TORONTO — Last week marked the sixth year of the Adopt a Survivor program at Yorkhill Elementary School in Thornhill. The program, created by Harriette Fleising, a teacher at the school, is an interactive way for students to learn about the Holocaust and other genocides.
For Fleising, educating students about the Holocaust feels like a personal responsibility. “It’s very dear and close to my heart,” said the kindergarten teacher who is the child of Holocaust survivors. “I felt that the children should learn a piece of history.”
Fleising decided that the best way to teach that piece of history was to create the Adopt a Survivor program. Participating classes from grades 4 to 8 inclusive each “adopt” a Holocaust or genocide survivor and study their story as well as the history of the conflict or war.
Students are given a storybook about their survivor, printed and donated by Eleanor and Michael Rinne of Print Three in Toronto, which they study for 3-1/2 weeks. The students then hold a Holocaust and genocide memorial assembly at the end of the unit, where they are introduced to their adoptive survivors, either in person or through video-conferencing, depending on where the survivors live.
“They’re so excited because it’s not just information they’re learning from a book,” Fleising said.
The culminating assembly for this year’s program was held last week in the school’s gymnasium. The theme was child survivors of the Holocaust, and it included speeches by the director of the York Region District School Board, Ken Thurston, as well as executive vice-president of B’nai Brith Canada Frank Diamant. Following their speeches, students presented poetry and reflections about genocide, and there were video clips of the adoptive survivors, speeches by Holocaust survivor Jozef Cipin and a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide, Leo Kabalisa.
“The lesson is that we have to educate from a young age,” Diamant told the students who were surrounded by decorations with information about the Holocaust, about genocides worldwide and about the dangers of bullying people because they are different.
Diamant stressed that the Holocaust happened in what people considered a “civilized” society, similar to the one in Toronto. He urged students to recognize the importance of tolerance. “Had there been that mutual respect of civilizations, there would never have been a Shoah,” he said.
Feising told the audience how important it is for young children to understand the horrors of racism and of genocide, so that they can pave the way for a better future. “The challenge will be for the young generation to carry the torch, to recognize when injustice is done and to speak up,” she said.
For Kabalisa, who barely escaped the Rwandan Genocide in the ’90s, it is especially important that young people don’t simply repeat the phrase “never again,” but that they truly understand that they can make a difference in ending racism. “Every single time, we say ‘never again,’ and it happens again, and we [just] watch,” he said. “However, when I see so many young students sitting here, listening quietly to what we say, I see a brightness in the future.”