Imams learn about the Holocaust reality

  • October 25, 2007
{mosimage}TORONTO - There’s just one reason why half a dozen imams and other leaders in Toronto’s Muslim community joined an interfaith tour of the Holocaust Museum in the city’s north end Oct. 16, and just one reason they listened intently to Max Eisen tell how he survived the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp as a 15-year-old slave labourer.

“This is an undeniable reality,” explained Imam Habeeb Alli of United Muslims, Toronto. “This is a reality we have to take time to understand.”

“Here we see the evidence. What better way to learn,” said Imam Abdul Hai Patel, secretary for interfaith relations on the Canadian Council of Imams.

The special evening tour of the museum was a prelude to the 27th annual Holocaust Education Week running Nov. 1-11 at sites throughout the Greater Toronto Area and beyond.

There’s nothing about the Holocaust which makes it less relevant to Muslim immigrants to Canada than it is to Christians, said Patel. The Toronto imam sees the same forces which demonized European Jews in the 1920s and ’30s at work in Islamophobia today.

{sidebar id=1}“Now the Muslim community seems to be the target in Europe,” he said.

Seventy-seven-year-old Eisen told his audience that Holocaust survivors now feel an extra impetus to reach out, to give a human face to the darkest chapter in European history, as they face their own mortality.

“At this age we see diminishing opportunities,” he said.

Reaching out to religious leaders is particularly important, said Eisen.

“Religion should not think in a way of hatred. There should be a love for the other person,” he said.

Eisen’s tale begins with the gradual loss of rights and isolation his family endured under the rule of fascist Catholic priest Msgr. Jozef Tiso, who served as prime minister, president and eventually “Vodca” (the Slovakian equivalent to Fuhrer) in Slovakia. Under Tiso’s pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic rule, Eisen’s father and uncle were deprived of their business and sent to work on unpaid labour gangs. Eisen was forbidden from attending school at the age of 13. Jews in Slovakia could not own real estate, couldn’t work in the public service or professions, were excluded from secondary schools and universities and were required to wear the star of David in public.

Eisen recalled his first day wearing a yellow Star of David on his way to school, and how none of his former school friends would walk with him or talk to him.

Ultimately Eisen and his family were shipped in cattle cars to the Auschwitz-Birkenau factory and crematorium complex near Warsaw, a three-day trip in a car so crowded no one could sit, with no food, no water and a bucket for a toilet.

Eisen, his father and uncle were selected for work. His mother and sister were sent to the gas chambers immediately. Eisen survived a number of selections, but his father and uncle were eventually killed by Nazi doctors performing fake experiments on them.

Retired from running his own Toronto plastics business since the early 1960s, Eisen tells his story to groups of school children at the Holocaust Museum dozens of times every year. Catholic schools are among the most frequent visitors to the museum. During Holocaust Education Week Eisen will travel to Sudbury to visit schools and to tell his story at Shaar Hashomayim Congregation (for information call [705] 566-9487).

Among the 150-plus events during Holocaust Education Week, many are church sponsored, including:

  • A Debt to Honour: Italy a 29-minute film showing at St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin parish, 670 Sheppard Ave. E., 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7. Holocaust survivor Esther Bem will also speak.

  • Walking Through History — Reflections of a Witness to the Holocaust will feature Judy Weissenberg Cohen speaking about the challenges women faced in ghettos and death camps, 7:30 p.m., Nov. 5, at L’Arche Daybreak’s Dayspring Chapel, 11339 Yonge St., Richmond Hill. Call (905) 884-3454 ext. 246 or 226.

  • A Jewish Child in Christian Disguise at St. John’s Norway Anglican Church, at Woodbine Avenue and Kingston Road, will feature Holocaust survivor Jack Kuper on how he went through the war disguised as a Christian orphan.

  • I Was There, a talk by former German resistance fighter Sarah Neimoeller von Sell, 7:30 p.m. at Grace Church on the Hill, 300 Lonsdale Rd., Toronto, Nov. 8. Call (416) 488-7884 for information. This program will also be presented Nov. 7, 7:30 p.m. at Christ Church Anglican Cathedral, 252 James St. N., Hamilton, (905) 527-1316.

  • Jewish Composers in the Holocaust with former president of Naxos Canada Jerry Fink, soprano soloist Belva Spiel and the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir performing “Di Lererin Mire” at St. Ansgar Lutheran Church, 1498 Avenue Rd., 2:30 p.m., Nov. 11. Call (416) 789-5502,

All events are free.

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