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Edenvale High rights an anti-Semitic wrong

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PETER FELDMAN

On May 18, some Edenvale pupils chanted “Heil Hitler” at King David Victory Park High School thespians who were performing an emotive Holocaust drama, “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”.

In the aftermath of the ugly incident, Edenvale High’s principal, Dr Larry Harmer, met with King David High’s principal, Andrew Baker and the SA Jewish Board of Deputies’ national director, Wendy Kahn.

Harmer apologised unequivocally for the behaviour of his pupils. He agreed for them to undergo an education and sensitivity programme under the auspices of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, at their school.

And so they did.

Hungarian Holocaust survivor, Veronica Phillips, 80, and educator Rene Pozniak from the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, provided the programme.

“Veronica moved many of our staff and pupils to tears with her harrowing recollection of her life and we have all learnt a great deal from her. Thank you,” said Harmer in a message to parents and those at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre after their experience.

He said it was an “honour and a privilege” to have Phillips at their school talking about her experiences in a concentration camp from 1940 until 1945.

“Veronica lived in Hungary when she was taken to a concentration camp and was on her way to an untimely death, when 144 women were called to assist at the aeroplane factory. “It was a move which saved her life.”

Phillips and her family came to South Africa where she became a geneticist and a lecturer at Wits.

Educator Rene Pozniak told the SA Jewish Report that the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre has completed a series of lessons with all the grade 9 learners. “We were allotted two teaching periods with each grade 9 class, where we did a workshop looking at identity. We showed a film on stereotyping, and then watched a documentary on the Holocaust,” she said.

“After debriefing the film, a programme on moral choices during the Holocaust, was done, demonstrating that people made choices, and these choices had consequences.

“We looked at different groups of role players in the Holocaust, showing how each one made a choice which had an impact on the outcome of the Second World War, with special reference to the ‘Final Solution’ – the mass murder of the Jews of Europe.”

Pozniak said they specifically looked at perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders/activists and victims. “We emphasized how being a bystander never helps the victim, and in fact, helps the perpetrator. The emphasis was on trying to be an activist or upstander wherever possible.”

Pozniak said: “The learners were encouraged to ask questions and to write in a journal how they felt about what they were experiencing. We found the learners were very receptive to the material and to have grasped the notion that adhering to stereotypes and being prejudiced towards other people, was unfair, hurtful and even dangerous.”

She said Harmer had called her and her team into his office to tell them the parents had asked what was going on in the classroom because they said it was the first time the learners were actually engaging them in a discussion about what they were learning.

“He invited our team to do the same programme next year, as the feedback had been so positive. He requested that we run a workshop for the staff in September.

“The grade 11 history learners will also visit the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre this term.”

Talking about Veronica Phillips’ contribution, Pozniak said her voice was authentic, and her testimony acts as a warning to where hate speech, stereotyping and prejudice can lead to.

“We are grateful to Edenvale High, for the very warm welcome that we received, and would like to compliment the learners for interacting with our programme in such a positive way.

“We also appreciate those staff members who sat in on the lessons and gave us such generous feedback,” Pozniak added.

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