Bridging a cultural and a generational gap

Meeting Silvain Gilbert is quite the experience. He is in his 70’s, though as lively and fashionably dressed as he is one could easily mistake him to be in his late 50’s. From the very first moment, he is bursting with stories about his experiences surviving the Holocaust as a child in Belgium. In 1940, when Nazi Germany invaded Belgium, he was two years old. Like so many others – His life changed overnight. A brave Belgian woman took him and his sister into her custody and raised them as Christians during the war in the village of Mont-Saint-Guibert. He survived through many dangers, including a period of time when German soldiers resided in their very same house. By the end of the war, “I saw the woman who adopted me as my real mother, and my parents became strangers,” he says sincerely. After the war Silvain went back to school and later made a successful career as a diamond trader until retiring.

With Silvain (left) and his wife Sabine
With Silvain (left) and his wife Sabine

Silvain represents an inspiring generation of people who survived the hell of War World Two and the Holocaust, and flourished from the ashes. Together with his wife, Sabine Wolf-Gilbert, who also took on the job of his agent and manager, he spends much of his time visiting schools and community centers and sharing his story and the story of the Holocaust with as many people as possible (click here for YouTube video of Silvain telling his story).

Mr. Gilbert is the only survivor of the Holocaust currently based in Hong Kong.

It is a sad fact of life that less and less Holocaust survivors remain to face, as living witnesses, the challenge of bridging the enormous generational gap between the world that allowed Holocaust and today’s seemingly safe world. Nonetheless, in most western countries, there is more than one survivor. In that sense, Silvain’s story epitomizes the amplified challenge of Holocaust education Asia: In addition to bridging a generational gap, Holocaust educators in Asia must also bridge a cultural gap.

In my meeting with Silvain, we discussed ways to make his lectures more effective in reaching Hong Kong Students. Together, we designed a coherent and concise presentation rich with photographs, graphics and captions, to help breach the generational barrier. But the cultural gap is still there – unlike Holocaust survivors sharing their stories in the Netherlands, the United States Israel, Silvain often faces crowds of students who know close to nothing about the war in Europe. And there is only one of him to face this challenge in Hong Kong, and not many more in the rest of Asia.

Finding creative and efficient ways to bridge those gaps was central to my my internship with the HKHTC. Most of the challenges that I had to deal with, derived from these gaps, and most of the skills I used and developed were used to try and bridge them. As I mentioned in my last post, one example for a useful skill was creativity. I consider the exhibition I described, an “Oasis of Survival and Hope”, which is currently being set up towards its opening in October, one of the greatest achievements of my internship. Working with Silvain is another example: I got to personally work with a Holocaust survivor who promotes Holocaust education, and find creative ways to make his lectures more effective. Working with Silvain, as well as working with many other local educators, was an invaluable opportunity to experience educational work, and use creativity and people skills.

Preparing for the exciting Holocaust memorial exhibition in Central Hong Kong
Preparing for the exciting Holocaust memorial exhibition in Central Hong Kong

No question about it, I am taking with me more than just a useful opportunity to practice and improve my skills. My internship was also an opportunity to live and work in Asia, experience getting adjusted to work in an unfamiliar environment, make new connections and sip in the local culture. As an East Asian Studies major, I have no doubt that all of the above will be useful. I also used the opportunity to travel into mainland China, explore and practice Mandarin which I have been studying at Brandeis for two years now.

I also hope to bring my extended knowledge of the field of Holocaust education back to Brandeis. Most specifically, I wish to open a chapter of Triangles of Truth, an partner organization of the HKHTC that brilliantly combines commemoration of the Holocaust to battle modern day genocides around the world, at Brandeis.

The city of Hong Kong. An unfamiliar environment as an important part of an incredible learning experience
The city of Hong Kong. An unfamiliar environment as an important part of an incredible learning experience

Considering Brandeis’ association with Jewish world, I believe it is but natural to try and create a long-term partnership between the university and the HKHTC and encourage more students to consider interning with the organization. To those considering it, I would like to say: if you are passionate about spreading awareness of the Holocaust and genocide prevention, and have the discipline and determination to help a new organization develop and grow – the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre needs you, and in return can be part of an unforgettable experience.

A local educator visiting the Hong Kong Holocaust and and Tolerance Resource Centre
A local educator visiting the Hong Kong Holocaust and and Tolerance Resource Centre

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