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

Facing the challenge of Holocaust education in Asia

There are few people I know who have not watched Quentin Tarantino’s film “Inglourious Basterds”. Most of those who watched it enjoyed the film, which depicts a fictional American commando unit during World War 2, made of Jewish soldiers only, working behind German lines to gruesomely avenge the Nazi crimes against Jews. Interestingly, not even one person who watched the film, told me he sided with the German soldiers, despite the incredibly violent and cruel behavior of the Americans. We all, after all, know that Nazis are bad. That is, until I watched the movie a few weeks ago for the first time with a Chinese person who barely ever studied the Holocaust and World War 2.

Invitation to an HKHTC exhibition in downtown Hong Kong - creative ways to solve challenges
Invitation to an HKHTC exhibition in downtown Hong Kong – creative ways to solve challenges

The said person’s reaction – in support of the Nazis who are attacked in the film – provides a glimpse into the main challenge for Holocaust education in China, the challenge I have been facing together with my colleagues at the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre since I began interning here a month ago. How do you explain the Holocaust to local Chinese students who know little of anything about it? For them, the Nazis are not automatically bad, as they are for the vast majority of people who were educated in the west. The first answer to this question is creativity.

The first learning goal I feel I am constantly progressing on so far is, thus, creativity. The most recent example, which I am particularly proud of, is an application my supervisor and I submitted to hold a large exhibition in a very crowded public space downtown Hong Kong. To address the issue of a lack of context described above, we thought it would be powerful to exhibit the artwork of Jewish children who died at the Theresienstadt concentration camp next to artwork created by Hong Kong students in response to studying the Holocaust. Children are easy to connect and identify with everywhere, to anyone. By bringing their sets of artwork together, we can create a connection that will place the distant Holocaust in a local and more relevant context. Fortunately, the selection committee agreed with us, chose our application over many others, and the exhibition will be presented in October, to the eyes of thousands Hong Kong residents who pass by its location every day.

The same sort of creativity was also necessary as I worked with my supervisor and a paid web designer on creating a new and more relevant website for the Centre. The website was launched this week and has received many positive comments (check it out here!). Expanding the Centre’s outreach also naturally required finding ways to make its social networks more relevant, such as posting in Chinese with the help of other volunteers. Overall, since the HKHTC is a new organization, there is much to create and a lot of creativity to develop.

Speaking to students - Experiencing educational work
Speaking to students – Experiencing educational work

Another learning goal I set for myself was experiencing with educational work and learning more about education as a career. Being that the HKHTC’s work is all about education, I constantly feel like I’m achieving this. Be it while speaking or lecturing to students on different occasions or while learning about local curriculums and devising lesson plans that could suit local students with the HKHTC’s education committee members.

Last, but not least, coming here I was hoping to improve my discipline and organizational skills. Since the HKHTC is, as mentioned, a new and small organization, much of my work is independent, and requires both skills. From larger projects, like the ones mentioned above, to smaller ones, like cataloguing the Centre’s resources, creating a Wikipedia value and more, I am constantly required to show initiative and work on my own to get things done.

Cataloguing the Centre's resources - required discipline
Cataloguing the Centre’s resources – required discipline

As I set out for my last few weeks in Hong Kong, I already feel that I have learnt a lot and can be proud of some of my work. I look forward to continuing my work, and feel that my time here left made a true contribution – both to the goals of the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre, and to my skills and experiences.

“Humanity can go wrong if we are not careful”

Looking into internship opportunities for this summer, I was hoping to bring two personal passions together. The first, is my academic interest in China and Asia as an East Asian Studies Major at Brandeis. The second is my deep rooted belief in the importance of spreading awareness of the Jewish Holocaust as far and wide as possible, to all humans wherever they live. A week into my work at the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Center, I knew I found the right place.

The Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre at Elsa High School in Shau Kei Wan
The Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre at Elsa High School in Shau Kei Wan

With all honesty, I was a little surprised when my preliminary research for summer internships a few months ago led me to the website of the HKHTC. Mostly because the two concepts – Holocaust Education and China – are not commonly associated. Around the same time, when I first started sharing the idea of getting involved with Holocaust education in China with my friends, many of them responded with a slight surprise. “Holocaust? in China? Really?”

But the more I thought about it, the stronger I felt about it. In 2003 as an Israeli high school student, I visited prominent death camps in Poland with my youth movement. One of my most striking experiences was seeing how some of those camps operated a few short feet outside large Polish cities. The thought that ordinary people in Poland – just like many other Europeans at the time – lived their lives for years during the war constantly smelling the scent of burning bodies emanating from nearby death camps, and did stop the madness, troubled me deeply. It still does. What troubled me even more was asking myself whether I would have acted differently in their position, had I lived at the time. As much as it might be uncomfortable to admit, that question is difficult to answer and has much to do with our education and awareness. Ever since that trip to Poland and the insights it left me with, anywhere I went and whatever I did, I made promoting education and awareness of the Holocaust one of my personal missions.

