Becoming the Enlightened Witness

Post contributed by VHEC Program Coordinator Pascale Higham-Leisen.

On the evening of February 13, 2023, Holocaust survivor and acclaimed author Lillian Boraks-Nemetz shared her experience of surviving the Holocaust with members of the Ben Gurion Society at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. The Ben Gurion Society is the Jewish Federation’s national leadership and donor recognition program for young professionals who support the Jewish community through the Federation’s Annual Campaign. Over thirty members of the society attended Lillian’s presentation. Many of them had never heard a Holocaust survivor speak before.

Lillian began by describing a poignant memory of her and her father seeing a wall being built as they walked down a street together in Warsaw. Even at this young age, she knew that the construction of this wall would change her life forever. Lillian stated, “The wall would soon create two worlds, being built by the hands of Jews who were told to build their own prison.” She described her family’s move to the Warsaw ghetto and the appalling living conditions; close to half a million Jews confined in 1.3 square miles of Warsaw made the living spaces suffocatingly crowded. The only privacy residents had was from “curtains hanging to separate the beds of approximately 24 people who shared a room with one bathroom.” Due to the cramped environment and lack of food and sanitation, an outbreak of typhus resulted in strict quarantine measures.

Within the walls of quarantine, Lillian felt imprisoned. This feeling returned during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many survivors were triggered by restricted movements and isolation. Lillian shared, “Trauma leaves behind a deep wound that, when unhealed, will eventually begin to start creating an emotional pain which won’t let you cope with an ordinary life. It’s a pain that few understand.”

Lillian Boraks-Nemetz addressing the Ben Gurion Society, February 13, 2023. Photographed by Rhonda Dent.

The audience heard Lillian describe the deportations of the Warsaw ghetto, her remarkable escape as arranged by her father, the separation of her family and the devastating loss of her childhood, her sister and her identity. “My own childhood ended the day Nazi Germany invaded Poland and the Second World War began. Our happy lives ended, and I became an adult at the age of 6.”

After the Holocaust, Lillian and her parents immigrated to Canada. She tried writing about her Holocaust experience in her first year of university. An English professor asked her class to write about a time in their lives which profoundly impacted them. Lillian wrote about the Warsaw ghetto, and the professor’s feedback to her was, “This is not what I asked for.” She felt the hidden child inside her retreat. Lillian continued to push her trauma inwards, while starting a family and dedicating time to running a household. But at the age of 40, everything she had submerged began to resurface.

Her trauma healed, in part, through her sharing her story with students and adult groups like the Ben Gurion Society, as well as from her writing practice. Lillian is an accomplished writer in the genres of poetry and fiction. Her work explores trauma and her relationships with her children, who “Bore the brunt of my pain and whose forgiveness and understanding mean more to me than life.”

As the program coordinator at the VHEC, I see the impact our survivor outreach speaker presentations have on students. The attitude Lillian encountered in her first year of university is crushing, but also serves as a crucial reminder: Education is the pillar of combating antisemitism. The courage and tenacity it took, and continues to take, for Lillian to share her testimony of surviving the Holocaust, even after being discouraged, is remarkable.

Lillian recently introduced me to the concept of an ‘enlightened witness’, and its importance for survivors. Not just an active listener, the enlightened witness empathizes and sees the survivor’s trauma as complex and nuanced. VHEC board member, Sam Heller, who attended Lillian’s presentation, was an enlightened witness:

“I was in awe of her strength, resilience, and vulnerability. I have heard survivor testimonies before and thought that maybe I would be prepared for the torrent of emotion that these talks elicit. I was wrong. Each time it is new, raw and powerful. We are lucky to be able to hear firsthand from Lillian, and we are lucky to have heroes like her among us. It made me think of my grandparents, and all the crazy things that they went through in the war, and renewed my sense of awe how they persevered to provide amazing lives for their children and grandchildren.”

Pascale Higham-Leisen and Sam Heller in conversation with Lillian Boraks-Nemetz, February 13, 2023. Photographed by Rhonda Dent.

Lillian reminds us that with knowledge comes responsibility. The responsibility of an enlightened witness is to remember the Holocaust and honour its victims, to be the stewards of survivors’ stories and to ensure the phrase “never again” echoes through the generations to come.

*Lillian’s first book of poetry, Garden of Steel, was published in 1994. To date, she has published 11 books including The Old Brown Suitcase, The Sunflower Diary and Mouth of Truth. These books are available for borrowing from the VHEC library.