EDITORIAL: A vital history lesson

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka.

These are some of the better-known names, though they represent only a handful of the more than 40,000 Nazi ghettos and concentration camps where six million people, including Jews, political prisoners and other marginalized groups died before and during the Second World War.

Many more were starved and tortured to the brink of death before being liberated by Allied forces in 1944 and ’45.

The names of a few of these camps, at least, should sound familiar to Canadians. And to many, they do. What they represent is too terrible to forget – as we remind ourselves every Nov. 11.

But with the passage of time, it seems, that is what is happening. Canadians aren’t forgetting, exactly. But it appears it’s information that new generations aren’t getting – or, at least not retaining.

Nearly half of Canadians surveyed recently by the Azrieli Foundation could not name a single concentration camp from the Holocaust, most Canadians 18-34 don’t know how many Jews were murdered during that time and 22 per cent of Millennials couldn’t say what the Holocaust was.

It’s been 80 years since war broke out and consumed Europe for the second time in two decades. For those still among us who lived through it or had fathers and grandfathers who came home changed by the war, it’s unlikely those memories will entirely fade.

But subsequent generations, for the most part entirely removed from the horror, will be able to learn about the Holocaust mainly through history lessons. That’s why visits like the one this weekend by Tilar Mazzeo, who will speak at the White Rock/South Surrey Jewish Community Centre, are vital.

Mazzeo wrote the book on Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who is credited with saving 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Dubbed the female Oskar Schindler, Sendler is not – and will likely never be – as widely known as the factory owner who was brought to life on film by Steven Spielberg in 1993. But her contribution is equally important.

So it is heartening to note that Sendler’s story came to light in North America thanks to a group of Kansas high school students researching the Holocaust, who in 2001 wrote and performed a play about her.

Mazzeo’s book, Irena’s Children, was released in 2017, but the results of the Azrieli survey would suggest that a couple hours at her presentation this weekend, accompanied by a young friend or family member, would be time well spent.

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