By Jody Spiegel
How do twenty-first century students connect to the events of the Holocaust and the people affected by it? Students understand the role school plays in their lives — it is where they build friendships and engage with the broader world. What did it mean to the many Jewish students, as early as 1933, who noticed their non-Jewish classmates and teachers treating them differently? Students who were once their friends now ignored or insulted them, or even threatened them with violence. In many places, Jews were expelled from public schools.
We know that connection makes learning possible. In January, the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program released Education Disrupted, a free digital exhibit exploring the role of education in the lives of those who survived the Holocaust as children and youth. Years in the making and drawing from the valuable first-person narratives of Holocaust survivors, the exhibit is much more than a historical resource. Through an engaging, accessible, multimedia format that revolves around the importance of education, the power of education and the right to an education, visitors delve into history through first-person accounts, photographs, interactive maps, timelines and video. Education Disrupted brings focus to each individual story, which is at the core of what we do.
School can be a place to learn, make friends, achieve goals and create a better future. But what happens when a catastrophic event denies children those opportunities?
The lives of Jewish youth who grew up during the Holocaust were shaped by anxiety, fear, persecution, war and the destruction of their families and communities. Between 1933 and 1945, with chaos all around them, Jewish students were deprived of fundamental school experiences and faced discrimination in classrooms. Risking their lives to learn under impossible conditions was an act of resistance. And after the war, education played a vital role in rebuilding their lives.
We created Education Disrupted as a free resource to offer a relatable and accessible entry point to learning about the Holocaust. Through our nearly 18 years of publishing survivors’ stories, we have learned that stories create connection, and that is exactly what this exhibit does. Compelling narratives of resilience are paired with depictions of life before, during and after the war, combating misinformation by sharing the fullness of Jewish life.
Emphasizing the ordinary lives lived by people before they were disrupted by war and genocide highlights our shared humanity.
One story from the exhibit that stays with me is Henia Reinhartz’s story of teaching Yiddish in the Lodz ghetto.
Henia shares in her memoir that “School was a world without war and without Germans. Cold and hunger were forgotten. We were eager to learn. Our teachers were gentle and understood us. They, too, were hungry and cold. They were completely devoted to their work, and they encouraged us and gave us hope. But the ghetto schools had a short life. The Germans did not want Jewish children to study, to attend school or even to have a little fun. Everyone had to work and children from the age of ten became part of the workforce…
The schools went underground…. I was given a group of young children to teach. I taught them mostly at work during breaks since my group of five children worked at the same factory. It was then that I promised myself that if I survived the war, I would dedicate my professional life to teaching Yiddish to children.”
Henia survived the Holocaust, and she kept her promise. She dedicated her life to education, teaching Yiddish to students in Toronto. After we published her memoir in 2008, Henia’s former students reached out to us, sharing the impact she had on their lives through teaching. Henia’s commitment to education was life changing — for both her and her students.
Stories like Henia’s prompted the creation of the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program, and Education Disrupted is another opportunity for us to share these stories — along with photos and video interviews from our archives — in a meaningful way.
Educational programs need to challenge students to think critically about complex and sensitive topics.
Students grow into an informed and thoughtful younger generation by developing the capacity to understand contemporary and global issues and debates in a historical context. The work we do ensures the Holocaust is never forgotten and that it is expertly taught to both current and future generations.
By expanding our collective knowledge of the destruction of Jewish life and sharing the experiences of those who survived, we strive to cultivate a better understanding of the enormity of this tragedy.
Our exhibit, launched in line with 2023’s UN International Day of Education and UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is a way to amplify and appreciate survivor stories. Education Disrupted is intended for everyone aged 11 and up and has accompanying bilingual educational activities to use in the classroom, allowing students to reflect on what they’ve learned.
Jody Spiegel is the Director, The Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program. With a firm belief that everyone has a contribution to make, the Azrieli Foundation has been opening doors, breaking ground, and nurturing networks for more than 30 years. The Foundation – the largest non-corporate foundation in Canada – funds institutions and operates programs in Canada and Israel. Education Disrupted is a free, digital exhibit from the Azrieli Foundation that explores the role of education in the lives of those who experienced the Holocaust as children and youth. It looks at the school life of Jewish students, the significance of being denied an education, and how Jews resisted persecution and pursued an education during the Holocaust. The exhibit also highlights the value of education and the role it played for survivors who were rebuilding their lives after the war. Unlimited free access to the online exhibit and its accompanying educational resources for learners, teachers and students are available in English, and French.