In November 2018, I realized that the 75th anniversary of liberation from the Holocaust would take place in 2020 – and that something important should be planned to commemorate it.
Marilyn Sinclair, Founder
“The Gathering Movement” of the 1980s
In April 1983, the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Descendants hosted more than 20,000 attendees in Washington, D.C. In April 1985, the Canadian Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Descendants hosted 5,000 attendees in Ottawa. Both events were modelled after a similar event, held in Israel in 1981, which hosted 15,000 attendees. Since then, these events hadn’t been repeated.
I attended the Canadian Gathering with my late father, a Hungarian Holocaust Survivor. The event was a turning point for me - an opportunity to identify as a “descendant,” and meet other children of survivors with shared experiences. I promised my father that I would organize a similar event “when the time was right.” The 75th anniversary in 2020 seemed like the right time. After all, a promise is a promise.
Photo credit: Mark Seliger
Liberation75: Global Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, Descendants, Educators and Friends
I believed that 2020 would present an important moment in time to come together as a global community. Decades had gone by since the Gathering Movement, many survivors (like my father) had passed away, and many others who were not survivors or descendants had become meaningfully involved in Holocaust memory. It was time to “widen the tent” and include others in the journey to ensure that the memories of the Holocaust remained relevant in the future.
I signed a contract to rent the Toronto Convention Centre from May 31-June 2, 2020, and planned night and day for a global event like none other. Liberation75 would provide an opportunity for organizations, artists, authors, musicians and performers to showcase how they were telling the stories of the Holocaust, for survivors to share their histories, and for descendants to meet and discuss their experiences.
Founder's father: Holocaust survivor, Ernie Weiss (1928-2010)
The Launch Event
I met the Chair of the Jewish Heritage Committee of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) through a “cold call” on LinkedIn. Shari Schwartz-Maltz loved the idea of Liberation75 and planned a spectacular launch event for us on Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 2019. Coincidentally, the event was held at William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate, my alma mater, but also the school that had educated the most children of Holocaust survivors anywhere in Canada.
It was an emotional and beautiful event attended by politicians, organizations, teachers and students.
North Toronto Collegiate Institute’s choir sings Hannah Senesh’s “Eli, Eli” at the launch of Liberation75 in Toronto on May 2.
7,500 Students Registered
In September 2019, Shari and her Jewish Heritage Committee promoted Liberation75 to the Board and within 48 hours 7,500 students were registered to attend a full day of programming - and we closed registration.
We brought all the major organizations in the world together in Toronto to showcase their work to each other and help map out a plan.
We expanded our space to include the entire Toronto Convention Centre and our Education Co-Chairs, Rachel Luke (Peel District School Board) and Dr. Claudia Wiedeman (USC Shoah Foundation), set out to plan this massive undertaking.
More than 18 organizations were flying in to present to our students and teachers.
250 Participating Organizations
At the same time, we reached out to organizations around the world to build a consortium of support. No one had ever conducted such a large outreach before and more than 250 global organizations joined on as Participating Organizations.
Multiple committees were formed to decide on all aspects of the event. Committee meetings were lively and vibrant with representation from all over the world.
Hundreds of Program Submissions
We put out a call for program submissions. Hundreds were submitted which sent the Program Committee reeling with work. We divided all submissions into subject streams and then voted. 125 programs were chosen, including speakers, musicians, authors, artists, dancers, Holocaust survivor and descendant speakers. There would be 14 concurrent sessions running in every timeslot.
We added a film festival, a "memory garden", a Righteous Ceremony and exhibit, a photo booth, a full exhibit hall and more. Young Judea would supply "Survivor Companions" and descendants would have ample opportunity to share their experiences in closed sessions. Original films were made for the event.
Registrations were pouring in and by March 1st, we were ready to go.
And then COVID-19 Hit
With more than 10,000 people registered from around the world, we suddenly found ourselves in an unprecedented time of incredible uncertainty. Holocaust survivors called me every day begging me not to cancel. Surely this "global pandemic" couldn't last very long.
