The Grade 8 students sit there, rapt, as Gershon Willinger describes his improbable survival as a Jewish child born in Holland during World War II.
“We talk about resistance fighters. To me, the resistance fighters are also the parents who selflessly placed their children in care of other people, not knowing if they will see those children again… Just put yourself in the place of parents who were expecting the worst, but hoping at least their children would survive. Think about your parents doing that. It’s almost impossible to imagine.”
For 40 minutes, the students are forced to imagine the unimaginable, as Willinger describes how, as a five-month-old infant, he was hidden by a Christian family, and then, as a toddler, was deported to the concentration camps of Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt after an informer revealed his true identity.
His very first memory is of liberation, he tells the youngsters, when Russian soldiers came to the camp and gave him candy.
Willinger has no memory of his parents, who were murdered in Sobibor. He spent the postwar years shuffled from foster families to orphanages, until he was placed with a childless Jewish couple who, like him, were broken and scarred by the war.
After his speech Toronto’s Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, the students’ questions reflect their struggle to comprehend the depth of Willinger’s experiences. “Do you hate the Dutch for destroying your childhood?” “Do you hate the Germans?” And most telling, “Why do you want to talk to us about your experiences?”
“I never thought I had a right to talk, because I was so young. I was a survivor who didn’t know very much. Once I started talking about it, I felt I had something to contribute,” he answers.
That contribution is becoming increasingly rare, as eyewitnesses to the most traumatic events of the last century grow older.
Of the 40,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors who came to Canada after the war, between 12,000 and 15,000 are still alive, says Carson Phillips, assistant director of the Holocaust centre.
Those who are still able to do so speak with schoolchildren, go on pilgrimages to eastern Europe and write their memoirs. As the malevolent chorus of Holocaust denial grows louder, the survivors feel an increasing urgency to bear witness to the horrors they endured.
For Willinger, a retired social worker, even the Nazis’ meticulous paperwork documenting his place in the last deportation from Westerbork camp in Holland and his parents’ murder in Sobibor is precious, because it can be used to confront Holocaust deniers.
“These children are very privileged,” to have heard about the Holocaust first hand, Willinger says about the students he has just spoken to.
But everyone is well aware that these students are the last generation who will have that privilege.
Eli Rubinstein, national director of March of the Living Canada, has 20 survivors accompanying 800 high school students from across Canada this year on the arduous journey to Poland and then Israel. “Many of our survivors have passed away. We have a decade left of people who remember their stories. It’s a very sad topic to talk about.”
Their loss is immeasurable, Rubinstein says.
“Nothing is going to replace a survivor telling his or her story in a barracks in Auschwitz, saying, ‘This is the last time I saw my mother.’”
Surveys of March participants show that the most powerful impact on teenagers is their relationship with the survivor who accompanies their bus and acts as a guide.
The March of the Living has been recording survivors’ testimony for years. This year, they will travel with a survivor and record the reunion when he visits the family who saved him.
“We’re going to film that. It won’t have the same impact [as being there], but it will be pretty powerful,” Rubinstein says.
Eyewitness testimony has played a central role in Holocaust education, says Adara Goldberg, education director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. The challenge now is to transition to telling their story without them.
For a recent exhibit called Enemy Aliens about Jewish refugees interned in Canada during the war, a curator recorded internees’ experiences, and those voices were the first ones visitors heard upon entering the exhibit. Three of those interviewed died before the exhibition opened, Goldberg says.
The centre, like others across the country, is consulting with survivors on the best ways to use videotaped testimony. “We don’t want to exploit the voices [of survivors]. We want to make sure there is some pedagogical value in what we do.”
One approach the Vancouver centre is exploring is to let its extensive collection of artifacts speak for themselves. A tiny recipe book, compiled secretly in a concentration camp, is among the items in their collection. The Jewish woman who created it has died, but the nephew she raised as her own child can speak about the book and the woman who risked her life to write it, Goldberg says.
At Toronto’s Holocaust centre, staff are using the 50,000 testimonies, some of them Canadian, recorded by the U.S-based Shoah Foundation. For the generation of digital natives at home with technology, “that’s an automatic point of access,” Phillips says.
The Toronto centre, aided by a grant from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, has begun organizing some of the testimonies into short, searchable sections, and presenting workshops to adult immigrants learning English. Few of the newcomers had much knowledge about Jews or the Holocaust, but they could relate to the stories of persecution and starting over in a new land, and understand what the survivors contributed to Canadian society. “For many of the… students, this was very inspirational,” Phillips says.
