By Randy Pinsky
“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler is remembered as jeering in a 1939 speech.
A group of educators are determined to challenge such a hateful statement and ensure the world remembers what happened in the Holocaust.
The Riva and Thomas O. Hecht Scholarship Program, Teaching of the Holocaust for Educators was launched in 2006 with the mission of equipping teachers with sensitivity training and resources. As Quebec does not formally mandate Holocaust Education in its curricula, there was a lot of foundational work to be done.
“This experience changed my life,” announced Carole Touchette, part of the first cohort. “Even today, I think of it and my heart bleeds.”
How It All Started
Freda Solman and Carole Touchette were the first scholarship recipients of what would be a powerfully emotional journey to Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, Israel. “Our three weeks were life-changing for me,” shared Solman. “As a child of two survivor parents and many extended family members who perished…I actually felt like I was reliving my parents’ experience while doing this intense study.”
The two were teachers at Westpark Elementary School in Dollard des Ormeaux of the Lester B. Pearson School Board.
As a Grade 6 teacher, Solman had always incorporated discussions about intolerance and state-sponsored racism in her lessons. She recalls the day her school principal strolled into her classroom and recommended she apply for the scholarship program.
Excited but overwhelmed, Solman shared her news in the staffroom. “I asked, ‘Who’d like to go with me?’ as I knew I couldn’t go alone. I never expected Carole – a Catholic French-Canadian! – to be interested, but she said, ‘I’ll go’.”
“That was the beginning of a very close friendship,” shared Touchette. “I always said her mother sent me to her because she couldn’t go on the trip on her own.”
The ‘Teaching Crusade’ Begins
The program was open to educators from all backgrounds across the Quebec public school system. When the predominantly Jewish community of Westpark Elementary asked Touchette why she would be interested in such an initiative, she responded, “The Holocaust is about acts to other humans, not just about the Jewish people. You do not have to be directly impacted to understand the injustice and want to do something about it.”
Together the two educators embarked on what Solman would call their “teaching crusade,” co-submitting an application as a bilingual team.
As the child of survivors, Solman shared, “It was very difficult for me at many times to remain in the classroom as sometimes it just touched too close to home….I am indebted to my dear friend Carole for how she took good care of me.”
While she had not been directly impacted by the Holocaust growing up, Touchette remembers being overwhelmed at the Museum of Children exhibit, at Yad Vashem. She had been able to manage through most of the exhibits, but “this was the first time in the trip I just wanted to go home. I said, ‘This is too much, I can’t handle this’.”
Together Touchette and Solman supported one another, helping one another learn, grieve and heal.
As the team embarked on their visit to Yad Vashem, they were thrown back into modern reality when the tour needed to be rearranged due to the skirmishes of the Lebanon War. With rockets being fired at Israeli border towns, it reminded the visitors how anti-Semitism is still a global problem, underscoring that much remains to be done.
Uncovering the Secrets
Growing up, Solman’s parents didn’t talk about their experiences being in the concentration camps or surviving the horrific March to Auschwitz. It was a ‘sha shtill’ (‘quiet, don’t talk about it’) mentality, of suppressing memories and not burdening the family with the horrors of the past.
It would only be years after Solman’s mother passed away (Solman lost her father when she was a child) that she got to hear the full story, albeit second-hand. A student had interviewed her mother for a project and fortunately had taped her talk. For the first time, Solman was finally able to learn the story of her mother’s survival…
‘Ani Ma’aMim: I Remember’: Keeping the Memories Alive
To say that the program and trip was transformative would be an understatement. Upon their return, Solman and Touchette were filled with fervour to share all that they had learned. Above and beyond the subject matter was how impressed they had been at the passion of the facilitators; “It’s not just the content of the classes I remember, but the intensity of the teachers,” explained Touchette. “I kept saying I hope I could be like that for my students.”
From leading classroom projects about Hana’s Suitcase and the Heart of Auschwitz, to coordinating education workshops and survivor testimonials, the Touchette-Solman team has impacted hundreds of teachers and students.
“I thought it was just incredible what these kids produced,” shared Solman. The students (both Jewish and non-Jewish) showed extreme sensitivity and maturity beyond their ages in their projects, illustrating what could happen when intolerance becomes legislated. Returning students would even share how much the unit had changed them – the best reward a teacher could ever ask for.
Though now retired, the educators shared, “It’s a [mostly] Jewish story, but it could have been anyone’s story.”
Through Touchette and Solman, there is hope that students will act in the face of bigotry, stand up against hate, and become defenders in the fight for justice.