MONTREAL, FEBRUARY 1, 2011 - Personal stories of the Holocaust are increasingly difficult to experience because the generation that suffered through it and survived is now dying off. That is the case for Ann Kazimirski, who passed away from cancer in 2006. For 20 years she went on a personal mission to recount the horrors of what she experienced when the Nazis invaded her village in eastern Poland. Ms. Kazimirski wrote a book, Witness to Horror and brought her message to high school students all over Canada and the United States.
Heidi Berger, a Montreal film producer has made it her mission to carry on her mother’s message. Her first presentation to the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) was held recently at John F. Kennedy High School in St. Michel where students and staff commemorated International Holocaust Memorial Day. For several weeks they prepared for this event in their History and Ethics classes and by watching the movie Schindler’s List. It inspired them to create their own JFK Holocaust Memorial Centre.
Ms. Berger was completely amazed by the project that the Secondary V students had created with the help of their Ethics teachers, Shaun Simon, Steve Carroll and art teacher Steve Muoio. Representing the visual and recognizable symbols of the Holocaust, the speaker walked through a barbed-wire tunnel with photos of the Holocaust hanging from the wire and wooden railway tracks on the floor. Then, she entered into a dark tent where a large model of a Jewish Star of David, mounted on a table, was built with broken mirrors in memory of Krystal Nacht. Inside the star were six candles, representing the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. “This is absolutely remarkable,” exclaimed Ms. Berger. “I am so impressed with what these kids have done.”
All of the students had to pass through the Memorial Centre before taking entering the auditorium. Frank Lofeodo, JFK’s spiritual animator and coordinator of the event, opened the presentation by asking Mr. Shaun Simon to light a candle to in remembrance the six million lost souls followed by a moment of silence.
Ms. Berger opened her speech saying, “The reason I am here is partly about me, and partly about the people who are no longer around to tell you their stories.” She went on to question why we should care what happened a long time ago. Why would it still matter?
The answer is “yes it does matter.” She affirmed that it is vital to recount these stories to prevent history from repeating itself, demonstrated by the most recent vandalizing of five Montreal synagogues and a Jewish school.
Using “the magic” of technology Ms. Berger brought her mother, Ms. Kazimirski into the auditorium to relate her story; one of fear, pain and tremendous suffering that started when she was only 17 years-old, the age of the mesmerized JFK High students. The Nazi soldiers removed both her father and brother from their happy home on the pretext of saying they had to “work”, along with hundreds of other men from their village. Her mother followed despite being clubbed and saw they were taken to a local prison, where eventually they were shot and buried in a mass grave.
Mr. Kazimirski went on to describe witnessing the multiple rape of her best friend, Sarah by half a dozen German soldiers then watching her being unceremoniously buried the next day by her parents. She recounted life in the Jewish Ghetto and the various attics that they hid in quietly with little food or water.
During the war her mother married a dentist, who was allowed out of the ghetto to attend to the needs of the German soldiers, but ultimately they were confined inside. Finally the worst moment came when Mrs. Kazimirski saw her dear mother being dragged from her hiding place with others, lined up against a wall and shot. Lying in a pool of red blood on the winter snow of December 1943, she could not even cry out for fear of everyone in her hiding place being discovered.
Eventually by crawling through the sewer system and walking to the Russian border they escaped the horrors and in 1948 immigrated to Canada with two young sons in tow. She claims that seeing the sign “Welcome to Canada” was the happiest moment of her life. They settled in Ste. Agathe where their daughter, Heidi was born and grew up.
Throughout the presentation, Ms. Berger interspersed her own story with that of her mother’s. She talked about a sign on a Ste. Agathe hotel that said “no dogs and no Jews allowed.” She added that a Jew was not allowed to buy property so her mother put a cross on and pretended to be a Catholic in order to purchase a family home. Ms. Berger remembered being a little girl when her father would wake up with nightmares of the Nazis entering through her window with machine guns. He would rush in and move her bed away from the window in the middle of the night.
Ms. Berger concluded emphatically telling the students that despite the tragedies suffered by her late mother, she won the war against Hitler and genocide by surviving. Ms. Berger was inspirational adding that she knows her mother’s mission, spirit and legacy will be carried on not only by herself, but also her children and grandchildren.
Followed by a loud applause, Principal Joseph Marra congratulated Ms. Berger and said, “It’s one thing to learn history through books and numbers like six million, but to listen to the touching personal true story of one woman who survived is far more captivating.”
When asked their impressions of the presentation, students Alvaro José Morgado Cardoso and Abarnah Kanagaratnan both agreed that it was “amazing.” Alvaro was born in Montreal of Portuguese parents. He recounted that his knowledge of the Holocaust was limited until this project was initiated in class. He said that his grandmother once spoke of the WWII fighter planes flying over their town in Portugal.
Abarnah was born in Sri Lanka and came to Montreal with her parents when she was four years old escaping from the prejudices of their war-torn country, where her aunt and uncle who were from an inter-faith marriage were shot publicly. She explained that in Sri Lanka rape, bombings and mass murder were as common as in the Holocaust.
Heidi Berger hopes that the torch she has now taken over from her mother will shine upon more young faces of Montreal students so that they will learn about the past to help build the bridges between cultures to prevent racism, prejudice, and xenophobia and promote tolerance and acceptance in the future.