More than 1,400 Ottawa-area public high school students and teachers filled the Commons Theatre at Algonquin College and were visibly moved hearing three Holocaust survivors tell their stories.
About 700 students and teachers attended each of two Yom HaShoah assemblies on the mornings of April 15 and 16.
The Toronto-based survivors, Rachel Shtibel, her husband Adam Shtibel, and John Freund, shared their stories and participated in question-and-answer panels.
“The response was incredible. We had to book a second day,” said Jody Spiegel, director of the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program of the Azrieli Foundation, which sponsored the Yom HaShoah programs with the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.
Nepean High School students Alexandra Tucci and Solomia Granger, both 17, said hearing the stories was “emotional” and added depth to their understanding of the Holocaust. Granger said she could feel a strong connection to the survivors’ stories as her Ukrainian grandparents also had to flee during the war.
“My parents never talked about the war. They wanted me to forget,” said Rachel Shtibel, as she told her story of survival. She was just four years old when the Holocaust began, but said she remembered so much more than she let on.
After years of keeping quiet, Rachel was encouraged to share her story by a producer who interviewed her in 1997 for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, established by American filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
“I couldn’t stop crying and I couldn’t stop writing. I couldn’t stop until I told everything I remembered,” she said.
Shtibel attempted to get her memoir, The Violin, published. “Since I wrote the book, I became free.”
But she was disheartened and thought there was no outlet for her manuscript when publishers in Canada and the United States respectfully declined to publish it.
That changed, though, when she saw a newspaper ad in 2005 saying the Azrieli Foundation was looking for Holocaust survivors’ memoirs to publish. Her memoir was immediately accepted and was published in 2007 as a book in tandem with her husband’s memoir, A Child’s Testimony. The Foundation publishes a new series of survivors’ memoirs each year.
“The memoirs are free to all schools, all libraries, and all teachers,” Spiegel said.
The Foundation is a philanthropic organization that promotes, among other initiatives, Holocaust education and awareness.
“I just wish and want for people to live in harmony and peace,” Rachel said of her message to the students.
Following each morning’s assembly, the Shtibels signed copies of their book, and Freund signed copies of his Holocaust memoir, Spring’s End, for students and teachers eager to learn more.