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Students encounter Holocaust survivor

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The more historical distance that exists between us and history-shaping events, the deeper the temptation toward revisionism and interpretation. Therefore, it is critical that we repeatedly return to sources that can help us clarify, rethink, and remember in ways that are faithful.

Nearly 600 senior high school students from Winnipeg’s MB Collegiate Institute (MBCI), Westgate Mennonite Collegiate, and Calvin Christian School had this opportunity Mar. 1, when they attended a presentation by Leon Leyson, the youngest survivor from Oskar Schindler’s (in)famous list.

In his hour-long testimony, Leyson, now an 80-year-old resident of California, described his experiences as a Jewish youth in war-torn Poland during World War II. Along with his family and many other Jews, Leyson was herded into a Nazi-created ghetto, from which many Jews were sent to death camps.

Leyson and several members of his family were recruited to work in a factory owned by German war profiteer Oskar Schindler – thus becoming some of the approximately 1,200 Jews who survived the Holocaust because of Schindler’s efforts.

These events have become part of our cultural landscape largely due to Steven Spielberg’s award-winning movie, Schindler’s List, based on Thomas Keneally’s book of the same title. However, as valuable as these media presentations may be, hearing Leyson’s testimony in person offered a singular experience.

Using nothing but a stand and a microphone, Leyson simply (but not simplistically) recounted his version of events. While the basic narrative arc may have been familiar to the audience, it was also clear that Spielberg’s movie cannot be the primary source for understanding this harrowing episode.

In response to students’ questions, Leyson made clear that the movie did not capture the extent of the cruelty expressed by the prison camp commandant (Amon Goeth), nor did it do justice to the goodness and sacrifice of Oskar Schindler.

None of this should surprise us, and yet, we’re often tempted to let a movie stand in for our complete understanding of history. It’s important to remember in ways that are faithful to the events, to people, and to the present in light of the past, which is itself always being negotiated in our reflections. Of course, interpretation is always present, even in those who are directly participating.

To have an opportunity to listen to the personal witness of someone like Leon Leyson is important, not because he has the final word, but because we are reminded that within huge events which we’re tempted to view in abstract terms, real things happen to real people.

Paul Doerksen is head of the biblical studies department at MB Collegiate Institute in Winnipeg.

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