A CONCERN FOR ALL
by Peggy Curran, The Montreal
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: Monday, April 3, 2000
Neil Caplan realizes young adults don't
always respond well to stories that begin with the line "When
I was your age..."
NEIL CAPLAN'S PAGE
"If it's not done well, there's a risk they'll just roll
their eyes," said Caplan, co-ordinator of humanities and
Jewish studies at Vanier College. Yet he's also seen what a powerful
impact age identification can have when the storyteller is an
elderly Holocaust survivor describing what it was like to be
17 or 18 in war torn Europe to a roomful of CEGEP students.
"Their idea of hardship may be that they didn't get the
cell phone they wanted or some other kind of luxury discomfort.
To hear someone recount how they had everything taken away, how
they were dehumanized and degraded, puts a new perspective on
their own experience."
Each spring, Vanier and other CEGEPs, in conjunction with the
Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, host symposiums at which
survivors, academics, films and lectures raise awareness of the
genocide perpetrated by Adolf Hitler's regime.
The Vanier symposiums began seven years ago with the backing
of Holocaust survivor Peter Kleinmann. For decades after he came
to Canada, the St. Laurent businessman refused to talk about
the past. But in 1988, Kleinmann, who died this February, finally
opened up, first by sharing his story to Caplan's class, then
investing time, energy and financial resources to promote Holocaust
Among those invited to speak at Vanier this week are Holocaust
authorities Irwin Cotler and Frank Chalk and survivors Ann Kazimirski
and Rubin Bortenstein.
Bortenstein, 75, spent nine months in a Gestapo holding cell
before he was sent to Auschwitz in 1942. After he had nearly
three years of forced labour at a local factory, guards led the
surviving prisoners on a death march, traveling back roads and
along railway ties, foraging for food and sleeping in abandoned
"It's up to us, the survivors, that the upcoming generation
knows about it," said the retired restaurateur, who had
been eating grass and weighed 68 pounds when he was freed by
the Allies in April 1945. He said the Holocaust should concern
every person in the world.
"Once people like Rubin are no longer here, all we'll have
left are the films," said Harvey Berger, who has invited
Bortenstein to speak to his class at noon on Thursday.
Berger teaches a course in Holocaust literature, focusing on
harrowing novels and non-fiction accounts by survivors like Elie
Weisel, Jerzy Kosinski and Primo Levi. "I have to steel
myself to teach it every year," Berger said. "I never
become immune to it."
Nor do his students. "This movie made me sick to my stomach,"
one student wrote after Berger showed footage from the death
camps. Nevertheless, he said, students seem to find the topic,
which encompasses history, sociology, religion and human psychology,
engrossing. He's never had a student tell him they had to drop
the course because it was too gruesome.
"They think they know what they are in for because they've
seen horror movies. I warn them, 'This isn't Scream 1 or Scream
With students at Vanier coming from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds,
Caplan said it's not unusual to come across teenagers who know
little or nothing about the Holocaust.
Yet young people need only look at what's been happening in Bosnia,
Rwanda or Kosovo in the past decade to understand why events
that took place more than half a century ago should matter to
them. "We see what can happen if people lose sight of their
moral compass, when a powerful ideology takes root, when people
ostracize one another."
For Bortenstein, the only member of his family to survive the
war talking to students is a way to pass on the lessons of the
Holocaust. "There are not many people alive today who spent
2 1/2 years in Auschwitz," he said. "Our generation
is very frail."