Second Voices Project: An impactful tool for Holocaust Education in Alberta and beyond

The Cyngiser Family at a family gathering in 2016. Photo supplied.

by Regan Treewater-Lipes

(AJNews) – On November 9, the Jewish community of Edmonton gathered at Beth Israel Synagogue to remember the horrors of Kristallnacht and to show solidarity in the face of current trends against the world’s Jewry. Individuals were greeted with a sobering display of empty chairs in the foyer – each with a poster of one of the 240 people that were taken as hostages during the brutal massacre in southern Israel by Hamas terrorists on October 7. Blue ribbons were available at the door as a sign of support for the safe return of the hostages.

On Nov. 9 Minister of Education Demetrios Nicolaides announced that the Alberta government has mandated Holocaust Education as part of the province’s new social studies curriculum. The announcement was made at the Edmonton commemoration of Kristallnacht which featured a moving presentation by Dr. Frances Cyngiser and the screening of a Second Voices film about her father Sid Cyngiser OBM narrated by her son and nephew – third generation Holocaust survivors.

The event opened with an emotional announcement from the provincial government that Holocaust education will be part of the new Alberta curriculum and that resources from the Jewish community will be utilized in the development of these pedagogical approaches. The announcement was met with a standing ovation.

One of the valuable resources created by the local Jewish community, through the vision of Rabbi Ilana Krygier Lapides in 2013 is The Second Voices Project which preserves witness testimony of Holocaust survivors while harnessing the voices of first- and second-generation survivors to help make the material relatable and accessible to students.

The project has expanded over the years with heartfelt support and expert guidance and input from many Calgary Jewish Federation volunteers.

The Second Voices Project is a series of testimonials narrating stories of Holocaust survival brought into Alberta schools by second and third-generation descendants. With help from a generous grant from The Government of Alberta and support from Jewish Federation of Edmonton, Calgary Jewish Federation’s Holocaust and Human Rights: Remembrance and Education Department has created a series of multi-media presentations in which children and grandchildren bring their parents’ or grandparents’ survival testimonies to life for young people, grades four through twelve. Students are able to engage meaningfully with this painful history by learning a survivor’s story, and the texture provided by the first- and second-generation perspectives, helps to create a more tangible link between younger audiences and those bearing witness.

Dr. Frances Cyngiser is an active member of the Federation’s Holocaust Education Department, and a supporter of the Second Voices Project. She has long been passionate advocate for educating Alberta students about the Holocaust. As part of the Kristallnacht program, she introduced an impactful forty-five-minute Second Voices Project film that integrates testimony from her late father Sidney Cyngiser OBM, with narration by her son and nephew.

The recordings of Sidney Cyngiser’s story are excerpts from his Shoah Foundation interview of over five hours. In her speech to the audience at Beth Israel Synagogue, Dr. Cyngiser commented, “In the face of Holocaust denial, my father made a tireless commitment to bear witness – believing that hope for the future begins with truth about the past. It became a way for him to give his survival meaning. Guided by integrity, humility, quiet generosity, and a firm belief in doing the right thing, he brought his story to thousands.”

Dr. Jonathan Livergant with his Zayde Sid Cyngiser OBM in 2013. Photo supplied.

Born in Lodz, Poland, Sidney Cyngiser never returned to the country of his birth after liberation. “In 2005 he and my mother attended a commemoration in Germany, but my father never did go back to Poland.  The idea of it was too painful for him.  To see the void left by the world he once knew no longer being there was too excruciating,” Dr Cyngiser explained in a recent interview with Alberta Jewish News. “Our parents never sat us down to explain what the Holocaust was; they wanted to protect us.  We knew that our parents had lost their families, and so they surrounded themselves with other survivors. As a child, I was barely conscious of the fact that my parents had accents because everyone in their circle had accents,” she continued.  “Things would be presented to us as they came up. Like my mother telling us not to throw away bread – she would say that food should never be thrown away. What if we didn’t have food? Or being told not to talk back to my mother because I’m lucky to have a mother.”

