“My grandmother was a teenager when the Second World War broke out in Warsaw. From a family of ten people, she was the only one to survive. She had gone through the Warsaw Ghetto, through Majdanek concentration camp where her mother was killed, and she ended up at Auschwitz-Birkenau where her sister was killed. Despite the catastrophic experiences that marked her teenage years, she managed to rebuild a life in Canada. She managed, somehow, to put one foot in front of the other and live a life in which positivity, optimism, and resilience were critical components.”
This story comes from McGill Professor Daniel Heller, whose grandmother, Eva Kupfert, survived the Holocaust. On January 27, the world commemorated the horrific tragedies of the Holocaust. The United Nations designated January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005, marking Auschwitz-Birkenau’s liberation 60 years prior.
Stories like Professor Heller’s are remembered worldwide, and remind us of the importance of Holocaust education. Leaders around the world issued statements encouraging their citizens to reflect on the horrors of the past, and to learn from this instance of hatred. The Bull & Bear turned to the McGill community to find out what Holocaust education looks like today, and why and how members of the McGill community remember.
“One of the most important components of Holocaust education is to alert people to some of the dangers of ethnic nationalism and hatred,” Professor Heller stated. He noted that as time passes, it becomes easy to paint the Holocaust as a simple story of “good versus evil” and point solely to the dangers of fascism. However, Professor Heller, who teaches a course on the Holocaust at McGill, works to reveal the disturbing truths that go beyond the stereotypes of Nazi soldiers as “monsters” who had “gone insane.” He noted that “the truth is far more complicated, and in my view, far more horrific,” referring to the troubling notion that the perpetrators of Holocaust atrocities were often ordinary people.
“How is it that people like you and me, who are otherwise good and kind to their parents, to their wives, to their husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, siblings; who are otherwise compassionate, how do people like that, at the same time, murder people point-blank? How can that compassion and that hatred coexist in the same person?” Professor Heller questioned.
Mikaela Rath, President of Hillel McGill, believes that an important lesson that can be learned from the Holocaust is the power of one person taking a stand. She cited figures such as Oskar Schindler and Antonina Żabińska, whose “bravery, kindness, and compassion saved lives.”
Professor Heller aims to honour the legacies of those who fought to survive by humanizing the Holocaust. He noted the tendency to paint over the rich histories of Holocaust survivors, claiming that “in many ways, people mistakenly depict the Jews of Eastern Europe, who had centuries of vibrant, dynamic, flourishing lives, as if they were poised to die from the moment they were born, as if they were always on the edge of destruction. If we depict the victims of the Holocaust in this fashion, we risk dehumanizing them.” Professor Heller stressed the importance of including the human experience in Holocaust education to honour the past while teaching lessons for the future.
A pressing challenge that Holocaust educators face is the diminishing population of survivors. Survivors have been central to Holocaust education, as they can help people understand the Holocaust experience from a first-hand perspective. Professor Heller maintains that “when we lose the ability to meet people who were victims of the Holocaust, we will suffer an irreparable loss. This fact may be depressing, but it is also a feature of the human experience: when we don’t encounter people face-to-face, we oftentimes lose the ability to empathize with them and to connect with them.”
In commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Montreal’s Holocaust Museum offered free entrance on January 28. Six survivors shared their stories with students and other members of the public. Similarly, Hillel McGill plans to bring a Holocaust survivor to speak on campus in the coming weeks.
Apart from formal education, Shira Mattuck, President of Chabad at McGill, points out that the legacy of the Holocaust is commemorated by practicing Judaism on a daily basis. “Every candle lit for the Sabbath, every prayer spoken, and every holiday celebrated serves as a testament to the six million Jews who perished during the Holocaust,” she noted. “By building a vibrant community for Jewish students and engaging in our religious traditions, we aim to ensure the continuity of Jewish life.”
Continuing to honour the legacies of Holocaust survivors reminds the world not only of the dangers of hatred, but also of the immense power of kindness, Rath articulated. “The stories from the Holocaust are filled with people hiding, saving, and protecting Jews. They demonstrate how acts of bravery and kindness, big or small, can impact the course of history.”