1 in 5 Canadian youths aren’t sure what happened in the Holocaust, survey says

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One in five young people in Canada either haven’t heard of the Holocaust or aren’t sure they know what it is.

That’s the conclusion from a new survey released ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday. 

Historians believe the new data should be a wake-up call on how the systematic murder of six million Jews in Europe is taught in Canadian schools — and remembered more broadly. 

« One of the surprising things was the awareness gap between millennials and older respondents …it’s shocking, » said historian Naomi Azrieli, CEO of the Azrieli Foundation, the charity behind the survey.

« I think older Canadians are more likely to have known a survivor or been around in World War Two, » she told CBC News. « With each generation, it becomes less living history and more remote. »

While there are debates among historians about exactly when the Holocaust began, the mass killing of Jews in the Second World War started in 1941 with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, according to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, and continued until the Nazis were defeated in 1945.

Held on Jan. 27 annually following a United Nations resolution, International Holocaust Remembrance Day coincides with the day Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest complex of Nazi death camps, was liberated by Soviet forces in 1945. 

Among other points, the survey found: 

• Nearly 6 in 10 Canadians (57 per cent) said fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust than they used to.

• 15 per cent of Canadian adults and more than one fifth of Canadians under age 34 (22 per cent) haven’t heard about or are not sure if they have heard about the Holocaust.

• Nearly half of Canadian respondents (49 per cent) couldn’t name a single concentration camp. That’s roughly equal to the U.S., where 45 per cent couldn’t name one in a similar survey last year. There were over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust. 

A crew member walks toward the National Holocaust Monument before the official opening in Ottawa on Sept. 27, 2017. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

• Nearly one quarter of all Canadians (23 per cent) believe substantially fewer than six million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust, while another 24 per cent were unsure of how many were killed.

• Few Canadians believe there are many neo-Nazis in Canada today, while nearly half think there are many in the U.S. In fact, on a per capita basis, the two countries have roughly the same number of neo-Nazis, Azrieli said.

Reasons for optimism

With offices in Toronto, Montreal and Israel, the Azrieli Foundation commissioned Schoen Consulting to carry out the survey based on 1,100 interviews with Canadians over age 18 in September 2018. The margin of error was three per cent. 

While Azrieli was disappointed by the lack of knowledge about the Holocaust, especially among younger Canadians, she said the survey also offered plenty reasons for optimism. 

More than 80 per cent of respondents believe all students should learn about the Holocaust in school and 85 per cent said it’s crucial to keep teaching about the Holocaust so it doesn’t happen again.

Azrieli wants to see a more comprehensive approach to how the Holocaust is taught in schools, potentially involving special professional development days for teachers to become more acquainted with its history. 

Holocaust survivor Judy Young-Drache holds a photo of her mother and father at right at her home in Ottawa on May 10, 2017. Both Irma and Gyorgy Balazs were killed in the Holocaust. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

With only around 5,000 Holocaust survivors alive in Canada today to tell their own stories about the mass killings, she said it’s more crucial than ever that schools and other institutions develop strong programs to teach the subject.

False beliefs

The need for better Holocaust education is especially intense due to rising anti-Semitic sentiment in much of the world, said Azrieli, whose family survived the Holocaust. 

In Canada, hate crimes rose to an all-time high in 2017, according to a Statistics Canada report released in November. For hate crimes based on religion, Jews were the most targeted group in Canada, with more than 300 incidents reported to police.  

Nearly one-third of survey respondents believed Canada had an open immigration policy for Jewish refugees fleeing Europe.

In fact, Canada had « one of the worst immigration records in the world » related to Jewish people, « worse than the U.S. or U.K., » Azrieli said. 

Canada allowed only 5,000 Jewish refugees into the country while allowing nearly 2,000 Nazi war criminals to immigrate to Canada after the Second World War, the Azrieli Foundation reported. 

In the 1930s and 1940s, Canadian border guards had a saying about Jewish refugees, she said: « None is too many. »

Survey respondents thought Canada had been more welcoming toward Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, as they considered Canada to be generally more open toward immigrants than other nations, given the country’s current policies. 

