After a gut-wrenching hour-long presentation from Holocaust survivor Max Eisen, Orillia’s City Council unanimously adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism Monday night.
It was part of a broader motion that spoke of the city’s desire, as expressed in its 2018-2022 strategic plan, to be “a welcoming, caring, inclusive and accessible community.”
Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke invited Eisen to make the presentation to city council “to address what I think is the disgusting issue of racism.”
The Mayor met Eisen when he participated in a trip to Europe in 2019 dubbed Compassion to Action, organized by the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies. As part of that trip, Clarke and others visited various holocaust sites.
Eisen’s presentation shed light on a very dark chapter of history. The photographs he showed, virtually, were hard to see and his message was difficult to hear for councillors.
He talked about being culled from his village in Moldava, Czechoslovakia and taken to Auschwitz with tens of thousands of others.
He likened the cattle cars used to transport them to coffins, with one pail for water and one pail for a toilet.
At Auschwitz, where he was placed, he lived among 30,000 people served by two taps of water.
He said despite the order to work long, hard days, they had to do so on about 300 calories a day.
Eisen said he will never forget the day his dad was taken to the chamber to be gassed.
“He gave me a blessing and said if I survive I must tell the world what happened,” Eisen said.
And that is what he has been doing ever since. He has written a book and created a website to ensure the story is never forgotten and to make sure people continue to be educated about what happened.
“The horror of that (time) will be with me for as long as I live,” said Eisen.
While Eisen’s family was virtually wiped out, he was fortunate to survive and made his way to Canada with “less than $1 in (his) pocket.”
He said he remains thankful for Canada, a place he called “a safe haven.” But he said it’s important to be vigilant against racism and anti-Semitism.
He said it has been a “shock to see such poison coming out” and stressed it’s “very important” for municipalities like Orillia to endorse the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.
That is a sentiment echoed by Rabbi Audrey Kaufman of the Am Shalom Congregation in Barrie, who penned a letter to council, encouraging them to join Barrie and others in adopting the anti-Semitism declaration.
“Our Jewish community is deeply concerned about the alarming rise of anti-Semitism,” wrote Kaufman, noting her congregation includes people from Orillia.
“Knowing that we have the support and solidarity of our elected representatives in combating hate is meaningful and greatly appreciated by Jewish communities from across the region,” said Kaufman.
“Accepting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is proof to all of us that this age-old hatred of Jews will not be tolerated and that the municipal government will do its utmost in keeping the local Jewish community safe,” wrote Kaufman.
“We cannot properly counter anti-Semitism without defining it. That is why it is crucial for your council to use the internationally recognized definition of anti-Semitism.”
She said the impact of the IHRA anti-Semitism motion will extend far beyond Orillia.
“It is an indication to the community of efforts taken to take a stand against all forms of prejudice, racism and discrimination regardless of one's race, creed or religion,” wrote Kaufman.
“By supporting this motion, you will help insulate all Canadians from the growing threat of hate.”
The IHRA’s working definition, which passed unanimously and with no discussion Monday, reads: "Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities."
Canada adopted IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism in 2019 as part of its anti-racism strategy.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27, 2020.
“The Holocaust was one of the darkest chapters in human history. Today, we remember and pay tribute to the more than six million Jews who were senselessly murdered during the Holocaust, and the countless other victims of Nazi atrocities,” Trudeau said.
“We also honour the survivors and share their stories of courage, hope, and perseverance against unspeakable evil, and recognize the heroes who risked their lives to save others.”