For the past 30 years, Holocaust survivors have spoken at schools in four Australian states—Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia—educating students with their powerful personal stories as part of B’nai B’rith Courage to Care. The Victoria branch alone has 30 survivors who share their testimony at over 100 schools, reaching over 10,000 children between 12 and 18 years of age each year.
Judy Kolt is one of those survivors who regularly retells her story to school children at the programs run by Courage to Care. Now well into her 80s, she became involved with the organization around seven years ago, after the death of her husband, Hymie. “Courage to Care interested me because they teach that hate starts with just words. I think it is important to teach young people not to have prejudice against anyone, because it can lead to horrible things,” she said. “I find it extremely rewarding, I get some really good questions and the students really appreciate hearing my story.”
When asked whether it is difficult for her to repeat her Holocaust experiences over and over again to so many different groups, Kolt emphasized the long-term trauma many survivors endure: “I relive the Holocaust every night. Whether I talk to children or not, I relive it. It’s actually a relief to pass it on to people.”
Like Kolt, almost all the survivors currently working with Courage to Care were children themselves during the Holocaust. But even this cohort is now in their 80s, which leaves Courage to Care facing an important question: How can they continue sharing firsthand testimonies in schools, when the remaining Holocaust survivors are reaching such advanced ages?
At the core of Courage to Care’s educational activities is the “upstander” program, an immersive course conducted during school hours that teaches children about the importance of speaking up against any hateful or discriminatory conduct that they may witness.
“We emphasize the people who helped me,” said Kolt. “There were at least 30 people who risked their lives to help save me. Strangers. Some for money, some not. They risked their whole families. They were heroes. They were upstanders. They weren’t bystanders.”
Janice Huppert is a longtime volunteer with the group—which has more than 150 such volunteers—and originally became involved along with her late husband George, who was a Holocaust survivor. She has facilitated the upstander programs at schools across Melbourne. “We discuss the perpetrator, the victim, the bystander, and the upstander,” she said. “We discuss prejudices and how the Holocaust happened because of prejudging and intolerance. We want children to be involved in the conversation and to feel that they can do something if they see others being bullied or people who are being marginalized.”
Huppert thinks the program is a powerful way to educate Australian children—especially non-Jews. (“We very rarely [do] the program with Jewish kids,” she said.) “Some of the kids have never ever met a Jewish person before,” said Huppert, “and it’s important that they know that being a bystander is not neutral.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for Courage to Care, it didn’t prevent the organization from forging ahead with its mission of creating a new generation of upstanders. “During COVID we have had more bookings than we have ever had and although many had to be postponed, we still managed to reach over 3,000 students with face-to-face and remote programs,” said CEO Mike Zervos, noting that face-to-face programs still provide a “deeper and richer experience” for both participants and the speakers.
For teachers in the classroom, there can be no doubt about the impact of the programs that Courage to Care provides for Australian children.
“The response of the children has always been the same: wide-eyed and amazed listening to the stories,” said Anna Redlich, an Australian teacher since 1978. “In year 5 and 6 the students are interested in Anne Frank, and to be able to hear from an actual Holocaust survivor, they are like deer in the headlights. The message of being an upstander is really significant and emphasizes the importance of the language we use.”
She recalled a particularly poignant moment from one of the sessions she witnessed two years ago: “The students were listening to Peter Gasper,” an Australian Holocaust survivor who speaks for Courage to Care, she said. “It was so quiet, they were absolutely fixed on the story he was telling. At the end of the talk, a little boy walked up to Peter, and said, ‘Can I please shake your hand, Peter? That is the most brilliant story I have ever heard. I promise you, Peter, I will always be an upstander!’”
But it’s not just the children who learn from the Holocaust survivors; the teachers in the classroom also benefit.
“Even if they bring their laptops to catch up on administrative tasks during the Courage to Care sessions, in the end, all the teachers all stop dead in their tracks to listen to the Holocaust survivors,” Redlich said. “The teachers realize the wonderful teaching and learning opportunity it gives them to further consolidate the importance of being an upstander.”
But as the number of survivors dwindles, Courage to Care is preparing for the next phase regarding how to deliver its important educational programs, using a new model: a “custodian” of a family’s Holocaust survival story.
“Custodians are relatives of a Holocaust survivor who retell the story of survival to an audience,” said Zervos. “You have to try and keep the memories alive.”
Allan Goodrich is one of these new incoming custodians, a child of two Holocaust survivors, Lodzia (Leah) and Abraham (Marian) Goodrich—Polish Jews who survived the war in Warsaw as a married couple before immigrating to Melbourne in 1947. His father died 1985 and his mother in 2002.
Goodrich, who has a professional background as an administrator, therapist, and teacher, became interested in retelling his parents’ stories a few years ago. So far, his experience as a custodian has been very healing. “I am now 70, I find it quite therapeutic to consider my parents’ story,” he said. “As a child of survivors, I have been impacted by family and cultural influences; and possibly also via epigenetics, which include the biological trauma markers that may be passed on from generation to generation.”
To date, Courage to Care has trained around 10 custodian speakers. They come from a variety of backgrounds, but are mainly motivated by the organization’s mission and a desire to keep their family’s Holocaust memories alive. It is expected that in the coming years, a growing number of children of survivors will become custodians.
Goodrich has done about a half-dozen presentations so far. “For the time being, as long as there are survivor speakers, out of respect to them and what they do, I believe it is important for them to have priority to tell their story for as long as they can,” he said.
Kolt hopes that the children who hear her talk take away a powerful and important universal message. “Children still have to learn to stand up for others,” she said. “They must learn how to stand up for all marginalized people. For the alcoholic or drug addict. For the people that need help. For the refugees. That’s what I am trying to teach them. To the children I emphasize not only my personal tragedy, but the fact that there are people that are willing to help and that each and every one of us should try to help someone that needs it.”
Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.