Hope, survival, and a call to stand up against bullying and injustice everywhere was the message Holocaust survivor Eva Olsson brought with her to Fort Frances High School on Monday morning.
“What I’m hoping for is [for people] to not to take things for granted, and I’m also hoping that there will be more acceptance of one another, for a diverse society,” Olsson said about what she hopes local high school and senior elementary students took from her visit.
“I’m hoping that they will stop using the word ‘hate,’” she added.
“That’s why I start out with that [in my presentation] because they have an opportunity to see what hate is.”
One of six children, Olsson was born to a poor Hasidic Jewish family in Szatsmar, Hungary (now Satu Mare, Romania) in October, 1924.
On May 15, 1944, Olsson and her family were put into boxcars and sent to Auschwitz-Berkenau—the largest concentration camp built by the Nazis and where roughly 1.3 million people (Jews, Poles, gypsies, Soviet PoWs, and more) were murdered by the end of World War II.
Almost 90 members of Olsson’s immediate and extended family were killed during the Holocaust—with only herself and her sister surviving.
Olsson began to speak publicly about her life in 1996, and has since spoken at more than 2,000 schools, universities, colleges, churches, and more to tell her story—not just of surviving the Holocaust, but the discrimination she continued to face afterwards for being uneducated due to her family’s religious beliefs, her interracial marriage, and being an immigrant, widow, and single parent.
Her autobiography, “Unlocking the Doors: A Woman’s Struggle against Intolerance,” was published 2001.
Her second book, “Remembering Forever: A Journey of Darkness & Light,” told the story of her 2007 journey from Canada back to Europe where—at 82 years old—she retraced her and her family’s steps for the first time since leaving Europe after the Second World War.
Olsson was awarded an honourary doctorate by Nipissing University in North Bay in 2005, and on Jan. 24, 2008 was inducted into the Order of Ontario.
While the visit to Fort Frances was just one stop amongst many during a 20-day speaking tour which is taking her across Canada, Olsson said she appreciated the opportunity to share her story with the students.
“It’s good for this generation,” she said about ensuring that today’s youth know what happened during the Holocaust.
She also likes hearing the feedback from those who have been changed by her story.
“For me, the hardest thing in Auschwitz [was] once I found out what they did to the children,” she recalled. “[Of those killed], five of them were my own blood, my nieces.
“At that point, I used to say to myself—in the first two days only because then I knew what happened—I used to say, ‘If my nieces are not alive, I never want to live.’
“And we couldn’t comprehend—we could not imagine children being murdered, children gassed, children being stabbed, children being tossed in the air and shot with bullets to see where they’re going to land,” she continued.
“I just want to vomit just to think about it —and that’s why it’s important when I went back in 2007.
“The people they must know, they must know this,” Olsson stressed. “When I came back, I said to my son, ‘I don’t do enough.’ That’s what I told my son, that’s what I came away with.
“You can never do enough. There’s no way.
“What this has given me, as I said, it helps me by keeping my family’s spirit alive, and that helps me deal with it,” she explained.
“Just to sit at home in a rocking chair at my age, I can’t imagine it.”
Since first beginning to speak about her experience as a concentration camp survivor, Olsson has received some 14,000 letters from students, saying how they have been impacted by her story, and that they won’t take their life—and what they have—for granted.
“So they hear what I’m saying,” she remarked. “It sounds that they’re going to apply things that they’re going to hear to their own lives, which is important.”
“What I would like to ask, I would like to ask parents, really from my heart, please send your children to school the way you would like to see them as adults,” Olsson added.
“Don’t expect your teachers to fix it,” she stressed. “Just focus on the children, what you want to see [in] them, the way you want to see them.”