But by April it was certain that no events were going to take place in 2020. After 2 years of so much work, we faced the devastating reality: Liberation75 had to be postponed. The disappointment among all the people who had volunteered so much time and effort was palpable.
2020 Brings a New Reality: Virtual Programs
We had built so much momentum that we decided to utilize the new technology available to run virtual programs that were collaborative, innovative and targeted.
Our first event was “The Future of Holocaust Museums” where we brought the leaders in the field together for a discussion about the uncertain future. Thousands attended and we knew we had something to offer the field. Many more innovative programs followed.
We also felt very strongly that we do programming for students. We launched our first online educational program with the USC Shoah Foundation called Stronger Than Hate: A Call to Action, featuring Dr. Stephen Smith and actor, Mike Myers.
Many unique innovative programs followed.
Actor Mike Myers (Austin Powers, Shrek)
2021: Virtual Programs Continue
We launched many exciting, innovative programs with dynamic partners in 2021.
We hosted the Canadian Premiere of the Tattooed Torah for grades 4-6 students and more than 450,000 students attended!
We launched Stories are Stronger Than Hate 2.0: A Call to Action during Black Heritage Month. This was the first time that the Jewish Heritage Committee and Black Heritage Committee from two different school boards collaborated in a joint Holocaust and Black Lives Matter event. More than 150,000 students logged on in the first two minutes.
We had many targeted programs for children and grandchildren of survivors. We joined with authors, scholars, consulates, filmmakers, international and local organizations and more to bring unique, free programming to our audiences.
When Liberation75 was postponed due to the pandemic, a new mission was developed: to bring our massive in-person event to the virtual space. We thought it would be easy to simply transform all the planning from our live event into one huge virtual event. It wasn’t easy.
With the hard work of our small team and many volunteers, we successfully executed a five-day virtual conference and 10-day virtual Holocaust film festival. Our event included 125 speakers, over 100 programs, performances and films - all entirely free to our 45,000 attendees from more than 45 countries across six continents.
We debuted a three-day Professional Development Symposium for teachers and a two-day Student Education Symposium, focused on educating students of all ages about the Holocaust and antisemitism. These events, in addition to other educational programs, were attended by 650,000+ students and 500+ teachers from across five continents.
Survey of North American Teens on the Holocaust and Antisemitism
With sponsorship from the Ontario Antiracism Directorate, we were able to conduct the first survey in the world that measured Holocaust awareness and attitudes about antisemitism with students grades 6-12.
Reported by all major media across Canada, this groundbreaking study created the “new reference” for thought in the field. These shocking survey results continue to inform our future educational strategies and collaborations.
View more information about the study here.
First Virtual Holocaust Library
We created the first Virtual Holocaust Library to house all the recordings from Liberation75. Our library has since expanded to house world-leading digital content from partner organizations, museums, educators, artists, and Holocaust survivors. All the content is online and free - with no registration required.
The library can be accessed here.
The Last Chance Collection Canada
In the fall of 2021, we were approached by our partner, the USC Shoah Foundation, to undertake the Last Chance Collection Canada.
For 25 years, Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation has given voice to survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides with the goal of educating people around the world, and inspiring action. The 55,000 women and men in its Visual History Archive® share their life stories of trauma and loss, as well as culture and family, and ultimately survival. Representing more than a century of history, these testimonies provide an enduring legacy of memory.
Time is running out and Liberation75 was tasked with collecting the remaining testimonies of Canadian Holocaust witnesses — before it is too late. Beginning in October 2021, we moved quickly to capture as many testimonies as possible in person. With more than 100 testimonies now completed, we are still recording testimonies in English, French, Russian, Hebrew and Hungarian all over Canada.
If you know a Canadian survivor who hasn’t yet recorded their Holocaust history, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Four Siblings—Aged 95, 97, 99, and 100—Record “Last Chance Testimony” Stories of Survival
Innovation & Collaboration
in Holocaust Education