Canada and the Meaning of Diversity: Two Ambassadors Tell Their Story
By: Sabine Nolke and Artur Wilczynski
“History is what you’ve travelled on and take with you” — Michael Ondaatje
As Canada celebrates its 150th birthday, we celebrate our diverse, complex, welcoming society, increasingly seen as a global model of accommodation and respect. Canadians have come, and continue to come, from all over the world, bringing with them virtually every ethnicity, religion and cultural background on Earth, and a thousand different histories.
At times, those things could not be more different — yet here we are, all of us Canadians.
Take the two of us. Artur, the grandson of Holocaust Survivors and a Communist Polish Army veteran; Sabine, whose grandfather was a member of Germany’s National Socialist (Nazi) Party and died as part of the Volksturm in the waning days of WW2. Our families come from the far opposite spectrum of the most violent conflict of the 20th century; today we are both Canadians, ambassadors for our country.
More importantly, we are friends.
Seventy-five years ago, our families’ circumstances could not have differed more. One was a prosperous Jewish family in pre-war Poland, the other a lower middle-class family in the Rhineland, clawing its way out of the inflation of the 1920s.
Joseph Wilczynski managed to escape Nazi-occupied Poland and cross over to the Soviet occupied side. His mother and immediate family stayed behind, first to be captives in the Łodz Ghetto, then murdered when the ghetto was liquidated and its inhabitants sent to Chelmno or Auschwitz. Joseph’s wife and toddler son also escaped east, settling well inside the USSR. He joined a Soviet controlled Polish unit as a dedicated Communist, despite knowing that his chances of survival were slim. He fought all the way to Berlin to witness the defeat of Nazism in 1945. The war and the Holocaust may have been over, but both the Wilczynski and Fajersztajn families (Artur’s maternal family) had been decimated.
The Wilczynski family came to Canada in 1969, after being forced out of Communist Poland; Joseph had died some 15 years before. The family arrived in Montreal and integrated quickly into that wonderful, diverse Quebec community. We learned English, French, and through school Artur was able to reconnect with his family’s Jewish identity.
“Education was central to my experience in Canada. I was able to thrive. Moreover, in Canada, I had the freedom to live as an ‘out’ gay man — to marry the love of my life and to share 30 years together. I have been given the privilege to use my education in service of my country, and to work on human rights, culture, sport, and security before joining Global Affairs Canada. I was named Canada’s Ambassador to Norway in 2014.”
Fritz Nölke was a member of the National Socialist (aka Nazi) party. Sabine’s Mom kept his party pin together with his medals, which included Iron Crosses from WW1 and WW2 (the latter posthumous; when he was drawn into the “Volkssturm” in 1945 he suffered a PTSD-induced flashback to the trenches of Verdun, got out of his foxhole and walked into American gunfire). Why did he join “the Party”? Because he would have lost his job — in the provincial insurance company — if he had not. He held out for a while; a friend backdated his registration for those who would look and judge levels of enthusiasm.
Fritz’ children were in the Hitler Youth, because that’s what you did. His oldest son flew Messerschmitts over the Eastern Front and spent 6 years in a Siberian POW camp; the younger son was killed by Russian bullets in Berlin, on May 7, 1945 — in the same place where Joseph Wilczynski ended his war on the side of the victors.
After her ex-POW brother, another victim of PTSD, killed himself, Sabine’s unwed mother fell into depression and alcoholism. In order to gain some distance (and improve her English), Sabine applied for a scholarship to Canada, initially as an exchange student. In London, Ontario she met her husband and decided to stay, becoming a Canadian citizen after graduating from law school a few years later.
“My mother made sure to teach me what Germany had done during the war — the aggression, the crimes, the atrocities of the Holocaust and the impact Hitler’s lies had on Germany, its people and her family. Her words lingered. Once I joined Global Affairs, I specialized in human rights law, international peace and security, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and accountability for atrocity crimes. In 2015 I was honoured to become Canada’s Ambassador to the Netherlands and Permanent Representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, with responsibility for the Hague courts and tribunals.”
We both understand the consequences and the weight of history. Our own families emerged irreversibly damaged from the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust, but what matters is what they took from those experiences, passed on to us,, and how we can use that knowledge to make a better world.
As for the two of us, we matured here in our chosen country and have come to feel its inclusion in our bones. We benefited from excellent educations and joined the Public Service out of conviction, with a desire to contribute to this country that had become our home. We met almost 20 years ago, worked together in different capacities over the years and became close friends. Knowing and acknowledging our divergent and shared history makes our friendship stronger.
Acknowledging historical wrongs does not make a country fragile, or its people weak. The very diversity of experiences that Canada’s immigrants bring to this country is what forges a common future for all of us. We are united in creating a place that is welcoming and inclusive of all, regardless of our histories, the chasms of class and culture, and the agonies of past or ongoing conflicts.
As Canadians, we have a responsibility to remember and reconcile with our own past — what was done to Indigenous Peoples in particular. No country is perfect, and neither is ours; Canada is a work in progress.
“History is what you’ve travelled on and take with you,” says Canadian writer and poet Michael Ondaatje. Canada’s history is one of immigration from around the world; it’s also a continuing journey toward inclusion and respect, with eyes wide open to the lessons of the past.