TORONTO — A Toronto high school teacher is using information gleaned from a Yad Vashem studies program in Jerusalem to teach students about the Holocaust.
Warren Scott Masters, who teaches history and politics to grades 9 to 12 students at Crestwood Preparatory College and heads its social studies department, attended Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies in the summer of 2007.
Masters, 46, has used his expertise to develop two projects that heighten students’ awareness and understanding of the Holocaust.
The Oral History Project and the Holocaust Symposium draw on the testimonies of local Holocaust survivors.
Masters, a two-time finalist for the Governor-General’s Award for Excellence in Teaching Canadian History, also runs a program designed to turn students into socially conscious individuals. Many of the participants in the Youth Against Racial and Religious Discrimination program attend the Oral History Project and the Holocaust Symposium.
A McGill University graduate and a recent recipient of the Canadian Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence, Masters attended the four-week Yad Vashem seminar along with 40 other educators from around the world.
He was nominated for the program by Max Eisen, a survivor and community activist whom he befriended.
“We learned about every aspect of the Holocaust, from its origins through to the liberation of the concentration camps,” Masters said. “We also spent a great deal of time on the pedagogical aspects of the Holocaust, looking at the many different ways to teach this difficult subject.”
He added, “The content and philosophy were always challenging and surprising, while the human stories were memorable and emotional. We had the benefit of meeting some of the best minds in the field of Holocaust studies.”
Although Masters was broadly familiar with the events of the Holocaust and had previously invited survivors to speak in his classes, the Yad Vashem seminar added to his knowledge considerably.
“Yad Vashem helped me to better understand and see the significance of having survivors present in class,” he said. “So I redoubled my efforts and worked on developing the Oral History Project when I returned from Jerusalem.”
Using a small group approach, Masters puts four to eight students together with a survivor to facilitate conversations.
“The Yad Vashem seminar enables me to ensure that a survivor’s testimony is appropriate for the students and helps me understand what questions are best to ask.”
The Holocaust Symposium, which brings together six survivors and Grade 10 students, focuses on history but also on tolerance and diversity issues.
Judging by his observations, he feels students always appreciate the presence of a survivor in a classroom.
Masters said most students who take modern history courses are strongly interested in World War II and the Holocaust.
The Holocaust, he said, “is a topic many students want to understand better because it seems so incomprehensible in so many ways.”
Since roughly half of Crestwood’s student body is Jewish, many students have family connections to the Holocaust and a fair number have grandparents who are survivors.
In his Canadian history lessons, Masters never fails to mention that Canada admitted only about 5,000 European Jewish refugees from 1933 to 1945.
“We talk about that issue quite a bit. It’s pretty shameful on all levels. It’s a real eye opener for many students when we examine some of the diary entries of Canada’s then-prime minister, Mackenzie King, or when we discuss the voyage of the St. Louis.”
As well, Masters discusses the prevalence of prewar antisemitism in Canada. “It’s unfortunately not surprising, given the xenophobic nature of early 20th-century Canada. It is something we consider in the context of larger racist and anti-immigrant issues from this era.”
Asked whether young Canadians are generally well informed about the Holocaust, he replied, “That really varies. Many students are really quite knowledgeable, but there are others who just aren’t. In many of these cases, students have emigrated from countries where their previous education just didn’t include the Holocaust. Still other students might not have a deep interest in history.”
The Holocaust is a profound lesson in human behaviour, Masters said.
“It can teach us a lot about the terrible lows and the evil that people are capable of. It can also teach us about people’s apathy. When combined, these factors allowed the Holocaust to happen.
“But the Holocaust teaches positive lessons, too. So we talk about the Righteous among the Nations. That’s one of the reasons I invite survivors. There is always something remarkable in their recollections that creates a positive energy for the students.”
For Masters, Holocaust denial is always jolting.
“Denying history of any kind really is troubling, but with the Holocaust, it is especially disturbing. I have gotten to know many survivors, many of whom lost everything and continue to carry guilt and pain all these years later. So you take it personally when you hear someone deny, minimize or distort the Holocaust out of hate or some sort of political agenda.”