Vanier College recently marked the 25th anniversary of its Annual Symposium on the Holocaust and Genocide in a unique way. In partnership with the Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention Foundation, Vanier organized a moving student mission to Austria and Italy. The endeavour was entitled “Moral Responsibility:Global Citizenship.”
The trip co-coordinators were Marlene Grossman, a teacher at Vanier College and Naomi Kramer, President of the Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention Foundation. They planned the extensive agenda through the two countries.The mission included 22 students from Vanier College and one from Dawson College, and aimed to promote intercultural dialogue, develop critical thinking, instill a sense of civic and moral responsibility and inculcate in students the importance of developing a historical perspective when examining current events.
The trip began in Vienna where highlights included a reception held at the Ratthaus (City Hall) hosted by City Councilor Tanja Whesley, a reception at the residence of Canadian Ambassador Mark Bailey, and walking tours which included the Belvedere Palace, Albertina museum, and the Caritas immigrant-run hotel, Magdas. The Holocaust Memorial sites in Vienna were explored and Naomi Kramer narrated a historical overview of their development as well as Austria’s shift from first victim of the Nazis to co-perpetrator in the destruction of European Jewry
A dramatically poignant aspect of the mission was the prescence of Marc Bissell who accompanied the students. Marc is an engaged and compassionate philanthropist, lawyer and financier. He is also the son of B’nai Brith Canada’s President Emeritus Eric Bissell who together with his family escaped Vienna days after Hitler’s Anscluss. Just over a year ago Marc was appointed Austria’s Honorary Consul General in Montreal. History coming full circle. The Consul General’s personal impressions of Vienna today juxtaposed with life in Vienna after the Anschluss touched all participants.
The group visited the Mauthausen concentration camp in Linz, one of the harshest work camps within the entire Reich. Students walked the “Stairs of Death” to the former quarry, and observed the gas chamber and other camp infrastructure, which remains largely intact. Questions regarding whether to preserve death camps and appropriate memorialization of victims were explored.
The students met with Niklas Frank, son of Nazi Hans Frank who was Gauleiter of Poland during the War and who was executed after being found guilty of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Trials. Niklas Frank related his personal memories and feelings about contemporary anti-semitism in Germany.
In Italy, students visited Verona, Florence, and Rome. In addition, to enjoying the works of master artists and the natural beauty of the country, students had a round table discussion with Father Norbert Hoffmann, Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews in Vatican City. They were involved in an intercultural student exchange addressing contemporary global issues with Palestinian students in Rome as well. Highlights in Rome included the Jewish Museum, the Great Synagogue of Rome, the Ardeatine Cave (Memorial Site−reprisal for the partisan attack on the 25th of March, 1944), the Catacombs, and several other archaeological sites were visited.
Two film students from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Film at Concordia University, Aziz Zoromba and Alex Mackenzie, documented the journey with a view to creating four 7-minute films. The films are intended to raise awareness of the need to assume moral responsibility when confronted with racism and discrimination. This documentary series will be available in early 2018.
The mission also marked the 25th anniversary of cooperation between the Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention Centre with the Austrian Holocaust Memorial service or Gedenkdienst founded by Dr. Andreas Maislinger. In lieu of compulsory military service Gedenkdieners are able to volunteer atHolocaust Memorial centres worldwide. Several former Gedenkdieners met with the Vanier students in Vienna. HEGEP’s Matthias Pum provided commentary and logistical expertise navigating the group in Austria and Italy.
On a personal note, I must note the extraordinary development of Vanier’s programs and courses on history and global affairs. Paramount has surely been its annual Holocaust Symposium, but the school has encouraged its students to get involves in a number of other initiatives including its very successful Model UN which is attended by hundreds each year and which I was privileged to keynote this year. Vanier Director-General John McMahon has made it a priority to encourage these programs and the global perspective Vanier provides to its students.