“We witness to remember but we witness so we can try to do better” was the mantra of a contingent from Upper Canada College that took part in a Holocaust education trip through Poland and Austria during the March break from March 12 to 23.
Upper School English teacher Rachel Metalin again led the trip. She was joined for a second time by her father Sam as well as Prep math teacher Bob Cooper, Ethel Eisen Bursary donor Jennifer Houston and 11 Upper School students.
A somewhat different itinerary for the 11-day journey took participants to locations that weren’t included in the past, including the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Warsaw Zoo, where the zookeeper’s house was a bigger attraction than the animals since it had a unique history. During the Second World War, the zookeeper’s family saved more than 200 Jews by secretly keeping them from the Nazis in the basement, tunnels and other hiding spaces.
A visit to Poland’s Majdanek concentration and extermination camp included a ceremony at a Russian soldier-built mausoleum that housed seven tons of ash and bones.
“What makes Majdanek unique from the other sites is that the Russians approached it so fast that the Nazis didn’t have time to destroy the camp,” says Metalin. “At every other extermination camp they were able to destroy most of the evidence of what they were doing, including the gas chambers and crematoriums.”
Metalin and her father used the occasion to give participants a memorial candle and asked them to talk for five minutes about a Holocaust victim they had researched at UCC.
“Each boy talking about why they selected a certain person was so powerful and meaningful,” says Metalin.
Another new stop was the all-male KL Mauthausen prison camp outside of Vienna, where prisoners from several different countries and religions were kept and memorials from several nations have since been erected in their honour.
“While there’s no way to escape talking about Jewish victims of the Holocaust, our trip was non-denominational and I thought it was important for that to be our last heavy site because it allowed the boys to see the breadth of the different types of victims of the Holocaust,” says Metalin. “It’s a little off the beaten path for groups that do Holocaust education trips, but it really fit in with the spirit of our group.”
The trip also covered visits to several other sites, including synagogues, cemeteries, museums, extermination and labour camps. Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Hartheim Euthanasia Centre were among the most notable locations.
A lot of time on buses in between sites during the “emotionally and physically taxing” trip gave the boys lots of time to chat informally about what they’d seen, and prompted discussions about current human rights violations, the Syrian refugee crisis and the role people can play when injustices are being committed. Metalin also held more formal debriefing sessions in the evenings where students were encouraged to talk about their observations.
“It was really wonderful to see, as the trip progressed, how much more open the boys became with their feelings, thoughts and reflections and the connections they made between what they had seen and what’s going on in their own lives and in the world around them,” she says.