For a couple who lived through such atrocities, raising a family in Calgary was a welcomed opportunity to rebuild, until the insidious threat of Holocaust-denial compounded their lived trauma by allowing hate-speech to masquerade as pseudo-scholarship.  Bronia Cyngiser used to answer when asked about her tattooed number: “Oh it’s my phone number; I’m just forgetful.”  In the face of Holocaust-denial she vowed never to stay silent again. Together, Sidney and Bronia Cyngiser took upon themselves the duty of giving voice to the millions lost in Europe, by telling their stories. How fitting that Sidney Cyngiser’s very voice, and the voices of two of his grandsons now are being used to safeguard the sanctity of history for junior high and high school students throughout Alberta.

“When we were first approached by the Second Voices Project, we knew that we wanted it to be the grandchildren lending their voices to support their grandparents’ stories,” noted Dr. Cyngiser. “There’s a certain relatability for a younger generation this way, I think.”  Her son and nephew narrate along with their grandfather, while another nephew and Cyngiser’s daughter narrate for her mother, Bronia Cyngiser’s video. Dr. Cyngiser has accompanied her father’s video to be screened at two schools to date, and she has been pleased by the thoughtfulness of the students’ questions. “It isn’t easy for me to watch the film on these occasions; it is very emotional for me.”

As Maxine Fischbein noted in the Alberta Jewish News’ obituary for Sidney Cyngiser: “Sid found much solace in memories of his happy childhood, though he was robbed of most of his youth after.” Films, like Sidney and Bronia Cyngiser’s, that archive Holocaust history through the Second Voices Project focus not only on the horrors of the Second World War, but also on life before and after.  “When my father would go and speak to students, they would always ask ‘So, what is your life like now?’ That’s why I think it’s critical to explain the lives that people had before the Holocaust, and what people managed to become and achieve afterwards,” Dr. Cyngiser elaborated.

Her father had a good life before the Second World War, and because of his strength and fortitude, he built a good life after. “I don’t know if he was compelled to write before the War,” commented Dr. Cyngiser. “But he was certainly driven to write after the War. He would write bits and pieces of his story on everything – any scrap of paper. When I began going through his things after his passing, there were so many notes everywhere.”

Although Sidney Cyngiser questioned where G-d was during his harrowing struggle to survive, he also maintained a strong sense of his identity. “My father was forced to do slave labor in a quarry.  He worked twelve hours straight breaking apart and moving rocks. They would give out a small ration of bread for the day. One Yom Kippur, my father, who was seventy-four pounds by the end of the War, fasted.” Dr. Cyngiser characterizes this as an act of resistance, and not faith, but the message could not be clearer: am Israel chai! Dr. Cyngiser noted also that her father, although not shomer Shabbos, never missed services a Beth Tzedec Congregation in Calgary. “He davened daily in the final months of his life.” Dr. Cyngiser paints the portrait of a man who was dragged through the depths of Hell and survived, finding that the only connection to his former life and family was through embracing his Jewish identity.  Sidney Cyngiser wrote: “Religion to me is teaching how to deal kindly and honestly with my fellow man. Religion is working towards a better tomorrow, and a kinder world – a world without wars, hatred, and revenge.”  Dr. Cyngiser noted: “He was proud to be Jewish, and we were raised with these values.”

As Jews around the globe and their allies collectively pray for the safe return of the hostages imprisoned in Gaza, one cannot help but acknowledge the halting revelation that only eighty-five years after Kristallnacht, pogrom-style violence is again being orchestrated against the Jewish people on a mass scale. More than ever the lessons of the Holocaust are imminently relevant, and it is critical that younger generations understand the magnitude of what took place in the name of a perverse vision of ‘social progress’ not so long ago.

Sidney Cyngiser’s film was exceptionally well received by the Edmonton Jewish community, many of whom knew him well. His film, that of his wife, and many others are readily available to schools in Alberta wishing to provide quality education to their students. Through efforts like the Second Voices Project, and others, the global community can work to ensure that ‘never again’ means ‘NOW’!  As Sidney Cyngiser would say: “To not speak out is to be an accomplice.”

For more information on accessing the SVP or other resources contact to determine which testimonial would work best for your classroom needs. These free presentations generally run 90 minutes in length and allow for questions at the end. The presentations are offered in person as well as virtually.

Regan Treewater-Lipes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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