscience, a tribute to the 937 Jewish passengers of the M.S. St. Louis who were refused entry to Canada.
- Explore how you can combat anti-Semitism in your community: Reach out to authorities and organizations within your community to understand how you can contribute to the national plan against anti-Semitism and hatred.
Discover more resources, testimonies, research and memoirs.
We hope this information has been helpful to you and raised a little more awareness about the Holocaust. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, all of us at Innovation stand in solidarity with the global Jewish community and oppose any and all types of anti-Semitism and racism. Our hearts bleed for the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. We stand behind the Government of Canada’s every effort to combat anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred.