CHES Launches Through Their Eyes Project

By Phil Emberley and Marion Silver
Antisemitism is a pervasive force locally, nationally, and internationally; it is manifested by hateful speech and acts of hatred of increasing frequency. At the same time, there is an astonishing lack of awareness about the basic facts of the Holocaust among the younger generation. Many have suggested that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between this lack of awareness and the increased antisemitic behaviour that is occurring today.

The core mission of CHES is to develop educational programs that promote knowledge and understanding of the history and legacy of the Holocaust. In the past, one of the most effective means of fulfilling our mission was to have those who directly experienced the Holocaust bear witness by telling their stories to students in primary and secondary schools.

Sadly, as time passes, we are losing our Holocaust survivors along with many of the memories of this horrific era in Jewish history. One way to keep the memories alive is for the descendants of Holocaust survivors to tell their family’s story, stories that feature peril, loss, hope, love, perseverance, and resilience. These attributes are not unique to the Holocaust but are common elements of the human experience. As such, learning about them can facilitate a greater understanding of the tragedy that befell the Jewish people. 

Recognizing that the need to recount the stories of survival is greater now than ever, a capacity crowd of Second-Generation survivors filled the boardroom adjacent to Ottawa’s Centerpointe Library on July 11th. They listened attentively as CHES director Kara Goodwin outlined a process of recall and relating through a program called Through Their Eyes, based on a model adopted in Calgary. 

The goal of Through Their Eyes is to support the descendants of survivors through the process of researching, writing, and preparing their narrative with the result being a document, script, or video suitable for presentation to students. CHES was recently awarded a grant from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s Jewish Journeys project, which will ensure the ongoing sustainability of Through Their Eyes.

Many of us know our family’s story in varying degrees of detail. Through Their Eyes aims to facilitate the necessary research as well as the refining and sharing of stories. To help optimize the details of family stories, the program incorporates the key elements of locating primary sources, connecting and interviewing family, and preparing biographies.  

Although descendants of Holocaust survivors do not have the lived experience of their relatives, nevertheless they are able to offer a unique lens on the impact of the Holocaust on their family members. While numerous survivors have told their story publicly, many others have never been able to overcome the trauma to do so.  In teaching about the Holocaust, descendants will highlight the biography of the survivor, speak about Jewish life prior to the Holocaust, describe how life changed during the Holocaust, relate how their family survived and finally, explain the impact of the Holocaust on the survivor and their family.

As descendants of Holocaust survivors, we bear an obligation to live by the credo, Never forget. The prevalence of genocide throughout our human existence, and certainly in the recent past, should be explained to today’s youth, and none better than by those whose lives have been directly affected by these terrible events. Doing so will serve as a powerful incentive for young minds to listen, to ask questions, and to act so that the tragedy of the Holocaust will never be repeated. 

The audience who gathered at the Centerpointe Library boardroom committed to the imperative to honour the memory of their family members and the lessons and legacy of the Holocaust. We anticipate that, as Through Their Eyes evolves over the coming months and years, an invaluable repository of Holocaust remembrance will emerge.

Phil Emberley is a member of the CHES Board and Marion Silver is the CHES secretary.