|EMSB RENAMES FORMER WAGAR BUILDING AFTER HOLOCAUST HERO GIOVANNI PALATUCCI|
MONTREAL, MAY 17, 2006 – On May 16, the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) became the first public school board in Canadian history to name a school building after someone who saved lives during the Holocaust, when a ceremony was held to rename the former Wagar High School building in Côte Saint-Luc after Italian Holocaust hero Giovanni Palatucci.
"We are honouring a man whose heroism saved the lives of 5,000 Jews," said Syd Wise, an EMSB commissioner and former principal of Wagar, who spearheaded the project with EMSB Chairman Dominic Spiridigliozzi. "As well, this will help people to remember the six million Jews who were exterminated during the Holocaust, and the millions more who were murdered in the 20th century."
Giovanni Palatucci saved the lives of 5,000 Jews destined to die in death camps during World War II. From 1938 to 1944, Palatucci was first in charge of the Office of Foreigners and later Chief of Police of Fiume, a city in northern Italy. Following the promulgation of racist laws in Italy, he forged documents and visas for thousands of Jews, sending them to internment camps where their protection was ensured with the assistance of his uncle, the Bishop of Campagna, and other members of his family. After the 1943 capitulation of Italy, Fiume was occupied by the Nazis. Palatucci remained as head of the police, though without real powers. He continued to help Jews and maintain contact with the Resistance until his activities were discovered by the Gestapo. Palatucci refused a safe pass to Switzerland offered by a close friend, the Swiss Consul to Trieste, sending his Jewish fiancée instead. On September 13, 1944, Palatucci was arrested and condemned to death. The sentence was later commuted, and Palatucci was deported to the concentration camp of Dachau, where he died in February 1945 at the age of 36.
Retired Canadian Major General Lewis MacKenzie, who has commanded ground troops in some of the world’s most dangerous places, was the event’s keynote speaker.
Major General MacKenzie, whose appearance was made possible by the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal, has led troops in the Gaza strip, Cyprus, Vietnam, Cairo, Central America and Sarajevo. It was in Sarajevo that his superior leadership skills and courage came to the fore. At the start of the Bosnian Civil War he created and assumed command of Sector Sarajevo and, in the midst of a brutal civil war, with a contingent of troops from 31 nations, and under fire from all sides, managed to open the Sarajevo airport for the delivery of humanitarian aid. General MacKenzie retired from the Canadian Forces in March 1993.
"To qualify as a hero, one must be able to take a risk, so that something can be done for someone else,” Major General Mackenzie told a capacity crowd in the facility’s auditorium. “Everyday is considered a risk, but one does not escape or withdraw from it. Giovanni Palatucci really qualified as hero. He was a man who saw wrong, and responded to a wrong,"
Also present at the ceremony was Rev. John Palatucci of New York City, one of Giovanni Palatucci’s few surviving relatives. Although he was aware of Giovanni’s acts of heroism since he was a boy, it wasn’t until the 1990s – when the cause for Giovanni’s sainthood was brought up – that he found out how many Jewish people he actually rescued from the jaws of Nazi tyranny. "Giovanni Palatucci is the Italian (Oskar) Schindler; our family used to call him ‘The Saint’," said Rev. Palatucci. "I am very proud to have this man as part of my family. I am so proud to be related to this righteous gentile who saved so many people from Hitler’s rage."
In the months leading up to the ceremony, the EMSB initiated an educational component by twinning classes from Laurier Macdonald High School in St. Léonard and Bialik High School in Côte Saint-Luc. The Laurier Macdonald students visited the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre in late March, and then hosted their Bialik counterparts for a day of dialogue and discussion on April 11, in which they screened the film "Ripples in Time" which was produced by the Laurier Macdonald students about the immigration experience of their families as a jump off point.
"Through this project we wish to send a message about one man's stand against oppression," said Mr. Spiridogliozzi. "We are trying to promote the idea to students in this day and age that they need to realize that every little bit of resistance to oppression helps, and sometimes in a very significant way, if people stand by their values."
The reason behind the project is to celebrate the initiative of individuals in making a stand against oppression and to instill a sense of control over one's environment in the students. In particular, to use whatever means available if the needs arises, and especially those means that you have at your personal disposal to do the right thing.
Students from Laurier Macdonald and Bialik attended the event, as well as students from John Grant High School and the Marymount Adult Education Centre. The latter two as the present-day occupants of the facility. The Bialik Choir performed four songs (including one that was written by a Holocaust survivor) and Stephanie Zucker, a student just back from the March of the Living in Poland and Israel, introduced Major General Mackenzie. Other speakers included National Congress of Italian Canadians President Nino Colavecchio, D’Arcy McGee MNA and provincial Revenue Minister Lawrence Bergman and Beryl Wajsman, President of the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal.
The ceremony concluded with the unveiling of a plaque that officially renames the facility by Rev. Palatucci, along with a group of EMSB administrators and commissioners. The plaque, which also features Giovanni Palatucci’s portrait and a brief biography of him, will be on permanent display in the building’s lobby.
This program was made possible via the sponsorship of Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre Immediate Past President Jack Dym, Beryl Wajsman of the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal and a number of others.
Michael J. Cohen