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Lessons From the Holocaust: Towards a World Free of Intolerance

Recognized annually on 27 January, International Holocaust Remembrance Day honours the memory of over six million Jewish people who were persecuted and murdered during the Holocaust, as well as the millions of other innocent victims of the Nazi regime’s horrific atrocities and human rights violations.

In November 2005, the UN officially declared 27 January as a day to remember the victims of genocide under the Nazi regime’s anti-Semitic, racist and intolerant hate crimes. This date marks the 77th anniversary of the Soviet Army’s liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and extermination camp.

Canada had a reputation for being a place of wealth and comfort within the Auschwitz death camp. One of the warehouse luggage sorting facilities was called ‘Kanada’, because, according to survivor Rudolf Vrba, a Slovakian Jew who escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944 and was interviewed in the landmark documentary, Shoah, “Canada was a land of plenty—a land of milk and honey.”

Over 35,000 Holocaust survivors and their families fled Nazi persecution and resettled in communities across Canada to rebuild their lives after World War II. According to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre and Museum, the city welcomed over 9,000 Holocaust survivors following the end of the Second World War. It is estimated that approximately 4,000 of these people still reside in the city.

However, Canada was no stranger to anti-Semitism prior to the end of the war. This was reflected in its restrictive immigration policies that turned away Jews seeking asylum from Nazi Europe. The BBC reported that Canada accepted fewer refugees than any other Western nation during 1933–1945.

In a story about human rights violations for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Jeremy Maron wrote that the hardships caused by the Great Depression in 1930s Canada “caused some Canadians to look for scapegoats to blame. This led to increased intolerance and suspicion towards minority groups, including Jews [who] faced discrimination and exclusion from parts of Canadian society”.

The Canadian Government has since apologized for the nation’s anti-Semitic foreign policy that resulted in a ship, the MS St. Louis, carrying over 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany to be turned away from Canadian shores in June 1939. The ship was forced to return to Europe, leading to the deaths of 254 of those refugees in Nazi concentration camps. In 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for Canada’s complicity in the deaths of innocent people attempting to escape oppression due to its exclusionary laws.

Today, Canada is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), formerly the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research (ITF), with a commitment to fight racism, discrimination and anti-Semitism.

Canada led the development of the Ottawa Protocol on Combating Anti-Semitism and was its first signatory in 2011. The protocol aims to help countries evaluate their progress in combating anti-Semitism and calls for:

  • The leaders of faith groups to combat hatred and discrimination, including anti-Semitism.

  • Governments to reaffirm and implement the UN’s 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

  • The establishment of an international task force to identify and monitor hate on the Internet.

  • The development of a comprehensive system to record all hate crimes, including anti-Semitic ones.

The Government of Canada unveiled the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa in 2017 to pay tribute to the millions of victims and survivors of the Holocaust, acknowledge the bravery and resilience of those who survived Nazi atrocities, and to ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten.

The UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 60/7 on 21 November 2005, which “condemns without reserve all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief, wherever they occur”.

The traumatic effects and implications of the Holocaust extended far beyond the countries in which Nazi crimes were committed. As a result, UN Member States are encouraged to address anti-Semitism by promoting education, documentation and research to remember, learn and prevent future acts of hatred, such as anti-Semitism and religious or ideological intolerance and hate speech, while protecting human rights and preventing violations, enhancing equality and countering discrimination.

This includes actively preserving historical sites such as Holocaust museums and memorials more than 70 years later as one method of addressing the residual trauma, and maintaining effective remembrance through testimonies of former prisoners and those with lived experience, as well as authentic artefacts connected with the atrocities that took place.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) works with members and partners to create local programming to educate people on intolerance and genocides while promoting lessons learnt from the Holocaust.

These teachings encourage young people and students to examine the causes, consequences and dynamics of hate crimes in the context of past atrocities—and to understand the critical role of human rights in fostering a world free of intolerance.

By recognizing International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Canadians honour the memory of Holocaust victims, recognize the strength and resilience of its survivors, and recall the lessons of the Holocaust to ensure that such horrific acts are never repeated.

Today, across the globe, we continue to grapple with the rise of racism, hate speech and intolerance. Together, we can strive to achieve two of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” (SDG 16) and “reduce inequality within and among countries” (SDG 10).

As human beings, it is our shared responsibility and moral obligation to uphold human rights around the world, to come together against ideologies that spread hatred and intolerance, and to take a stand against the violations of human rights in order to prevent future acts of intolerance and genocide.

Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha


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