By: SOPHIA MIRZAYEE
Although it has been approximately seven years since my participation in Mr. Patrick Mascoe’s grade six Holocaust education program, I still, to this day, live by what I learned from him. The experience has shaped me into the person that I am now in countless ways, including the decision I made to study human rights at Carleton University.
Through the Holocaust education that Mr. Mascoe provided at Charles. H. Hulse public school, my learning was enriched to a degree that is still present within my life. While I do not remember the answers to any of the math equations I learned in his class, I do however remember the profound lessons that underlay the Holocaust education, and although they seemed miniscule at the time, they are now the very foundation of my outlook on life.
It surprises me that even in today’s progressive era, and living in one of the most diverse and tolerant countries, I still encounter individuals whom are judgemental and hold false beliefs about other religious or cultural groups that are different from their own. At the time, many of my fellow classmates and I knew very little, if anything at all, about the Jewish religion or culture and had never even encountered a Jewish individual. In addition, we had never heard of the atrocities that had taken place against them and other groups by the hands of the Nazi’s during World War II. The Holocaust was non-existent in our scope of knowledge. Because we knew very little, many of my classmates labelled Jewish people negatively, and of course, falsely. These beliefs seemed so true to us but as we embarked on our journey of Holocaust education, we witnessed them being shattered little by little.
Every year, a months-long Holocaust education program is run by Mr. Mascoe for his grade six students, and each student is given a pen pal at Ottawa Jewish Community School, to whom they write letters to throughout the year. In June, they have the chance to meet face to face and engage in leadership-oriented activities together during a Day of Cultural Understanding. Not only did we learn about the crimes and atrocities that the Nazi’s committed, but we were also introduced to the negative and long-lasting repercussions that their actions brought upon the victims of such hate crimes. In addition, Mr. David Shentow, a Holocaust survivor, is always invited to share his story of being held in a concentration camp during the Nazi regime in Germany. Mr. Shentow was one of the most gentle and caring people I have ever met and I remember thinking, how was it that a group of people could hate someone like him to the extent that they dehumanized him and try to end his life? What could be so bad about Mr. Shentow that he could merit such abuse? It did not make sense. As we continued to learn about the subject, it became more and more clear that fundamentally, hate is what caused the Holocaust. What seems like a simple emotion was the basis for the destruction of millions of lives. That day, I learned that the simple prejudices we hold now, even in our early lives, have the potential to lead to the same height of destruction.
In the midst of all this negativity, Mr. Mascoe also recounted stories of those who were courageous enough to stand up against oppression. From individuals who took in Jews and hid them from the Nazi’s to those who refused to become bystanders, these individuals are testaments to the importance of character and Holocaust education and represent why it is imperative to educate students not just about how to solve math equations or understand literature, but about fundamental issues from which they grow as individuals and build character.
Taking part in the pen pal exchange broadened my perspective and opened the eyes of my classmates. I had never imagined that someone who lived on the other end of the city, who came from a completely different background and who led a different life, could form such a strong connection with me. It surprised me that my pen pal loved watching the same TV shows as me, played the same sports as me, and that we even had similar personalities. I discovered that amidst all the differences, you can always find a profound commonality. Furthermore, our commonality extended outside our sixth grade classes because we have been able to keep in touch ever since.
As previously mentioned, I am majoring in Human Rights at Carleton University. It is not an accident that I took part in the Holocaust education and then decided to choose this stream as the focus of my studies. I can say with great conviction, that I would not be the person that I am today if I had not been part of Mr. Mascoe’s sixth grade class. His education on the Holocaust was so much more than a history lesson. Through his guidance and his teaching, I became passionate about human rights around the world and ensuring that people – especially young students –are aware of the injustices that occur to our fellow people.