Reflections on Compassion to Action Tour

Sarah Bruce, Principal
This Holocaust Education Week, the learning journey I took to Poland and Israel in July remains top of mind, so I’d like to share a little bit about the trip and the impact it had on me. 

The reflections below include discussion of the atrocities of the Holocaust and antisemitism.

It was a profound privilege to join the Compassion to Action Tour, organized by Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC). Each year, FSWC invites “some 30 influential Canadians on an eye-opening educational journey to learn about the Holocaust, racism and intolerance.” The Compassion to Action journey aims to educate leaders about the history of antisemitism, and to inspire and empower us to better address related issues of our times.

When FSWC reached out to invite me on this year's trip, I knew it was an educational opportunity I could not pass up. Becoming a member of the Antisemitism Working Group that was established at Greenwood last year inspired me to further my education on this important topic.

I joined fellow educators and others to embark on this journey that took us to two countries over 11 days. Prior to the journey, we all read By Chance Alone, by Max Eisen. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more and better understand the atrocities of the Holocaust, the mass murder of more than six million Jewish people and many other people based on religion, race, sexual orientation or involvement in academia.

Our first stop in Warsaw, Poland, was the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a modern cultural institution that serves as a historical museum. It chronicles 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland through paintings, photographs, artefacts and more. In addition to being a remarkable historical repository, POLIN Museum serves as a space for meaningful dialogue, fostering connections between people interested in exploring Jewish culture, drawing lessons from Polish-Jewish history, and confronting stereotypes and antisemitism. 

One of the most sobering moments of the trip came when we visited the Umschlagplatz Monument in Warsaw. This monument sits on the former loading yard where more than 300,000 Jewish people from the Warsaw Ghetto were transported to death camps in 1942 and 1943. As I stood in front of the white wall, I reflected on the magnitude of the tragedy that unfolded at this site, the lives lost, the families affected. It is impossible to truly grasp how much anguish, fear and devastation these families experienced as they were separated from one another. This was one of many moments on the trip when I was struck by the insidiousness of the hate that caused this incomprehensible suffering. 

Throughout the trip, we were accompanied by a survivor of the Holocaust. Gershon was a child during the Holocaust; his parents were victims. As we visited sites like the Umschlagplatz and Gershon shared his memories, it was clear the anguish that he and his parents endured – and the lasting pain he feels today as a result.

Our itinerary then led us to Auschwitz-Birkenau. This infamous concentration camp, established in 1940, was one of thousands established by the Nazis. It has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust worldwide. The visit to Auschwitz was a haunting experience. I have read many stories and books that recount the atrocities of the camps, but I know now that it was hard to truly imagine until I saw Auschwitz and stood on its grounds.

In Israel, our journey took us all over this remarkable country. One of the most memorable visits was to Yad Vashem, World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Yad Vashem is a hallowed ground dedicated to preserving the memory of Holocaust victims and honouring the Righteous Among the Nations (those who resisted Nazi oppression, and aided Jews). It also serves as a vital research centre, aiming to comprehend the Holocaust and genocide to prevent such horrors from recurring. With millions of visitors annually, Yad Vashem stands as a testament to the commitment to stand up against antisemitism and hate.

As an educator, for me one of the most hopeful experiences in Israel was our visit to the Hand in Hand School. This organization works to support positive Arab-Jewish relations in Israel through shared living and education. With six integrated, bilingual, and multicultural schools across the country, they foster a shared and equal education for 2,000 children. Students, taught by both Jewish and Muslim instructors, learn each other's cultures, languages, religions, and customs, promoting critical thinking and open dialogue. It was seeing the simple joy of the Kindergarten-aged children playing a game very similar to what we would call “duck, duck, goose” that was such a powerful reminder that as people we have so many more similarities than differences. It reminded me that schools have an opportunity and a responsibility to teach valuable lessons in respecting and embracing our individual differences.

The Compassion to Action Tour was a deeply impactful journey that confronted the darkest chapters of history while offering glimpses of hope for a better future. For me, it underscored the importance of teaching and learning about the Holocaust, working together to combat persistent and rising antisemitism, and fostering mutual respect among different communities. 

Greenwood’s Antisemitism Working Group will continue its work this year. The group met this week and we will share more about their work as it continues. We will look for opportunities to centre our teaching about the Holocaust and genocide around the voices of survivors. Our Equity Inclusion and Belonging (EIB) group will also provide opportunities to deepen conversations about hate and intolerance. If students are looking to participate in the Jewish Culture Club as a Jewish student or an ally, they can contact Allie Gottlieb, our staff supervisor. Students may also contact Ms. Gottlieb for any questions regarding the March of the Living taking place from May 1 - 15, 2024.

The experiences in Poland and Israel left an indelible impression on everyone who participated, myself included. It reaffirmed my commitment to stand up against antisemitism, to combat hate in all its forms, to speak up against Islamophobia, racism and discrimination, and to actively work towards a safe and inclusive world.

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