Lasting impressions: Lessons from the Holocaust

Deborah Dixon in Jerusalem

Deborah Dixon in Jerusalem

By Deborah Dixon

For the past five years I have been a teacher at Beurling Academy in Verdun where I teach a course called Ethics and Religious Culture to grade ten students. It is a class whose objectives are the recognition of others and the pursuit of the common good. It was with these objectives in mind that I accepted an invitation to participate in the Intergenerational Program at the Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors, which gives students the opportunity to meet with Holocaust survivors, listen to their stories, and learn about this dark era in human history.

Students meet Holocaust Survivor at Cummings Centre

Students meet Holocaust Survivor at Cummings Centre

It is hard to put into words exactly what this experience produced in me, but suffice it to say that I was deeply moved by watching the students interact with the survivors and unsettled when listening to their feedback back at school. The reactions were varied. Some said they found it inspiring while others found it disturbing. One student, with tears rolling down his cheeks, simply said, “I did not like the visit. It was too much for me to handle.” Feeling helpless, I told him that he would feel better in time. But, even as I uttered the words, I wondered if that was the right thing to say. I realized that this same concept of time was what could be our greatest enemy.

How does one keep those memories of what happened fresh in the minds of the students? How does one keep time from stealing the promises they made, the feelings they felt, and the words they heard? It’s almost impossible, but that’s what I see the Intergenerational Program as helping to do: reminding them of what happened so time doesn’t make them forget.

Students meet Holocaust Survivor at Cummings Centre

Students meet Holocaust Survivor at Cummings Centre

I was given an incredible opportunity to keep my own memories alive last July when I was awarded a scholarship to travel to Israel for an intensive three-week seminar at the  International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Veshem. The goal of the program is to provide professional development for teachers of all faiths and ethnicities, from all parts of the world, who deal with the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in the classroom. I saw this as a way to equip me so that I could help create a lasting impression for my students when teaching about the Holocaust. My goal for them is to show tolerance in their interactions with each other and, especially, towards those who are different from them. I want the students to be examples of love, peace and respect in a world filled with injustice, hatred, and war.

I returned from Israel in August changed. How could one not be? Each day brought new insights and knowledge about who the Jews were and what they experienced as far back as biblical times. It was overwhelming to take in and digest. It was helpful when we were told to give the Holocaust a face when teaching it and to do it through stories; stories of life, struggle, and, even, death. We were also encouraged to finish it with courage and hope because that is what the Jews showed when they emerged, scarred and broken, from the war.

The responsibility of what I had to do was put into perspective by one of our lecturers, Shulamit Imber, Pedagogical Director of the School. She said, “We need to know what it is to bring our students safely in and to lead them safely out when teaching about the Holocaust. As educators, we are not to be historians where we simply talk about the past; our job as teachers is to give meaning to the past.”

What a beautiful, timely legacy to pass on to my students.

The Yad Vashem International Seminar gives teachers like Deborah Dixon the ability to help her students with the emotions they experience in learning about the Holocaust, and to teach them how to bring their learning into their relations with others and serve both memory and history.  This program is available to Quebec teachers and they can contact the Centre of the Foundation for more information about scholarships, at http://www.t-h-e-program.org.

This year’s Yom HaShoah commemoration will take place at the Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem Synagogue at 7:30pm on Sunday May 1.  Candlelighters, readings and songs will pay tribute to Holocaust Victims under the theme “The life that was” For more information contact the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre at www.mhmc.ca or 514 345-2605.