Not Yet Hanukkah: A Story of Miracles

By BERNIE FARBER

November is Holocaust Education Month, a time we tell stories of survival. My father, the sole Jewish survivor of his small Polish village, used to say that it took 1,000 miracles to survive the Shoah because 999 were simply not enough.

The following is not only the story of 1,000 miracles, but at its conclusion we will understand what the circle of life is really all about.

In 1939, when Samuel Pisar was 10 years old, both the Nazi and Soviet armies invaded his native Poland. Interestingly, Samuel came from Bialystok, 50 kilometers from my father’s village of Bothki. When Adolf Hitler broke the Nazi/Soviet pact in 1941, Samuel was captured along with thousands of other Jews. He was young and strong and survived incarcerations at Majdanek, Auschwitz and other camps whose only purpose was to murder Jews.

His final camp, Dachau, became the concluding volume in this first chapter of his life. It was the spring of 1945. Young Samuel was out on a Nazi slave labour detail as Allied forces approached. Nazi SS guards gathered the work detail and marched them away from the advancing Americans. They marched for three days with little water or food. Many succumbed. Still young, Samuel stayed alive.

It was on the third day when a number of Allied fighter planes spotted both the Nazis and their slave labour detail. Thinking it was a column of Nazi soldiers, the planes’ pilots descended sharply and strafed the area. Taking advantage of the ensuing confusion, a number of prisoners made a break for the forest. The bombing and Nazi bullets mowed most of them down but young Samuel used up one of his thousand miracles and made it to the safety of the embracing forest.

Starving, emaciated, Samuel hid in an abandoned hayloft. A few mornings later, he was awakened by the sound of a rumbling motor. Cautiously looking out from his hiding place, sure that he would see the dreaded swastika, he saw instead an American insignia.

Washed over with relief, he stumbled from the hayloft in tears of joy. The hatch of the tank popped open and emerging was Corporal Bill Ellington, the son of a former slave and member of the storied 761st Tank Battalion, known for being comprised primarily of African-Americans. They were the original “Black Panthers.”

The son of a former slave and the young survivor of the Nazi death camps held each other while Samuel cried the only words he knew in English, “God Bless America.”

He was just 16, the sole Jewish survivor of his family in Poland when he emerged into what would become the second volume of his life.

Miracles followed Samuel. He was raised by the remnants of his French and Australian family, graduated from the University of Melbourne, and later earned doctorates of law from Harvard and the Sorbonne.

His rise was rapid. He worked for the United Nations and UNESCO and was appointed a special advisor to President John F. Kennedy. He counseled the State Department and worked as legal adviser to both the House of Representatives and Senate. He was one of the youngest, most respected government advisers – so much so that in 1961, through a special act of Congress, Pisar was awarded U.S. citizenship.

His legacy continued. He counselled governments and world- renowned personalities from pianist Arthur Rubenstein to tech whiz Steve Jobs. His passion became human rights and he took up the causes of the novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

He became a trustee of the Brookings Institute, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and has addressed international conferences and world leaders at Davos, the International Monetary Fund and the European Parliament.

Samuel was twice married upon his death in July 2015 and left two daughters, one from his first marriage, Leah and Norma, from his second wife, Judith.

Here’s the promised kicker: Samuel also left a step-son from his marriage to Judith: Antony Blinken who, on Nov. 23, was nominated to become U.S. Secretary of State in the administration of President-in-Waiting Joe Biden.

Samuel Pisar was a man of many miracles, maybe even 1,000. May his memory continue to be a blessing.


Bernie Farber
Bernie Farber

Bernie Farber is publisher and co-founder of the Canadian Jewish Record, Chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a writer and human rights advocate. 

IRB Dismisses Oberlander’s Latest Legal Move

Oct. 21, 2020

The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) has turned down an application from Helmut Oberlander, removing yet another obstacle to the deportation of the 96-year-old alleged Nazi war criminal.

