Reflecting on 20 intense days in Israel last month, Earl Marriott history teacher Mark Figueira says he’s still confounded by the story of Frieda Kleuger.
“It was the most unbelievable story I heard the whole time I was there,” Figueira said of the Holocaust survivor.
“You’re unable to explain why she didn’t die.”
Kleuger was one of eight survivors interviewed by Figueira last month while attending the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
She told him how she had come from the Warsaw ghetto and was in a gas chamber – knowing she was minutes from extermination – when a siren sounded. For reasons she, decades later, still can’t explain, the siren triggered Kleuger and the other prisoners’ release.
After time in two other concentration camps – and the systematic killing by the Nazis of an estimated six million Jews during the Second World War – liberation for Kleuger and other survivors came on April 15, 1945.
It’s a story Figueira, who heads EMS’ history department, is sure to tell this school year, as he moves forward on a commitment to help his students gain a deeper and more thoughtful understanding of that part of the world’s history.
“For me, it is important to remember and tell the stories of the victims,” he said.
Figueira, 43, was one of three Vancouver-area teachers – and 14 Canadians in all – selected to attend the Educators’ Seminar, on one of a “handful” of annual scholarships that are funded by local donors. Burnaby elementary teacher Eyal Daniel and Seaquam Secondary’s Stephanie Henderson were also selected.
According to Adara Goldberg, education director at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, the scholarship program is an initiative of the Toronto-based Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, aimed at supporting local teachers who “demonstrate a deep-rooted commitment” to increasing their own knowledge of the Holocaust and imparting that. Teaching about the Holocaust is not mandated into B.C.’s curricula, “but it does appear within (it),” Goldberg noted.
“Our hope is that they will bring back the knowledge, strategies and approaches (learned in Israel)… and take them into their classrooms.”
More and more, as the “eye-witness generation” shrinks, it will be up to educators to get the story across, she said.
She encouraged any teacher who is looking for guidance or tools to help them broach the topic in their classrooms to visit www.vhec.org
While VHEC recognized Figueira’s commitment to teaching about the Holocaust and its lessons in June, with the 2015 Kron Sigal Award for Excellence in Holocaust Education, Figueira said his approach to the subject wasn’t always so focused.
In short, he learned about the Holocaust because he had to teach it, he said, and would touch on the sensitive subject with his Grade 11 and 12 students for perhaps an hour in total.
Now, he’s wondering how he’ll be able to spend anything less than “a couple weeks” on the topic.
He described the 20 days he spent in Jerusalem as “extremely draining.”
“It’s intellectually draining – trying to understand and make sense of it,” Figueira said.
In addition to conducting survivor interviews, Figueira visited Oskar Schindler’s grave and the Path of the Righteous Gentile – where those known to have saved Jews are recognized – and met Hannah Pick, the childhood best friend of Anne Frank, the youth whose diary of her time in hiding until her death at age 15 remains one of the most powerful memoirs of the Holocaust.
Pick “tells an amazing story of her time with Anne Frank,” Figueira said.
Figueira said he was repeatedly caught off-guard by the positivity imbued by all of the survivors he met.
“They remember what went on, but there is much less hate in them than one might think,” he said. “Their victory is in their children and grandchildren prospering.”
Still processing how to integrate the experience into his classroom, Figueira said the mantra is ‘safely in, safely out.’
“It means be cautious with how you teach such a subject,” he said. “Bring young people into it gradually, safely… and bring them out safely as well.
“Tell the story so it’s not forgotten.”