It certainly isn’t every day that authentic Nazi uniforms are on display in school classrooms, but if you’re going to be speaking about perhaps the most deplorable mass-killing incident in human history, your message might get across better and really drive your point home by showing people the real deal.
That’s precisely what Larry Mikulcik, a curriculum coach with the Horizon School Division in Humboldt did when he arrived at Dinsmore Composite School on Wednesday, April 26 to give morning and afternoon presentations to both the public and students on the Holocaust.
The program was part of the school’s “Genocide Awareness Day”, putting a spotlight on some of history’s most grim and heinous acts of mass murder.
The Holocaust is largely defined as the deadliest genocide in history, in which approximately six million European Jewish people were systematically murdered between 1941 and 1945 by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party regime; roughly two thirds of the nine million Jews who had resided in Europe at the time.
Mikulcik, who originally hails from Glenside, has been educating people about the Holocaust for over 35 years; an endeavor that has become a passion for him. His presentation served as a solemn reminder that we all have our part to play when it comes to squashing out hate and learning to accept others, regardless of appearance, beliefs or background.
But it also pulled no punches on the grim realities faced by the Jewish people during Hitler’s rise to deadly prominence, particularly from a visual perspective. Laid out on desks in the classroom were historical photos depicting life during the Holocaust; on a table used by Mikulcik sat a replica can of Zyklon B, a cyanide-based poison gas used by the Nazis as their “preferred killing tool” and responsible for the deaths of approximately one million people in extermination camps, notably at Auschwitz; and positioned in a row on coat hangers were the aforementioned Nazi uniforms, two of which were authentic and the others consisting of highly-sought after collectable replica pieces.
Just being up close with the actual clothing worn by some of history’s most horrendous figures was enough to make the hair on your arms rise.
For Mikulcik, educating people about the Holocaust is about helping to shed light on basic human rights, and making sure that we don’t begin to go down the same path of hatred, racism and prejudice that fueled Hitler and the Nazi Party’s warped beliefs.
"It's not so much what I get out of it, it's more what I hope I give, and upholding a responsibility to help our students understand more about human rights and their responsibilities as citizens," said Larry. "It's about the role that we have as people of our world about being up-standers and not bystanders when we see bullying, prejudice and bias. It's up to us to do something, and this is the most extreme example of what happens when good people do nothing. Unfortunately, we see it over and over and over."
Being someone who helps to inform others, especially young minds about the horrors of war isn’t something Larry takes lightly.
"It's a big responsibility," he said. "It may not seem like it, but that survivor I mentioned who said, 'Now it's your responsibility because we can't do this for much longer'; that's a weighty thing on my shoulders. Not as a Holocaust survivor of course, but it's a responsibility that has really impacted me."
The other shocking act of genocide that was explored during the day was the Holodomor, the man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine that killed an officially-estimated 7-10 million people between 1932 and 1933; a loss of life that has been compared to that of the Holocaust.
The Holodomor, a term which means ‘Death Inflicted by Starvation’, was the brainchild of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, imposing the brutality of the Soviet Communist policy in order to break the backbone of a young democratic movement in Ukraine.
Stalin’s authorities worked to hinder and quiet any kind of political movement for independence by arresting people, as well as deportation and carrying out more extreme measures such as execution. Stalin also ordered the collectivization of Ukraine’s agriculture, setting high quotas for grain and confiscating crops, as well as seed grain and other staple foods such as potatoes. Many people simply could not match the quotas that were set and starved to death slowly in their own homes.
It wasn’t until 2006 that the Holodomor was officially recognized as a genocide incident, and 24 other countries, including Canada, followed suit. Today, Holodomor victims are recognized with a day of international remembrance on the fourth Saturday in November.
Presenting the program on the Holodomor genocide was facilitator Stephanie Bailey, who welcomed Grade 12 students into her mobile classroom via a modified tour bus. Dubbed the Holodomor Mobile Classroom (HMC), the bus provides an interactive educational experience and utilizes technology to engage students in learning about the tragedies experienced by the Ukrainian people, in what many refer to as “the forgotten genocide”.
The students watched a video on the Holodomor that included testimonies from survivors before breaking off into groups to do research on the history of the event, after which they made presentations to everyone else on the bus.
The travelling exhibit is a project of the Canadian Ukrainian Foundation, a national charitable organization that provides assistance to Ukraine in many forms.
Bailey has a personal reason to be so invested in educating the public about the genocide, as she grew up listening to stories about it from her grandmother, who lived through it and World War II before immigrating to Canada.
Grade 12 teacher Karen Jones says the touring mobile classroom made an impression on her, leading her to book it for a stop at Dinsmore Composite School.
"I saw the Holodomor mobile classroom in Winnipeg when I was there for the Association of Canadian Studies congress, and it impressed me with its interactive nature and the use of primary documents that the kids had access to, including political statements, letters, and photographs," she said. "I just thought it was a great opportunity to learn more about the Holodomor. The kids actually just studied that in the fall, so it was fresh in their minds and it's something that I think most of my community members don't even know about."
Jones believes educating students about these dark times in history such as the Holocaust and Holodomor is of the utmost importance, particularly in the not-so-certain times we live in today.
"I sure do, especially in the political climate that we're in right now," she said. "I think the kids have to learn to become more critical thinkers and stand up for democracy, and let people have their say and educate themselves."
With the Holodomor’s reputation being that of an event largely unknown in some circles, Karen says the students had their eyes opened to another act of evil in human history.
"When we first talked about this, they were shocked because they've been well-versed in Holocaust information from a young age, but this genocide was new to them," she said. "I think now that I've been through it again, and the fact that it was buried for so many years, is appalling."
From her own perspective, Jones says teaching subjects such as genocide has led her to look at the world from perhaps another view at times.
"It's made me much more empathetic and a little bit more weary and cynical of the politicians on our planet," she said. "It makes me question things more."
Today, the nightmares of genocide undoubtedly still keep people up at night, particularly the survivors. Perhaps no better summation of the lasting horrors of genocide exists than the statement made by Holocaust survivor Felix Opatowski, shown in a video clip by Mikulcik during his morning presentation.
“When I go to bed at night and close my eyes, I am in Auschwitz,” he said.