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'You feel the magnitude': Newmarket educators visit Holocaust sites

Pickering College educators learn about genocide in Poland as part of learning program
Three Newmarket educators from Pickering College visited Poland and the former site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp for a Holocaust education program.

While visiting a former concentration camp in Poland, Newmarket educator Keli Jay said she was overwhelmed by the feelings evoked by the experience.

“You feel the magnitude of what happened when you’re standing in these places,” she said. “(It's a) whole body experience. Very big feelings were felt by everybody in that trip … Everyone is trying to process.”

The Pickering College junior school faculty member, who visited the site that is now a museum and memorial as part of an education program this month, said the experience went beyond any books she has read about the Holocaust, a genocide of Jewish people before and during the Second World War by Nazi Germany. 

Three educators from the Newmarket private school got an in-person experience to learn about the Holocaust March 12 to 17. The trip with other educators across Ontario was part of a program from the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies called Compassion to Action, which invites influential Canadians to Poland to learn about the Holocaust.

“We stood witness to the horrors that occurred on the grounds of sites like Chelmno, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps,” the organization's director of education, Melissa Mikel, said. "Through all of this, we shared reflections, asked difficult questions and started shaping this learning into meaningful educational programming for Ontario schools. We look forward to seeing the learning opportunities about the Holocaust that these educators create in the coming year for Ontario students to ensure the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten."

Learning strategist Stephanie Forgie, who also attended, said the program matches well with Pickering College’s Quaker values.

“We don’t believe in war and violence, and we do our best to eliminate the things that might lead to war and violence, such as ignorance or racism,” she said. 

The trip was about more than just the history of the Holocaust and the harm it caused the Jewish people. Forgie said it was also about learning of the rich history of Jewish people before the Holocaust.

“The Holocaust was really trying to wipe out all that history,” she said. 

Pickering College teacher Sarah Demarco said they will navigate incorporating what they learned into the curriculum, with Grade 6 and up learning about the Holocaust. The college also plans to have more members of its staff attend the summer program.

The school will work to "teach the empathy and the tolerance, and the compassion,” she said. “We’re already doing a lot of that, so now we’re working together to come up with a plan, a more formal plan of how we’re going to use the social justice standards.” 

“The cost of life is front and centre,” Forgie said about the trip. “But it was also an erasure of culture. It was tragic.”

Editor's Note: This article has been edited to clarify that the educators visited a former concentration camp that today is a museum and memorial.