I am a child of Holocaust survivors, and an immigrant to Canada. My parents, whose 31-year love story spanned two continents and raised the marital bar for devotion, commitment and passion, spent three years in concentration camps – separated for most of that time. Their 2-year old son and my father’s entire family were slaughtered in Treblinka. Liberated during a death march, my mother rode the rails throughout Europe searching for my father. She found him in Theresienstadt, a camp in Czechoslovakia, and engineered his escape. They had lost everything and practically everyone that meant anything to them, but made the decision, together and resolutely, to rebuild their lives and start over.
After the war, they, and my grandmother (who survived the camps due to my mother’s ministrations), were sent to a Displaced Persons’ camp in Stuttgart, Germany, where my sister and I were born. My father, a graduate in law from the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland, was asked by the Allies to establish a system of justice for the DP camps in Southwest Germany, and served as their defence attorney. He was also the head of the Stuttgart Jewish community, which he ably represented -- because of his eloquence and knowledge of English – whenever international dignitaries came to visit. None of this was sufficient, however, to grant us passage to Canada -- the land of promise, the land in which dreams become reality; His skills as a lawyer were not needed. For five painfully frustrating years, my father – physically delicate but intellectually vigorous – persistently made application for our emigration. I shudder to think what might have been, had my father not finally passed the men’s underwear cutter exam – our literal ticket to freedom.
We landed at Pier 21 on my 2nd birthday and began our new life – having to adapt linguistically, culturally and socially. I marvel to this day at how my parents so determinedly found a way to create a sinecure of love for us, while coping with the incomprehensible psychological and physical trauma of being hated, and hunted; at how they found the wherewithal to raise their children in an environment that was safe, secure and free from the hatred that proved the catalyst for the unconscionable horrors they had endured.
Rather than curse the darkness, my parents lit the figurative candle – they taught us to be grateful for the opportunities that Canada afforded, to fight at all times for social justice and fairness, and against the evils of discrimination and prejudice; to show our appreciation by contributing to our fullest extent; to take nothing and no-one for granted and, above all, to be the voice for those who cannot speak – the marginalized, the victimized, the vulnerable. My parents survived the camps with the unfathomable capacity to renew their commitment to life, and with the unshakeable courage to find a place, and space, to begin their new life in a new country. They taught us over the years that democracies and their laws represent the possibilities inherent in justice, and that we had an obligation to ‘pay it forward’ to help make it happen. Their experiences, and that upbringing, informed the rest of my life and compelled my selection of education, community and human rights advocacy as a vocation, and as an avocation.
Our parents demanded the best of who we were, that we were to reach not FOR the stars, but beyond. That diligence, hard work, education and respect were the watchwords by which we evidenced the ferocious commitment to our future. After ten years of teaching at the secondary school, university and college levels, while volunteering within the community, I began a 15-year love affair with the Ontario Human Rights Commission during exciting times. 1982 saw the repatriation of our Constitution, and the enactment of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It saw the enactment of a newly expanded Human Rights Commission and Code which, for the first time, prohibited discrimination against persons with disabilities. And most importantly, it was the year I met my husband – my soul mate. While my parents instilled in me the imperative of involvement in justice and fairness, my beloved late husband, the Honourable Mr. Justice Sam Filer taught me the mechanics. His passion for, and commitment to justice and community harmony, his compassion for humanity, and his unconditional love for his family was without equal. Sam had a profound effect on, and greatly inspired countless lives, not only because of his sensitivity toward the human condition, but also because he lived a life of such quality and such gratitude throughout his 21 years living with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Paralyzed and breathing through a ventilator, Sam continued to engage in the administration of justice, to contribute to the community, and to be a heroic role model for our now 28-year old daughter, Jaime. He tragically died in a fire which destroyed our home, and almost destroyed our lives; his legacy of courage and strength of will helped Jaime and I survive.
All of the above, I believe, speaks volumes towards who I am, why I have done what I have done, and how I have reached this point. It speaks towards my belief in our individual and collective responsibility toward social cohesion, and toward the creation of a mutuality – a shared pride in, and appreciation for community identity and belonging in which the sum is greater than its parts, and in which individual vulnerabilities are rendered a collective strength through the establishment of cohesive support systems.
Canada is a country rich in resources – both human and natural. It is a country whose component parts must be celebrated, whose core values of democracy, respect for government, rule of law, decency and fairness must be nurtured. We who share that vision may not all be on the same page, yet, but I have every confidence that we are at least all reading the same chapter.
Excerpts from Pioneers for Change Keynote Speech