Manitoba

Hate and history: Students witness anti-Semitism during trip to Holocaust sites

A group of Manitoba high school students were in Europe to learn about atrocities of the Second World War, but got more than they bargained for when they witnessed ongoing hate.

Students from Springfield Collegiate Institute shocked by act at Jewish memorial site

A crowd moves through the gate to the main camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, below a sign that says 'Arbeit macht frei' (meaning 'work sets you free'). (James Osler/Facebook)

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.

Spencer Dudar, from left, teacher Jim Osler, Katelyn Furgula, and Sara Pelland said the experience in Europe has cemented their commitment to kindness. (Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC)
The Mila 18 monument is 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 April and May 1943. The stone sits on top of a mound of rubble that marks where a house once stood. The bunker was underneath the house. (Submitted by Jim Osler)

"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."

An estimated 1.1 million people died or were killed in the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. (James Chagnon/Facebook)

"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.

The students visited the camps, cemeteries and monuments that mark the never-to-be-forgotten horrors of the Holocaust, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, pictured here. (James Chagnon/Facebook)
Students look at a display room filled with shoes of Holocaust victims. (James Chagnon/Facebook)

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.

The last remaining section of the Warsaw Ghetto wall. To create the ghetto, the Nazis built approximately 18 kilometres of brick walls around the Jewish quarter. (Submitted by Jim Osler)

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."

More news from CBC Manitoba:

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

With files from Marcy Markusa and Laurie Hoogstraten