Holocaust educator Robert Waisman shares message of hope

University of Victoria honorary degree recipient Robert Waisman has spent much of his life working to inoculate people again hatred and discrimination.

The Holocaust survivor and founder of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre has travelled across Canada telling his story of survival, resilience and hope. Waisman spoke to an audience at UVic ahead of receiving his honorary doctorate of laws at the Faculty of Humanities’ convocation on June 13.

In conversation with UVic Chancellor Shelagh Rogers, Waisman talked about being a child at the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp in Nazi Germany. After working 12 hours in a munitions factory at the camp, Waisman said he was trying to sleep when a man shouted at him from across the room.

“‘Promise me if and when you survive you’ll tell the world what you’ve witnessed,’” Waisman recounted of the man’s words.

“I can hear that man’s voice clearly,” Waisman told the audience. “I felt I had a sacred responsibility to inoculate people against hatred.”

The event coincided with the tenth anniversary of the federal government’s apology to residential school survivors. Waisman, an honorary witness in the truth and Reconciliation Commission, spoke to Rogers about visiting northern Indigenous communities as part of that role. There he met young people who felt disenfranchised and forgotten. Waisman shared that after surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, a teacher helped him find his path.

“The Nazis predicted we wouldn’t amount to anything. We were full of anger and rage,” he said.

Waisman recounted that a teacher said to him, ‘If your parents were alive, what do you think they would want for you?’

“I put the anger aside and started catching up on schooling,” he said.

Waisman shared the same message with the young people he visited, forging lasting friendships with some of them.

“I get these wonderful letters from teenagers,” he said. “It keeps hope alive.”

Waisman says that although tremendous progress has been made on issues of discrimination, there is still work to be done, particularly when it comes to reconciliation with Indigenous nations and people in Canada.

“The Holocaust remains a powerful lesson against racism and hatred,” he says. “We must continue to affirm our commitment to uphold human rights for all and value diversity.”