The Algonquin College auditorium was almost silent as the students filed out into the foyer, but a burst of chatter and excitement echoed through the hallways as middle- and high school students gathered around tables to have Holocaust survivors Rachel and Adam Shtibel, and John Freund sign copies of their books of Holocaust memoirs.
The Holocaust survivors’ speeches, question and answer sessions, and book signings were so popular that the event organizers, the Azrieli Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, had to add a second day of programming to accommodate the demand.
Now, two months after about 1,400 Ottawa-area students from 16 schools took part in the Yom HaShoah program, April 15 and 16, educators and students are still feeling the impact of the event.
Michael Bernards, a Grade 12 history teacher at Lester B. Pearson High School, said he made changes to his lesson plan to include what they learned from hearing the survivors speak when he and his students covered the Second World War. Bernards and his students said this experience affords them an undeniable advantage in listening to the stories of primary sources.
“I can make reference to what they saw at the presentation.
Bernards said he ordered the full set of Holocaust memoirs published by the Azrieli Foundation for future classroom use.
Ryan McKenna, a Grade 11 history teacher from Arnprior District High School, made the trek to Algonquin with his students.
“I’ve heard different survivors [speak] before, and I am always really very inspired by the stories. It’s very uplifting. I know that might sound strange. It’s a very difficult topic and very dark topic, but it’s always very uplifting,” McKenna said.
McKenna has been teaching about the Holocaust at Arnprior for about 12 years and has had other survivors speak to his students. In 2010, the Federation’s Shoah Committee awarded McKenna the Arie van Mansum Award for his outstanding commitment and excellence in his approach to Holocaust education.
Lester B. Pearson student Samantha Sandberg, 18, said she left the presentation feeling empowered and ordered a memoir after the dozens of free copies made available by the Azrieli Foundation at the event were quickly picked up by other students. Sandberg said the talks deeply resonated with her views on inner strength.
“To me, personally, I think it really shows that no matter what age you are, you have the potential to be strong. That, if you try hard enough and that if you have enough will in your soul, you can get through anything,” she said, adding that she feels as though adults often underestimate teenagers’ strength. “It really makes me feel empowered in a way, that I could do the same thing if I had to. It kind of gives everybody a little more strength than they think that they had.”
Jacob Zeitlain, 17, also a Lester B. Pearson student, said he has a personal connection to this experience, as his grandparents fled into Russia during the Holocaust, but only a few members of their large family survived.
“My grandparents were lucky,” he said. “They managed to escape, but their whole family, the rest of them, they had 12 brothers and sisters … and it was only two of the 12 that escaped. It definitely had an impact on me, more than other people.”
“I left with a great deal of respect for the Holocaust survivors that came out to share their stories and educate the students. I am so grateful that these strong people made it through such a horrific time,” said Mikayla Davis, 16, who now considers herself part of the next generation of Holocaust witnesses who will pass on what they’ve learned to others.
“I did discuss the event with family members and teachers,” she added. “I shared parts of the survivors’ stories and explained the types of things they had to endure. I shared the stories because I knew they would be as amazed as I was and I was happy to educate.”