« That was a very interesting finding of this survey, » said Azrieli, « And an important indication that our own history is not well known to most Canadians. » 

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‘Not something that was in the past’: Survivor wants kids to be taught more about horrors of the Holocaust

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The memories of the Holocaust are as fresh as ever for Regine Frankel.

She remembers, she says, « never knowing even the next day — will we be alive? »

Frankel and her family hid with a family in France for years during the Second World War, knowing at any moment they could be found and killed.

She has been sharing her story with school children for decades, but said she was shocked when she recently spoke to a group of students in Winnipeg.

« There was one class who knew nothing. That was very disturbing, because the Holocaust is not something that was in the past. It’s something that you have to learn, so that it doesn’t repeat itself. »

Franco says over the years, she’s noticed people know less about what happened to people like her, including the knowledge that six million European Jews were killed in Nazi-run concentration camps.

Belle Jarniewski said she’s also noticed that Canadians have less knowledge than they used to.

The executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada was leading the discussion with the students.

In Manitoba, students are required to learn about the Holocaust in Grade 6.

But Jarniewski said any of the tougher concepts aren’t appropriate for that age group, meaning many students don’t receive a deeper education on genocide as they get older.

Belle Jarniewski is the executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

She wants Manitoba to include more about the Holocaust in the curriculum, including Canada’s role in anti-Semitism, something that is less known.

« Canada had the worst record of any country in accepting Jews who were fleeing Nazi persecution, » she said.

« No one knows the story about the St. Louis, a boat that was not allowed into Canada that carried over 900 [refugee] Jews, » she said.

Jarniewski also points to boycotts against Jewish-run businesses in Quebec, graphic and racist newspaper cartoons depicting Jewish people, and rules that restricted their property ownership.

History affects today

« Unless we know our own history … I think it makes us less understanding and aware of the refugee situation today. »

Jarniewski said understanding how the Jewish population was treated in the past is especially important now.

« It teaches students what happens what happened with an abuse of power. Particularly today, when we see the rise of populism, of nationalism, of white supremacy. This is the prime example of the importance of countering that. »

The Holocaust marks an important moment in human rights, according to Jeremy Maron, curator of Holocaust and genocide content at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Maron said it also serves as a case study to understand how human rights abuses and genocide can occur.

« The Holocaust really shows that when human rights and human dignity are not recognized and not respected, the slope can become very slippery, » he said.

Regine Frankel says she’ll keep telling her story, hoping it won’t be forgotten.

« It’s very painful. But it’s necessary. And I just hope it has just some effect. Even if we reach just a few of them. »

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Newfoundlander and Holocaust survivors’ son reunite in Toronto

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The hug was decades in the making.

On Sunday, Newfoundlander Ernest Condon embraced the son of his longtime friends, Lewis and Grunia Ferman — Jewish resistance fighters who survived the Holocaust and sought refuge in St. John’s.

« Oh my gosh, Eileen, he looks like Lewis, » Condon, 75, said excitedly to his wife as Alan Ferman walked toward him at the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto.

« This is going to be too emotional for me … Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. »

Watch the reunion:

Newfoundlander Ernest Condon recently reunited with the son of his longtime friends – Jewish resistance fighters who survived the Holocaust and sought refuge in St. John’s. 2:04

Ferman was equally delighted.

« So good to see you, b’y, » he said before hugging Condon.

« Your family and my family were so close. »

Ferman’s family history in Newfoundland is finally coming to light after a sign for his family’s clothing store, Lewis Ferman and Co., was recently uncovered in downtown St. John’s. 

Alan said many people are now contacting him with stories about his parents. Lewis and Grunia both escaped Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Poland and survived the war. Afterwards, they moved to Austria, Venice and Rome before learning they had family in St. John’s. They crossed the Atlantic in 1947.

Despite the horror that sent his parents to Newfoundland, Alan said they were lucky to discover the place — even if they’d never heard of it before getting on the plane.

« When they landed in Newfoundland, they told me they felt so at home instantly, because people embraced them and were warm to them and kind to them, » he said.  

Alan and Condon had met briefly back in 1995, when Ferman’s parents were given honourary degrees at Memorial University, but hadn’t been in touch since. That had gnawed at Condon, who still had stories to share with the younger Ferman.