Helmut Oberlander in an undated Second World War-era photo (left) and in his 90s (right)

In a decision issued Oct. 20, the IRB’s Immigration Division denied Oberlander’s bid to dismiss his case based on his argument that the board lacked jurisdiction to remove him.

Oberlander has argued that his status as a Canadian citizen was never expunged, and that the IRB lacked jurisdiction to issue a deportation order against him. Doing so would be an “abuse of process.”

The IRB’s 67-page judgment counters that the Immigration Division has the jurisdiction to issue removal orders against Oberlander on the basis of reports before it.

When he exhausted his last possible appeal at the Supreme Court of Canada last December, it appeared the next logical step was his removal. Taking the case to the IRB was seen as a last-ditch effort by Oberlander to avoid deportation.

The former Nazi death squad member was admitted to Canada in 1954 and acquired Canadian citizenship in 1960. The federal cabinet revoked his citizenship in 2001, 2007, 2012 and 2017. On the first three occasions, the decisions were upheld by the Federal Court but sent back to cabinet for redetermination by the Federal Court of Appeal.

The government has said that Oberlander was admitted to Canada through false representation or by knowingly concealing his wartime service in the mobile Nazi death squad Einsatzkommando 10a, known as Ek10a, and thus never gained lawful entrance to this country.

Oberlander has always maintained that he was a low-level translator with Ek10a, which operated in Nazi-occupied Ukraine and slaughtered thousands of civilians, mostly Jews.

He served with the unit from 1941 to 1943, claiming he had been conscripted as a teenager under duress and that he never took part in atrocities.

The case can now be scheduled for an admissibility hearing to determine whether Oberlander should be removed from Canada, IRB spokesperson Anna Pape told The CJR. Recourse can be sought through a judicial review by the Federal Court, she added.

The CJR will monitor developments.

Change Sought in Street Named for Nazi Captain

Aug. 18, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

A new online petition wants an Ontario town council to change a street name honouring a Second World War sailor who sank his own warship to save more than 1,000 lives.

The problem, for Ajax, Ont. resident Adam Wiseman is that “Langsdorff Drive” is named for the commander of a Nazi battleship.

Photo Adam Wiseman

Wiseman argues that even if Capt. Hans Langsdorff, commander of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, deserves his reputation as a “good Nazi,” it’s still wrong for Canada to honour someone who fought for the Third Reich.

“Hans Langsdorff was definitely a Nazi,” Wiseman said in an interview. “As far as Nazis go, he was probably more moral than the SS people working in the camps, but he was still absolutely a Nazi fighting for Hitler.”

Langsdorff was a career naval officer. In 1939, in command of the Admiral Graf Spee, he was sent to the South Atlantic Ocean, where his crew sank nine Allied ships carrying desperately-needed supplies to Britain. In those attacks, Langsdorff allowed merchant seamen to abandon their ships before turning his guns on them.

In December 1939, Graf Spee was trapped off South America by three British warships, including HMS Ajax. Following the Battle of the River Plate, Graf Spee limped into Uruguay’s Montevideo harbour for repairs.

Ordered to leave Uruguay within 72 hours or face imprisonment, and knowing a superior British force was waiting for him, Langsdorff blew his ship up rather than risk the loss of his almost 1,100 crew members.

Three days later, in a hotel in Buenos Aires, Langsdorff wrapped himself in Graf Spee’s battle flag and shot himself in the head.

In 1941, far away from the battles in the Atlantic, a new town was founded in Ontario, east of Oshawa. It was the site of the largest munitions plant in the British Commonwealth and named for HMS Ajax. As the town grew, many of its streets were named for the ships and sailors of River Plate battle in South America.

In 2007, one of those streets was named for Langsdorff in honour of his efforts to spare Allied merchant seamen and his own crew. Another street was named for the Graf Spee in 2017.

There’s been some progress: Meeting late last month, council voted 6-1 to change the name of Graf Spee Lane, a street in a new subdivision construction. The city is planning an open house to hear from the street’s “affected residents.”

