Students exposed to Holocaust horror

By  Michael Swan and Carolyn Girard, The Catholic Register
  • November 6, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - By the time she was sweet 16 Miriam Frankel had worn a yellow star, been expelled with her family from Italy by the fascists, lived as a refugee, ridden a cattle car to Auschwitz, worked as a slave on less than 1,000 calories a day, stared Dr. Josef Mengele in the eye and lost her entire family to a planned system of industrialized murder.

“I don’t know why I survived. Maybe it was to tell the story,” Frankel told about 100 people Oct. 28 at one of the first sessions of Toronto’s Holocaust Education Week.

Holocaust Education Week has featured hundreds of speakers throughout the years, with 170 programs offered this year alone. But following in the footsteps of this year’s first presentation, Catholic schools in particular were quick to claim Holocaust survivors as their main speakers, said organizer Mary Siklos, as most Holocaust survivors like Frankel, who is 80, won’t be telling their story much longer.

Grade 9 student Samantha Franko knows this well and was to share about her own experiences meeting with Holocaust survivors at the York Catholic District School Board’s Holocaust Education Week symposium for high school students, held Nov. 4 at St. Elizabeth Catholic High School.

“If we keep the stories alive and pass them on we’ll keep the history of the Holocaust going,” Franko told The Catholic Register. “Even though it was bad, we have to learn from the actions that came from that.”

Franko was one of a handful of students from the newly opened St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic High School in Aurora who went to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August. The trip was meant to help students better understand the sacrifice of their saintly namesake. The Franciscan gave his life to save that of another at Auschwitz.

But Franko and her peers were able to see much more than St. Maximilian’s story after they were handed personalized letters written by Holocaust survivors who they met in person upon their return to Toronto.

“When we got to Auschwitz-Birkenau, sitting on the train tracks where the selection platform was and opening our letters, that was a big thing for me, because we got to hear their life experiences and I just got to see it from another person’s point of view,” Franko said. “It was really heartbreaking and I felt really overwhelmed, but at the same time I also felt relieved that my survivor was able to make it through his life and to where he is now.”

She couldn’t wait to meet her letter-writer, and felt privileged that he wanted to tell her the rest of his story.

“For me, one of the really important things about the trip was that we really learned that Hitler showed us the greatest form of bullying that’s ever possible and that St. Maximilian Kolbe, his greatest value was putting others before himself.”

Teacher Cathie Furraro, who accompanied the students, said she was excited to see the students discussing the topic.

“They will learn more about the Holocaust experience and apply that experience to their own environments and realities,” she said prior to the symposium.

The day was also meant promote respect for Remembrance Day and provide a different context for remembering the lessons of the past to positively impact the future. Two survivors were to be present to answer questions from the students, who also heard from the author of And the Rat Laughed and the composer of the opera based on the book, which they plan to attend Nov. 10 at the Richmond Hill Centre of Performing Arts.

Holocaust Education Week was never meant to be exclusive to the Jewish community, said Holocaust Education Committee co-chair Joan Shapero.

“The history of the Holocaust is not just a Jewish history. It’s a human one,” she said. “The week is aimed primarily at the next generation. We want young people who will be upstanders, not bystanders — responsible citizens who will choose to speak out.”

For now, the greatest asset we have in forming the next generation is the memories of Holocaust survivors, according to Shapero.

“We know there is evil in the world, and by hearing the witnesses we know it is real.”

For more on Holocaust Education Week, see or call (416) 631-5689.

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