Hate and history: Students witness anti-Semitism during trip to Holocaust sites
Students from Springfield Collegiate Institute shocked by act at Jewish memorial site
A group of Manitoba high school students who recently went to Europe to learn about atrocities of the Second World War got more than they bargained for when they witnessed ongoing hate.
The Grade 12 students from Springfield Collegiate Institute in Oakbank — about 25 kilometres east of Winnipeg — travelled in the last two weeks of March to a number of Holocaust sites where Jews were murdered during Nazi Germany's persecution.
A day after visiting the extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the group was looking at the Mila 18 monument in Poland — a memorial stone to the Jewish heroes of the Z.O.B. (Jewish Fighting Organization) who died in an underground bunker during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943.
The students were standing near some Israeli students, holding flags, at the massacre site when a man on a motorbike gave the Israeli students the middle finger.
"I think it brought a lot of perspective to the importance of our trip," said teacher James Chagnon, adding they took a moment to stop and discuss what had just happened.
"They were trying to memorialize people who died, and pay their respects, and somebody has the audacity to make a gesture like that — it's hard to describe that weird kind of sinking feeling in your gut," said student Sara Pelland.
"You always see things like this on in the movies or on TV but seeing it in person, standing where something like that happened — it's a completely different experience."
"I was speechless," said student Katelyn Furgula. "And then I was mad."
The group was also shocked and disturbed by the fact the Israeli group had a security guard with them.
"It just really shows you there's still anti-Semitism and these kids need a security guard, because things like that can happen," student Spencer Dudar said.
The students said seeing the affront at a site where so many Jews were killed deeply changed their perspective on many things.
"When we saw how it affected the people, in person, it gives you more of an impact, and you just really think, 'this happens.' Now that we are educated on it, it gives us more of a means to … help," Dudar said.
Furgula said she is more conscious of trying to say positive things to people, "and I don't tolerate people saying mean things, even if they're joking, about any kind of hate act."
The students — about 30 in all — visited the camps, cemeteries and monuments that mark the never-to-be-forgotten horrors of the Holocaust.
At Auschwitz, where 1.1 million people died or were killed, the gas chambers and crematoriums held a feeling of heaviness that is hard to describe, said Pelland.
"Realizing that I get to walk out afterwards and so many people didn't — it left a mark on the way I go about my day and I view things," she said.
At each of the concentration camps, five students would read aloud a memorial that included the name of a Holocaust victim and some details of his or her life.
The students also visited the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands, where they honoured Canadian soldiers by reading memorials at the gravesides.
Dudar said he is grateful for the education the trip provided, so he can pass it on to his own kids one day and make certain it is never forgotten.
"This trip will forever cement in the minds of the students … that hatred, taken to the extreme, has devastating results on humanity," teacher Jim Osler said.
Since the incident during the trip, Osler has spoken to all 30 students and every one of them has expressed a sense of wanting to create positivity.
"They have a commitment towards making sure that hate, in any form, doesn't happen again," he said.
"James Chagnon and I have done our jobs, I think, because we're hearing from these kids that they won't tolerate this anymore."
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With files from Marcy Markusa and Laurie Hoogstraten