By Asha Swann
Nate Leipciger’s teenage years were stolen from him. In 1943, at 15, he was shipped off to Auschwitz, the deadliest network of concentration camps of the Second World War. By 1945, he had survived malnourishment and disease in seven different concentration camps. When he finally moved to Toronto three years later, only he and his father were still alive. It took Leipciger decades to be able to fully open up about the horrors he experienced in the Holocaust: the death of his sister and mother, sexual abuse and torture.
These days you can find Leipciger, now 90, talking about his experiences at schools across Canada. His job can sometimes feel monumental. According to the Azrieli Foundation, a nonprofit that turns Holocaust survivors’ stories into school curricula, in 2019, half of millennial Canadians could not name a single concentration camp. Fifty-four per cent didn’t know six million Jews were killed, and one in five weren’t sure if they had ever heard of the Holocaust.
Leipciger believes Holocaust education should be mandatory, not just in Toronto but all over the world. Only a dozen countries require Holocaust education by law, and Canada isn’t one of them. Without understanding this large mass genocide, Leipciger and other advocates are worried that antisemitism will continue to rise, and prompt intolerance of other marginalized groups.
“If you do nothing, you are running the risk of having another genocide on your hands,” he said.
Leipciger’s call comes at a time when antisemitism and other hate crimes have been increasing. In 2017, Statistics Canada reported that the largest religion-based hate crime was against Jewish people, with Toronto reporting the highest number of police-investigated hate crimes. This number rose again in 2020, when the Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety reported the highest number of hate crimes ever in Canada.
There have been several high-profile instances of antisemitism inToronto schools. Last month, three Toronto schools reported antisemitic graffiti on the same day. In February, students surrounded a Jewish teacher and performed Nazi salutes at an elementary school in North York. Another school had Nazi graffiti and students performing Hitler salutes to classmates.
The first point of contact after an antisemitic attack occurs at a Toronto school is Shari Schwartz-Maltz, the chair of the Jewish Heritage Committee of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). For the past eight years, Schwartz-Maltz has been trying to add more Holocaust education to Toronto schools.
Whenever there’s an antisemitic incident in a school, she said the TDSB brings in someone to teach about the Holocaust. The board has traditionally been dependent on the living testimony of survivors like Leipciger, but, as the survivors get older and die, it becomes more difficult to have the first-hand experience of victims.
“We can’t wait for [The Ministry of Education] to sort of give the official ‘OK.’ We are just finding ways, innovative programs, interesting programs, programs for younger kids to bring it into the schools,” Schwartz-Maltz said. “Because when you teach about the Holocaust, you’re not just teaching about a piece of history. You’re teaching about the ultimate manifestation of hate.”
Another Toronto-based Holocaust survivor, Max Eisen, said that any discrimination puts all minorities at risk. “This is not a Jewish problem. It starts with the Jews, but it doesn’t end with the Jews.”
Leipciger, too, related the rise of antisemitism with the hate crimes against other marginalized groups. “Discrimination against minorities is contagious. And it goes from one group to another, and no group is excluded,” he said.
Currently, the Ontario curriculum for grade 9 and 10 students, revised in 2018, requires students to learn about Canadian history since the First World War, but it mentions the Holocaust less than a dozen times. Critics say the course attempts to teach too much in a short period.
The TDSB wrote an open letter to the Ontario Ministry of Education in 2020 about requiring Holocaust education, and though the motion passed unanimously, there has yet to be any changes. Education minister Stephen Lecce did not reply to a request for comment, but in January, the Ministry acknowledged the rise of antisemitic attacks to CBC News and said that “learning opportunities” will follow, but did not answer the question directly.
Even though teaching the Holocaust isn’t mandated in Toronto, many Jewish non-profits have created curriculums dedicated to it; all the teachers need to do is ask. For Leipciger, it’s resources like this that are essential in keeping Holocaust education alive once there are no more survivors left.
“Practically any organization that is trying to promote Holocaust education has a viable curriculum [that] can be taught,” he said.
Schwartz-Maltz feels optimistic about some of the new ways Toronto students to learn about the Holocaust and the horrors of antisemitism. For example, the TDSB is offering an optional grade 11 course about genocide and crimes against humanity in half of its high schools starting in September. For Schwartz-Maltz, this is more effective than punitive measures, like detention or suspension for students who may be promoting antisemitism.
Students are “going to learn, they’re going to be educated, they’re going to understand,” she said. “So the fact that our board acknowledges that was a problem now and worse than it’s been in the past — That, I think, is very positive.”