Trying to make sense of the Holocaust’s senseless

  • April 17, 2007
For Vanessa Harris her Grade 8 class trip to the Holocaust Museum in Toronto was all about trying to understand the incomprehensible.
“I don’t understand how they could do that to another religion,” the St. Barbara Catholic School student told The Catholic Register. “We follow Jesus.”

Why and how could people who call themselves Christians, many of them Catholics, sit down in their offices, behind their desks, and meticulously plot out the extermination of entire families because of their religion? It makes no sense to Harris, but after seeing artifacts from the concentration camps, viewing films about Hitler’s final solution and speaking with Holocaust survivor Anne Eidlitz, Harris understands why the incomprehensible must at least be remembered.

“We should try to stop it from happening again,” she said. “It’s actually happening now in other countries — Darfur.”

Sybille Niemoeller von Sell, a one-time member of the German resistance whose family tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944, would be pleased that the young student isn’t questioning the need to remember the Holocaust. Von Sell has explained over and over why the Holocaust must be remembered, and not just by Jews.

“The Holocaust is not primarily an affair of the Jews,” she said. “It was made mainly by Christians.”

Von Sell will be in Toronto for Yom Hashoah, the international memorial day for Holocaust victims. She will be the keynote speaker for the Toronto Holocaust Remembrance Commemoration April 15, 11 a.m. at Earl Bales Park (Bathurst Street, south of Sheppard Avenue). Von Sell is well aware that the immediacy and sense of horror over the death camps is fading from our general consciousness into the blandness of history.

“It’s so important for the survivors, among whom I count myself in a way, as long as we’re alive... that we never stop talking about it,” she said. “I will bear witness all of my life. More I cannot do.”

Toronto’s Catholic students are among the most frequent visitors to the city’s Holocaust museum. Student-teacher Tony Ciardullo, who arranged the St. Barbara students’ trip to the museum in March, believes having kids face the Holocaust helps them understand the connections between social justice, history and their faith.

“We’re showing them that this was a gradual process — that it just didn’t happen all at once — so they understand the consequences of extreme racial hatred,” said Ciardullo.

The process outlined for the students in their preparation for the class trip, and reinforced at the museum, shows how European Jews were stripped first of their basic rights as citizens and then of their dignity as human beings. Students are then told how respect for human dignity, God’s gift to humanity, is the basis for Catholic teaching about social justice, said Ciardullo.

For Grade 8 student Ara Negapatan the responsibility Catholics have to protect the rights of others was the key message she took away from her class trip to the Holocaust Museum.

“There are more Catholic people in the world and Catholics need to respect other people, and especially religious beliefs,” she said.

The students at St. Barbara’s in Scarborough don’t have much contact with Toronto’s large Jewish community. None of the students The Catholic Register spoke with could name a Jewish friend. But the students said they could identify with the process of isolating and victimizing a particular group or individual. That’s exactly how schoolyard bullying gets started, pointed out Negapatan.

“It’s like human nature, you know. Like morals,” she said.

In Canada, human nature has taken a turn for the worse in recent years, according to the B’nai Brith’s annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents. In 2006 there were 935 anti-Semitic incidents across the country reported to police, a 12.8-per-cent increase over 2005 and a fourfold leap over levels in the 1990s. The Greater Toronto Area set a dubious record with 445 incidents, the highest number ever for Canada’s largest city.

It’s a situation the newly formed Toronto Area Interfaith Council will certainly be discussing as the organization sets its agenda over coming weeks and months, said archdiocese of Toronto ecumenical and interfaith affairs officer Fr. Damian MacPherson.

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