The Holocaust - Through the artwork of a ninth-grade student in Sha Tin College in Hong Kong
The Holocaust – Through the work of a ninth-grade student in Sha Tin College in Hong Kong

I believe that increasing awareness of the Holocaust is specifically important in China. As a United World College student in Canada in my last two years of high school, I made some wonderful friendships with Chinese fellow-students. When I mentioned the Holocaust and my insights about it to them, I realized many of them had very little knowledge about that part of human history. As China and Asia grow in power and political influence, the need to ensure that their populations are aware of what the humans can do to others when the majority of people are passive, grows as well. The Chinese might very soon be the majority that has the power – and the responsibility – to take action and prevent future genocides.

The Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre was founded by leaders in the Hong Kong Jewish Community about two years ago, with that exact mission in mind. The only institution of its kind in East Asia, the Centre seeks “to promote, across Asia, education and awareness of the Holocaust”, as its mission states. It was founded a little more than a year ago by prominent members in Hong Kong Jewish community, local educators and Holocaust survivors and activists.

In the short time since it was founded, the Centre managed to hold a number of significant events. One example is a concert featuring musicians from Israel, the United States and Hong Kong, who played songs composed by inmates in Nazi concentration camps. The concert was very successful, received a wide coverage and was attended by hundreds of Hong Kongers, including diplomats and politicians. In addition, the Centre began forming relationship with local schools, offering them assistance and support with teaching their students about the difficult subject that is the Holocaust.

The concert organized by the Holocaust Centre on January 27th, for the UN Holocaust Memorial Day
The concert organized by the Holocaust Centre on January 27th, for the UN Holocaust Memorial Day

As a relatively young organization the Centre did not have any existing internships positions. Needless to say, a paid internship was not even an option. To secure my internship, I first contacted the Centre last September to interest them in having me as an intern. After some correspondence, when I was given a green light, I began looking for financing, finally – to my delight – receiving the WOW grant.

As one could imagine, being a first-ever intern at an organization holds both challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, I have a lot of place to contribute, be creative and truly make a difference. At the same time, I am also required to demonstrate a lot of initiative and self-discipline – two capabilities I hope to develop while I’m here.

My main responsibilities at the Centre divide into three: Advancing the Centre’s public relations and social media outreach, and take charge of designing and editing its new website; Research local schools’ relevant curricula and work with the Centre’s education and Chinese culture specialists to design and write lesson templates suitable to be used in by educators to teach about the Holocaust; And last but not at all least – to find ways to reach more local schools and educators – within both the private and public school systems – and form relationships with them.

Two students presenting a Holocaust Memorial they designed, during the Exhibition at Sha Tin College
Two students presenting a Holocaust Memorial they designed, during the Exhibition at Sha Tin College

During my first week in Hong Kong, in addition to adjusting to the time difference, warm weather and different culture and language (even though English is very useful here), I focused mostly on the first responsibility. I spend much time expanding the follower base of the Centre’s Facebook page. The Challenge here, as it is with the HKHTC’s work as a whole, is reaching not only English speakers and students and educators in the many private and international schools, but also those in public, Chinese-speaking schools. I also set-up a twitter account, began working with the Centre’s administrator on designing a new website and met with a web designer. Additional PR related projects that I anticipate for the summer – and have suggested to my supervisors – are writing a Wikipedia value for the HKHTC, and perhaps most importantly working on translating all of these into Cantonese, the local Chinese dialect.

Naturally, my short time here so far was also used for getting acquainted with the organization’s board and other professionals I will be working with at the Centre’s office, which is located inside the local Jewish school in the neighborhood of Shau Kei Wan.

 "The Holocaust is not only a tragedy of the Jewish people, it is a failure of humanity as a whole."
“The Holocaust is not only a tragedy of the Jewish people, it is a failure of humanity as a whole.”

One of my best experiences so far, was visiting a Holocaust Memorial exhibition created by ninth-grade students in the Sha Tin High School. The exhibition, a result of cooperation between teachers at the school and the HKHTC, was powerful and thought-provoking. Listening to the students talk about their works and how much they learnt, reiterated to me how important the Centre’s mission really is, and how happy I am to be a part of it. The words of one student I spoke with were specifically powerful: “Our classes about the Holocaust and working on my memorial really made me realize that it’s not only a Jewish issue”, he said, “the Holocaust is something that shows how all of humanity can go wrong if we are not careful”.

Chen Arad ’15