University of Toronto PhD student Caroline Cormier, one of 10 students who spent three weeks on a Holocaust education program to Poland, said that as a member of the last generation who’ll be able to hear Holocaust testimony first-hand, she feels an obligation to keep the memory alive.
The 26-year-old history and Jewish studies student was selected by the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation (AJCF) to take part in the fully subsidized program funded by private donors and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
In addition to visiting Nazi concentration camps in Poland and hearing testimony from Holocaust survivors, the program, which began in New York City on July 1, included visits to Krakow, Warsaw, Auschwitz and Lodz.
The group explored Poland’s rich Jewish heritage, and met with local Jewish and non-Jewish leaders to learn about prewar Jewish life and the Jewish community in Poland today.
“We are the last [generation] to be able to meet with survivors and hear their stories,” said Cormier, whose research includes examining how collective and individual memories of extreme violence and trauma are presented in commemoration projects.
“We are the ones who have been entrusted to continue to share these stories and, in doing so, ensuring that the world can’t either deny the Holocaust or allow it to become simply another footnote in our history textbooks.”
Cormier’s interest in studying the Holocaust and other genocides dates back to her days as a Queen’s University undergraduate student.
After hearing the testimony of a Rwandan genocide survivor at a conference, she became involved with STAND Canada, a student-led organization that advocates for the victims of the genocide in Darfur.
“At the same time, I began working with an organization called SHOUT Canada, a student group under the umbrella of the Canadian Center for Diversity, which was committed to educating students about the Holocaust,” Cormier said.
In 2008, she participated in the March of Remembrance and Hope program, which educates students about the Holocaust and the dangers of intolerance, taking them on trips to Germany and Poland.
Cormier is also involved in the Azrieli Foundation’s Sustaining Memoirs Project, which aims to record Holocaust survivors’ testimony.
With all her background knowledge on the subject, Cormier still credits the AJCF trip for providing her with an experience that will help her “advocate for those people in our world whose lives continue to be affected by the horrors of genocide today.”
While the trip was based around a horrific historical event, she learned that Poland should not be defined solely by its dark past.
“It was inspiring to see the ways in which non-Jewish Poles have taken responsibility for the past and the ways in which they are trying to preserve the Jewish past,” Cormier said.
“We visited Bedzin where we met with… a young couple who have… fought to preserve a former private shul and a beit midrash in the city, as well as developed a number of public commemoration projects, which they have incorporated into the city
She said there were countless other examples of Polish groups that are dedicated to the restoration and preservation of Jewish landmarks.
She said before they arrived in Oswiecim, which is a town just a few kilometres from the Auschwitz death camp, “I have to admit that I had a hard time thinking about the place in terms other than death and horror.”
Cormier explained that before 1939, the 400-year-old Jewish community made up more than half of the population.
“Today the only traces of the Jewish community in the town is an empty lot where the Great Synagogue used to stand tall, a small cemetery located at the edge of the town and a small shul preserved by the Auschwitz Jewish Center,” she said.
“For this reason, our celebration of Shabbat in Oswiecim was incredibly meaningful… Lighting candles on Friday night and… sitting down to dinner with a group of students from across North America – both Jewish and non-Jewish – reminded me of the fact that life goes on.”