Each year, Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC) invite 20-30 influential Canadians on a remarkable educational journey to Poland and Israel to learn about the Holocaust, racism and intolerance. Their objective is to educate leaders about the past and to inspire and empower them to make the world a better place. Over 150 police chiefs, educators, mayors, provincial and federal parliamentarians, philanthropists and thought leaders have taken this intensive journey with them.
This year, my husband and I were fortunate to be a part of this incredible journey. Our tour was led by Avi Benlolo, President and CEO of the FSWC, Melissa Mikel, Director of Education for the FSWC, and we were also accompanied by Holocaust survivor, Max Eisen and Dr. Fred Leitner, a child of Holocaust survivors and member of the Board of Governors at the FSWC.
We hit the ground running, arriving in Warsaw to begin our four-day stay in Poland. Some of the places we visited included the Gensia Cemetery, the Canadian Embassy, the Majdanek Concentration Camp on the outskirts of Lublin, the Jewish town of Krakow where we spent time at the Ghetto Heroes Square, the Pharmacy under the Eagle, the Oskar Schindler Factory, and the 16th century Remuh Synagogue. We also visited the Plaszow Concentration Camp.
The sombre and reflective nature of our journey intensified as we spent a full day at the hallowed grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau, an absolutely overwhelming camp in terms of size and magnitude alone (roughly 40 square km). We were fortunate to hear the moving testimony given by Max Eisen, a Holocaust survivor, who is also the author of the astounding narrative, By Chance Alone, which was this year’s Canada Reads winner. He accompanied us throughout Poland and many of my favourite moments included informal chats over breakfast and walking between historical sites with this remarkable human being.
In Israel, we toured the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, and we got a sneak peak at the new Simon Wiesenthal site for the Museum of Tolerance. We enjoyed a falafel lunch in the Machne Yehuda Market and did a walking tour of Old Jerusalem, which included the Western Wall. We joined Avi and members of his family for a Friday night Shabbat dinner, and spent a morning on top of the ancient fortress in southern Israel’s Judean desert called Masada, where King Herod’s palace is among the ruins.
We enjoyed some time floating in the Dead Sea, which allowed us some much needed time to re-group. We saw modern Israel in Tel Aviv, visited the Knesset Parliament and spent time with Major General Avshalom Peled of the Israeli police. We toured the Palmachin air force base with General Nehemia Dagan. We visited the Golan Heights in the far northeast of Israel, where we could hear gunfire from nearby Syria, and we visited the Sea of Galilee where we learned about the ancient village of Capernaum also known as the “town of Jesus.”
For me, this was a reflective journey. It was a reminder of how small acts of kindness can have an immeasurable impact on another person’s life. It forced me to think about how a horror such as the Holocaust does not happen overnight and how important it is that we all learn from this and do what we can in order to prevent another such tragedy from ever happening again.
This trip of a lifetime reaffirmed for me how important it is for us to model, teach and expect acceptance and understanding from the young people in our care at CDS. And yet, it also left me with a strong sense of hope. With strong leadership from organizations such as FSWC, we are able to continue to learn and promote tolerance, freedom, democracy and human rights for all.
By Susan Scott