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Friday, October 9, 2015

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Students interview survivors, war veterans

Tags: Jewish learning
Katherine Charness, right, a Grade 11 student at Crestwood Preparatory College, interviewed Holocaust survivor Irene Csillag. [Michelle Bitran photo]

TORONTO — Crestwood Preparatory College held its third annual Oral History Project Breakfast last week.

The school’s cafeteria was abuzz with students, their grandparents and members of the community enjoying waffles, eggs and live music performed by the school’s students and staff.

For Scott Masters, the head of Crestwood’s social studies department, this yearly breakfast is one of the most important events of the school year. Masters organized the get-together as a way to thank and to keep in touch with the many Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans who participate in his students’ Oral History Project.

For the project, which has been ongoing in some form for about the last 10 years, high school students interview family members or other community members about their experiences in the Holocaust and World War II.

In the last few years, the students have been recording the interviews, collecting photographs and video footage, and creating multimedia DVDs for each veteran or survivor they speak to.

 “I had the idea about five years ago to take the video-taping approach,” said Masters, who has archived the video interviews, now totalling about 200, on the school’s website. He explained that recording his students’ interviews is the best way to preserve the important memories, especially as survivors and veterans continue to age.

Masters, who greeted many guests at the breakfast by name, said that over the years he has gotten to know a lot of the interviewees as they return regularly to talk to the students about their experiences. For the students, this opportunity to bring history class to life has been invaluable. “Some kids are really fascinated with history, and it really resonates with them,” Masters said.

His words ring true as grades 11 and 12 students continue to participate in the Oral History Project voluntarily, after doing it as a mandatory part of the Grade 10 history curriculum.

Katherine Charness, a Jewish student in Grade 11, did the project for the second time this year. In Grade 10, she interviewed her grandfather, a veteran, and this year she interviewed Irene Csillag, a Holocaust survivor.

 “Everyone has a different story to tell, and I think there’s something unique about every story,” Charness said, adding that she thinks it is important to encourage people to share their experiences and memories.

For Csillag and her daughter, Judy, who attended the breakfast for the first time this year, it was a heartwarming experience. “It’s very nice that people are still remembering,” said Csillag.

Masters, who won the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence last year, is happy to see this important history project thriving, as students and members of the community get together to learn about the past. “It’s been a great project. It’s totally rejuvenated me.”

To see the Oral History Project interviews done by Crestwood students, visit

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