Educators are wrestling with how to convey the emotional impact of the Holocaust, that moment students instinctively grasp when they hear Gershon Willinger’s profound sadness and his pride when he shows them pictures of his children and grandchildren.
“The Holocaust can never become the study of facts and figures. It needs to remain something that’s relevant to our students’ lives,” says Daniel Held, executive director of Toronto’s Henry and Julia Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education.
Increasingly, he says, schools are turning to Holocaust novels and memoirs to give students multiple perspectives of the war.
But students need to go beyond reading and listening to “snippets of testimony,” Held says. “We need to look at the totality of their life, before and after the war. If we only look at a narrow slice of someone’s experience, it’s not the totality of who they were.”
In Atlantic Canada, where few survivors settled to begin with, it has become increasingly difficult for survivors from Toronto and Montreal to travel to smaller communities for commemoration and educational programs such as for Yom Hashoah, says Jon Goldberg, executive director of the Atlantic Jewish Council.
This year, the council has commissioned a play about the St. Louis, the ship carrying Jewish refugees who were denied permission to land in Canada in 1939. A travelling exhibit about the ship has been shown in smaller museums throughout the region as well.
Paradoxically, as the ranks of the survivor community dwindle, attendance at Yom Hashoah ceremonies and Holocaust Education Week is increasing, says Mira Goldfarb, executive director of Toronto’s Holocaust centre.
There’s a “recognition of this being an important moment in time, when we’re on the precipice of losing survivors and we’ve engaged young people in the process of commemoration itself.”
Toronto and other communities now include youth choirs and young people speaking and reading, as well as recognition of survivors and their rescuers.
“Nothing can replace the voice and presence of a survivor, nor should it. The challenge is to honour them with integrity and vigilance, and that’s best done through education,” Goldfarb says.
The city’s Holocaust Education Week attracts 35,000 participants, and programs take place in churches and mosques as well as Jewish institutions.
Ultimately, both Jews and non-Jews will continue to commemorate Yom Hashoah, “not only as a Jewish imperative but as a civic one, and that’s why Holocaust education is key,” she says.
Another approach to the void being left as survivors die is to embed Holocaust remembrance firmly into Jewish ritual and the Jewish calendar.
While Yom Hashoah ceremonies tend to be communal and secular in tone, there’s a role for ritual and the synagogue as well, says Rabbi Philip Scheim of Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Congregation in Toronto.
A decade ago, Alex Eisen, a Holocaust survivor who was a member of Rabbi Scheim’s shul, proposed the idea of a megillah to be read annually, in much the same way Tisha b’Av is commemorated. With the co-operation of the Conservative movement in North America and Israel, a six-chapter book, titled The Shoah Scroll, was written in Hebrew and English.
“Historic events are remembered in Judaism only if they are anchored in religious rituals. The kindling of six torches by survivors in the courtyard of Yad Vashem is a meaningful ritual, but will it last when there are no survivors?” Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem asks in a foreword to the megillah.
The scroll has been translated into Spanish, French, Russian and Hungarian, Rabbi Scheim says. The poetic megillah is read annually in a communal one-hour ceremony in one of the city’s Conservative synagogues. Some of the chapters are chanted in Hebrew using the same trop (cantillation) as is used for reading on Tisha b’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple.
Religious ritual still has a powerful attraction, even for Jews who define themselves as secular, Rabbi Scheim says. Witness the numbers who rarely enter a synagogue, but wouldn’t miss a Yizkor service for a deceased parent.
“There’s a need at a moment of critical painful memory [when] you want to connect with religion,” he says.
The megillah may not become the defining ritual throughout the ages, but it is critical for Yom Hashoah to be commemorated as part of Jewish liturgy, Rabbi Scheim says. Ultimately, Yom Hashaoah must become a national day of mourning, when Jews feel it is disrespectful to go to a restaurant or to the movies, he says.
For his part, Gershon Willinger is confident that the Holocaust will be remembered, even in the absence of survivors such as himself.
“It’s important that we focus on education after this is all over,” Willinger said in an interview after meeting with the students. “Very serious events in history are being remembered and taught… We don’t forget about the Inquisition, we don’t forget about the expulsion of the Jews… and the destruction of the Temple. I would hope that we are teaching about the Holocaust.
“This is only the icing on the cake, that you have survivors speaking.”