Over 160 students listen to Holocaust survivor Kati Morrison at St Marks High School in Manotick Ontario
The library of St. Mark Catholic High School in Manotick, Ont., quickly filled to capacity as 150 Grade 8 students assembled to hear the personal testimony of Holocaust survivor Kati Morrison, who was four years old in 1944 when the Germans occupied her homeland, Hungary.
In introducing Kati, teacher Françoise Quinn mentioned that the students had prepared for Kati’s session by reading one of two relevant novels ─ Daniel’s Story by Carol Matas or The Giver by Lois Lowry ─ and by developing a presentation on the Second World War and the Holocaust and studying the effects of bullying, toxic group behaviour, and the impact of an all-controlling government. A number of students also viewed Kati’s testimony, one of 10 online testimonials produced by the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship.
As Kati began to speak, the students fell silent and remained so for the next 50 minutes. Reinforcing her poignant descriptions of lost relatives with black and white photos, she explained that people want to forget the bad so they can move on with their lives, a difficult process if tragedies preoccupy.
Kati’s childhood was indeed marked by tragedy although it would be years before she learned the full extent of what had befallen her family. She told of one tragedy that involved her paternal grandparents. Her grandmother, having suffered a stroke while being transported to a concentration camp, was tossed from the train. Immediately her grandfather jumped after his wife; both were shot.
She spoke about the family members in a photo of an aunt’s wedding in the 1930s, all of whom perished.
She showed another photo of two cousins, an 11-year-old boy who went straight to the gas chamber and his 14-year old sister who survived until liberation, only to die of dysentery.
In all, Kati lost 31 close relatives. And she might be considered one of the lucky ones because her parents survived, albeit after enduring horrendous hardship.
Kati’s own survival was miraculous. After her parents were both taken away, her mother to Dachau concentration camp and her father to a work battalion, she and her sister were in the care of her maternal grandmother, the first female ophthalmologist in Hungary, an accomplishment that would save their lives. Forced from their home, they found themselves sharing a two-bedroom apartment with 80 others in a building that housed several hundred Jews. In January 1945, members of the Arrow Cross, a far-right fascist organization, showed up and ordered the residents to line up.
“One Arrow Cross man motioned to my grandmother not to join the line so instead we hid under the staircase,” Kati told the students. “Unfortunately, my aunt, who was screaming for them not to take the children, ended up in the line and she, and all the others, were taken to the banks of the Danube River and shot. * We were the only survivors of that action. Why? Because that Arrow Cross man had been my grandmother’s patient. Her profession saved our lives.”
Eventually, Kati’s parents returned and the family resumed their lives, alive but forever changed by their ordeals. “Your experiences are engraved in you as indestructible, eternal memories,” her father, Dr. Andras Jozsef, told the Hungarian-Jewish newspaper, New Life. “You are condemned to eternal mourning.” Kati explained that he, a trained rabbi and later a psychoanalyst, wanted to help Jews to accept that “their pain will be inside them forever, but they have to adapt to life in Hungary and teach people with love so they learn better ways.”
Kati did not learn Holocaust history until she came to Canada in 1967. “I didn’t want to know too much about the past; I was totally ignorant of my heritage. I knew I was Jewish, but we assimilated. We were Hungarians. Besides, when I was a schoolgirl growing up in Budapest, it was forbidden to remember the Holocaust so there was silence, ignorance, and part of my identity was chopped off.”
Being asked to speak to high school students about her wartime experiences led Kati to discovering Jewish history and Jewish music, which resonated deeply. She realized the importance of educating boys and girls and, for the past 12 years, has shared her story with countless students in the Ottawa area.
Her message is simple. “If you see somebody being hurt, and you don’t do anything about it, if you don’t speak up, you are silently colluding. So – don’t be quiet; don’t be a bystander.”
Françoise Quinn agrees with Kati. “Having a survivor share their story enables students to better understand and make connections to the books they are reading,” she said. “We hope to teach the students how their behaviours matter. Bullying is not allowed and if they are not careful, they can seriously hurt someone … we strive to help them make better choices … to understand that hatred has a long-lasting effect and that they need to think about their actions before they are disrespectful to someone else.”
Joining Françoise and the students were principal André Potvin, vice-principals Kristine Bourgoyne, Tracy Murray, and Vince Brunetta, librarians Anna Crossley and Diane Marleau, six Grade 8 teachers, and several Grade 12 students, who had expressed an interest in hearing Kati speak.
The learning Françoise describes is particularly important today as anti-Semitism rises worldwide. Kati told the students that, according to a 2018 Globe and Mail article, anti-Semitism grew 29 per cent in 2016. A recent study for the Toronto-based Azrieli Foundation found that in Canada alone, there were a record number of incidents of harassment, vandalism, and violence against its Jewish population in 2018. The study “exposed critical gaps when it comes to Holocaust awareness and knowledge among Canadian adults.” Giving students the opportunity to listen to and question survivors such as Kati is a vital antidote. As the Azrieli study shows, “a broad-scale strategy to optimize Holocaust education at the high school level can fundamentally combat the increase in neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism we are seeing.”
The Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship (CHES), based in Ottawa, was inaugurated in 2015 to develop educational programs that promote knowledge and understanding of the history and legacy of the Holocaust. One of its programs is the Speakers’ Bureau of Holocaust survivors and children of survivors whose primary focus is educational institutions. Kati Morrison has been one of those speakers from the beginning, and as the St. Marks students discovered, her eloquence leaves a deep and lasting impression as she brings the horrors of the Holocaust to life.