Toronto charity pushing for mandatory Holocaust education in Ontario schools

It’s been more than 70 years but the vivid details of Auschwitz remain fresh in the mind of 93-year-old Hedy Bohm.

“I see the barracks. I see the beaten earth that I was sleeping on. I see the total lack of colour everywhere,” said Bohm, who was 16 when she was taken from her home to the Oradea ghetto in what is now Romania and later sent to the infamous concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Bohm was separated from her parents. She remembers trying to chase after her mother before being stopped. 

“That is so deep in my mind. I think it was the most difficult moment of my life”

That was the last time Bohm ever saw her mother.

Hedy Bohm as a baby pictured with her parents. Bohm was separated from her mother and father in 1944 and never saw them again. (Hedy Bohm)

Bohm now shares her Holocaust survival story with students through an online program called Outschool.

“I’m hoping that there is always a person in whatever group I talk to that will be inspired to do something that they didn’t think of before,” said Bohm.

A new study by a Toronto charity is highlighting just how crucial that kind of education is. About one third of the elementary to high school students who participated said they weren’t sure the Holocaust happened or they thought it was “exaggerated or fabricated.”

Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Thursday, the group Liberation75 has released the findings of the survey, which questioned nearly 3,600 North American students. While some boards — like the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) — have worked to incorporate teachings on genocide and the Holocaust at a younger age, there isn’t a provincial mandate to do so. The group is calling on the province to expand genocide and Holocaust education and to make it mandatory. 

That call also comes at a time when hate crimes have been on the rise in Toronto, with antisemitic incidents the most prevalent, according to police statistics.

The study focused on students from Grade 6 to Grade 12 from both Canada and the United States, though the majority were Canadian. Participants were recruited based on their teachers signing up and the students had the ability to opt in or out. They were asked about everything from the history of the Holocaust, Jewish identity and antisemitism.

Marilyn Sinclair is the founder of Liberation75. Her late father was a Holocaust survivor. (Justine Apple Photography)

“Nearly 33 per per cent of students surveyed reported feeling that the Holocaust was an exaggerated or fabricated event, or that they were not sure if it actually happened,” the study says.

“I find that amazing because there are so many books and films and ways that students are encountering the Holocaust in various forms,” said Marilyn Sinclair, founder of Liberation75. 

“And yet there’s still this tremendous amount of … lack of knowledge.”

Around 40 per cent of students surveyed said social media was where they got information about the Holocaust, a finding that troubled the data scientist behind the project.

“I think that the study is so important in an age of misinformation and disinformation,” said Dr. Alexis Lerner, who conducted the study while at Western University. She’s now an assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy.

“When students aren’t getting Holocaust information and genocide information in the schools, they’re not getting fact- based information. And so they’re turning to these alternative sources of information.”

Lerner said of the students surveyed, 96 per cent said they had a desire for more Holocaust and genocide education in schools.

No mandate

It’s ultimately up to individual teachers in Ontario to decide how and when to discuss events like the Holocaust. The only class in which it’s mandated to be taught is a Grade 10 Canadian history course.

Two years ago, the TDSB unanimously voted to call for more genocide education — including the holocaust — and to make it mandatory. The board wrote a letter to Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

Shari Schwartz-Maltz, spokesperson with the TDSB who is also the chair of the board’s Jewish Heritage Committee, says the TDSB has taken several of its own initiatives to introduce Holocaust and genocide education at a younger age, including the showcasing of educational films like the Tattoeed Torah.

The Toronto District School Board wrote to the Ontario education minister in 2020 asking that genocide education be mandated in the provincial curriculum. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

“There is a need for Holocaust education,  I would argue, from Grade 4 and up. And we at the TDSB are doing our very best on multiple occasions throughout the year,” said Schwartz-Maltz.

One of the Liberation75 findings was that 42 per cent of students surveyed said that they unequivocally witnessed an antisemitic event, something Schwartz-Maltz is keenly aware of. The board has a new portal in which it tracks incidents of hate.

“In the short two years that we have the data from the portal, we see that antisemitism and largely glorification of Nazi ideology or swastika graffiti …  is the number two most reported hate incidents of TDSB.” 

Schwartz-Maltz said the board has adopted a policy under which it responds immediately to those incidents by trying to educate students about the historical context and how hurtful those symbols can be.

Provincial response

CBC News asked Ontario’s Ministry of Education whether it plans to implement mandatory teaching of historical genocide and the Holocaust.

The ministry issued a statement  that acknowledged a rise in antisemitism in Canada and the world, and the importance of fighting it.

“Every student in Ontario deserves to learn in schools that are safe and free from discrimination and hate. We must continue to expand on learning opportunities to ensure all students remember the Holocaust and understand the real human rights issues faced by Jewish peoples at home here in Canada and abroad,” the statement reads in part

Sinclair says so much of the work of Holocaust education has historically fallen on survivors who have shared their stories publicly, but it’s more important now to entrenched it in the school system.

“Our survivors are now in their 80s or 90s. Many of them have passed away, and it’s so important that their memory isn’t forgotten,” said Sinclair.

Hedy Bohm, who is turning 94 this year, says she’ll keep doing her educational sessions with students through Outschool’s Online Learning program. (CBC)

Bohm says she’ll keep doing her online outreach for as long as she can. She says it’s not just about learning history, but about how not to repeat mistakes and how to understand cultural differences. 

“My only hope is that what I’m doing is something worthwhile and will help people to handle situations in the future,” said Bohm.

“If we are not going to learn how to accept each other’s differences and how to live together in this big-yet-small world, there is no hope for us.” 

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