The Canadian Press
TORONTO–Teaching teens about the horrors of the Holocaust is more than just a history lesson for high school teacher Rachel Luke.
The language arts and drama teacher weaves it into her lesson plan where possible, and describes it as “character education” for a generation she fears is losing compassion for others.
“I’m very worried about this generation . . . I see such a difference and a change in children just even in the past five years. A lot of them really lack empathy,” said Luke, who teaches kids in Grades 9, 10, 11 and 12.
“‘If someone’s getting bullied, if something’s happening, (they say): ‘It is not my responsibility,’ ‘It has nothing to do with me,’ ‘It’s not my business,’ ‘I’m not going to be a snitch.’ . . . This is the language that’s used (and) this is the culture of this generation.”
Drilling home the facts of the Holocaust is one way Luke tries to encourage students to understand the destructive impact of intolerance, racism and hate.
But Luke said it can be an uphill battle to reach some teenagers–many of whom have never even heard of the Second World War massacre until a teacher brings it up in class.
Combined with an apparent ease with derogatory racial slurs, Luke worries some youth aren’t even interested in learning why certain behaviour is hurtful.
“A student said to me today, ‘I censor myself when I’m in your class,'” said Luke, who runs the annual Remembrance Day assemblies at Glenforest Secondary School in Mississauga, Ont.
“They know in my classroom they have to behave a particular way. I’m not sure if that might happen in my colleague’s classrooms, I’m not sure that’s happening in the hallways.”
At the very least, a disturbing resurgence in anti-Semitic incidents around the world suggests little has been learned from Second World War crimes.
Reports of attacks and plots targeting U.S and Canadian synagogues continue to spark fear, while Nazi paraphernalia has found fascination among some youth, including late B.C. teen murder suspect Bryer Schmegelsky who allegedly sent photographs of a swastika armband and a Hitler Youth knife to an online friend.
Schools in particular have provided a backdrop for some shocking offences.
Last week, a principal and teacher in Utah were suspended after a student dressed as Hitler for a Halloween parade.
Meanwhile, recent surveys back up Luke’s frustrations: One in five millennials hadn’t heard or weren’t sure if they had heard of the Holocaust, according to a poll released earlier this year by the Holocaust education group the Azrieli Foundation and the non-profit group the Claims Conference, which secures material compensation for Holocaust survivors around the world.
The survey of 1,110 Canadian adults found 62 percent of millennials didn’t know that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
A similar survey by the Claims Conference in the United States found 41 percent of millennials believed two million or fewer Jews were killed during the Holocaust.
Carson Phillips, managing director of Toronto’s Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, said the good news is that teachers seem to recognize a connection between intolerance and gaps in knowledge.
“Any time we hear of these horrendous attacks our requests for education programming certainly increases,” said Phillips.
“This need for education is probably never going to go away.”