The Lewis Ferman & Co. sign as it looked when intact. it had been hidden under the signage for a Subway restaurant in downtown St. John’s and was recently uncovered. (Provided by Brad Collins)

Condon, who now lives in Ottawa, saw CBC Newfoundland’s stories about the store sign and made it a mission to contact Ferman when he next visited Toronto.

Last week, he marched to the CBC broadcast centre and asked to speak to any Newfoundlander in the Toronto newsroom.

By Sunday, after a few phone calls, Condon was arm in arm with his friend. 

They shared some happy memories, like Condon’s family taking the Fermans trout fishing near their home in the tiny town of Calvert, Nfld.

Lewis and Grunia Ferman met during the Second World War and became resistance fighters who formed a community in the Belarusian woods. (Provided by Michael Ferman)

Others are harrowing.

Condon told Ferman how his father had kept his own’ father’s jacket. It had a bullet hole in the chest from where he was shot to death. 

Ferman knew that his parents had watched their families be killed by the Nazis, but not more than that.

« I didn’t know that, » Ferman said. « It was terrible. »

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Holocaust survivor shares story with Toronto students, reacts to deadly synagogue massacre – Toronto

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More than 700 students pack the auditorium at Upper Canada College to listen to Holocaust survivor 92-year old Dr. Vera Schiff tell her story in a calm, quiet voice.

“Hate and intolerance only brings disaster,” said Schiff, her family’s lone survivor.

“The only way to survive is to get along and respect one another.”

In 1942, Schiff’s family was deported to Theresienstadt, a ghetto and concentration camp, where she was assigned to work in the hospital. Her parents, sister and grandmother died there.

During history’s darkest chapter, she tells the packed auditorium, she found love. Schiff met her future husband Arthur. The days were long, but Schiff kept going for her mother.

“If everybody and everything let her down, I will live up to what she expected, what she hoped I would become,” she said.

Decades have passed since the Holocaust, but still the memories for Schiff and for the other survivors who take part in Holocaust Education Week are difficult and traumatic.

READ MORE: Jewish people, community allies answer call to #ShowUpForShabbat

But as Schiff explains, “If [the students] create a better world, then our efforts were invested.”

Jordan Weiss is among the students.

“We have to keep pushing even though we’ve had setbacks, such as the Pittsburgh shooting, we have to keep pushing keep fighting keep learning,” he said.

Another student, Phillip Kong, attended a trip UCC offers to students who want to further their Holocaust education.

READ MORE: Pittsburgh mom, children thank first responders following synagogue shooting

“We went to many death camps such as Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau… when you’re actually there, it’s a whole other experience,” he said.

The teacher who leads the trip, and interviewed Vera Schiff on Monday, is Rachel Metalin. She has completed extensive Holocaust education training in Poland.

“For students to learn about a tragedy that, is of course a Jewish tragedy, but it’s also a human tragedy, and when we can connect to the humanity of that it’s really the catalyst for change,” said Metalin.

She recalled a trip overseas and a moment with one particular student.


“He looked up at me with just a look of shock and sadness and innocence and said, ‘It all really happened didn’t it? They really did that to those people?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah it did,” she said with tears in her eyes.

Metalin noted if she can open just one student’s eyes to the dangers of anti-Semitism, then it is all worth it.

Just over a week ago, 11 Jews were killed while worshipping at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Law enforcement officials reported the gunman said he wanted to “kill all the Jews.” The suspect, Robert Bowers, has been indicted on 44 charges, including 11 counts of obstruction of the free exercise of religious belief and use of a firearm to commit murder during a crime of violence.


READ MORE:
Montreal Holocaust survivors tell their story on Holocaust Remembrance Day

“It is very disappointing, it is frustrating and it is also a certain degree of fear that no matter what you do you don’t seem to be able to get the message across that violence breeds violence,” said Schiff.

Yet, she insisted, it is because of the Holocaust and because of the Pittsburgh massacre that she must keep sharing her story with future generations.

“To take the kids step by step and teach them that hate (and) intolerance is a non-viable option,” she said.

There are events across the GTA this week as part of the Neuberger’s annual signature program, Holocaust Education Week, which has recognized as a “best practice” in the field by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. A big part of the program is first hand testimony by the remaining Holocaust survivors.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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