By Randy Pinsky
“Just one sentence on the Holocaust? That can’t be right…” frowned history teacher Sylvie Pelletier as she flipped through the mandated textbooks upon starting her career. But there it was- a genocide summarized in one sentence, a photo with no context.
As the Holocaust is not part of the Quebec curriculum, recipients of the Riva and Thomas O. Hecht Teaching of the Holocaust for Educators Scholarship Program are committed to including the message in their lessons, to both honor the victims and ensure the perpetrators do not win.
After 13 active years and 38 scholarships, we decided to check in with the participants: What did they take from their trip to Yad Vashem? How have they shared what they learned? And are they still actively priming the next generation of justice defenders?
“For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing”
Simon Wiesenthal (Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter)
“There are a million ways to incorporate lessons from the Holocaust into your classroom,” shared Linda Shetzer (2008, Parkdale Elementary School, rt). “You just have to be brave [and creative] enough to do it.” From addressing themes of intolerance to persecution, this is a message that is forever relevant.
As reinforced by Pelletier (2008, John Rennie High School), “It’s up to us after the survivors to be their voice- we have that duty of memory to keep on telling their stories.”
“The Holocaust is not only a tragedy of the Jewish people;
It is a failure of humanity as a whole”
Moshe Katsav, former President of Israel
Much like the international appeal of Fiddler on the Roof, minority groups everywhere recognize being discriminated against just for being different. The Holocaust is not solely a story of the Jewish people. Rather, it is one of state-sanctioned intolerance, of dehumanization.
Inspired by Hana’s Suitcase, both Shetzer and Carole Touchette (2006, rt) prompted students to empathize with the refugee experience by contemplating what their ancestors might have brought with them if they were forced to leave their country, knowing they would never return.
In reflecting on her own students, Shetzer shared, “I was proud of my kids, I was proud of their projects. Riva [Hecht] cried when she read their poetry.” Shetzer was so moved by their work that this was all she took with her when she retired.
The grandson of survivors and the first arts recipient of the program, Jeff Pinsky (2014, Beaconsfield High School) has found drama to be a powerful medium. Through immersing themselves in themes of love and loss, heroism and fear, students develop awareness and compassion.
Hélène Dupuis (2014, Collège Laflèche) also used art to accompany her lessons. After learning about the Heart from Auschwitz featured at the Montreal Holocaust Museum, “the most meaningful thing [my class made was] a collective poetic book addressed to Fania [herself].”
“I had to help them. There was no choice”
As a part-time officer in the Canadian Forces, Pelletier’s parallel career provides her with a unique perspective. She is aware of the danger of groupthink and encourages critical thinking.
“Telling [students] about my experience at Yad Vashem…makes them feel like they’ve gone there,” noted Pelletier. For instance, Schindler’s List takes on a new meaning when she tells them she met some of the survivors and visited Schindler’s grave. Personalizing historical facts is critical for, as noted by survivor Elie Wiesel, “To forget the dead, is to kill them twice.”
“Silence in the face of atrocity is not neutrality;
Silence in the face of atrocity is acquiescence”
Samantha Power, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations
When the units are introduced, students experience emotions of disbelief and horror, to anger and sadness. Many are shocked when they realize the genocide developed in modern countries where the Jewish community had been engrained for generations. In bringing the stories home, many are shocked to find out that some of their own grandparents were survivors. Pelletier recalled, “I remember Taryn who found out that her grandfather [was on] the March of Death out of Auschwitz and realized she was alive [only] because he had survived…”
“Even in darkness, it is possible to create light”
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate
In addition to their own classes, several of the educators such as Lavine, Pelletier and Pinsky have also crafted teaching aids; Freda Solman (2006, rt) and Touchette (2006, rt) led teaching conferences, and Dupuis facilitated discussions on Night and The Reader.
“The students want to see, they want to engage, they want to learn,” explained Pinsky. Beyond Schindler’s List and Hana’s Suitcase, Pelletier also endorses Life is Beautiful and Band of Brothers (portraying a reenactment of the discovery of the Dachau camp).
Beyond her comprehensive art and history program, Carin Schwartz (2012, Lakeside Academy) presents in both the English and French sectors. “Each year I am amazed by the students’ reactions and deep interest in the material…and each year I…update and improve [the unit].”
“Education and remembrance are the only cures for hatred and bigotry”
Miriam Oster, Holocaust survivor
Acts of intolerance often stem from ignorance about ‘the other’. When Beaconsfield High was shocked to find swastikas around the school in 2017, Pinsky quickly coordinated an assembly to address the issue of hate head-on. By calling out these acts, his team made a strong statement about diversity and there has not been another incident since.
“We have to educate people [who have] a lack of knowledge on what is wrong,” explained Pelletier. It is often by learning about ‘the other’ that one can contest presumptions about them; the understanding that guides Gina Lavine (2013, Collège Laflèche) in her mission to reach out to the CEGEP and high school systems of homogeneous Mauricie.
The need to inform and sensitize is pressing knowing that Hana’s original suitcase had been lost in a fire led by neo-Nazis. “The same hatred that killed Hana and her family, destroyed the last remnant of her life.” Pelletier fiercely added, “We still have a lot of work to do.”
“Do what is right because it is right”
Japanese diplomat who issued thousands of transit visas to Jewish families
Each of the educators emphasized the need to go beyond the history lesson and incorporate the messages into their students’ lives and outlooks. Lavine noted how every discussion ends with a call to action and the need to respond in the face of intolerance.
Schwartz agreed; “A great deal of my teachings revolve around the Righteous Among the Nations…of compassion and the courage to stand up when…wrongs are being committed. The students learn that in order to prevent the past from being repeated, it is critical to speak up.”
The impact of the Hecht scholarship program has been long-lasting; students often return after graduating and share how the unit had influenced their program of study or volunteer involvement. “This opportunity changed my life and taught me so much about…passing on important values to my students,” concluded Schwartz. “The teaching of Holocaust Studies is simply one of the most powerful things we are able to [do] as educators.”