SASKATOON — A veteran Saskatchewan educator is overhauling his Holocaust education curriculum to introduce rural students and teachers to the rich tapestry of European Jewish culture before the rise of Nazism.
After participating this past summer in Yad Vashem’s international seminar for educators titled “Teaching the Shoah and Antisemitism,” Larry Mikulcik said he realized the importance of informing students and the public about the nature of pre-Holocaust Jewish culture in eastern Europe.
“I really want to take some time in my course, and in public presentations, to bring out the arts and flavour of Jewish culture pre-Holocaust,” said Mikulcik, who has been teaching history to Saskatchewan high school students for more than 25 years.
“I teach in a small rural community that has, up to my knowledge, no people of Jewish ancestry,” said Mikulcik, referring to Strasbourg, Sask., a town with 752 residents.
“Therefore, we have to ask: what is Jewish culture? I’m now going to take even more time to help my students understand the little bit that I know and learned over the seminar.”
Mikulcik, 54, grew up about 45 kilometres south of Saskatoon and said the first time he ever met a Jew was at Saskatoon’s Folkfest, an annual multicultural festival held each summer at community centres and places of worship across the city.
The only applicant from the Prairies, Mikulcik joined 41 other educators from across Canada and other countries for the intensive 19-day Hebrew University accredited graduate course geared to giving experienced educators the tools to teach the history and lessons of the Holocaust.
Mikulcik said he became especially interested in how pre-World War II Yiddish and Hebrew literature, theatre and art helped sustain Jewish resistance to persecution in the ghettos and death camps.
“Through a study of the literature, I was able to get much better insight into some of the worldview of the Jewish people of the era, and how they dealt with the destruction of their civilization” said Mikulcik, adding he was “enthralled” with professor Alan Rosen’s class on Yiddish literature, which covered works by Sholem Aleichem, S. Ansky and other seminal figures in Yiddish literature.
“From gauging participants’ reactions, it’s clear that this program leads to dramatic changes in their lives as educators,” said Yaron Ashkenazi, executive director of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem.
Ashkenazi said that over the last five years, more than 160 international educators have travelled to Israel to take the course, which began in 1981 and continues to run with support from the Asper Foundation and private donors to the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem.
“This intensive program provides educators with techniques for teaching the relevance of the Holocaust in our time, and especially in a multicultural society,” Ashkenazi said.
In 2010, Mikulcik participated in the March of the Living educators’ tour through Poland and parts of Germany, an experience that led him to apply to the Yad Vashem seminar.
“What I loved about both the March of the Living and the Yad Vashem experiences were that about a third of our group in both cases were Jewish people themselves, either descendants of victims or survivors of the Holocaust,” Mikulcik said.
“They were so open about helping us gentiles understand what it means to be Jewish, and the different degrees from ultra-conservative to a more contemporary view of maintaining Jewish faith in the modern world,” he said.
Currently, Mikulcik is preparing for speaking engagements around Strasbourg, and he’s been included in a national committee that’s planning a summer conference in Toronto that will bring the program’s alumni together.
“Part of my obligation, because I’ve attended Yad Vashem, is to be involved in public education,” he said. “We have fewer and fewer survivors of the events left to testify, and I think it’s incumbent on our generation and younger generations to continue to make the truth known.”