By Jesse Toufexis
“People are capable of great evil,” says Elly Bollegraaf of Ottawa, and she knows this more than most.
Bollegraaf is a Holocaust survivor who believes education is the key to preventing it from happening again.
“We must prepare today’s and future generations so that we and they can and will intervene when there is an opportunity to resist and stop evil from gaining an upper hand and flourishing,” she says.
An opportunity for such preparation will happen in May and June when the University of Ottawa’s Vered Jewish Canadian Studies Program offers a course entitled Canadian Responses to the Holocaust. Taught by Prof. Rebecca Margolis, it will look at the diversity of responses to the Nazi Holocaust from the Second World War to the present.
It aims to understand the roots and the lead-up to the Holocaust, rather than viewing it simply as an incomprehensible aberration. Through education, it seeks to make the incomprehensible, comprehensible.
Within the Canadian Jewish community, the Holocaust existed as a focal point from the very beginning, in particular among the survivors who arrived after the Second World War, many of whom were spurred to activism in the 1980s. However, in mainstream Canada, the response was slow, as outlined by Irving Abella and Harold Troper in their best-selling study None is Too Many, published in1982. The book offers a critical look at Canada’s policy of non-admission of Jewish refugees from 1933 to 1948.
Since then, the Holocaust has played a prominent role in discourse around human rights, genocide and anti-racism education.
The course is structured around many responses to the Holocaust: historical studies, memoirs, survivor testimony, education, Holocaust denial, theology, film and literature, and memorialization. Each class examines one of these areas in depth, and includes readings, guest speakers and a visit to the National Holocaust Monument. Margolis’s goal is to examine the many ways that Canada, as a “bystander nation,” has developed its own particular relationship with the events of the Holocaust over the last 70 years.
She says the guest speakers are key, and, as one of them, Bollegraaf understands the magnitude of her role. “By telling our stories,” she says, “we strive to warn others of what happened and what was brought upon innocent victims by a seemingly intelligent and advanced society.”
Another speaker, Adele Reinhartz, who will talk about the Holocaust memoir written by her mother, says “the Holocaust illustrates what can happen when racism and other forms of discrimination are allowed to flourish in society and in the political realm. Studying the Holocaust can make students aware of the role of prejudice in modern European history and perhaps then to guard against it in our own time and place.”
The course is offered as an undergraduate course (CDN 3102A Selected Topics in Jewish Canadian Studies) open to all university students for three units, with no background or prerequisites required. Community members are welcome to register as auditors (no grades or university credit). The course runs from May 1-June 11, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Community members are welcome to register as auditors for a fee of $300 for the 12 sessions (no grades or university credit).
For more information, please contact Margolis at Rebecca.Margolis@uOttawa.ca, or 613-562-5800 x 2955.
Jesse Toufexis is a doctoral student, Department of Religious Studies, University of Ottawa.