The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

Never has unity and solidarity been so important.

In the spirit of cross-cultural solidarity and with a belief in the power of survivor testimony, Holocaust survivor Nate Leipciger, under the guidance of Ve’ahavta and with on-the-ground support from the Kenora Chiefs Advisory, set out to meet with the First Nations communities in the Kenora area, located in northwestern Ontario.

Nate, 2015

This trip was Nate’s first opportunity to share his story with a First Nations community. Born in 1927 in Chorzów, Poland, Nate survived a series of ghettos, deportations and concentration camps, including the Auschwitz death camp; aside from his father, he lost his entire family. Nate and his father came to Canada in 1948 and rebuilt their lives in Toronto. Over the past two decades, Nate has made it his mission to share his story with the world, by writing his Holocaust experience in his memoirs, The Weight of Freedom, tirelessly giving testimony to high school students across the country and acting as a guide on the March of the Living’s Holocaust remembrance trips in Poland for over ten years.

On this trip, Nate spoke with close to one hundred First Nations high school students and joined the local community to share their mutual experiences of oppression and persecution later that same day. Of his hopes and goals for his visit, Nate said, “I have suffered discrimination, degradation and the loss of my family. My message is to encourage this community to share their story, which I believe is the first step in healing.” Nate wasn’t there to only share his story; he was also there to listen.

Nate with students at Beaver Brae High School in Kenora, ON.

“Both [First Nation and Jewish] communities have experienced incredible trauma. Both communities have had to (and continue to) process and work through intergenerational impacts from this trauma, and because of that, there are direct access points for empathy and trust-building,” said Sarit Cantor, Community Engagement Coordinator at Ve’ahavta.

Interactions like the ones between Nate and members of the First Nations communities in the Kenora area are essential to a process of healing. In a divided world, sharing testimony about past and current traumas can bring us together. Cathy Caruth, an expert on trauma and culture whose innovative work explores the intersections of trauma, history and narrative, writes that “history, like trauma, is never simply one’s own ... history is precisely the way we are implicated in each other’s traumas.” In a time with so much difficulty and suffering, Caruth’s view offers the possibility that, “trauma itself may provide the very link between cultures.”

Instead of letting these traumas divide us, we can use them to heal and move forward. Individuals and groups with very different personal and cultural histories can use their shared experiences of trauma as a bridge. Engaged, active listening to the testimony of those who have experienced trauma can contribute to cross-cultural solidarity and the creation of inclusive, open and caring forms of community.

Nate’s testimony did just this by drawing on shared histories of trauma, and the Kenora Daily Miner captured a moment that poignantly illustrates the ability for survivor testimony to transcend cultural and historical divisions to bring people together:

Leipciger also shared that a supervisor sexually attacked him after he was sent to Germany, and it took him more than 50 years to admit it to himself.

He added that sexual abuse was a commonality with Canada’s Indigenous peoples who survived residential schools, another cultural genocide where abuse was endemic.

Hailey Loon, a Grade 10 student from Grassy Narrows First Nations, said Leipciger’s story made her emotional as it connected to what her culture went through.

“When he spoke about being sexually abused … I’ve heard about the stories from residential schools, how they got sexually abused, and I just broke down,” she said.”

These deep cross-cultural connections, the bridges built through survivor testimony, offer opportunities for witnesses to become allies. “To be an ally recognizes that you hold power, which can be used to amplify voices not often heard,” says Danny Richmond, who heads up Ve’ahavta’s Community Engagement Department.

Through this transformation from witness to ally, witnessing becomes a powerful, world-changing act. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recognizes this, and part of its mandate is an ongoing project to create “Honorary Witnesses,” community members who have been “asked to store and care for the history they witness and most importantly, to share it with their own people.”

To be a witness means to take on the responsibility of carrying the voices of victims into the spotlight so they can expand our political consciousness and inspire change.

First Nations people have a story that all Canadians need to hear. As Sarit Cantor says, “though it is difficult and uncomfortable, it is crucial that we as Canadians stop perpetuating false narratives, as these narratives directly impact Indigenous communities all over the country…. However, through education, listening, conversation and restoring the narrative of Canada’s history with Indigenous people, we can begin the process of reconciliation and healing with those communities.”

The Truth and Reconciliation committee seeks to share a “comprehensive historical record on the policies and operations” that contributed to the cultural genocide and “to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools.” The testimony of Residential School survivors is an essential part of this mission to give prominence and a platform to a part of Canadian history that has been distorted or deliberately suppressed.

When survivors share their testimony, they do so not just for themselves — they are driven by a mission to inform the broader world so that it is forced to confront what happened to the survivor and their community. Awareness on its own is not enough. To be a witness means to take on the responsibility of carrying the voices of victims into the spotlight so they can expand our political consciousness and inspire change.

The emotional and powerful reactions of those who witnessed Nate’s testimony were living proof of testimony’s ability to break the individual and cultural isolation inflicted through traumatic experiences and to bring communities together.

Nate’s connection with the Kenora-area First Nations communities is just the beginning. We have to mobilize the cross-cultural solidarity that testimony creates and take action to create a world where fewer people have traumatic stories to share.

It starts with listening, but must end with action.

To start your journey from witness to ally, take the time to connect with the testimony of Residential School survivors:

Where Are The Children

“Survivors Speak”

We Were So Far Away: Inuit Experience of Residential Schools

The Painful Journey to the Heart of Residential School

Residential school survivors and their descendants share their stories