One of Claude Romney’s earliest memories from when she was a young girl in France is of her father being arrested by German soldiers and a French police officer.
“When my father was arrested, the Germans were not arresting women and children yet,” Romney said in an interview. “But after my father was deported, they did start arresting women and children and so my mother and I fled Paris.”
Her father would end up in the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp where he worked as a “prisoner-doctor,” because his medical knowledge was deemed useful by the Nazis as they carried out the Holocaust.
As a “child Holocaust survivor,” Romney said she’s part of a shrinking number of aging people committed to educating people about what she and her family went through.
To combat rising antisemitism, both British Columbia and Ontario announced this week that they would introduce mandatory Holocaust education for high school students, teaching them of the murder of six million Jews and others during the Second World War by Nazi Germany.
Holocaust educators are applauding the move.
“For our friends and neighbours in the Jewish community, this has been an incredibly frightening time. We have seen a rise in antisemitism in B.C. following the terrorist attacks in Israel, which evokes the history of persecution of Jews,” Premier David Eby said in a statement Monday. “Combating this kind of hate begins with learning from the darkest parts of our history, so the same horrors are never repeated.”
Romney, professor emerita at the University of Calgary and a speaker at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, said she’s spoken to many students over the years, and meeting with survivors often leaves a lasting impression on young people.
“It’s something they remember for a long, long time and some say for the rest of their lives,” she said. “The (survivors) who still can talk about it are absolutely committed to talking to members of the new generations for as long as we can.”
Romney said she is still learning about prisoner-doctors in German concentration camps during the war, and has a book in the works on the subject.
She still has many things she wishes she could ask her parents, both now deceased, highlighting the importance of preserving memories of survivors and eye witnesses.
“My mother died 20 years ago and there’s so many questions I should have asked her,” she said. “I should have asked my father as well.”
Nina Krieger, executive director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, said many people are surprised that Holocaust education wasn’t mandatory in B.C. before.
“To date, it has been at the discretion and initiative of individual educators to bring this topic into their classrooms,” she said. “But up to this point it’s been elective.”
Hearing from survivors can be the most “impactful, memorable day of the students’ careers,” Krieger said.
The centre reaches around 25,000 students a year with its programming, and Krieger said the centre is “very heartened by the province’s announcement” to make Holocaust education mandatory for the 2025 school year.
Jennifer Magalnick, associate director of Holocaust education and community engagement with the Jewish Federation of Edmonton, said Holocaust education is not an easy subject to tackle.
“It’s a crowded curriculum. It’s hard to fit things in. It’s a difficult subject. Teachers aren’t necessarily well prepared to teach it,” she said. “With the internet for example, and social media and everything, there is a lot of exposure to misinformation and disinformation around the Holocaust that students are getting at a much younger age.”
The issue isn’t just that students are unaware of what the Holocaust is. They’re actually getting information that is incorrect and harmful and dangerous through other means,” she added.
Jaime Kirzner-Roberts with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in Toronto said in an interview that the Holocaust itself was a lesson.
“A lesson for us about the consequences of leaving hatred unchecked,” she said. “The consequences of living in a society where hatred is tolerated. It is the ultimate lesson about the horrors that can result.”
She said B.C. and Ontario’s move will hopefully pave the way for the rest of the country to mandate Holocaust education in provincial curriculums.
“We certainly, absolutely, hope that B.C. and Ontario are pioneering the way and that we will see all provinces and territories commit to ensuring that every child in this country graduates from high school with some basic understanding of these important lessons that the Holocaust leaves us with,” she said.
For Romney back in Vancouver, connecting with young people and sharing her stories is her way of “passing the torch” to ensure the Holocaust and its victims are not forgotten or denied.
“We can only do it through education, to try and impress upon the young generations that it’s up to them not to have a repetition of the Holocaust,” Romney said. “Recent events in the world have shown that it’s even more important than we thought.”
Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press