Lessons learned from one of the world’s worst atrocities can be relevant to today’s teenagers.
Dr. Eva Olsson spoke today to packed gymnasium at Barrie North Collegiate.
The 93-year-old Holocaust survivor was there to speak to the students and staff about her experiences in Nazi-occupied Europe. Though still images played out on a screen, a room full of people hung on to every word Olsson had to say. Olsson wasn’t shy in telling the room how bad it was and that it should never be taken lightly.
“This was no video game or movie,” said Olsson. “It was real life and real death. And for many there was no hero to save the day; millions died without a grave. It is the saddest story you can hear.”
Olsson recounted her time in Auschwitz and the genocide she saw first-hand that took place from 1941 to 1945 and saw the killing of what is estimated at 11 million people, six million of which were Jewish. At the age of twenty, Olsson and her family rode on the four day train ride of Hell to the concentration camp that would be the last place she would see many of the people she knew and loved. Told they were going to work in a brick factory, it became clear when they arrived that they had been lied to.
“People were dying in the boxcars because there was not sufficient oxygen,” said Olsson. “We were standing in human waste for four days, mothers weren’t able to feed their children and the horror and crying was something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. When we got there, I remember thinking this is no brick factory; it is a death factory.”
Olsson, who now resides in Bracebridge, spoke of her joy when she officially moved to Canada and how it was a place where people from all different races and backgrounds could live and be happy together. Her speech today wasn’t one of a history lesson as much as it was as a reminder to not let history repeat itself. Olsson prides herself on being an advocate against being a bully or a bystander and tries to relate her experiences to youth through everyday occurrences they may have.
“At one time when I was a teenager there were 300 Nazi bullies; a couple of years later there were 300,000” said Olsson. “How did that happen? People stood by and did nothing. Don’t be a bully, don’t allow yourself to be bullied and certainly don’t be a bystander. Bullying is just hate and hate unchallenged becomes rage. My generation saw what happens when rage is allowed to reign and it is not a good thing.”
Some Barrie North students in the audience have seen the camps and battlegrounds of World War II first hand after a recent trip to Vimy Ridge. Sixteen-year-old Erica Stanley was one of the students who made the trip to France for the 100th anniversary of the heroic Canadian victory. Having just got back from Europe and seeing battlegrounds and concentration camps made the Barrie North student appreciate Dr. Olsson’s presentation even more.
“To have been over to the camps and taken the tour was pretty jaw-dropping,” said Stanley. “But as she was speaking I was able to envision the scenes more clearly and it made it more real, which was really sad. To think that we will be the last generation to have someone from that time come in to speak to us is very staggering and makes me hope that we somehow keep the memory of it all alive to remember.”
Ron Cobbett is a history teacher at the high school and took the kids over to Europe for the Vimmy Ridge anniversary, marking the first time he’d ever been as well, and says that the experience was eye-opening for many reasons but most of which on how he sees events now.
“This is my 25th year of teaching history and events like the Battle of the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele,” said Cobbett. “You can teach it from a textbook point of view or what you find online but to actually talk about walking in the footsteps of the soldiers during the Great War and seeing the trenches and craters that still exist kind of puts it in a perspective and changes my approach to teaching history now going forward.”
Despite his knowing many of the facts and figures of World War II and having visited a concentration camp with the students, Cobbett says today’s speech by Dr. Olsson was something that he will really take in and appreciated the way the 93-year-old Holocaust survivor is relating to kids 80 years her junior.
“To hear of her own personal experiences prior to and in the camps, it certainly puts a whole other perspective on it,” said Cobbett. “But what really captivated me was her want and ability to take that very historic time full of atrocity and terror and relate it to these kids in an effort to wipe out hate. Certainly the scale is different from 1940’s Nazi Germany to high school hallways and bullying, but as she pointed out, the hate started somewhere and its best we learn from it and get rid of it.”
Dr. Olsson will be speaking tonight at Bear Creek Secondary School at 6:30 p.m. It is open to the general public and the school is located at 100 Red Oak Drive.