The lane has further meaning for the region’s Jews because of its close proximity to St. Paul’s United Church, where Ajax’s only synagogue, B’nai Shalom v’Tikvah, has been holding its services for the last 20 years.

“I can’t think of a poorer location,” Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier told DurhamRegion.com.

As for Langsdorff, his reputation isn’t enough to justify even a small Canadian monument to a Nazi, Wiseman argued.

“It’s not black and white. Was he an evil person? I don’t know, but he was certainly loyal to the Nazi cause,” Wiseman said. “You can name a street after the Battle of the River Plate, you can name it after sailors who fought in it on the Allied side, but certainly you don’t celebrate the Nazi captain of the Nazi warship.”

Aside from the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Wiseman said his effort is driven by the memory of his grandparents, Charles Wittenberg and Eve Wittenberg, who fought with the French Resistance and lost most of their families in Nazi death camps.

“I’ve always felt a little obligation around that,” Wiseman added. “I carry around a Sharpie and if I find someone has drawn a swastika someplace I turn it into a little house with a window. It’s a little homage to my heritage and something that comes up every couple of months out here.”

Wiseman said the campaign grew out of some passionate social media arguments.

“I realized when you argue on Facebook, nothing happens. It’s kind of like screaming at the wind,” he said. “I thought I should do something. I’m not an activist by any means…but I thought I should at least give the opportunity if enough people think the way I do make some real change.”

In addition to gathering petition signatures, Wiseman has also reached out to local Jewish organizations for support, including to B’nai Shalom v’Tikvah.

Ron King, president of the 26-year-old, 40-family Reform congregation, said the board has written to Collier and the town council asking for the name change.

King welcomed last month’s council decision to rename Graf Spee Lane.

“We’re hopeful that given that action by council that a precedent has been set,” he said.

While waiting for a reply from the town, King said his congregation is reaching out to Jewish organizations, hoping for support.

One group opposing the name change is the HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association in Britain.

In an e-mail exchange, association president Malcolm Collis said members of his group, along with the mayor of Ajax, Langsdorff’s daughter, and the president of the Graf Spee Association, met in Uruguay and Argentina last December to pay respects at the graves of the battle’s victims.

“The theme was very much one of reconciliation,” he wrote. “While the Association has not been formally approached by the Town, we are aware that there may be plans to rename Langsdorff Drive; the street naming policy is purely a matter for the Town. Should we be invited to express a view then we shall consider our response which will no doubt follow the theme of our trip to South America.”

Ajax’s communication department added in an e-mail that while there is no current movement to change the street name, officials are always open to input.

“At the time that Ajax Council was considering this dedication, consultation took place that included the River Plate Veterans Association – the group representing veterans that fought in the battle – who gave their endorsement for the naming to proceed,” the email said.

“At this time, we are not undergoing any review of the Langsdorff Drive street name. However, we continue to receive and consider feedback from residents. The immediate focus and attention to renaming Graf Spee Lane is an example of this commitment.”

The Ajax controversy mirrors another 100 kilometres west on Highway 401.

In Puslinch Township, south of Guelph, some residents are still waging a lonely effort to convince councillors to change the name of Swastika Trail.

The most recent effort to get the road’s name changed started in April 2017 and ended in June 2018, when an Ontario court refused to review a council decision to keep the name.

Randy Guzar, the resident leading the fight, wrote in an opinion piece for Huffington Post last week he is “tired of the dirty looks I receive when I show the pharmacist my ID. I hate hearing the awkward jokes when I give the bank teller my address. Some companies refuse to deliver packages to my house. When I tell strangers where I live, I am asked if I am a white supremacist.”

Maintaining the name, he adds, is “an insult to all Canadian Armed Forces members who fought against the hatred and genocide of Nazi Germany. I should know – my father was one of them. To our family, the name is a distressing reminder of what he endured. It hits even closer to home for my neighbour, who sees it as a daily reminder of his father’s death during the Holocaust.”

