VANCOUVER, B.C. (Aug. 22)
Leon Bass was 19 years old, a Black soldier in a segregated white U.S. Army, when he stood in the barracks at Buchenwald in April 1945. “I thought, my God, what is this, what am I seeing — the stench, the bodies, the living mixed with the dead, was overwhelming.”
Bass was part of the liberating army that opened the death camp at Buchenwald. He had been serving in a segregated army and wondering why he was fighting for a country that had treated him so badly. Nothing had prepared him for what he saw at Buchenwald.
There was another observer that day — a 14-year-old camp inmate — Robbie Waisman. He was in those barracks at Buchenwald, barely alive. When he saw the Black soldiers, it was the first time in his life he had ever seen a Black man. “To me they looked like angels — they had come to set us free.”
At a recent symposium held here to educate high school students and teachers about the Holocaust, these two men met for the first time in 40 years and embraced.
TEACHING THE LESSONS OF THE HOLOCAUST
They were participants in the 9th Annual Symposium on the Holocaust. Both were retelling their stories to 500 high school students. Ten years ago a group of volunteers came together to begin teaching the lessons of the Holocaust to public school students and teachers.
The symposium began with 250 high school students being invited to hear a day of lectures and survivor’s eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. Now 1,500 at a time over three days.
The committee which organized the symposiums is composed of professors, theologians, high school teachers, and survivors — all men and women dedicated to teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. This annual event which brings over 1,500 students and teachers together to hear survivor’s accounts and view films on the Holocaust, is comprised not only of large plenary sessions but also of small group discussions centering on how the Holocaust happened and what present day responsibilities derive from knowledge about that event.
In addition, many high school teachers in the Vancouver area now request survivors and films for their classroom teaching. The Canadian Jewish Congress, Pacific Region, staffs this committee and its co-chairmen Dr. Robert Krell and Prof. Graham Forst co-ordinate many events in the general community relating to the Holocaust.
“This symposium” says Krell “is the only one we know of its kind and size in North America. It is geared to teaching the lessons of the Holocaust to all high school students and to their teachers, and the response has been overwhelming. We have encouraged other communities to set up similar events and prepared a short guide book to help them to do so. In Toronto, a similar symposium has been started on our model.”
A NATIONAL DOCUMENTATION PROJECT
The Vancouver committee also generated a proposal which grew into a National Documentation Project. It has video-taped over 70 eye-witness accounts of the Holocaust and these video tapes are being used to prepare educational packages for high school teachers.
In Vancouver, as a second phase of the Documentation Project, over 60 tapes are now in a videobank, two-hour video interviews with eyewitnesses to the Holocaust — survivors, partisans and liberators.
“It is our special responsibility” says Forst, “as members of the Canadian community to teach the lessons the Holocaust had for us to the next generation. We do this not as Jews or non-Jews but as members of Canada’s caring community. The Holocaust is the greatest tragedy of our century and involved many nations and religions. All of us need to better understand how such an event could happen.”
For Robbie Waisman and Leon Bass the recent symposium was a unique moment in their lives. They were reunited to recount to a whole new generation of students what happened to them both 40 years ago in Buchenwald.
Further information about the Holocaust Symposium can now be obtained from the Canadian Jewish Congress office at 950 West 41st Avenue, Vancouver, B.C. V5Z 2N7.