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Heidi Berger & Ann Kazimirski


Ann Kazimirski

 
HEIDI BERGER: CARRYING ON THE MESSAGE: AN ADULT CHILD OF A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR

By Heidi Berger, posted Dec 16, 2011

 

[This article was prepared for the Winnipeg Jewish Review. Heidi Berger lives in Montreal]

For 20 years until shortly before her death in 2006, my mother Ann Kazimirski visited hundreds of high schools, universities and organizations in Canada and the US to talk to students and adults about her experience during the Holocaust.

Before she died, she told me that somebody had to carry on her mission. Even though she had written a book called “Witness to Horror”, she felt it was not enough. “Somebody has to tell these stories because that is how history is passed on,” she told me.
That’s when I began to accompany her on her talks. After watching her on several occasions, I realized why my mother was successful in sharing her message: her warm, clear, natural and emotional manner had a way of totally captivating her audience. Students and adults both listened attentively; they cried when she cried, and smiled when she smiled.
I learned a lot from my mother. Four years after she died, I felt it was time to take action, especially after I noticed during a Holocaust memorial service at the Montreal Holocaust Centre that many survivors like my mother were no longer alive.
But was I really ready? It was something I knew I wanted to do, but I wondered how I was ever going to follow in her amazing footsteps. After all, I was “just her daughter” born in Canada after the war.
Slowly the pieces fell into place: I was able to combine my experience teaching communications at university and as a film producer with the collaborative efforts of a writer, researcher and editor. After many months, we developed a sensitive, thought-provoking 40-minute interactive video presentation that told the story, honouring my mother and all the victims of the Holocaust.
Finally the day arrived for my first educational presentation at a Catholic high school in east-end Montreal. It was now my turn to deliver my mother’s message. By putting together a video of testimony that she gave to the Shoah Foundation and the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, I was able to allow her to still make her presentation posthumously.
The students watched in silence, listening to mother’s emotional and riveting accounts of what happened in 1941 when the German army started driving out the Russians, who occupied her hometown in eastern Poland.
The silence continued as she recounted witnessing her best friend and neighbour, Sarah, dragged by a group of Nazi soldiers and raped, and later, as she watched in horror from a secret hiding place the murder by machine gun of her mother.
In between the clips of my mother speaking, I fill in the gaps of the story; how my mother met my father, a dentist, and how they later escaped a Jewish ghetto through the sewer system and eventually walked east toward the Russian front in 1944, finding safety.
At the end, when my mother says: "It's a tragic story. It's filled with pain. It's filled with suffering, survival, determination, but we made it," the students began to applaud.
During the presentation my daughter was sitting in the audience, tears rolling down her face. I couldn’t hold back. Seeing her and my audience crying, combined with memories of sitting with my mother in our kitchen where she had so many times told me the same story, brought my own tears, not only of pain but of happiness as well. I was carrying on my mother’s wishes by telling her story and I knew she was looking down at me.
I ended my presentation with a universal message of bullying, genocide, intolerance, hate, the Holocaust, and yes, hope.
It was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. My mother always said, “Once you start giving these presentations, you will feel so good about what you have accomplished.” She was right. I have since continued giving my presentations to other adult organizations and schools in Quebec. I would love to encourage other children of survivors to do the same.
My ultimate goal is to work toward having the teaching of the Holocaust and other genocides compulsory in high schools across North America and as well, to be involved in programs where teachers are trained how to teach genocide.
It is not in the actions of leaders or screamers or the famous where change is made; it is through the actions of everyday people that a difference is made.
For more information, please visit my web site at: www.heidiberger.ca
 
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