Survivors’ stories, contemporary connections inspire students on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Vince Lacroce, a community and spiritual animator for the English Montreal School Board, and elementary teacher Michelle Santilli work together to weave Holocaust education into classroom learning for Santilli’s Grade 5 students. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Montreal teacher Michelle Santilli has special activities set for her Grade 5 students today, as they join others around the world marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) educator has planned a lot of discussion, along with writing and art-based activities for her middle schoolers as they explore a pivotal section of Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. They’ve been studying the award-winning historical novel about a Danish girl — their same age — living through the Nazi invasion during the Second World War. 

“The children began to make connections and they realized this is a larger global issue, where a group of people can be targeted … [and] that awakens in the children a sense of civic duty, a sense of right and wrong,” noted Santilli, who has woven Holocaust education into history and language arts lessons this school year.

Though students at this age might often feel powerless, she says, she’s teaching them that “even though you’re a child, you do have a lot more power than you think. Because in learning about these things, [you] can prevent them from ever happening again.”

Classrooms across the country today are exploring the Holocaust and the need for continued conversations about antisemitism and bigotry. Both Holocaust survivors and teachers alike say that ongoing education that centres on survivors telling their stories best capture student attention.

For Santilli, whose board is hosting a special webinar for its classes today, teaching about the Holocaust means teaching about the human experience. “If we are trying to teach children to be good humans, good people, this is part of our history — and it’s not always pretty,” she said. 

Last fall, her class took a field trip to the Montreal Holocaust Museum and she says many specific details remain for the 10- and 11-year-olds.

“Our tour guide, she was a survivor of the Holocaust and she said that six million people died and [1.5 million] were kids. And for me, that was very sad, because they didn’t get to have their lives,” said student Giuseppe Vella, who recalled imagining himself in the shoes of a Jewish child at the time. 

Classmate Milla Panetta described the Holocaust as genocide. 

“If we continue learning about this, we’ll be basically carrying on their story. So people can know [and] so we don’t repeat history ever again,” she said.