Using 21st century technology to preserve Holocaust memories
June 1, 2012 | Suri Epstein - Correspondent
TORONTO – This past February, Elin Beaumont of the Azrieli Foundation received an email from a teacher at the Holy Rosary High School in Lloydminster, Alberta.
Jessie Mann, a Grade 11 history teacher at the Catholic school, wanted to include a Holocaust unit in her course. She had heard about the Foundation’s collection of memoirs and hoped they could help her.
Beaumont, outreach communications manager of the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program, recognized the opportunity and came up with an idea that exceeded the wildest expectations of Mann and her students.
Beaumont sent the class copies of Gatehouse to Hell, the memoirs of Auschwitz survivor Felix Opatowski. She also gave them a new documentary film based on Opatowski’s life for them to watch in the classroom together.
“I asked for her to help the students form questions after they’d seen the film and read the book,” Beaumont said.
The next part of the plan offered a unique opportunity for the class.
Lloydminster is a small town of 27,000 on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border and its residents would normally never have the opportunity to meet, much less interact with, a Holocaust survivor. Beaumont arranged for a teleconference via Skype between the Holy Rosary students in Lloyminster and Felix Opatowski at the Azrieli office in Toronto.
The result was two hours of raw emotion. Students alternately laughed and wept as Opatowski shared his experiences and insights with the spellbound audience over cyberspace.
“How do you think the Holocaust has changed you as a person?” one student asked.
“Let’s put it this way,” Opatowski said to laughter. “I would rather skip the Holocaust and just have become a person.”
Another student asked Opatowski whether he thought about the future after the war, while he was in the concentration camp.
“Yes, I was thinking of the future,” Opatowski said. “And you know what I was thinking about? A loaf of bread. That’s all I could think about.”
He went on to describe the effect of starvation on the body on a day-by-day progression. There was weeping on both ends of the call.
Opatowski discussed his role in the Auschwitz uprising when the crematoria were blown up. He was subsequently arrested and tortured, resulting in the loss of an eye.
“It’s been quite a few years since I was out of the camps,” Opatowski told the students. “I can tell you guys, when I close my eyes, I’m in Auschwitz. When I dream, I’m in the camps.”
The students, who repeatedly expressed their admiration and appreciation for Opatowski, were reluctant to end the session. Mann tearfully told Opatowski, “even some boys here have tears. This was so much more than we ever could have expected from just reading your story. Thank you so very much.”