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Universal Lessons From the Holocaust

May 31st, 2017 by Sheila Hurtig Robertson

Ottawa’s Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship (CHES) is less than two years old but quickly building a solid reputation for its innovative educational programs for school and institutions throughout the region. Operating under the umbrella of the Zelikovitz Centre for Jewish Studies at Carleton University, CHES’ year-round programs and events fulfill its mandate of remembrance by promoting knowledge and understanding of the history and legacy of the Holocaust.

Anne Frank bronze statue located in San Jose downtown, the statue was made by the Dutch sculptor Joep Coppens.“CHES brings together academics, educators, survivors, students, and diverse community members and offers programming to combat prejudice and racism, and promote respect for diversity, social justice, and human rights,” says director Mina Cohn. “Our volunteer committee is dedicated to safeguarding the memory of the past and educating future generations, regardless of race or religion.”

CHES has initiated a wide-ranging menu of activities tailored to reach as broad an audience as possible.

Throughout the year, the centre coordinates a Speakers’ Bureau of Holocaust Survivors and children of survivors, known as the 2nd Generation, and arranges their visits to schools and other educational institutions. An outreach program targets schools and teachers’ workshops, providing educational and enrichment opportunities.

One initiative has proven to be profoundly moving. The Ottawa Holocaust Survivors’ Testimonies Project features interviews of ten local survivors. The interviews were recorded and edited into 30-minute, professionally produced film accessible on CHES’ website along with two-minute excerpts.

“This is a first for Ottawa survivors as a distinct project and is an invaluable education resource,” says Cohn. “The films represent the lived experience of the survivors and were made with the expectation that they can be used in educational settings to teach about the Holocaust.”

The survivors’ experiences include ghettos in Hungary, Nazi slave labour camps in Germany and death camps in Poland, hiding in non-Jewish homes in Holland and France and in a dugout in Ukraine, and surviving as refugees in Romania and Shanghai. Each story is unique and offers a glimpse into what it must have been like to live through the traumatic events of the Holocaust.

Each November, through Holocaust Educational Month, CHES offers diverse educational programs that play a significant role in reaching the public education systems, engages the general public about the continuing need to fight anti-Semitism and racism, and inspires students to participate in critical thinking and self-reflection.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day takes place on January 27. In 2017, thanks to the partnership between CHES, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, the Embassies of Israel and Romania, and the Wallenberg Citation Initiative, a capacity crowd in Ottawa commemorated the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In attendance were Holocaust survivors, clergymen, diplomats representing many embassies, and elected officials from the municipal, provincial, and federal governments.

As time passes, more and more of the focus of Holocaust education will depend upon the children of people who lived through the Holocaust known as second-generation survivors. In recent years, large numbers of these middle-aged men and women have been trying to make sense of their backgrounds, which have sometimes been obscured, especially where their parents have been unable to talk about their experiences.

During Holocaust Education Month in 2016, CHES sponsored a 2nd Generation Symposium in partnership with CIJA, Library and Archives Canada, the Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Embassy of France in Ottawa.

Education is CHES’ watchword, and nothing better exemplifies its work than the rewarding interactive multicultural Ambassadors of Change Program, held this year on May 8 at the National Art Centre as part of National Holocaust Remembrance Day. Later in the day, the students participated in the National Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony, which was open to the public and held at the Canadian War Museum.  

“In the current world climate of rising intolerance and violence and the resurgence of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust’s universal lessons regarding the importance of standing up against hatred and discrimination are more crucial than ever,” says Cohn. “The ambassadors program provides an important opportunity for 150 students of various faiths from Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal to meet survivors and to hear about their experiences during and after World War 11.”

An annual event, the program encourages students to share their ideas about the dangers of unchecked intolerance, propose steps they can take to promote tolerance and understanding in their own communities, and define their own roles as responsible Canadian citizens. 

As Dr. Deidre Butler, director of the Zelikovitz Centre Academic Chair for CHES, has said: “CHES has met a critical need in Ottawa by bringing together rigorous scholarship and a broad educational mandate. In doing so, CHES has enriched the conversation around Holocaust history, anti-Semitism, and intolerance, and has built bridges between survivors, volunteers, scholars, teachers, students, diplomats, and the community at large.”

Sheila Hurtig Robertson is a member of the CHES committee and was an interviewer for the Survivors’ Testimonies project. An editor and author, she lives in Manotick, Ont.

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