A student group from Inuvik in the Northwest Territories travelled to Europe to learn about the Holocaust and Jewish history

Students from Inuvik, N.W.T. visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp

It took four years and four attempts but this summer a group of students and their teacher, none of whom are Jewish, headed from Inuvik to Europe to embark on a tour of Jewish history.

The idea for the trip began in 2019 when Gene Jenks was covering the unit “Voices of the Holocaust” as part of his grade 12 English course. Jenks teaches at East Three Secondary School in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. Every year, he reads and discusses literature and films from the Holocaust with his class.

“This particular class in 2019 was very moved by the unit, more than I thought they would be. At the end of it, one of them blurted out that we should go and see these sites,” said Jenks.

Jenks thought it was a nice idea, but the students were graduating in a matter of months and the school didn’t have the money to send them on a trip. 

But this did not deter the students. Jenks started looking into different travel options and stumbled upon a tailor-made program for what they wanted to see. 

“I brought it back to the class and they were gung-ho. They said ‘we’ll do what we have to do to fundraise. We know it’s a short time frame but let’s do it.

They had to raise $65,000 to go on the trip. They started GoFundMe pages, they held bottle drives, sold coffee, and wrote grants. They had local groups and community members pitch in. Jenks even wrote to Oprah asking her to sponsor them. 

“Our little group from our little town managed to raise the money needed to take the students plus two chaperones on this amazing European trip that spanned three countries, focusing on Jewish history,” he said.

Jenks paid the tour company, and the students began to prepare for the life-changing journey.

But then the world shut down with COVID. The trip was put on hold, and no one was traveling anywhere. 

Jenks did not lose hope. He told the tour company to hold onto their money until it was safe to travel again. The following summer in 2021, Jenks approached the students who had now graduated and offered them the opportunity to go on the trip.

“I said to them, ‘you’re the ones who worked hard to make this trip happen, it was your idea, even though you’ve graduated I’ll still get you on this trip as a student.’”

But 2021 was no better than 2020 and the trip had to be postponed for a second time.

Around this time, Kaylin Harder found out about the trip. She was in a grade below the original group of students who raised the funds, but knew this trip was something she wanted to take part in, and she signed up. 

“You can read about a lot of things that happened in history, but it’s not very often you get to actually see them. I felt that seeing where it actually happened would have more meaning than just reading a book about it and it’s something that I wanted to experience,” she said.

But she had to be patient. The trip was postponed again in 2022 due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“At this point some of the students were thinking it’s not going to happen, but I said we prepaid, the tour company is holding onto our money, just be patient. If you can still go for our fourth attempt, we’ll do it,” said Jenks.

In 2023, it finally happened. Jenks, Harder, and 10 other students boarded a plane to Germany for a trip of a lifetime.

The trip started in Berlin where the group toured sites such as the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, and the Reichstag. 

“More importantly, we saw things like the Holocaust Memorial, which was very sobering, and we saw these amazing museums that really kind of set the stage for what you’re about to see. And those little golden bricks on the road that showed where Jews either lived or worked and what happened to them where they were deported,” said Jenks. 

From Berlin, the group traveled to Warsaw. They toured the Warsaw Ghetto and two Polish historical museums.

A museum in Poland that walks through the history of the Jewish people was particularly powerful for the group.  

“Going through that museum showed us different parts of their lives and how they were worried about their children’s education and money, and it made the Jews so relatable,” said Harder “I think this made a lot of students on that trip, including me, realize that these are all just people, we’re the same, and this can happen to anybody.” 

The group continued to Oskar Schindler’s factory which was especially impactful because the students had watched Schindler’s List as part of Jenks’s class.

“We had great tour guides who really gave us the history, not just how it pertains to Jews of the Holocaust but Jewish people over thousands of years. It was important for us to understand that this was a people who had been displaced and treated with such hatred for so many generations and that the war was one of many events that went against them. I think our students really took to that and there was so much more to learn,” said Jenks.

The group then made their way to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“Nothing could have prepared us for this experience,” said Harder.

Together, they toured the camp and walked along the grounds where over 1 million people were murdered.

In some of the blocks, there is a museum that features items that were taken from the Jews and others who were murdered at the camps. There are rooms filled with eyeglasses, clothing, and canisters of Zyklon B, the poison used in the gas chambers.

“There was one larger room, and it was full of shorn hair. One of our students sank to her knees and kept repeating ‘I can’t, I can’t.’ I led her out because she was beside herself,” said Jenks.

Later, when the group was reflecting about their experience, the student said the room was very hard for her because hair in Indigenous culture is very important and the first thing that happened when people were taken to residential schools was their hair was cut off. To see the chopped-off hair in Auschwitz made her think back to when the same thing happened in her own country, and it was overwhelming. 

Jenks said there were a few students from Ethiopia who also found similarities to how their people were treated over the years. 

“There was anger in their voices that I’ve never heard before as their teacher. It was a different side of them that I’ve never seen before and it was one that I was very proud of.”

As the trip ended, the students took time to reflect and try to absorb everything they had witnessed. 

“I think this trip let our students know how important activism is in terms of fighting against what’s wrong so that the indifference that was so prominent during this time, and throughout history, against the Jewish people will never be repeated,” said Jenks. 

The group continues to keep in touch and share their experiences with others who have never done a trip like this before.  

“This trip was something that none of us would have ever traded. Being able to see everything and walk in the same places as these people was very meaningful. We’re not Jewish but we are still people and we do still feel connected to them,” said Harder, who is starting her second year of architectural studies at Carleton University. 

Jenks is also back in the classroom this week and says he is thinking about how he will teach about the Holocaust after visiting these sites. 

“You don’t have to be Jewish to really appreciate Jewish history. Even though this trip was founded on the Holocaust, we have all been enriched by our learning about Jewish history that spans long before the 20th century. It’s a history that is well worth knowing and appreciating. And it’s one that I believe that if my students can’t relate to it, they sure can appreciate.”