As the child of Holocaust survivors, I have a unique perspective. The vast majority of my friends and peers have grandparents who bore witness or escaped just in time, but my parents actually survived the Holocaust – one by living on the run, managing to survive with his family intact, for the most part, the other who was taken in by nuns in a convent but lost all but very few of her family. One who spoke openly about their recollections and loss, while the other shared very little. What they did share was unfathomable, but without doubt, shaped me into the person I am today.
Hearing these stories of both survival and loss make the Holocaust more real. Trying to comprehend 6 million lives lost almost seems unreal, but those lost were my grandparents, my aunts, my cousins…
Whilst the eternal cry to ‘Never Forget’ is an important one, even more important is to ensure we learn the lessons.
Extraordinary efforts have been made in lobbying Governments to ensure that Holocaust education be a compulsory part of the high school curriculum, but how to teach these studies remains the challenge.
Astute, forwarding thinking members of B’nai B’rith’s Raoul Wallenberg Unit realised this more than 20 years ago when they started raising funds to send educators to Yad Vashem to learn how to teach the Holocaust. Since then, together with the support and guidance of the Gandel Foundation more than 370 Australian teachers have been privileged to have taken this journey as part of The Gandel Holocaust Studies Program for Australian Educators.
Without exception, each of these educators has returned with a new perspective – not only about how to teach the Holocaust, but on life itself. Participants are given the tools with which they can appropriately teach the lessons of which we must all be conscious. These lessons are not about the number of people who perished, or the manner, but rather how they sustained themselves, were resilient beyond compare and managed to find, almost incomprehensively, hope.
There are constants in the rich history of B’nai B’rith globally –
see a challenge; create a solution,
see someone in need; help them
see a community of people in hardship; fill the gaps, plug the holes
see discrimination; fight it
see injustice; advocate
It was this legacy and spirit that drew me to take on the role of CEO of this diverse, complex organisation with its simple desire to strengthen Jewish life.
It was this legacy that inspired a small group of members more than 20 years ago to establish the Raoul Wallenberg Study Grants.
The challenge – how can the learnings from the Holocaust best be taught.
The solution – work with Jewish educators at Yad Vashem to create a program open to all Australian secondary school educators. Over its many years the program has evolved into one of the most sought after of all similar programs globally.
When I had the privilege to meet with some of the 2022/23 alumni after their return earlier this year, it was difficult to comprehend the impact their time in Israel, spent not only at Yad Vashem but across the country has made on them. They each were aware of the privilege they had received and took this responsibility earnestly to ensure the respectful and appropriate teaching of Holocaust studies at their respective schools. They were inspired not by the horror stories of lives lost, but of the resilience of lives saved, lives honoured, spirit found in the darkest of times.
The cost of this program is minimal in comparison to the value it adds to the lives of each educator and the countless students who will be enriched from their experience.
As we approach Yom Ha Shoah we too must take on these learnings.
We must remember the lives lost, as they are the family members we so sadly never had a chance to meet, but just as importantly we must remember the spirit of those who overcame one of history’s darkest times, who found hope and resilience in ways none of us can ever really understand.
On this Yom Hashoah, while I shed a tear of sadness for the loss of my grandparents, my aunts and my cousins, I also marvel at my mother’s capacity to love – an extraordinary lesson, learned at a young age – in spite of this sadness. I honour those people in B’nai B’rith who knew that the lessons we all need to learn are written in understanding our history, not a history of factsand figures, but a history of people, and their experiences, each one different from the next, each story adding depth, understanding and appreciation for the strength of the human spirit, each one with a lesson to teach.
Ellana Aarons in the CEO of B’nai B’rith Victoria, an organisation steeped in history and legacy, integral to the Jewish community’s strength. It is an organisation that for its 170+ year global and 75+ year Victorian history has taken pride in its ‘silent achiever’ position in the community. Under Ellana’s leadership B’nai B’rith is no longer remaining in the back room. The organisation is looking to take pride of place, working to ensure a better understanding of its position of strength in the community, having spent decades working to strengthen Jewish life and uphold Jewish values by delivering programs with impact.
B’nai B’rith Victoria attempts to cover a broad set of goals, which at once gives it significant purpose, yet, sometimes to its detriment impacts the community’s understanding of its role. Specifically, B’nai B’rith seeks to:
- Provide opportunities for social connection
- Deliver projects and programs with impact that 1) support those in need, 2) promote human rights and foster understanding, 3) celebrate the Jewish community’s achievements and talents, and 4) support Israel
- Support Jewish community capacity-building.
If you wish to support the Raoul Wallenberg Study Grants or find out more about the many other wonderful programs and projects delivered by B’nai B’rith and how you can get involved, contact Ellana at the B’nai B’rith office on 03 9523 0888 or firstname.lastname@example.org