FSWC Director of Education Melissa Mikel reflects on our recent Compassion to Action journey through Poland with Ontario educators, some of whom shared their reflections throughout the experience.
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies’ (FSWC) first-ever Compassion to Action for Educators was held last week, March 12 to 17. We visited a number of cities and sites throughout Poland with 24 Ontario educators in order to gain a deeper understanding of the history of the Holocaust along with how to integrate this learning into our Canadian classrooms. While the Compassion to Action trip for Canadian leaders has included more than 150 chiefs and deputy chiefs of police, directors of education, heads of private schools, politicians, journalists, and business leaders from across Canada and has been running since 2010, this new version of the trip was tailored specifically to focus on learning for those in Ontario elementary and secondary schools and classrooms.
A crash course in Jewish history
The impact of the program on the participants was evident each day of the journey. Our first stop at the POLIN Museum, however, was one of those experiences that participants continued to speak about throughout the entire week. The award-winning POLIN Museum provides a glimpse into the more than 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland, and by extension, in Europe. For many, this was a crash course in Jewish history that demonstrated the rich cultural and religious life that existed in pre-war days. It helped to build their understanding of the enormous loss suffered during the Holocaust – yes, loss of life, but also an effort to erase culture, tradition and identity, a point that was raised by Crescent School teacher Janine Morcos. She spoke of the way she was fiercely defensive of her ability to be unique in her identity, and how through every visit to every site the effort by the Nazis and their collaborators to strip away this identity was evident.
Carrying messages from Majdanek
Adil Askary, a centrally assigned principal for alternative schools with the Toronto District School Board was struck by his visit to Majdanek concentration camp. Liberated in 1944, the artifacts on the grounds of Majdanek are in their original state as the Nazis fled before destroying the evidence. Reflecting on the week, Askary stated: “Hate is hate. We have heard this all week. But the responsibility for humanity is on us. I will carry with me the inscription from the Majdanek mausoleum: Our fate is your warning.”
Educators are the 'antidote to hate'
For many, Auschwitz-Birkenau holds tremendous weight as it is one of the most recognizable and infamous sites synonymous with the Holocaust. We read Max Eisen’s memoir, By Chance Alone, in preparation for the journey so that when we stood on these grounds, we made a personal connection. Many shared that their visit to Auschwitz was the worst day of the journey because the enormity of the event was right in front of them. As Toronto District School Board vice principal Shawn Robertson was walking out of Auschwitz, however, he realized that as a group of educators, “We are the antidote to hate.” There was collective agreement that as educators, they hold the ability to teach young people about this history with the intention to create a better world.
The learning continues
The conversation around responsibility was prominent as the week came to a close with a conference to reflect back on the experiences of the week. Each participant shared their thoughts about the responsibility that they carry having stood on the grounds of events of the Holocaust. Katherine Hicks, head of the junior school at St. Clements, made an important connection, stating: “In our school we talk about wanting our community members to feel known and valued. And it was this morning that it hit me, that this is what we’ve been talking about this week: knowing and valuing. Knowing the history, valuing what was lost, and the responsibility that we have to ensure that this learning continues.”
And this learning will continue. Each of the participants have made a commitment to create Holocaust education opportunities in their schools and classrooms over the next year. We will be meeting multiple times over the next year as a group to discuss progress, successes and challenges. Each participant will also submit a one-month, six-month and one-year report on their commitment.
Want to bring Holocaust education to your school, workplace or community? Contact us at email@example.com for more information.