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Truth Against Distortion: Survivors Speak Out Against Hate: Student-Created Documentary Promotes the Responsibility to Remember

by Penny Jones Square, November 21,2021

“Memory is the guardian of liberty.”

 —Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z’l


Truth Against Distortion: Survivors Speak Out Against Hate, a documentary created by students of Westwood [Collegiate] Historical Society under the direction of their award-winning teacher Kelly Hiebert, was screened at the Berney Theatre on November 15, 2022. About 125 people attended the screening, including some of the local survivors who were interviewed by students for the film and some of their family members. The audience was moved by the overarching message of hope conveyed by the film despite its very disturbing representation of the dark reality of the history of WWII and the Holocaust as well as of the present moment. It documents the history while confronting the current alarming resurgence of antisemitism and the appalling presence of ignorance, distortion, and denial of the Holocaust, and more frightening, the troubling reach of these trends due to social media.

The student-led documentary very professionally, profoundly, and powerfully interweaves first-hand survivor testimony with commentary by historians and scholars of WWII and the Holocaust, punctuated with archival imagery—photographs and film clips—and with music that mirrored the emotions being evoked, some composed by student Kate McDougall. 

In her opening remarks, Belle Jarniewski, Executive Director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada (JHCWC), stated: “With their knowledgeable and sensitive interviews, the students have created an important document that will become a permanent testament to the courage and resilience of our survivors and hopefully a wakeup call to others on the dangers of hate.” Commenting on the “shockingly pervasive” antisemitism and Holocaust distortion that still infect our world along with the incomprehensible but real lack of knowledge about the Holocaust, Jarniewski remarked that the students of the Westwood Historical Society and their teacher Kelly Hiebert “give us hope” as they “set a brilliant example for others to follow.”

Mark Kantor, President of the Board of Directors of the JHCWC, delivered the land acknowledgment and greetings, thanking Tarbut Festival of Jewish Culture for their partnership and the Asper Foundation, the Babs Asper Center for Cultural Arts, Jewish Federation Winnipeg, and the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba for their sponsorship.

Jarniewski introduced Hiebert, highlighting his specialization in History of the Americas, Slavic Studies, Eastern European History, and Holocaust Studies and the awards he received in 2021 for his teaching: the Governor General’s Award for Teaching Excellence in Canadian History and the award for Teaching Excellence in Manitoba.

In his introduction to the film, Hiebert stated that his goal was “to continue to challenge and bring awareness to the rise in hate and antisemitism that we are seeing” worldwide. He stressed the importance of educating our youth about this distressing phenomenon but also the necessity of showing them how they can become upstanders and speak out “when they see hate in any form.” He hopes the film will help its audience, students and adults alike, “to connect with the struggles, fears, persecution, resilience, and the hope that are shown through the interwoven stories of our Winnipeg survivors.” The purpose of the firsthand testimonies is to personalize the stories so that the audience is “impacted on a human level.” In humanizing the Holocaust in this way, Hiebert also hopes to collapse the misrepresentations, distortions, and ignorance of the Holocaust.

Hiebert thanked his students Jasper Bain, Blake Edwards, Megan Morant, and Nathan Varghese for their dedication and passion in structuring the film and creating the transcripts and script, Julian Joaquin (videographer) for shooting the interviews, and Varghese for his role in editing and piecing the film together. He also thanked Jarniewski for her ongoing support and guidance and for “entrusting in [him] the responsibility of interviewing and meeting with all the survivors in the film,” filmmaker Andrew Wall for his advice and mentorship, and B’Nai Brith for their help funding the project. Finally, and most importantly, he thanked all the survivors and their families. The viewing was dedicated to Saul Alpern and Henny Paritsky, two of the survivors interviewed who passed away since the film was completed.

The Winnipeg survivors interviewed for the film are: Saul Alpern, Rachel Frankel, Regine Finkle, Isaac Gotfried, Barbara Goszer, Betty Kirshner, Edith Kimelman, Angi Orosz-Richt, Henny Paritzky, and Frank Weinfeld. The scholars who were consulted and who spoke in the film are: Reverend Peter Fast (CEO Bridges for Peace), Belle Jarniewski (JHCWC), Dr. Jody Perrun (University of Manitoba and Winnipeg, Holocaust Studies), and Dr. Daniel Stone (Professor Emeritus, University of Winnipeg). Archival resources used are from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem, and the JHCWC. 

The individual testimonials focused in large part on the childhood of the survivors, which also served Hiebert’s and his students’ aim of humanizing the Holocaust. We see photographs of the survivors as children living within the comfort of loving families. We hear their recollections of their happy childhoods. And then we hear about the abrupt and unfathomable disruption of those childhoods, the pain of loss of family, friends, and community, and finally, the inconceivable suffering that followed. The tribulations endured and the resilience required to move beyond the trauma are made more accessible by virtue of these shared stories. Still, the incomprehensibility of such knowledge remains.

However, the expression of hope by students Edwards, Morant, and Varghese during the Q&A following the screening was a positive way to end the evening. All were changed by the experience of making the film. Their new knowledge made them more conscious of the hate in the world but also more empathetic and more aware of the need for compassion to combat it. And they are seeing the effect of the film on their fellow students as they report more and more are standing up and speaking out against hate.

Edith Kimelman offered this advice in the film: “You have a choice of hating or of coming to terms [with the trauma suffered], but you do not have a choice to not remember.” We also do not have this choice. And Truth Against Distortion will help us in this necessary task. It will be as Hiebert described it, “a living document that will continue to be told” so that by memory, truth will overcome hate.  

Having watched this film, we have become witnesses, tasked with the responsibility to remember.  

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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