A travelling exhibit that depicts the plight of disbarred Jewish lawyers in Nazi Germany is more than just a history lesson.
It’s also a warning about current affairs.
“Whatever occurred in the 1930s is still occurring,” said Leo Adler, a Toronto-based criminal lawyer and national affairs director at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies.
The Lawyers Without Rights: The Fate of Jewish Lawyers in Germany After 1933 exhibit, which opens today at the Law Court Building, commemorates persecuted lawyers and judges who were systematically and legally banned from the judicial system.
And it illuminates the legal manipulation and judicial abuse happening today in other democratic countries today.
In November, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf sacked dozens of judges because he feared an impending decision that could affect his chances in an upcoming election.
In Zimbabwe, the court is shielding President Robert Mugabe from unfavourable elections results.
Courts and laws are still politically manipulated, said Adler.
“Canada is not immune from it,” he said.
“Canadian legal history is at times a shameful one for upholding discriminatory laws and concepts of racism.”
In 1938, Canada was one of several countries to reject a boat filled with Jews attempting to flee Nazi Germany.
Interment camps held Japanese Canadian citizens during the 1940s and German citizens in the First World War.
The history of the lawyers’ persecution in Nazi Germany is told on large posters that line the main floor of the Andrew A. Philipsen Law Centre, part of a travelling exhibit.
Adler will also give two free public lectures Tuesday night.
The lecture and exhibit was brought to the territory by the Maddison Chair in Northern Justice, the Yukon Human Rights Commission and Yukon College.
Twenty individual stories of lawyers detail how the Nazis legally disbarred Jewish lawyers in the runup to the Second World War.
In 1932, the democratically elected Nazi party began restricting the employment of professional Jews, including those in the legal system.
By 1938, Jewish lawyers and judges were banned from practising law; eventually such disbarment became law as part of the 1942 Final Solution.
“This was a campaign initiated by the German bar to get rid of their Jewish colleagues,” said Adler.
In Berlin, for example, half of the roughly 3,400 lawyers were Jewish.
The disbarred lawyers who didn’t kill themselves or die in the camps, fled across the world — some to Europe or North America.
After the war, some practised law again; many didn’t and worked jobs not related to the legal profession, such as running coffee shops.
Many never returned to Germany.
Three lawyers, including Stanislaw Boracks and Fritz Oberlander, ended up in British Columbia.
A University of British Columbia professor emeritus, Oberlander still lives in Vancouver.
The disbarred lawyers’ influence can still be seen, said Adler.
The Israeli legal system has a strong focus on anti-totalitarianism.
“If you consider the decisions the Supreme Court has made over the year, you will see the influence of those couple of German lawyers who managed to escape to what was then Palestine,” said Adler.
“They laid the foundation for the modern judicial system in Israeli. It’s a system highly respected around the world.”
Perceptions might exist that well-educated, rational professionals like lawyers are above political persecution.
But professionals aren’t exempt from being bigots or racists or becoming their victims because of a university degree, said Adler.
“You need something more, whether you call it morality or ethics or a sense of right and wrong,” said Adler.
“I don’t know if that’s something a law school can educate, but it certainly should.”
His own legal education didn’t include much talk of ethics; it was all about contracts, wills and family law, but Adler sees the schools changing.
The ultimate test of a legal system is when unpopular decisions from courts are accepted by a society, said Adler.
He points to the US Supreme Court decision that gave the 2000 election to George W. Bush instead of Gore, who won more votes.
“You didn’t have a coup or a revolution or rioting because the political and legal system was strong enough to accept it,” said Adler.
He got involved with the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a Jewish human rights organization, partly because of his personal connection to its mandate.
Adler was born in Germany to Holocaust survivors.
Anti-Semitism is a virus found in Canadian institutions and still affects citizens, said Adler.
He’s not naïve enough to believe anti-Semitism and racism can be eradicated, but people have to remain vigilant.
“We have to confront it rather than acquiesce to it,” he said.
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre and the German and Israeli bars collaborated to create the Lawyers Without Rights travelling exhibit.
It has been erected in 52 cities across the world, including several stops in Canada.
The exhibition might travel to Argentina, which has its own recent history of persecution.
During the military junta rule, many lawyers were “disappeared;” some were targets and others perpetrators of the disappearances.
Before Whitehorse, the smallest city on the tour, the exhibit stopped in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Victoria and Kelowna.
Adler speaks Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. in courtroom 1 at the Law Court Building and also gives an interpretive talk about the display at 8 p.m.
Both are free to the public.
The exhibit runs Monday to Wednesday during regular business hours.