Do I look like a lucky woman (that's me in the stripes in today's pic)?
Because I am.
I'm lucky to have been able to get to know the Grade 10 kids in this pic -- and their English teacher Ms. Brown (she's at the front of the pic, wearing glasses and her ski jacket). And to have been involved in a -- hard to find the right adjective here -- spectacular? transformative? gorgeous? heartbreakingly beautiful? (they're all true) -- Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Looking Back for a Better Future. Funded by Canadian Heritage, the program is bringing five classes from across the province together with five seniors' groups in their communities.
Ms. Brown teaches at Herzliah High School here in Montreal. The seniors her students are paired with attend a group called Café Europa that meets weekly at the Cummings Centre. The members of Café Europa have a painful shared history -- they are all survivors of the Holocaust. For this project, they are sharing their stories of survival and resilience with the young people. And though we hoped the meetings would be a success, I don't think we ever expected the kind of closeness that is developing between the kids and the seniors.
Another cool things is that Looking Back for the Future is going to be the subject of a documentary film that will be screened at this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. Today, we were lucky to have filmmaker Alaric Boyle-Poirier with us to film some of the interactions that took place.
It was the second time the kids and the seniors met. There was no need to reintroduce the participants or the project. They got right back into their conversations!
Today, Ms. Brown had the great idea of getting the students to ask the seniors about their experiences of anti-Semitism. With a terrible, shocking wave of anti-Semitism currently affecting the world, this question felt more important than ever.
Survivor Svetlana Ostrovskaya shared this advice for dealing with anti-Semitism: "Be strong and be safe." And her friend and fellow survivor Rachel Neubarth added: "Don't be afraid to express yourself."
Gyorgyi Nemes explained that as a young woman in Hungary she dreamt of being a designer. But even when one of her teachers wrote her an excellent letter of recommendation, she was not accepted at the college where she could have studied design. "Only one per cent of students could be Jewish," she explained.
Bill Lewkowict told the students that when he came to Canada after the Holocaust, Canadian teenagers didn't know what the word "camp" referred to, certainly not the concentration camp where Bill had been imprisoned. "They asked me, 'At your camp, did you have horseback riding?'" What I found so remarkable was Bill's sense of humour, which as I pointed out to the students, is an important tool for resilience. Our ability to laugh can help us get us through the toughest times in our lives. (I know this trait well from my mum, who was also a Holocaust survivor -- and one of the funniest people I have ever known.)
Ted Bolgar is a survivor of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp. He told students Arielle and Abigael about the moment, after liberation, when he learned that his father had also survived. Ted showed us his humour too when he heard that he'd be filmed, and he said, "I didn't have my makeup." To which one of the girls (I think it was Arielle) replied: "I have lip gloss." So amidst all the serious, heartbreaking stories, we had moments of laughter too!
I should also mention that the gentleman at the center of today's pic is Andrew Fuchs. Andrew is 87, and was one of many Jews saved by the remarkable Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. At the time, Andrew was a child of eight. Today -- nearly 80 years later -- he turned up at the Cummings Centre with a pile of Holocaust memoirs that he wanted to share with Ms. Brown's class. Amazing, no?
There are many many people to thank in today's blog entry -- the team at Blue Met, the terrific people at Cummings Centre, Ms. Brown and her helpers from Herzliah; Canadian Heritage -- but I'm back to not finding my words. Which is something for a talkative writer like me! I can't say a big enough thank you to Ms. Brown's students and to the members of Café Europa. You have dazzled me with your kindness, your decency, your willingness to share stories and to hear stories and make them part of you.