Germany Honours Justice Rosalie Abella

By SUSAN MINUK

Germany has awarded Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, a national decoration.

Germany’s embassy in Ottawa announced that on June 19, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier would award Abella the Knight Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit (with badge and star) of the Federal Republic of Germany.

It’s the second-highest federal German decoration; the first is for heads of state.

The award recognizes Abella’s achievements in the protection and promotion of the rule of law, human and minority rights, and the development of close relations between Germany’s Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Canada.

It also pays tribute to the engagement of Abella and her husband, historian Prof. Irving Abella, in Holocaust remembrance and reconciliation between Jews and Germans.

Due to COVID, the award was presented in a virtual ceremony by Germany’s ambassador to Canada, Sabine Sparwasser.

Sabine Sparwasser, Germany’s Ambassador to Canada places the Knight Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit (with badge and star) on Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella in a virtual award ceremony. Note the photograph on the wall is of German Federal President Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier Photo Credit: Lennart Eisentrïnger, German Embassy Ottawa.

“We were at home in the garden of the German residence [in Ottawa] and Rosalie and her husband Irving were at their home in Toronto,” Sparwasser told the CJR. “We toasted Rosalie over Zoom.”

“Decorations are a nation’s way of saying thank you,” said Sparwasser. “It is an honour to say thank you to Rosie but also to bow to Rosie – a person who has drawn the lessons out of her family’s history, the country that has caused so much pain and suffering to her family. We are bowing to her to her wisdom and to the values she stands for, and for what she and her husband have done to keep the remembrance [of the Holocaust] alive.”

Abella was “very moved” by the award, “and so was I,” the ambassador noted.

“Through her influence in many legal battles over the decades, women’s and minority rights in Canada have been granted better protection,” stated a press release from the German embassy. “Her definition of equality and discrimination formed the basis of Canadian law under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and became a model many other countries adopted.”

Abella was born July 1, 1946 in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart. Both her parents had survived the Holocaust. Her father, Jacob Silberman, was liberated in 1945 from Theresienstadt; her mother Fanny (Krongold) Silberman from Buchenwald.

Their two-year-old son, as well as Jacob Silberman’s parents and three younger brothers, were murdered in the Treblinka death camp.

The family arrived in Canada in 1950. Rosalie graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Music in classical piano in 1964, becoming one of the institution’s youngest alumni. She subsequently attended the University of Toronto, where she earned a BA in 1967 and a law degree in 1970.

Motivated by her father, who was unable to practice his profession as a lawyer when he came to Canada because he was not a citizen, Abella, at age 29, became the youngest judge in Canada when she was appointed to the Ontario Family Court.

Abella was the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court, and is the longest-serving current justice, having been named in 2004.

Abella “has been very instrumental in creating close links between our two courts,” said Sparwasser. “The fact that she was born in Germany meant a lot to her, and that Germany awarded her is a rare honour. It’s not something given out very often to foreigners.”