A CONCERN FOR ALL

by Peggy Curran, The Montreal Gazette


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..."

"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 education.

Death March

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 barns.

"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."

Current Events

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 2' ".

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."

BACK TO NEIL CAPLAN'S PAGE