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Canadian officials tour Holocaust sites, Israel

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Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre CEO Avi Benlolo, left, and Toronto Police Services Chief Mark Saunders visit Jerusalem in July.

For Steven Clarke, the site of the Ravensbruck concentration camp, located north of Berlin, was “ironically serene.” When Clarke, the mayor of Orillia, Ont., learned that the camp was where tens of thousands of mostly Jewish women, children and babies were murdered during the Holocaust – by female guards – it “stirred some uncontrollable emotions.”

Clarke was among two dozen Canadian leaders, including government officials, educators, and senior law enforcement personnel who took part in “Compassion to Action,” an intense, emotional 10-day journey to Germany, Poland and Israel last month, organized by Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies (FSWC).

Participants – police chiefs, deputy chiefs, mayors, and heads of elementary and high schools from all over Canada – went not only to Ravensbruck, but also to the House of the Wannsee Conference, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Oskar Schindler’s factory in Krakow. A trip to Israel followed, with visits to Yad Vashem, the Western Wall, the Knesset, Masada and the Golan Heights.

The idea, according to FSWC CEO Avi Benlolo, was to take leaders “from darkness to light, educating them about the horrors of the Holocaust and effects of hate, as well as introducing them to Israel – its history, accomplishments and the threats it continues to face today.”

The goal, he went on, was to enable officials “to use their power to make a positive difference in their communities, including taking action against anti-Semitism and discrimination, promoting Holocaust remembrance and education, and standing up for human rights.”

Clarke said the trip informed his job and his personal life. “I have already begun spreading the word of the horrors of the Shoah and will more formally address educational groups and other organizations in the fall,” the mayor told The CJN.

“In our personal and professional lives, we need to be ever vigilant to overt and subtle signs of discrimination and all forms of racism and take appropriate action when we are witnesses to this. To not stand up in the face of this type of behaviour is to be complicit in that behaviour.”

About Israel, “one of the things that struck me was that we all grew up hearing about all these places: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea and Golan Heights, but it’s all in a country that’s 40 per cent the size of Nova Scotia,” Clarke told OrilliaMatters.com. “You can drive across Israel in an hour and half and five hours from top to bottom.”

READ: MORE THAN HALF OF CANADIANS DON’T KNOW SIX MILLION JEWS DIED IN HOLOCAUST: POLL

For Rachel Marks, the elementary school head at TMS School in Toronto, the trip’s highlight – if that term can be used – was seeing the Holocaust through the eyes of Auschwitz survivor, educator and author Max Eisen, who accompanied the journey.

Eisen “put things in perspective and brought an intensity to the experience that is difficult to put into words,” Marks told The CJN. “For me, Max’s story will never be untold.”

She said the trip will inform her work as an educator “in many ways. It speaks to the role we have in shaping student minds and cultivating actions rooted in kindness and compassion in even our very youngest. Teaching them that inaction is not good enough. Being a bystander does not cut it. (And) by building confidence and self-esteem, we can help them develop courage in acceptance and action.”

Comments received by the FSWC were in a similar vein.

“Getting a first-hand and solemn view of the sites of some of the worst tragedies ever visited on human beings, balanced with the hope and optimism we witnessed directly from the Israeli people, provided me with a perspective that will certainly influence my advocacy for Canadian policing personnel who are often the first to respond to modern cases of discrimination and hate crimes within our society,” stated Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association.

The trip included representatives from several B.C. police departments, including Vancouver, Port Moody, Delta, and Abbotsford, as well as from Saskatoon, Kentville, N.S., Toronto, and Halton Region, outside Toronto. Also attending was RCMP Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki.

“We are all responsible to never forget the horrors of history, steadfastly prevent similar history from repeating itself, accept new responsibility to safeguard the democratic freedoms we so often take for granted and to protect all people from political and social tyranny,” said Red Deer, Alta., Mayor Tara Veer.

As a history teacher and head of the social science department at St. Clement’s School in Toronto, Mark Will told The CJN that the experience would “enhance and enliven our curriculum about the Holocaust, and serve as an entry point for meaningful conversations with our students about diversity, equity and inclusion.”

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