Over a period of 17 years, the Winnipeg-based Asper Foundation’s Human Rights and Holocaust Studies program brought hundreds of Grade 9 students every year from Winnipeg and, from 2000 on, across Canada, to Washington, D.C., to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. But after the Canadian Museum for Human Rights opened its doors in Winnipeg in 2014, the foundation cancelled its trips to Washington and began flying in student groups from across Canada.
One Winnipeg high school, however, decided to carry on with the Washington trips and expand the program to include a tour of Auschwitz and other Holocaust-related venues in central Europe for high school students.
Sturgeon Heights Collegiate’s extracurricular Human Rights and Holocaust Awareness program was initiated by Israeli-born auto mechanics teacher Eran Plotnik, whose parents were Holocaust survivors. His mother was a survivor of Auschwitz and the Death March – he wears her prison serial number on a medallion around his neck – and although his father arrived in Palestine just before the war, he lost most of his family in the Holocaust.
Plotnik runs the program alongside guidance counsellor Renee Langrell and history teacher Erin Johnsrud.
The program tackles a wide range of social justice issues and gets students involved in local human rights and Holocaust awareness programs, such as the annual Holocaust Symposium for Manitoba high school students at the University of Winnipeg and the Terry Fox Run. Last fall, the school hosted the Anne Frank exhibit, which has been travelling across Canada.
The highlight for students such as Joseph Wilson, Erin Tierney and Maggie Potrebka, however, is going to be the trip to Europe. All three previously participated in the Washington trip.
“You learn more when you see history up close,” says Maggie Potrebka.
“I have a much better understanding of how cruel the Nazis were after visiting the Holocaust museum,” adds Erin Tierney.
This will be the third time in five years that the three Sturgeon Heights Collegiate teachers are taking a group of students (along with chaperones) to Europe. This year, 44 students will be going.
The 10-day trip leaves Winnipeg on March 22. The first stop will be Berlin, followed by Warsaw, Auschwitz, Krakow and Prague. The group will have a tour guide at Auschwitz. In Krakow, they will tour the old Jewish quarter. In Prague, they will visit the Jewish museum and stop at the Hotel Europe, where the Kindertransports started from.
Plotnik, whose mother’s own story of survival is part of the overall program, heaps praise on the St. James School Division and its board and trustees for their unwavering support for the program.
“They understand the educational value in these trips, adds Johnsrud.
As to funding the trips, Langrell points out that the students and their parents have more than a year’s notice. Parents can arrange to pay in monthly instalments, she says. And many of the participating students work part time to help cover the costs.
“As long as there is a willingness to continue with this program, we will continue to offer it,” Plotnik says.