Who will share the Holocaust's horrors as its survivors disappear?
TORONTO -- As the Holocaust fades further and further into the reaches of history, some surveys suggest it may be difficult to maintain the memory of one of humanity's greatest atrocities.
Monday marks 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi death camps. More than six million Jews were killed at the camps, including more than one million at Auschwitz alone. They were gassed and starved; their bodies were burned.
Edith Grosman was one of the survivors. Arriving at Auschwitz as a teenager and having to endure almost three years of torture, she was freed in January 1945.
Now 95 years old and living in Toronto, Grosman says she believes she survived to help tell the stories about what happened inside the camp's walls.
"We came from Auschwitz as messengers, because [God] needed messengers – because if nobody would be back, Auschwitz would be forgotten," she said in an interview with CTV News Toronto.
But the passage of time has caught up with many of those messengers. It is estimated that only 400,000 of the 3.5 million Jews who were in Europe at the end of the war are still alive today.
The aging and death of so many survivors may help explain why awareness of the Holocaust seems to be slipping. A 2019 survey found that 49 per cent of Canadians couldn't name one concentration camp or ghetto, while 22 per cent of millennial respondents weren't sure if they had heard of the Holocaust at all. A more recent poll found that 35 per cent of Canadians said they did not learn about the Holocaust in school, with even lower levels of Holocaust awareness detected in Quebec.
This phenomenon isn't unique to Canada. Similar statistics have been reported in the U.S. and elsewhere.
One Canadian expert says there's a tried-and-true way to detail the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that resonates with younger generations: connecting them with physical remnants of the genocide.
"When people are confronted with stories, with artifacts, when they're given the opportunity, most people can get very interested in it," Robert Jan van Pelt told CTVNews.ca Jan. 23 in a telephone interview.
That means face-to-face conversations and physical interactions with monuments, van Pelt said – not merely pointing someone to a website for more information on the Nazi death camps.
"My sense is that you need, in some way, to bring the story to people instead of pointing people to some kind of URL," he said.
In addition to being an architecture professor at the University of Waterloo, van Pelt is an expert in the Holocaust who led the team that developed the master plan to preserve the Auschwitz concentration camp. His belief in the educational power of physical memories of the Holocaust led him to curate the "Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away." exhibition currently on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on New York City.
But for him, the most powerful educational experience of all is to make the journey to Europe to see Auschwitz or one of the other death camps first-hand. He's taken those trips with high school and university students and found that time after time, they come away with a new appreciation for the horrors of the Holocaust – regardless of what they knew about it beforehand or what their background might be.
"It didn't matter if they were Muslim or they were Jewish or they were Christian or they were atheist, once they were in those sites," he said.
The world seems to agree. The Auschwitz Memorial reported a record visitor load of 2.32 million in 2019, led by 396,000 from its host country of Poland. There were 120,000 visits from the U.S. and 24,400 from Canada – although the numbers for any individual country are likely underreported, as nearly one-third of visitors did not identify their place of residence.
European countries dominate the list of the most-frequent visitors to the museum, which may not come as a surprise given their proximity to Poland. Travelling there is much more expensive for Canadians than it is for Europeans – and this presents a silver lining for Holocaust education, as Canadians who do make the trek are more likely to stay for several days and learn more of the history, unlike Europeans on day trips.
"[Canadians] will spend a week or they will spend 10 days looking at these sites and these artifacts. They will get quite immersed in the story," he said.
Canada's own history with the Holocaust is checkered, too. In 1939, Canada followed Cuba and the U.S. in denying entry toM.S. St. Louis, a ship carrying 937 Jewish refugees from Germany. Various European countries agreed to take the passengers in, but many of them were later rounded up by the Nazis and killed in the Holocaust. The federal government's own website notes that "Canada's restrictive immigration policies at the time largely closed the door on Jews seeking to flee Europe."
Attitudes changed after the Second World War as the West woke up to the realization that a genocide had occurred. Approximately 40,000 Holocaust survivors ended up starting new lives in Canada.
The federal government belatedly recognized Holocaust victims in 2017 with the creation of the National Holocaust Memorial in Ottawa, the dedication plaque on which was later rewritten because it originally made no mention of the Jewish people.