Montrealers commemorate young lives lost during the Holocaust
Published Monday, April 28, 2014 9:18PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, May 8, 2014 10:35AM EDT
Around the world, people gathered Monday to commemorate the lives of the six million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Thousands of young Jews from around the world marched between the two parts of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi German death camp in Poland, while in Israel, residents stopped in their tracks as a two-minute siren went off to mark Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Here in Montreal, there were a number of events to mark the occasion, including one dedicated to the 1.5 million children who died during Adolf Hitler’s reign as chancellor of Germany.
It was held at the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Snowdon, and featured Herzliah High School students and Holocaust survivors coming together to reflect on the young lives cut short.
Herzliah student Shai Navi read out 20 children’s names during the service.
“Twenty out of 1.5 million (names) and already during the ceremony I thought I was saying so many,” she said.
Ilse Zilversmit lived in the same Amsterdam neighbourhood as perhaps the best-known of those names, Anne Frank.
Their parents knew each other; Zilversmit and her sister were around the same age as Anne and her older sister.
Zilversmit and her family have another thing in common with the Franks – they were also sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Zilversmit’s father was killed there, but she survived along with her mother and sister.
“I'm the lucky one, I have six great grand-children,” she said.
Anna Mendel was four when her mother was killed. She survived by hiding in a kitchen cupboard.
“These are the flashbacks that I have and had and still have, she said.
“I have seven grandchildren, thank God, and they are my victories.”
It’s through those grandchildren and great-grandchildren that the story of the Holocaust will live on.
But in Quebec high schools, lessons about the Holocaust aren’t part of the curriculum, a reality some say needs to change.
Vincent Massey high school teacher Vincent Gagnon recently visited Israel’s Holocaust museum, and was struck by the suffering and the stories he saw and read there.
“I felt it was really important to share that knowledge,” he said.
He now tries to incorporate the Holocaust into lessons about hate, discrimination, violence even bullying.
But his approach is a rare one -- high school teachers are just not trained to teach about the Holocaust, or any other genocides.
Gagnon went to Israel as part of T. H. E. Program, which aims to give educators the tools to teach students about the Holocaust.
Riva Hecht is one of the namesakes of the scholarship that allows teachers to take the trip.
And she has a deep connection to the Holocaust -- her husband is a child survivor who escaped Europe in 1942.
Hecht says not teaching today’s students about it puts them at a disadvantage.
“It’s a nightmarish part of our history, a devilish kind of occurrence perpetrated by a government that was democratically elected,” she said.
In seven years, they've brought almost 30 Quebec teachers to Jerusalem to learn about the holocaust, and pass on their knowledge to students.
Gagnon, the Vincent Massey teacher, has gone as far as Trois-Rivieres to pass on what he’s learned.
Back in Snowdon, the ceremony came to a close soon after six candles were lit, each representing a million Jews.
Each student in attendance took a candle bearing the name of a child who died as a result of the Nazis’ persecution.
In the crowd Monday was Talia Bensassoun, Anna Mendel’s granddaughter. She says learning about the Holocaust ensures its memory will never fade.
“I think that that’s the way you continue the legacy of the people who did perish,” she said.
-- with files from The Associated Press