During the 2013 March Break at Vanier College, 38 students and 5 teachers travelled to Europe as part of the international component of a new universal complementary course entitled “Holocaust and Totalitarianism: Journeys through Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.”
It was the culminating point of 7 weeks of classroom lectures the students had attended prior to their departure, in which they studied the period covering the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany up to the demise of the Soviet Union, and analyzed the major themes of genocide, totalitarianism and the Cold War. The class then complemented their knowledge with visits to important sites associated with the material covered in class, including Berlin’s Check Point Charlie, the Wall, Warsaw’s Ghetto, Krakow’s Schindler Factory Museum and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.
“The trip was a resounding success,” says Humanities/Social Science teacher Sevak Manjikian who taught the course. “The students were able to fully understand the significance of the sites they visited as well as draw a conceptual line between the rise of Hitler and the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
Upon their return to Vanier, the students put together videos and elaborate scrapbooks about the trip, detailing their observations, impressions and reflections on what they had seen and experienced. These works were then shared publicly in display cases in the College.
Mike Besner, the trip organizer, who accompanied the students to Europe, indicated it was a very moving experience for them. “During the course, Ted Bolgar, a Holocaust survivor, visited the class and told his story. Then at Birkenau/Auschwitz II, we pointed out to the students that we were standing in the exact spot where an SS Officer had taken seconds to determine if Ted and his other family members were healthy enough to be sent to a work camp. Ted and his father survived by a quick point of a finger. His mother and sister were sent in the other direction, to the showers. Having met and spoken with Ted in class made that moment surreal for the students.”
Indeed, student Alexandra Ceasar summed up perfectly the impact of this visit in a Vanier student newspaper article, “Auschwitz was an emotionally exhausting experience,” she wrote. “Some cried, some were silenced in disbelief; most of us could not even begin to imagine how such horror could have occurred seventy years ago on the very ground where we were standing.”
Clearly, Mike Besner is right when he concludes, “I think this trip will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”