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Grandson of Auschwitz commandant speaks to Toronto students during Holocaust Education Week

WATCH ABOVE: The grandson of the commander of Auschwitz concentration camp spoke to hundreds of Toronto students for the start of Holocaust Education Week. Caryn Lieberman reports.

As part of the 39th year of Holocaust Education Week, there are dozens of events planned across the Greater Toronto Area until Sunday.

This year’s theme is ‘The Holocaust and Now’ and among the speakers is Rainer Hoss, who addresses his grandfather’s crimes against the Jewish people and discusses what he is doing to break the cycle of hate.

Hoss spoke to hundreds of Northern Secondary School high school students and detailed the actions of Rudolf Hoss, his grandfather and the Nazi commandant of the Auschwitz extermination camp.

“I think it is a powerful tool to use the past in present days to get a better future for mankind, for all of us,” said Hoss.

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He showed photographs of his father growing up in the shadow of Auschwitz.

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“I’m the only one who speaks openly about the crimes of my grandfather,” he told the crowd.

Grade 11 student Andrew Dayton said he was moved by the presentation.

“I come from a Jewish family. I have heard lots of survivors talk and it’s quite fascinating,” said Dayton.

“It’s also really unique experience to hear the other side of things and how someone who comes from Nazi descent can have such a different perspective than their ancestors.”

READ MORE: Quebecers less exposed to Holocaust than other Canadians, poll finds

Holocaust Education Week continues to offer first-person testimony in the classroom and in specially designed programs for students across the GTA, but hearing from Rainer is different.

“Hearing that even if he came from a family like this he can turn against them and actually speak up for what is right,” Sybil Mardasek, a Grade 11 student, said.

Rudolf oversaw the murder of an estimated 1.5 million people. Rather than hide from it, Rainer said he uses the family name to show that it need not represent evil.

“When I started my research I was thinking, ‘What belongs to me? What have I inherited from him?” he recalled.

Then he experience a difficult moment when a survivor told him there were indeed physical similarities.

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“‘Your shoulders are wider, you’re a little bit taller, but you look like your grandfather’ and that was really a smack down for me,” he remembered.

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Through his organization Footsteps, Rainer said he is dedicated to challenging intolerance, hatred and discrimination. He travels around the world educating people about the Holocaust and what happens when hate becomes a weapon.

Auschwitz scholar Robert Jan van Pelt also participated in the presentation at Northern Secondary School. He commended Rainer for bringing the stories of his childhood and the Holocaust to life.

“We need to see them as fully flesh human beings. We shouldn’t make caricatures of them,” he said about the Nazis.

READ MORE: Holocaust survivor shares his story with Saskatoon students

“They are not the devil, they are family friends, they are neighbours and so on — and this of course makes it very frightening.”

Rainer had an important final message for the students.

“Be a voice, not an echo,” he said.