Imagine a world where there are no longer any living Holocaust survivors. A world where antisemitism is at risk of proliferating to degrees that we cannot yet fathom. A world where Holocaust deniers have greater opportunities to falsify facts and demean one of the most tragic events in Jewish history.
Imagine we can no longer rely on the eyewitnesses to the very atrocities that occurred more than 60 years ago to tell and retell their personal narratives of heartache, perseverance and tenacity. We as second, third and fourth generations must take ownership of the past in order to sustain survivors’ legacies for the future.
From Nov. 5 to 9, students at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., carried out that very responsibility during Western Hillel’s annual Holocaust Education Week (HEW). What distinguished this year’s HEW from others was the adoption of a fresh strategy to improve outreach to non-Jewish students. In addition to an innovative workshop on Holocaust denial and a special event featuring Holocaust survivor Pepa Livingstone recounting her experiences to students, the balance of HEW events involved partnerships with an assortment of student clubs.
This year, HEW organizers and committee members – Shira Gelkopf, Samantha Hershenfeld, Ariel Yeheskel and myself – all agreed that cultivating partnerships for the weeklong programs was essential, since the Holocaust is not only a Jewish tragedy, but also a profound calamity for all of humankind.
For example, we held an exclusive film screening of Paragraph 175, a documentary film that chronicles the lives of homosexuals under Nazi rule. Due to the nature of the event, we approached the Western Undergraduate Film Society (WUFS) and PrideWestern, a club for LGBTQ students and their allies, inquiring if they would be interested in partnering with us for the screening. Both clubs were eager to contribute to HEW.
The executive members of WUFS in particular expressed their respect for our executive team on numerous occasions, commending our passion and dedication to Holocaust education.
Those who attended the screening, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were exposed to a hidden face of the Holocaust that few people are aware of or informed about.
Throughout the week, we organized a display in our university community centre that encouraged students to sign pledge cards with the objective of preventing social injustice. For this exhibit, we reached out to STAND Western, a club devoted to raising awareness about past genocides and Darfur in particular, and the Association for Baha’i Studies. Identifying the Holocaust as more than a mere “Jewish genocide” is crucial in connecting non-Jewish students to this tragedy. We knew that partnering with both of these clubs, which are involved in social justice issues, would help in this regard, and we were pleased when both quickly agreed to collaborate.
By the end of the week, our three clubs had worked together to acquire 250 signatures of Western students pledging to prevent social injustice – an unprecedented response to a HEW initiative. The students who participated also received a handout with pieces of testimony of a survivor or victim of the Holocaust, educating them about the genocide through the compelling vehicle of personal narratives. We collected testimonies from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s online resources and families of Western students, which humanized the Holocaust for other students.
Our outreach tactics with respect to the exhibit garnered a diverse group of student viewers, all of whom gathered under the shared goal of paying tribute to the past.
After this year’s HEW, I am prouder than ever to identify with a dynamic community of organized student leaders on campus. Through innovative and successful outreach strategies such as the ones implemented this year, I feel confident that our generation is capable of and willing to preserve the legacy of the Holocaust now and in the future.