But when Heidi Berger stood at the front of the auditorium with a yellow star on her lapel, and recounted her mother’s story of survival from a small village in Poland to Munich, then Montreal, it was clear that most of them had no idea about the people behind the numbers – and what some of them went through to stay alive.
Berger, a documentary filmaker, has been giving presentations to schools and universities picking up where her mother left off when she died, of cancer, in 2006, and using video clips from her mother’s testimony to Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah foundation.
On Wednesday, Berger told students at Ecole Le Prelude in Mascouche the true story about a girl who was no older than they are now when the Nazis invaded eastern Poland.
The rowdy boys at the back soon sat silent and transfixed.
On the large screen, the late Ann Kazimirski, a broad smile on her face, began telling about life before the Nazis, when there were no indoor toilets or running water, but “we were happy.”
Then she spoke about the day following the invasion that her father and brother were taken at gunpoint by Leon, a former employee, and along with the rest of the Jewish men in the village, were shot by firing squad.
“The ditches had been prepared in advance,” Kazimirski explained. “They went down, one layer on top of the other… It has always been a mystery to me, was my brother Benny the first to see my father shot, or was it my father who saw my brother killed?”
She was no longer smiling.
For Berger, the painful telling and retelling of Kazimirski’s story is important, lest the story of the Holocaust and other genocides be forgotten once the survivors have all passed on.
Berger has started a foundation to press the government to make the teaching of genocide compulsory in Quebec high schools.
“Most students don’t have a clue about the Holocaust,” said Berger, adding it is taught as a mere footnote to World War II.
“What happens after me, when I stop coming? This is about genocide. I’m using the Holocaust because it’s a story that is familiar to me. But genocide and racism and anti-Semitism and bullying, it’s all the same subject.”
Back on screen, Kazimirski then recounted how she pulled back the curtains and watched helplessly as her neighbour and best friend Sarah was gang-raped and killed by Nazi soldiers in her backyard. Her parents buried her the next day, without ceremony, Kazimirski said.
Then she spoke about how she and her husband and mother survived the next few months, first hidden in an attic by a German dentist who brought them food and water at night – he was an angel, she says – then by a woman who didn’t dare tell her husband about the three Jews in their attic because he hated Jews.
But when the husband found them, they had nowhere else to go but to the Jewish Ghetto, where conditions were terrible and where Ukrainian and German soldiers routinely carried out pogroms to kill as many Jews as possible.
That’s where Kazimirski and a dozen other Jews watched from their hiding place as her own mother was machine-gunned down by a soldier, her blood splattered across the wall and the snow.
“I wanted to die with her,” she said, “but I couldn’t scream or I would endanger the others.”
Kazimirski and her husband eventually made it back on foot through the forest to their hometown, where the Germans had given their house to non-Jews. They were among the very few Jews left in Poland when the Russians liberated it from the Nazis in 1945. After their first son was born, they travelled to Munich, where one out of 84 relatives had survived the war. Then in 1948 they got a pass to Canada – even though both Canada and the United States had shut their doors to Jews – and settled in Ste. Agathe, where some signs read “Jews are not wanted in Ste. Agathe” and others, outside of a hotel, for example, forbade entry to dogs and Jews.
Kazimirski had to wear a cross and pretend she was Catholic, Berger said, to get someone to sell her a house. Berger’s father, worried that another Holocaust could happen, had his friend, the priest, draw up fake Catholic birth certificates for the whole family.
“I never knew that people survived in hiding,” said one of the students, Penelope Caissy-Berube, “or that Canada and the U.S. refused to take Jews in. In my head, Canada was open, and helped out the refugees.”
Berger finished her presentation, with slides of a Muslim woman who was recently denied entry onto a bus in Quebec and a boy who was beaten up in Hudson, while 50 people watched and filmed it so they could post it on Youtube.
“Be open to other cultures and traditions, and make sure our society does not become a racist society,” Berger told the students, to loud applause.
The students then asked Berger whether some of the children of Nazis also gave conferences – yes; whether her mother ever returned to Poland – yes, for the March of the Living; whether she holds a grudge – no, hate engenders hate; and whether her mother’s friends in the Ghetto also survived – no.
One boy then said he had more of a comment to make: “Your mother would be very proud of you.”