All of my grandparents came to Winnipeg before World War I. My
father's father Simon came from a shtetl near Odessa in 1900. My
father's mother Anna came from Odessa, also in 1900. My mother's
mother Rose came from Piatra Neamt, Romania to Omaha, Nebraska in
1904. My mother's father Max came from Dvinsk in what is now Latvia,
in 1905. My parents were born in Winnipeg and so was I, this month,
August, in 1943.
In August 1943, the Holocaust was about two thirds done. About 4 1/2
million Jews had been murdered. About 1 1/2 million Jews remained to
In the month of my birth, August 1943, Jewish prisoners in the death
camp Treblinka attempted to seize control of the camp. The attempt
failed and the prisoners ran for their lives. Most were gunned down
from the camp's watchtower or caught and killed .
After the Nazi invasion of Russia, every shtetl near Odessa, including
the one from which my grandfather Simon came, was obliterated. The
City of Odessa, from where my grandmother Anna had emigrated, had an
estimated 180,000 Jews before World War II. By the time the War was
over, there were none. All the Jews had fled, been killed or were
Piatra Neamt in Romania, the old home of my grandmother Rose, had a
Jewish population before World War II of around 8,000. They survived
the war, but endured torture, extortion, confiscations, forced
boycotts of Jewish merchants, required wearing of the yellow star,
deportations, and slave labour. After the War, virtually all the Jews
abandoned the place. Today only a couple of hundred remain .
The Jewish population of Dvinsk, the home of my grandfather Max, was,
before World War II, 45,000 souls . The Jews of Dvinsk were shot and
killed by Nazi roving killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen, and the
Latvian auxiliary police, and buried in mass graves. When the Soviet
Army entered Latvia in 1944 there were only a few hundred Jews in the
whole country .
The antisemitism which led to the Holocaust took its most vicious form
in Europe, but it had adherents and practitioners everywhere. In
Winnipeg, during my early childhood years, the University of Manitoba
had a quota on Jews admitted to medical school. It was impossible for
Jews to buy property in the Tuxedo neighbourhood. Jews could not join
the Manitoba Club or the St. Charles Golf and Country Club. Victoria
Beach was off limits. All the large Winnipeg law firms had no Jews.
As I grew up, the haze from the Holocaust lifted. Discrimination
against Jews dissolved. My contemporaries rejected the bigotry of
Yet, I knew that but for the vagaries of war, but for the fact that
the Allied and not the Axis powers had won the war, not I, not one
Jewish person would be alive today. From the age of eight, I knew I
wanted to do something about the Holocaust. Over the years, it became
clear to me what that something would be attempting to learn the
lessons of the Holocaust and act on them.
The lessons I have drawn from the Holocaust are the need to bring to
justice mass murderers; to ban hate speech; to protect refugees; and
never to accept in silence gross violations of human rights, wherever
they occur. I have engaged in human rights work to act on these
lessons, to join the human rights struggle on four connected fronts.
In fighting on these four fronts, I have had to combat four different
enemies that prowl throughout the human rights battlefield.
These four horsemen of our very own human made apocalypse are
indifference, absolutism, hypocrisy, and helplessness. Indifference
has been the main foe of bringing Nazi war criminals in Canada to
justice. When people themselves are victims or potential victims of
human rights violations, it is easy to generate concern. Where the
victims are others, all too many people, regrettably, just do nothing.
My struggles to have effective hate speech laws have led me to battle
with absolutism, the belief that one human right, the right to freedom
of expression, trumps all others. Of all of the lessons to be learned
from the Holocaust, there is none more important than the need to ban
hate speech, because the banning of hate speech, if effective,
prevents atrocities from occurring.
Hypocrisy, acceptance of human rights values in principle and
violation in practice, is well illustrated in the refugee field.
States accept refugee protection in principle. Yet, a variety of
techniques, including a narrow application of the refugee definition,
a denial of fairness in determination procedures, harsh treatment of
those awaiting decisions, exaggerated scepticism, and interdiction all
mean that a commitment to refugee protection in principle has often
been coupled with denial of refugee protection in practice.
