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Genocide symposium a student wake-up call

Holocaust survivor Jonas Benisz helps student Gemma Schladow light candles in memory of genocide victims April 4 during Shawnigan Lake School’s Holocaust and Genocide Symposium. - Peter W. Rusland
Holocaust survivor Jonas Benisz helps student Gemma Schladow light candles in memory of genocide victims April 4 during Shawnigan Lake School’s Holocaust and Genocide Symposium.
— image credit: Peter W. Rusland

The Holocaust stole Janos Benisz’s childhood.

About a year in the Nazis’ Strasshauf concentration camp left the seven-year-old Hungarian Jewish lad skin and bone, covered in sores and lice — but alive in 1945.

Six million Jewish folks — including most of Benisz’s family — died during six long years of fascist murder.

“The Holocaust is in my body, like a bad toothache,” said Benisz, 75. “The pain of the Holocaust is unfixable. I am the Holocaust and the Holocaust is me.”

Those atrocities, and many more continuing today, were graphically related to 1,500 high-school students during last week’s groundbreaking Holocaust and Genocide Symposium hosted by Shawnigan Lake School.

Students from two dozen high schools from across the province joined the Shawnigan for the sobering two-day session.

The event was basically an educational action-call to stop political and religious killings in countries spanning China (40 million victims, 1949 to 1987), Rwanda (800,000, 1984), the Congo (about six million, 1997 to present), and Syria (5,000 deaths monthly).

Those death tolls stunned Grade 11 Brentwood College student Teagan West.

“I didn’t know so many genocides had happened since the Second World War,” she said, ready to urge Canadian MPs to end global genocides.

Benisz, Warsaw Ghetto survivor Lillian Boraks Nemetz, and Alex Buckman (whose parents died in Auschwitz)  emotionally moved students and staff with stories of the Second World War horrors they witnessed. Photos and a short film provided by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre showed the Nazis’ Final Solution, carried out in death camps.

“I learned about (Holocaust) in school, but I didn’t really understand it very well,” said Grade 11 Brentwood College student Sydney Monette.

She urged learning about all forms of genocide — and taking steps to prevent it. How that might be done was explained by symposium guest lecturer James Waller, professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at New Hampshire’s Keene State College.

“How does a country survive when 97% of its children have seen murder first-hand?” he asked of lingering trauma in Rwanda.

Waller pointed to instability in 20 countries that should serve as a genocide warning sign. A religious zealot, a crazed dictator, or a murderous government bent on killing and cleansing to achieve its warped goals might be all that is needed for these situations to explode.

“We know all the red flags. The wood’s stacked; all we need is a spark,” Waller told his rapt audience in SLS’s packed Wilkinson Theatre. “The right to be is taken away.”

But he also shared hope against the apathy and fear that breeds genocide.

“Every one of us has a unique point of leverage.”

Those points include using personal contacts, social media, votes, letters to editors, forming lobbying groups, protesting and more to demand justice from globally elected officials.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Waller said, quoting the late Dr. Martin Luther King.

That path can also be travelled with tiny steps.

“How do you eat an elephant?” asked Waller. “One bite at a time.”

Benisz summed those messages by leading students in yelling “Bullying and racism sucks!”

SLS brass agree. The school will offer a Culture and Conflict 12 course, involving the Holocaust and genocide, starting this fall.

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