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Students from Springfield and Sturgeon Creek Collegiates who went on separate trips to Europe as part of Holocaust studies visited Auschwitz, also spent time in Cracow
It's one thing to learn about the Holocaust through books and film or even by listening to survivors’ stories. It is quite a different matter, as groups of students from Sturgeon Creek Collegiate in St. James and Springfield Collegiate in Oakbank (just northeast of Winnipeg) have learned, when you visit the actual death camps such as Auschwitz.





“It was life-changing for all of us, the students and teachers,” says Springfield Collegiate history teacher  James Osler who – along with fellow history teacher James Gagnon, led the Springfield group of 30 high school students on the tour of Germany, Poland and the Netherlands.
“After our experience there, I am so grateful for my life here,” says Katelyn, a Grade 12 student. “It boggles my mind that such evil can take place.”
Adds Sara, who is also in Grade 12: “For me, the biggest thing was realizing that such evil does exist and this kind of thing is still happening in the world. Even if I by myself can’t stop things like this from happening, I can speak up and educate others.”
The trip into the heart of darkness owes its origins to the passion that Jim Osler has for Holocaust education. Although not Jewish himself, he notes that he grew up in River Heights and has Jewish friends. He has been teaching Holocaust awareness for several years.
“We used to have Philip Weiss come to speak to our students,“ Osler says. “Our students were in attendance when he would show ‘Schindler’s List’. I knew Philip well.”
Osler says that he was horrified when he learned last year that one of his Grade 12 students had never heard of the Holocaust.
Over a period of 17 months, Osler and Gagnon prepared the participating students for the trip. The teachers talked about anti-Semitism, brought in Holocaust survivor Isaac Gotfried to share his experiences, took the students to the Lubavitch Centre to learn a little about Judaism and screened “Schindler’s List” and the TV show “Uprising” about the Warsaw Ghetto revolt.
The students all paid their own way with income from part time jobs.
The group left Winnipeg on March 20. The tour included stops at Plaszow Concentration Camp (where Philip Weiss had been a prisoner), Schindler’s factory, Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Warsaw Ghetto and Sachsenhausan Concentration Camp, north of Berlin, and finished the tour with a stop at the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery.
The group observed moments of remembrance for all the victims of the Holocaust at all three death camps. At Plaszow, five students spoke of individuals who were murdered there.
At Plaszow, Osler notes, it really bothered the teachers and students that the site is now a park. “More than 10,000 Holocaust victims are buried there,” he says. “Yet kids are running around, dogs are peeing. We thought it was disrespectful.
“And at Auschwitz, it disturbed us to see people taking selfies.”
While this was the first such trip for Springfield Collegiate students, this was the third trip to Auschwitz for Sturgeon Heights Collegiate students.
Over a period of 17 years, notes Israeli-born Sturgeon Heights auto mechanics teacher Eran Plotnik, the Winnipeg-based Asper Foundation’s Human Rights and Holocaust Studies program annually brought hundreds of Grade 9 students from Winnipeg and – from 2000 on – across Canada, to Washington D.C. to experience the Holocaust Museum. But after the Asper-inspired Canadian Museum for Human Rights opened its doors in Winnipeg in September, 2014, the Foundation cancelled its trips to Washington and, instead, began flying in student groups from across Canada to Winnipeg.
“At Sturgeon Heights, we decided to carry on with the Washington trips - every two years – and expand the program to include a tour for high school students to Auschwitz and other Holocaust-related venues in central Europe – also every second year,” says Plotnik, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor. (His father arrived in Palestine just before the war, but lost most of his family in the Holocaust.)
Thus Plotnik, along with Guidance Counsellor (and former math teacher) Renee Langrell and history teacher Erin Johnsrud, initiated Sturgeon Heights Collegiate’s extracurricular Human Rights and Holocaust Awareness program.
The program considers a wide range of social justice issues and includes student participation in local human rights and Holocaust awareness programs, such as attendance at the annual Holocaust Symposium for Manitoba high school students at the University of Winnipeg and participation in the Terry Fox Run. And, last fall, the school hosted the Anne Frank exhibit which has been traveling across Canada.
This year, 42 Sturgeon Heights Collegiate students joined the tour. As with their Springfield Collegiate counterparts, the students paid their own way.
The students and teachers began the ten-day trip on March 22. The first stop was Berlin, followed by Warsaw, Auschwitz, Cracow and Prague. The group had a tour guide at Auschwitz. In  Cracow, they toured the old Jewish quarter. In Prague, they visited the Jewish Museum and stopped at the Hotel Europe from where the kindertransports started.
Maggie, a Grade 12 student, went on the trip to Washington when she was in Grade 9 and saw the replica of the infamous gate at Auschwitz with the words, “Work makes You Free”. “It was much more powerful to see it in person,” she says.
Logan, also a Grade 12 student, says of Auschwitz, “It is hard to believe that people actually sat down and designed those buildings – with showers and waiting rooms – in order to exterminate other people”.
“I found it shocking,” says Grade 12 student Nico. “I could imagine being in the shoes of someone who had died there.”
And, as with the Springfield Collegiate Group, the Sturgeon Heights students were disgusted at the lack of respect they saw among other tourists at Auschwitz snapping away with their cameras.
Plotnik notes that his group, during their tour, met with others who had stories of survival. One tour guide shared her experience of growing up in Bosnia during that conflict. Their guide in Berlin had discovered that she had been given up for adoption before the war by her Jewish parents. And their bus driver was a refugee from East Berlin.
Teacher Erin Johnsrud made a point of noting that the group also stopped at the memorials in Berlin to the Roma and gay victims of the Holocaust.
In Prague, the students and teachers saw drawings by Jewish children who were interned at Terezin, as well as the John Lennon Wall - where they were able to add their own messages of hope and peace.
Echoing Springfield Collegiate student Sara, Logan from Sturgeon heights spoke of the need for everyone to speak up in the face of hatred and injustice. “One person may not be able to do a lot,” she says, “but, as a group, we can accomplish much more.”
Plotnik notes that several of the students were scheduled to participate in Shaarey Zedek’s annual reading of the Megillat Hashoah last Sunday.
“As long as there is a willingness to continue with this program, we will continue to offer it,” Plotnik says.
As the last generation of Holocaust survivors continues to dwindle due to infirmity and death, it is ever more important for more teachers such as Eran Plotnik, Erin Johnsrud, Renee Langrell, James Gagnon and Jim Osler to take the initiative to teach the lessons of the Holocaust and continue educating students about what can happen to a society where hate overpowers reason.

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