Holocaust survivor spreads anti-bullying message through film

  • April 3, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - The story of a Holocaust survivor who uses her experiences to relate messages about bullying, racism and tolerance to students has been captured in a feature documentary.

Stronger than Fire, by Toronto filmmaker Don Gray, captures the powerful tale of Eva Olsson, an 84-year-old woman from Bracebridge, Ont., who discovered a passion for speaking to students more than 12 years ago. She began facing her past after one of her three grandchildren convinced her to do a short presentation at her school.

The first half of the film unfolds emotional footage of Olsson speaking to youth, Grades 7 through 12, about the “bully Nazis” and the bystanders who did nothing to stop the horrors. Students interviewed on the video testify about the impact Olsson has made on their lives, tears streaming down many of their faces. They eagerly line up for the chance to thank her and receive one of her grandmotherly hugs.

One young girl is reminded of her own grandfather’s escape from the Holocaust. Another talks about a “bystander” who informed her grandfather that he was on a hit list. Thanks to the informant, her family luckily escaped to Canada. But Olsson’s tale reminded the girl that she must also stand up for others when someone is planning to hurt them physically or emotionally.

Students sit exceptionally still, obviously deeply moved as Olsson shows footage and pictures from the Holocaust. She relates one powerful memory about her arrival in one of the camps, where another prisoner instructed her to drop the hand of a little niece without explaining why. The Nazis were killing women and their babies and at the age of 19, she could have been mistaken for the child’s mother.

Olsson talks about losing more than 80 members of her extended family, except for one sister, to death in the concentration camps, which she finally visited two years ago, setting foot on terrain that had painfully haunted her memory for 60 years.

The second half of the documentary follows her journey from Szatsmar, Hungary, her hometown, to Nazi camps Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and then to visit her husband’s relatives in Sweden, where they met after her liberation. They had moved to Canada but Rude Olsson died in a car accident barely 10 years into their marriage.

“Now she is even stronger in her message than before she went,” said Gray. “Respect, tolerance, bystanding, bullying... it’s a story about the Golden Rule.”

Gray said that before visiting Europe, Olsson referred to her presentations in schools as her mission, but after dealing with the horrors of the past, she now refers to it as her calling.

“When I came back from over there, I realized I was not doing enough,” Olsson told The Register. “You cannot do enough to make up for that horror. We cannot change the past, but all of us have the power to make a difference today.”

Every week from now until June, Olsson is booked in speaking engagements across Ontario. This school year she will have done the rounds at nearly 230 schools. In the past, she has spoken at San Diego University, at Ohio’s state prison, twice at the United Nations in New York and also in Winnipeg. In 2007 she received the Order of Canada.

“The important thing is that hate is eliminated — and bullying, because they are connected,” Olsson said. “When you ask the children, ‘who uses the word hate everyday’ the hands go up. But they are a product of their environment so I speak to parents as well. (I tell them) you have to send your children to school in a way you would like them to be as adults.”

The film’s only public viewing so far, at Beach United Church Auditorium on March 28, drew more than 400 people. To obtain a copy of the documentary, call (416) 698-8287. To contact Olsson for a speaking engagement, call 1-888-477-2224.

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