MONTREAL — Acting as the spokesperson for a Holocaust education series may seem like an odd assignment for a 35-year-old man born in Zaire, who is now a rising star in Quebec broadcast journalism.
But François Bugingo takes very seriously his role in making the public more aware of the genocide of six million Jews and what can be learned from history. “The story of the Holocaust is our story,” he says.
Bugingo is the face of the annual Holocaust Education Series sponsored by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC), which ends Nov. 1. It is 10 days of films and discussions, many with Holocaust survivors, for the public at large. For the first time, there was also a conference for teachers, attended by 75 educators mainly from public schools.
“I felt it was important to talk about the Holocaust. Why? Because the world is on the threshold of something frightening: it is about to forget about it,” Bugingo said at a press conference.
In this province the problem is not dimming memory, but lack of education in the first place. He believes Quebecers’ knowledge of the Holocaust is “almost nil,” and he includes well-educated people in that assessment. “I’m really amazed at how little they know.”
Bugingo is a household name in French-speaking Quebec, having hosted a public affairs program called Points Chauds on Télé-Québec. He is now a radio program host and television personality on Radio-Canada, specializing in international affairs.
He is also the founder and president of Reporters Without Borders Canada, and a vice-president of the international organization, which defends journalistic freedom and is especially concerned with those journalists who are persecuted or imprisoned for doing their job.
Bugingo, who has lived in Quebec for 12 years, is especially sensitive to the Holocaust because his parents are of Rwandan origin, and he covered the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which few other journalists did.
“I wanted to know how this could happen, how human beings could decide to simply eradicate another.”
He established the first French-language newspaper in Rwanda after the genocide, and has since been active in promoting human rights. He also covered conflicts in Somalia, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Having partly grown up and lived for many years in France, Bugingo was well aware of European history and especially France’s mixed record on the Holocaust.
The fact that in Rwanda another group of people could again be the target of extermination shook him to the core.
His knowledge of the subject deepened after he took a course at the Simon Wiesenthal Center on how Nazi war criminals were tracked down. He now he goes to Israel twice a year, never missing a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust authority in Jerusalem.
For him to be asked to speak about the tragedy that befell the Jewish people is a great honour, he said.
“Holocaust education is not only about the past, it is about educating for the future, about building a new and safer world,” he said.
“We are doing this for the sake of humanity. All of us must stand up and not let this happen again.”
Although Bugingo is a staunch defender of freedom of expression, he said, “We have to be careful and mindful of everything said by the media and in the political field and public places… Freedom comes with responsibility.
“In Rwanda people were killed not only by machetes and guns, but by words as well. As a journalist, I am very aware of the words we use.”
When he hears history being negated or questioned, “it really frightens me, I don’t take it lightly.”
With regard to the level of awareness of the Holocaust in Quebec, MHMC executive director Alice Herscovitch added that a survey commissioned by the Association of Canadian Studies last year found that francophone Canadians did know less about the subject.
“However, we have found that the more people know about the Holocaust, the more they want to know about it and other genocides.”
The aim of the education series is “to interest people, not be didactic,” she said.
Under the theme, “Devenir témoin, agir/ Looking back, reaching forward,” the series brings programs largely to where people are: schools, colleges, cultural and religious centres and bookstores around the city, and even to a St. Laurent Boulevard bar, where 78-year-old Belgian-born survivor Davy Trop talked about his experiences.
Trop said he had found in talking to young people that “they know lots of people were killed [during the war], but they do not really grasp the significance that [the Holocaust] represents a total disdain for human dignity. They are amazed when I tell them that Jews to the Germans were not even human beings, that they didn’t see it as murder but as extermination, like of vermin or sick animals.”
Other genocides, such as the one in Cambodia, and broader human rights and cultural diversity issues are also explored.
The closing event of the Holocaust Education Series on Nov. 1 is the Canadian premiere of the German documentary Hidden Children, Unknown Heroes, with French subtitles, at the Goethe-Institut Montréal at 7 p.m. The film tells the stories of three Jews who were hidden as children during World War II, one of them being Montrealer Eva Kuper. Born in Warsaw in 1940, Kuper was lovingly cared for by a nun in a Polish convent for three years. Sixty-two years later she was reunited with her rescuer.
“Being saved is the proof that somebody cared enough for me to risk his or her own life,” said Kuper, who will be present that evening along with the film’s director Kirsten Esch for a post-screening discussion. “I wouldn’t be the same person if, in addition to saving my life Sister Klara [Jaroszynska] didn’t give me love.”
That afternoon, the Australian documentary The Mascot, whose Canadian premiere was the opening event of the series, is reprised at Cinéma du Parc at 5 p.m. Filmmaker Lina Caneva reveals the secret Alex Kurzem harboured from childhood on.
Nazi-collaborating Latvian soldiers found him when he was a five-year-old Russian orphan and made him their “mascot,” giving him a new identity. Although he was actually Jewish and his family had been massacred, Kurzem became a poster boy for the Nazi ideal.
He was adopted by a Latvian family and taken to Australia. The film follows Kurzem’s search for his origins and the unexpected impact the truth about his past has had today.
Also on Nov. 1, the MHMC museum holds an open house with guided tours available in English and French from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Close to 12,000 visits were made to the museum during the 2008-09 season. For full details on the series, visit www.mhmc.ca.