Atoning for residential schools

Holocaust survivor Eva Kor died in the summer of 2019 while in Poland doing one of the things she found most meaningful - touring a group of young people through the Auschwitz concentration camp. Her message remains: “Each of us has an important part to play in repairing the world. Be the change you wish to see. “

Kor was misunderstood by many because she made the personal choice to forgive sadistic experimental scientist Josef Mengele and the other Nazis for what they had done to her. It’s important to realize, however, that this was only one part of Eva’s journey in life and it is only part of her challenge to us.

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Fellow Holocaust survivor and existential psychologist Viktor Frankl tells us that it is vital to find meaning in our suffering. 

For Eva Kor, this meant forgiving. For others, it means teaching, embracing the life we have or simply learning to love again. This is where we need to listen to our neighbours tell their stories of suffering and hear them with compassion. They will embrace the path they need to take and the world will be better for it. Life is a journey and our perspectives can change. Kor spent much of her life wanting to put Mengele on trial for his crimes against her and other children but after 50 years she found peace by forgiving him.

Perhaps this inward journey is the key to Eva’s message. The truth is we all have the capacity to bring reconciliation and healing to the world.

Eva’s friend, Holocaust scholar Dr. Michael Berenbaum, points out that forgiveness is much easier when certain elements are present. One must request forgiveness from the people one has injured. There must be a recognition of the harm we’ve done, a confession of the iniquity and a resolution not to commit the hurtful act again. One promises to do better and seeks to truly reconcile. Guilt is acknowledged and forgiveness is earned.

Berenbaum points out that as a Jew, he recognizes Germany’s effort to seek reconciliation for the Holocaust and move forward as a better country. Nations who don’t take these steps, however, are more likely to repeat their crimes.

When we truly listen to the stories of residential school survivors as well as the testimonies of Mengele twins like Eva, we recognize there are haunting parallels.

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized for Canada’s role in the residential school system and acknowledged the harm this had caused to thousands and thousands of Indigenous children.

Harper’s discourse in Parliament that day was followed by an address from the late Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party. He pointed out that the apology was only the beginning. We have to do better as a country. There has to be atonement. If we do not change, the deep wounds inflicted on generations of children will continue to cause suffering to our Indigenous neighbours and will keep Canada from becoming the compassionate country we want it to be.

Atonement is not easy but it is one of the most liberating actions a person or a nation can undertake. It has allowed Germany to go from a nation that was once feared, then despised to one that is admired and respected.  

I can see the transformation that has occurred in me as educator and as a human being since taking up Jack Layton’s challenge. It has brought healing to my spirit and I hope it has brought healing to my school, my community and my country.

Eva Kor did not give anyone a “get out of jail free” card for the suffering they caused to others. Her choice to forgive was one of self-liberation and her message will always challenge us to bring forgiveness and healing to a broken world. 

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