The power of individual stories

Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Judy Cohen, around 1944.

My name is Javier Torres. Two years ago I moved to Winnipeg and became a Program Interpreter at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. When I started working at the Museum, many of my friends in Quebec City wanted to know: Why did you choose to work at a museum for human rights in Winnipeg? I came to this museum because I believe in its mandate to share the stories of human rights, inspiring reflection and conversation, and because I intuitively felt this was the right decision. But, I didn’t have a strong personal connection to the Museum’s mandate until the day I met Judy. It was to be one of the most meaningful encounters I have ever had in my life.

It was a Sunday morning and it felt like any other work day at the Museum. That morning I was giving an Explore the Galleries tour to a group of visitors from Toronto. For the first 45 minutes, everything went according to plan – until we entered the Examining the Holocaust Gallery. In the middle of my introduction, a woman stepped forward and started using one of the touchscreen monitors located in the gallery. As she did, the group asked me to stop my introduction. Someone pointed at the screen and said “Judy, that’s you!” Judy Cohen, the woman using the touchscreen, was featured in the exhibit. Surprised, I asked her if we could all watch the video together and she agreed.

The video told Judy’s story: As a teenager in the 1940s, Judy had been deported with her family from Hungary to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Her parents, her four siblings and her extended family all perished in the Holocaust. Judy survived the concentration camp and was sent to an airplane factory where she was forced to work. At age 16, she was liberated by American troops while on a death march.

When the video was over, everyone remained silent, even me. I have been a public speaker my entire life, but no words came out of my mouth other than “I’m speechless; I don’t have anything to say.”

Judy took over and calmly started talking about her experience of the Holocaust. At one point, Judy pointed to the massive aerial photo of the Auschwitz concentration camp and said “That’s the place where I lived.” At that moment I realized that there is a kind of suffering that is impossible to explain or understand. Only the people that went through those tragic experiences are able to fully communicate their suffering. I also realized that we have the responsibility to ensure these stories are told.

A genocide is a crime that is committed with the intent to destroy not only a people’s physical existence, but also whatever is important to that group’s identity, such as language, culture, traditions, beliefs, institutions, collective memory, dignity and even an individual’s own sense of humanity.

Much like the flame of a candle can only be preserved by sharing – by using it to light other candles – the only way to preserve what is precious for our identity as individuals and as members of a group is by sharing it with others down through generations. All human groups have a desire to live on for eternity. The ways we do this are by expressing our culture, and by sharing our creativity, our history and our sense of humanity.

It was that Sunday morning I truly understood that part of our mandate to preserve and share stories like Judy’s. Through her story, and the stories of many others found here in the Museum, visitors have the opportunity to keep a flame burning, and to share that flame with others. In bearing witness to these stories, we give new life to the voices that others had tried to silence for ever. Now, whenever I’m asked “Why the Canadian Museum for Human Rights?”, I tell people about the Sunday morning I met Judy and realized the power of one person’s story.