The power of individual stories

By Javier Torres

Tags for The power of individual stories

A dark-haired man speaks to a group of four onlookers, using his arms to illustrate a point. He is facing the group, which can only be seen from behind. The man is wearing a black shirt with a Museum logo and a lanyard with a nametag. Behind him is a large exhibit with items behind glass and a large map.

Photo: CMHR, Aaron Cohen

Story text

My name is Javier Torres. In 2015, I moved to Winnipeg and became a Program Interpreter at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Many of my friends in Quebec City wanted to know: Why did you choose to work at a museum for human rights in Winnipeg?

A headshot of a dark-haired man with a short beard and moustache, smiling at the camera. He is wearing a black shirt with a white Museum logo, and a lanyard that says “Be inspired” in both French and English.
Javier Torres, Program Interpreter. Photo: CMHR, Aaron Cohen

I came to this Museum because I believe in its mandate to share human rights stories, inspiring reflection and conversation. 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 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. 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 to play a video. She asked if I recognized her at all. I didn’t, and that is when she told me her name was Judy Weissenberg Cohen and she was featured in the video! Surprised, I asked her if we could all watch the video together and she agreed.

As a teenager, in the year spanning from 1944–1945, Judy was deported with her family from Hungary to the Auschwitz‐Birkenau death camp in Nazi‐occupied Poland. Judy would survive and then go on to also survive the Bergen‐Belsen concentration camp and a slave labour camp in Aschersleben, Germany where she was forced to work in the Junkers airplane parts factory. At age 16, while on a death march – the movement of prisoners between camps – she was liberated by American troops. Her parents, her four siblings and her extended family all perished in the Holocaust.

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 there is a kind of suffering that is impossible to explain or understand. Only the people that went through those tragic experiences can fully communicate their suffering. I also realized that we have the responsibility to ensure these stories are told.

A woman is smiling at the camera and holding up a framed certificate that says “Tikun Olam. You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.
Judy Weissenberg Cohen accepts Ve’ahavta’s 2008 Tikun Olam Remembrance Award. Photo: Courtesy of Judy Weissenberg Cohen

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. I have learned that Judy herself is very dedicated to preserving and sharing stories. She works as a Holocaust educator in Toronto, and founded Women and the Holocaust, one of the first websites to document the stories of women in the Holocaust.

One day, when I can no longer tell my own story, who then will be the witness to the atrocities of my past? This is why I will continue to tell my story for as long as I can.

Judy Weissenberg Cohen

It was on that Sunday morning that 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.

Now, whenever I’m asked “Why the Canadian Museum for Human Rights?”, I tell people about that Sunday morning when I met Judy and realized the power of one person’s story.

Ask Yourself:

  • Has someone’s personal story helped me think about human rights in a new way?

  • How can I help ensure that stories like Judy’s are remembered and preserved?

  • Do I have a human rights story of my own that I can share with others?