SEVEN YEARS AGO, after someone spray-painted ugly black swastikas on five grave markers, I wandered around Victoria’s Jewish cemetery, looking at some of the names.
Here lay Rysia Kraskin. She was young, still a girl, really, but was already looking haggard when the Nazis began sorting the Jews into two lines — those who would live and those who would die.
It was another Polish girl who slipped Rysia a bit of red lipstick to rub on her cheeks, creating the illusion of health. It worked. Rysia lived that day, and the one after that, and the one after that. She survived the Second World War concentration camps and went on to a good life in Victoria, where she died in 2006.
Buried near Rysia was her friend Helen Jacobs, the one who gave her the lipstick. Helen’s grave was close to one of the ones that had been desecrated, the marker defaced not only with a swastika, but a scrawled “Jewish scum.”
Then came the slaughter in Pittsburgh — a reminder that evolution doesn’t rise in a straight line, that it is hate that is on the upswing, and that while most of us get to blithely sail through life not thinking about our identity, there are others who never get to forget who they are.
Even here in peaceful Victoria, it’s part of being Jewish. The reminders don’t come often, but they do come, says Rabbi Harry Brechner of Congregation Emanu-El. Hate mail. A venomous poster. “Every now and then we’ll get tagged.”
The synagogue’s secretary has a what-to-do-in-a-bomb-scare guide tacked to her bulletin board, nice and handy. The other day, Brechner stopped a meeting after spotting an unattended bag. The synagogue has a security system now, as do other downtown houses of worship. When Brechner went to Vancouver a couple of years ago, a group of people spotted his headgear and started yelling. High school students report the occasional nastiness, too. “Someone will carve a swastika into a Jewish kid’s desk.”
Keep this in perspective, Brechner says. “It’s rare. There’s not a lot of it.” For every negative experience, there are far more positive, life-affirming ones. “Victoria is a remarkably supportive, open place.” People strive for the common good here, much more so than in some other cities.
And don’t lose sight of how inclusive Canada has become, Brechner urges. “I am fully Jewish and fully Canadian. I don’t know if my grandparents ever felt that.” We’re better than we were. “There is progress.”
But that whole cheery idea of a linear journey to a better world has been shaken lately.
“There has been a shift. I think the Pandora’s box has been opened. It’s not just Jews. Jews are just one of the targets.”
Hate is rising. “I’m afraid of the phenomenon, of the rise of divisiveness,” Brechner says.
He saw it last year when a neo-Nazi mob gathered in front of a Charlottesville, Virginia synagogue, forcing the congregation to leave by the back.
By then, Canada had already suffered its own hate-based outrage in a place of faith, six people dying when a gunman opened fire in a Quebec City mosque in January 2017. By then, a white supremacist had slaughtered nine black worshippers in a South Carolina church.
Victoria’s Selma Linzer remembers how “heartbreaking” that was. Linzer might have been raised in Edmonton (“We grew up in a free and open and happy society”) but it was at a time when the echoes of the Holocaust still reverberated, warning her and her friends that they were Jews, that they needed to be on their guard — just as we all need to be on guard against the rise of division and hatred.