In a statement on Aug. 17, B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn said, “There is no place for streets honouring Nazi combatants in Canada. While Hans Langsdorff was attacking Allied shipping in the South Atlantic, his comrades were murdering Jews and Poles en masse in occupied Poland. These were inseparable components of the overall Nazi war effort.” 

B’nai Brith, citing a history of the Battle of the Atlantic, recalled Langsdoff’s suicide note: “I shall face my fate with firm faith in the cause and the future of the nation and of my Führer.”


Steve Arnold
Steve Arnold

Editorial: Jewish Leaders Must Act Now

As reported in the Canadian Jewish Record this week, Halton Regional Police released a report this month of a vandalized monument in the St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Cemetery in Oakville. According to the CJR:

“Someone had painted ‘Nazi war monument’ on a stone cenotaph commemorating those who served with the 14th SS Division in the Second World War.

“Formed in 1943, it was part of the Waffen SS, the military branch of the SS. Members of the unit have been accused of killing Polish civilians and Jews during the war.”

The debate surrounding this unit continued long after the end of the war. Apologists have claimed that the unit was formed to fight against the Soviets, and that its being under Nazi command was a historical anomaly.

But beyond doubt is that the 14th Waffen SS Division was under Nazi charge. Indeed, it was considered such a gem within SS paramilitary squads that SS leader Heinrich Himmler personally visited the division in 1944 to laud members’ willingness to rid Galicia of a “dirty blemish…namely the Jews.”

Despite the damage to it, the cenotaph is exactly what the graffiti described: A “Nazi war monument.” Unfortunately, when news of the vandalism was released, Halton police mistakenly claimed that the crime was being investigated under Canada’s anti-hate laws.

Social media erupted, and Halton Police Chief Steven Tanner wisely clarified: “The Nazi Party/SS are by no means a protected group under any hate crime related legislation,” he stated. “The most unfortunate part of all of this is that any such monument would exist in the first place.”

Also unfortunate was the stances of mainstream Jewish advocacy groups. The CJR has been unable to find a single mention of this incident in the news section of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ website.

Meantime, it seemed to take prodding from no less an august publication as The Nation for B’nai Brith Canada to issue a statement.

“There is no place for monuments in our society that glorify military units, political organizations or individuals who collaborated with the Nazis in World War II,” the organization told The Nation on July 21. “B’nai Brith Canada calls for such monuments to be removed and for comprehensive education efforts to accurately portray the historical record of those individuals and organizations involved.”

Asked the next day whether B’nai Brith would issue a statement to the CJR, the group sent the following from CEO Michael Mostyn:

“B’nai Brith Canada calls for the removal of any monuments glorifying military units, political organizations or individuals that collaborated with the Nazis in World War II. There is no place for such monuments in Canada.

“Regarding the specific cenotaph in Oakville, Ont., we are in the process of reaching out to other groups affected by this monument in the hopes of achieving real progress on this issue.

“At a bare minimum, comprehensive education efforts are needed to shine the light of historical accuracy on Nazi collaborators and their crimes.”

As of July 22, however, this statement was not on B’nai Brith’s website.

And Friends of Simon Wiesenthal would only go as far as to say the monument was a “blight” and “insults” the memory of Canadian soldiers who fought the Nazis. But FSWC was strangely quiet on removing the monument.

We expect more from our Jewish leadership. Jewish advocacy groups quite rightly spoke out strongly and took decisive legal and human rights actions against the owner of Toronto’s Foodbenders eatery, who recently engaged in ugly antisemitic tropes.

But the glorification of actual Nazis, all of whom, no matter where in Europe they fought, aided in the murder of six million Jews, seems to be a bit of an afterthought.

Complacency (or reluctance to raise voices) in the face of Nazi glorification is not an option, especially for Jews. It’s time for everyone to speak out and demand this and other monuments paying tribute to Nazi collaborators be removed once and for all.