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Thursday, September 18, 2014

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Holocaust educator seeks forgiveness from daughter of survivors

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Jeff McLaughlin with Hannah Pick, Anne Frank’s best friend

WINNIPEG — It has been something that has been haunting Jeff McLaughlin for many years, and he has finally been able to exorcise the sense of guilt that he has been carrying with him.

In early March, he was able to get his burden off his back when he apologized to Betty Eisenstadt of Toronto, the daughter of Holocaust survivors Dov and Rachel Eisenstadt.

He recalls that he often went with his mother and older brother to The Bagel House, a bakery owned by Eisenstadt’s parents in River Heights in McLaughlin’s hometown of Winnipeg, for bread, buns and donuts. The incident in question happened one time when McLaughlin and his friends – they were 13 or 14 at the time – went into The Bagel House for donuts.

“One of them yelled out a very derogatory term for being Jewish and we ran out of the bakery,” he said. “This event has haunted me my entire life.

“I should forgive myself – everyone tells me that – because I didn’t know any better, and because as kids we all do stupid and unthinking things,” McLaughlin emailed Eisenstadt, “but I cannot, so I ask on behalf of your parents for your forgiveness.”

While the incident may well be considered of little consequence to some, the fact that he retained a strong sense of guilt for remaining silent while friends insulted a couple of Jewish Holocaust survivors speaks volumes about the kind of man McLaughlin has turned out to be.

“Because I grew up with a speech impediment and was picked on quite a bit myself, I became sensitive to the feelings of others,” said McLaughlin, a long time associate professor of philosophy at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C.

One of the ways that McLaughlin has been trying to make amends is by helping to raise awareness of the Shoah. For the past 15 years, he has been a visiting professor at University of Graz in Austria during the summer. In Austria, he has been able to pursue his joint interest in the history of World War II and the Holocaust.

“Since I… live in Austria during the summer, where I teach at a university, I am able to do some research, but I don’t just leave it at the theoretical level,” McLaughlin said. “I also put it into practice.”

He reports, for example, that he successfully petitioned the Austrian government to clean up the forgotten Jewish cemetery in Graz, where he teaches. “When I was told by a friend who’s a member of the Gusen Concentration Camp Memorial Society that people kept tearing down the direction signs for how to get to the camp, I sent off letters to the city council and they funded the creation of permanent signs,” he said.

“When I was teaching business ethics to students from around the world, I hired a bus and took them to Mauthausen so that they could see for themselves what slave labour involved.”

McLaughlin has been to Yad Vashem twice, first for a conference and then last year, when he received a full scholarship to study at its summer seminar, where he says he was exposed to lectures from world-class experts.

“I was the first philosopher to conduct research at the former Spielberg Shoah foundation, and I convinced my department to raise the money to purchase a set of video testimonies from a British Columbia survivor,” he said. “We are the only university to have such a set.”

One of the courses McLaughlin teaches is called “Ethics and the Holocaust.” He said he has visited many of the camps in Europe and conducted interviews with several survivors. He recently had a survivor from Vancouver do a videoconference with his class in Kelowna.

“I was able to arrange with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre to Skype in a speaker for 90 minutes,” he said. “It was a powerful and rewarding experience for my students.  Several came up to me after class to thank me.”

As well, he was the keynote speaker at a recent genocide symposium for high school students in Kelowna. More than 300 students were in attendance.

McLaughlin said he tracked Betty Eisenstadt down via the Internet. She was so moved by his email apology that she contacted The CJN.

“He is an amazing man,” she wrote The CJN. “I think it’s very important to highlight people like this who are not of our faith, especially in these times of rising anti-Semitism.”

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