Cindy Kozierok saw the message pop up on her screen in the middle of a lesson about the Holocaust. Ms. Kozierok, who is Jewish, was leading her Grade 6 students through the material online, in the early months of the pandemic, and one child was acting out.
In a text box visible to the entire group, the child posted an antisemitic slur. Within an instant, other students rushed to condemn both the message and their peer, harnessing some of the lesson Ms. Kozierok had been teaching.
“Even before I noticed it, they were all standing up, doing the right thing,” said Ms. Kozierok, a teacher at Rockford Public School in Toronto. The boy was suspended; his mother later told Ms. Kozierok he had seen the words in a video game.
Ms. Kozierok’s school board, the Toronto District School Board, has said it has noticed an increase in the number of antisemitic events at its middle schools. It reported more than 50 incidents involving antisemitic hate symbols in the last academic year.
Friday marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which commemorates the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. But educators say Holocaust remembrance must also be integrated into elementary school curriculums, because instilling that knowledge in young students is a way to combat antisemitism across schools.
In Ontario, the provincial government recently announced that Holocaust learning will be a mandatory part of the Grade 6 social studies curriculum, starting in the fall. Currently, the Holocaust and other acts of genocide are required to be introduced in a Grade 10 history course.
Ms. Kozierok has been teaching her Grade 6 classes about the Holocaust for several years, despite its absence from the mandatory curriculum. Her lessons involve teaching about symbols, starting with the meaning behind a peace sign, a heart, a poison sign – and then a swastika. She has found that children know the swastika is a symbol of hate, but that they don’t fully understand its implications.
Earlier this week, her students were studying the novel The Children of Willesden Lane, a memoir by Mona Golabek that documents the life of her mother, who escaped Austria during the Second World War.
One of Ms. Kozierok’s students, Caleb Shim, 11, said he was “shocked” to learn about what had happened during this time in history. “It’s important to learn about it so we do not make the same mistakes. It was a horrible thing,” he said.
His classmate Marianna Sievierienko, also 11, said she felt “sad that people had to live through these horrible events.”
A survey of students in middle school and high school conducted in 2021 found that about a third didn’t know what to think about the Holocaust, thought the number of Jewish people who died had been exaggerated or were unsure whether the Holocaust had happened.
The survey of 3,600 students in Canada and the United States was commissioned by Liberation75, an Ontario-based Holocaust education non-profit, and led by Alexis Lerner, who was previously a postdoctoral fellow at Western University and is now an assistant professor in political science at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.
Of the survey’s respondents, 42 per cent said they had witnessed an antisemitic event.
Prof. Lerner said Ontario’s move to teach younger children about the Holocaust in an age-appropriate way is necessary, because students need to be able to critically evaluate and understand what they encounter online.
“They access this information earlier and earlier, so we have to be proactive,” Prof. Lerner said. “It’s almost become a necessity.”
Shari Schwartz-Maltz, a spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board and chair of the board’s Jewish heritage committee, said educating middle school students about the Holocaust is important because “we have a duty to remember.”
“An equally important reason is because when we do talk to kids about why they drew swastikas all over the bathroom, inevitably what they say is, ‘I know it’s bad, but I don’t know what it means,’” she added.
For Ms. Kozierok, the lessons she teaches about the Holocaust intersect with other parts of the social studies curriculum that deal with refugees, immigration and how Canada treated Indigenous peoples.
“I want them to understand that historically we’ve done things that we’re not proud of, all over the world, and the only thing we can do is learn from them and try to make better decisions moving forward,” she said.