Survivor stories are valuable for teaching about the Holocaust

Having his high school students attend the annual Dianne and Irving Kipnes Holocaust Education Symposium is a field trip experience like no other for Chris Johnston.

Chris, who teaches social studies at Ross Shepherd High School, has been bringing students to the symposium for over 20 years, including the time he worked at Victoria School of the Arts. This year’s symposium hosted Holocaust survivor Marie Doduck, who managed to survive on the streets starting at the age of five.

His first experience with the symposium involved a discussion about Jim Keegstra, the former mayor of Eckville, Alberta, who publicly denied that the Holocaust happened. He was a high school teacher who taught antisemitic ideas to his students in the 1980s. 

Chris says he looks as his role as a history guide and was prompted to first take his students to the symposium so they could see history first hand. “Students need to know the good, bad, and all parts of history. The Holocaust is such a significant, impactful event in humanity that I think it’s always valuable for the kids to experience survivors,” he adds.

With each symposium brings a new experience for him, especially hearing Marie’s story. “I’ve never met what was referred to as a street survivor before in my life. I thought it was fascinating,” says Chris. 

Before he brings his students to a symposium, Chris informs them that this will be one of the most valuable and memorable experiences in high school. Following the field trip, his class has an in-depth conversation where students share how they feel and what they learned. “They basically sit in disbelief thinking that this can happen. I get kids crying in my room because they don’t understand this master race silliness,” he says.

He is thankful that the Jewish Federation of Edmonton provides this opportunity to teachers and their students since it takes learning out of the textbook and provides real life context.

“Any time you have an opportunity to have a first-person account of historical events is super valuable for educators and students. It’s fantastic and necessary for the kids to see Holocaust survivors and ask them questions. As far as in an immediate emotional connection and impact, I would say the symposiums have been the most important field trip that I’ve taken the kids to,” says Chris.