Belle Jarniewski

My Story...

I was born on June 7, 1957 in Winnipeg to Shoah survivors Samuel and Sylvia Jarniewski. Even as a young child, I sensed that my family was quite different from those of my friends and classmates. I was aware of my parents’ tragic losses as well as their day-to-day struggles to build a new life. My father, Samuel, came from a large religious family in Zelwa, Poland and could trace his family’s history back hundreds of years. He was conscripted into the Polish army in 1939.  In April of 1945,having survived six brutal camps, he found himself alone in the world, having lost every member of his family, including his beloved wife and little boy to the Nazi death machine. My mother, Sylvia, grew up in a secular home in Lodz. Upon the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto, she was sent to Auschwitz. By then, her little brother had been murdered in Chelmno, and her parents had died of starvation. She married after the war and tragically lost her first husband in an accident when she was eight months pregnant with my late brother Henry. My parents met and married in Winnipeg. I continue to be inspired by their courage to merely put one foot in front of the other, given the trauma and loss they had suffered.

A teenager during the Shoah, my mother was understandably marked by her experiences, and suffered from depression throughout her life. My brother’s untimely death from pneumonia in 1974 was her undoing; she passed away in 1977 at the age of 53. My father’s capacity to thrive still amazes me. He was a member of the H. Leivick B’nai Brith Lodge, a founding member of Herzlia Adas Yeshurun synagogue and had many friends. Passionate about the Yiddish language, he devoured Yiddish newspapers and books. A proud Zionist with a vision for the future, my father felt it was important for me to learn Hebrew, and he chose Ramah Hebrew School for my early education.

My parents enrolled me in piano and voice lessons at a young age. I studied voice for ten years, and sang semi-professionally in musical theatre productions, dinner theatre, and community events locally and abroad. In1970, Sammy Zur, z”l, then the director of the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue Choir, as well as a music specialist at Ramah, invited me to join the synagogue choir. I sang with the choir and performed as a soloist for more than 30 years.

My early adult years were spent as a stay-at-home mom, raising my first three children, Ari, Noam, and Aliza. I returned to university at the age of 31, and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Education degree, majoring in French and Judaic Studies. After the birth of my fourth and youngest child, Tali, I went back to school, graduating with a degree in Translation, from the Université de Saint-Boniface.

A few years later, the Holocaust Education Committee reached out to me to help with an ongoing project. I joined the committee and soon took over as Chair. One day, survivor Joe Riesen, z”l approached me with a fascinating idea—would I document the stories of local survivors before during and after the Shoah in a book? Joe wanted these stories to live on and to be accessible to students. It was an enormous task, but also a labour of love. Through research and interviews, Voices of Winnipeg Holocaust Survivors (2010)captures the experiences of 73 local survivors, including my parents. My father had written his detailed memoirs in 1946; most survivors wrote much later. The photographs in the book are a poignant reminder of the lives lost, families destroyed, as well as the tremendously rich and varied culture that once was. The book can be found in every Manitoba high school as well as national and university libraries around the world.

The importance of Holocaust education cannot be underestimated. I am proud that the Jewish Heritage Centre has become the principal purveyor of education on the Holocaust and antisemitism in our province. Our annual symposium reaches up to 2000 Manitoba students. We also welcome students from grades 6 to university to our Centre, where they have the opportunity to hear a survivor tell his/her story.

Education and dialogue are the most important tools we have in combatting hate. I served as President of the Manitoba Multifaith Council for two terms and serve on the executive of the national Canadian Interfaith Conversation. As well,, and am the co-founder of two dialogue groups: Muslim-Jewish and Catholic-Jewish. As a Jew, I feel strongly that we have a responsibility to reject passivity the face of evil, to speak out against injustice, and to work toward making “never again” more than just a hollow phrase. That belief, coupled with the important notion of tikkun olam has driven my involvement in Operation Ezra, (a multifaith effort rooted in the Jewish community to rescue and resettle survivors of the Yazidi genocide).

My work eventually led me to study Theology, and I graduated in 2018 with an MA from the University of Winnipeg. My thesis focused on the post-Shoah theology of Yitz Greenberg, as reflected through the lives of three Canadian survivors. I am also honoured to serve on the federally appointed delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), as a member of the Academic Working Group and the Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial. The committee elaborated the first intergovernmental definition of antisemitism, adopted by consensus at the 2016 IHRA plenary. Since then, 18 national governments and bodies have adopted the definition, the most recent of which is Canada in June of 2019. The non-binding definition serves as an essential tool for determining what antisemitism is and what it is not.

Appointed in 2018 as Executive Director of the Jewish Heritage Centre, I now have the opportunity to explore the precious legacy that our collection of manuscripts, documents, artefacts, and photos represent. Our history is the foundation upon which our community is built and which allows it to transmit its values, and its beliefs to future generations. It is my hope that through my work and volunteerism, through dialogue, and through my participation in the Endowment Book of Life, I will motivate others to work toward building a better tomorrow. My parents’ strength and spirit lives on through the third and fourth generations of our family. I know just how proud my parents would have been of each of my children, Ari, Noam (Tamar), Aliza(David), and Tali (Jordan) and my five sweet grandchildren:  Samuel, Jonah, Gefen, Judah, and Dov.