The Early Years of Holocaust Commemoration in Winnipeg

August 28, 2020

              Postwar Holocaust Commemoration in Winnipeg

           News of mass murder leaked out of Nazi occupied Europe and into Winnipeg’s newspapers with only a few months delay, and the liberation of the concentration camps in 1945 turned the trickle into a flood.  Canadian Jews quickly became aware of Nazi crimes and determined to help the survivors in their communities and in displaced persons camps as well as through immigration to Palestine/Israel and Canada. The government slowly lifted prewar restrictions on immigration and allowed 1,000 Holocaust orphans to come in 1947-48 as well as 500 tailors and furriers (including their families). In all, 35,000 Jewish immigrants arrived from Europe by 1953. The number of survivors and their dependents who settled in Winnipeg is uncertain but probably exceeded 1,000. 

           The Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC-West) organized the first postwar Holocaust memorial event in 1946, featuring talks by rabbis and community activists, songs and recitations by students from the Jewish schools, and prayers by cantors and rabbis. Soon, outside speakers were invited to provide up-to-date information on Holocaust topics such as displaced persons in Europe and, later, related matters like the rise of Neo-Nazism and Soviet repression of Jewish identity. Early memorial events were conducted in Yiddish, but English played an increasingly important role over time. Organizers often reported attendance between 500-800.

 Commemorations were held in the Talmud Torah auditorium and the Hebrew Sick Benefit Hall at first. In the 1960s, B’Nai Abraham Synagogue, led by the late Rabbi Peretz Weizman, himself a Holocaust survivor, became the location of many annual gatherings. To serve the growing South End population, CJC-West tried organizing commemorations at Herzlia–Adas Yeshurun and Shaarey Zedek Synagogues in the late 1960s in addition to the memorial events at B’nai Abraham. The Shaarey Zedek commemorations were held in English and prominent gentile speakers took part including Christian clergy.  The YMHA on Hargrave Street hosted some memorials and related events after opening in 1973. 

           Sharp disagreements over Cold War policies between CJC-West and the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO) brought UJPO to organize its own commemorations around 1950. These were held at the Peretz School, Sholem Aleichem School, and the Hebrew Sick Benefit Hall. UJPO still holds annual commemorations.

           Relations between Holocaust survivors and the prewar Jewish community were often distant at first but after a few years, survivors took an active role in community gatherings. The Shearith Hapletah (surviving remnant) organization held its own memorial event in 1952. Joining the CJC a few years later, it co-sponsored community memorial events at which its officers sometimes acted as emcees. The events did not feature local survivors as speakers, however, even though several had told their stories in the YMHA Review as early as 1948.

           The broader community became involved in Holocaust commemorations in the 1960s. Prompted by City Councillors Joe Zuken and Mark Danzker, Mayor Stephen Juba issued his first proclamation of “a week to honour the heroism and valour of those who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” in 1963. He and his successors continued to issue proclamations annually with that wording gradually changed to include “the 6,000,000 Jews and the millions of others who perished at the hands of the Nazis.” The word “Holocaust” first appeared in 1971. In 1972, Mayor Juba and Premier Ed Schreyer spoke at a ceremony renaming Memorial Boulevard near the Cenotaph as the “Avenue of the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes” for “Holocaust Memorial Week.” Hargrave Street at the new YMHA became the new memorial avenue in 1973 and Enniskillen Avenue near B’nai Abraham Synagogue became the focus later.