By John Swartz
Thursday nights’ regular council meeting was the scene of a special presentation. Holocaust survivor and now internationally known speaker, Eva Olsson, was present with a Key to the City by Mayor Steve Clarke and council.
The presentation had been in the works for some time, trying to find a date because of Olsson’s speaking schedule.
“There’s a number of things that came together. I’ve heard Eva speak a couple of times, mostly recently at the Champlain Seniors,” said Clarke. “Some other people reached out in the community, including Dick Johnston, and said based on all she’s done in the Orillia area in terms of education on the Holocaust, and across Canada, is there any chance we can do a special presentation.”
In her remarks accepting the award, Olsson made some observations about her most recent travels. In October she was in Grande Prairie, Alberta speaking to 540 middle school students. She asked for a show of hands from students whose parents had ever spoken about the Holocaust at home. Only one hand was raised.
Then she spoke about being in Edmonton in early November where 600 students had resolved to put poppies on the graves of veterans. Olsson said she felt she had to be there.
“My family don’t have a tombstone. I don’t know where to go and lay a poppy, and I don’t know where the wind has blown their ashes,” said Olsson. She broke down for a moment. “There were 6 children in my family. Two of us survived,” Olsson said. “Their voices were silenced by hate.”
Clarke said his perspective was focused because of a trip in July which included a visit to Auschwitz, one of the concentration camps Olsson was imprisoned in.
“I am very fortunate she was able to come tonight and grace us with her presence and speak for a few minutes and accept the award,” Clarke said in making the presentation.
Later, he told SUNonline/Orillia, “To be fortunate enough to have Eva here tonight and share her experience of actually living through it; for me it was just an education, a compelling education.”
Olson said she began her speaking mission 24 years ago when her Granddaughter’s teacher suggest a school project based on Olsson’s wartime experience. The project was delivered.
“The next day I’m in the portable,” Olsson said, speaking to the class, “two weeks later, the French teacher, from there to the United Nations.”
Mayor Clarke also made reference to the books Olsson has written, 6 in all, two best sellers, remarking he discover a painting in one of the books, Unlocking the Doors, attributed to Laura Thompson of Twin Lakes Secondary School.
“I just wondering if that’s our Laura Thompson,” Clarke asked. It is the City of Orillia’s manager of real estate and commercial development.
“That was me,” Thompson said speaking Friday. “I painted the cover and then there is a painting in the back of the book as well.”
“Eva came to speak at our high school and I was inspired by her story.” The story was about the gas chambers. “I had shown her when she came back to the school and she asked if I could do a painting for the cover.”
The result was from another story Olsson told of being separated from her family when getting off the train at Auschwitz.
After the presentation, SUNonline/Orillia asked Olsson her thoughts on the rise of right-wing extremism and infiltration into politics in North America.
“I had (been) going for 12 years to the States to speak, and I know there are schools that want me back, and here’s what I said, “You get rid of the trumpet and I’ll be there,”” she said. Asked about the Canadian experience, she added, “It’s sad. I’m not concerned for me at 95, but I’m concerned for this young generation; I am.”
(Photo by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia, Image Supplied)