My fourth human rights nemesis is helplessness, the sense that human
rights violations are so massive that nothing can be done about them.
Yet, unless individuals promote respect for rights, these rights are
bound to wither.
I have been spending a lot of time recently on combatting the
persecution of Falun Gong. This evening I am flying to Melbourne
Australia to speak at a UN Conference next week on the subject.
Falun Gong is a simple set of exercises with a spiritual foundation
which started in China in 1992 and banned in 1999. David Kilgour and
I have concluded (first in a report released in July 2006 and updated
in January 2007, and then in a book titled Bloody Harvest released in
November 2009) that Falun Gong have been killed in China in the tens
of thousands so that their organs could be sold to transplant
One reason I am active in combatting human rights violations against
Falun Gong practitioners is that I am not Chinese, not Falun Gong. I
can say something similar about my involvement through Beyond Borders
in combatting international child sexual abuse. Children can not be
expected to combat their own abuse. It is adults who must speak for
them. Standing up for human rights means breaking through barriers
of language, culture, geography, religion, gender and age to affirm
the humanity common to us all.
The lessons I had drawn from the Holocaust were, I naively thought, of
value more to others than to the Jewish community, who, I believed,
had already suffered all we possibly could. I was stunned and
horrified to see in recent years the rise of attacks against the
Jewish people world wide.
The ideology of antisemitism has shifted. It has added new and potent
element, Jews as a criminal population because of their perceived
support for a mythical criminality of the Jewish state.
Hatred of Jews has always victimized the Jewish community. But,
before World War II, non-Jews were mostly left untouched.
With the Nazis, that changed dramatically. The German Nazi ideology
of eliminationist antisemitism, the determination of the Nazi regime
to kill Jews everywhere, precipitated, continued and prolonged World
World War II was a loss beyond words for the Jewish community. But
the War was also a disaster and a tragedy for the whole planet. Total
casualties during World War II were sixty two million, 25 million
military and 37 million civilian. Thirty one million non-Jewish
civilians died in that War. Hatred of Jews dragged the whole world
After the War, the damage continued. The Allies, motivated by a
desire to bring and keep West Germany onside in the Cold War,
abolished the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1948 long before its work was
For immunity against the Nazis to be effective, it had to be
comprehensive. That immunity became a license for one genocide after
another. There is a direct link between the immunity given to Nazi
mass murderers after World War II and the seemingly endless stream of
post War crimes against humanity in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Sudan
Anti-Zionism, the modern face of antisemitism, the hatred of the
Jewish state, the rejection of Jews as a people with a right to self
determination, presents a similar dynamic to the antisemitism of the
last century. Anti-Zionism fans the fires of global terrorism. The
spreading poison of the regime in Iran, which Irwin Cotler has done so
much to combat, is laced with anti-Zionism.
Anti-Zionism demolished the United Nations Human Rights Commission .
The Commission had become so obviously an Israel bashing Commission
that its continued existence was unsustainable. Its replacement, the
UN Human Rights Council, is undergoing the same self destruction.
Human rights violators avoid accountability by diverting attention
away from their violations to Israel. Anti-Zionism has added to the
suffering of victims of human rights violations everywhere.
The victim communities reacted to the atrocities of World War II by
creating international human rights standards, organizations and
institutions. However, it is not just victims who adapt.
Perpetrators adapt too. Perpetrators have appropriated the human
rights vocabulary and swarmed the human rights organizations and
institutions, making them their own.
Is human rights just a temporary and now overwhelmed stop gap in the
struggle between perpetrators and victims? I would like to think
The human rights standards, organizations and institutions are a
legacy of the Holocaust. We owe it to that legacy to do what we can
to make the human rights system work.
Combatting gross human rights violations day after day, year after
year is a daunting task. An award such as this, your attendance, the
appreciation it bespeaks, encourages me to continue with the effort. I
In spite of everything, we, the victim communities, are still here.
We live; we remember; we say, never again.
David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg