Peter W. Klein is executive director of the Global Reporting Centre and professor at the University of British Columbia.
Lili was 6, Gabi was 2 and Mari was 1 when they were taken from their families. It happened more than 75 years ago. I still imagine what my three first cousins might look like today as wizened senior citizens if they had survived. All these years later, we don’t have a grave at which to mourn, or even a story about how or where they died.
The remains of nearly 1,000 disappeared children have recently been reported in unmarked graves in Western Canada. These were children taken from their families because of their culture, religion and language – abused and neglected, their bodies abandoned far from their parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The void that leaves is hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t suffered such loss.
My cousins’ disappearances and deaths happened at the same time as many of the ones that have just been discovered, but they didn’t die in Canadian residential schools that targeted Indigenous families. All three died in Europe in 1944, during a different cultural and physical genocide.
There’s no family that doesn’t at some point suffer death and mourning. But most families have a chance to say goodbye, have a name and picture of their departed loved one, and usually even a place to visit to grieve. The absence of that is difficult to fathom.
For my father, the pain of this loss was too much to bear, so he spoke about Lili, Gabi and Mari very seldom. As a result, I didn’t even know my cousins’ names until well into my childhood, and even then, knew almost nothing about their appearances or personalities. A disappeared death leaves a hole in the soul of a family – a hole you keep trying to plug, but never quite can.
Last week, just as more unmarked graves of Indigenous children were being discovered in Saskatchewan, I received a notification from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that they found a record for “Lilli Klein” with a few sparse details: Sterben, which means dead. The date: Aug. 4, 1944. And the address: Fisch 21-5/50.
Excited isn’t the right word to describe my feeling getting this information, since decades of not knowing have left me mostly numb, but there was definitely a twinge of curiosity that I might have a bit more clarity about what happened to the girl I named my daughter after. I looked at the address, and I realized it was in the middle of the Lodz ghetto in Poland. It’s unlikely a Hungarian girl like her would have ended up there, so I’m back to the family assumption that she died in Auschwitz with my other cousins, uncles, aunts and grandmother.
In Canada, as more and more bodies will be found through ground-penetrating radar, I imagine the years – decades – of ups and downs so many Indigenous families have in their future. “We had concentration camps here,” said Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan in a press conference, after 751 unmarked graves were announced at the Marieval Indian Residential School. Former senator Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, estimates the number of missing children to be more than 10,000.
There’s danger in these numbers. Ten thousand. Six million. These are statistics. Behind every digit, there are family members without pictures in their family albums, without memories of smiles and giggles, sometimes without even names for the relatives they’ve never met.
There’s a reason soldiers risk their lives to gather the remains of their fallen comrades on the battlefield. They owe it to their platoon and to the family to do everything possible to bring back tangible evidence of their death, to tell the story behind how they died, and to create a place to mourn.
A study in 2010 of Bosnian War victims showed how critical this kind of closure is. They took two groups of widows, half of whose husbands went missing during the war, and the other half whose husband’s deaths were confirmed and documented. The group that didn’t know what happened to their husbands had significantly higher levels of traumatic grief, depression and suicidal ideation.
But we don’t need empirical studies to realize the pain such a loss can create. And we don’t even need to see the faces of anguished family members reeling from decades of loss. Close your eyes. Imagine someone you love kidnapped without a trace, presumed dead. The pain of the imagined death is surely magnified by the nagging mystery.
Mr. Sinclair, in a recent radio interview, called for the Canadian government to do better with digging up records of the missing Indigenous children. “I want those documents to be maintained forever, just like we maintain the documents of what happened to the victims of the Holocaust in the various prison camps during the Second World War,” he said. “We want that memory forever to be with us.”
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