Similarities between Nazi death camps and Canadian Residential Schools

The information contained on this web page is from direct interviews of Residential School (RS) survivors who attended St. Mary’s Residential School, and from German historians and guides of the Sachenhausen, Terezin and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps, who referenced primary sources concerning the treatment of inmates of the Nazi concentration camps.

It must be noted that any generalizations concerning the treatment of children at RS must relate only to St. Mary’s Residential School in Kenora, Ontario. Discussions with survivors who attended other schools has not as of yet been completed.

Both historical events may be classified as a genocide. A genocide is a term used to describe the annihilation of a group of people. Decimation, destruction, extermination, eradication, elimination and obliteration are all synonyms that may be used.

The Nazis designed their concentration and extermination camps to destroy what they believed were racially inferior people. Africans, Jewish people, Gypsies and other minorities were the prime targets. The Nazis also targeted those who opposed them politically along with homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, and those who suffered from mental and physical illnesses.

The primary purpose of the RS was to obliterate the language, religion and culture of the Indigenous people of Canada. As one survivor has stated, the purpose of the RS was to take the Indian out of the Indian. However, unlike the Nazi camps, it was not the purpose to murder children in RS, but many did die from exposure to the elements when they tried to escape the school, or indirectly from physical abuse, or finally from illnesses that were not properly treated.

Concerned with the treatment of European Jewish people in concentration camps, the Swiss Red Cross requested a visit to the Terezin Concentration Camp, located just outside of Prague, in what was then occupied Czechoslovakia. The Red Cross informed the camp commandant in advance of the requirements that were necessary for the Agency to acknowledge that the inmates were treated humanely. One of the requirements was that the children were not to be separated from their parents. Terezin was a unique camp, in that there were a large number of Jewish children. The children at Terezin were, indeed, separated from their parents. To appease the Red Cross, the Nazi commandant produced a documentary film that is still viewable today, which was used as a propaganda piece. This film depicted Jewish parents living together with their children. Included in this documentary, were happy smiling families mutually participating in recreational activities. For example, there was a soccer game played by the male inmates while many onlookers cheered. The stark reality was that the documentary was made at gunpoint. Filmed in 1944, a year before the end of the war, very few of the people in this film lived to see the end of the War. It was truly the goal of the Nazi government to facilitate the extinction of the Jewish race.

In Canada, until the early 1960s, Indigenous children were separated from their families and taken to a distant RS, without the permission of their parents. Many parents were afraid that they would be jailed if their children did not attend. Others, in the minority, encouraged their children to hide in the woods. Young Indigenous children were often coaxed with candy into attending the RS. Still others were simply forced.

In Nazi concentration camps, inmates slept in crowded, unsanitary bunk beds. Many died in the camps of typhus and other infectious diseases. The toilet facilities were lacking and filthy. Inmates were only allowed to use the facilities twice a day, in morning and at the end of the day. Using prison camps that were created before the Nazis invaded a country, the Nazis would force up to 15 prisoners into a room that was only built to accommodate two or three prisoners.

Similarly, while in attendance at RS, the children slept in bunk beds situated in large dormitories. There were dozens of children sleeping in the large dormitory. Children who were once used to sleeping with their parents, now slept alone. If and when they cried at night, they were disciplined. It is only reasonable to assume that children at the age of five need to be hugged, kissed and encouraged. Most RS children were never embraced and never emotionally encouraged by their caregivers. Many nuns and priests never, or rarely, expressed kindness to the children. Others, sexually abused the children in unimaginable ways.

Little known to most people, there were hierarchies of inmates in Nazi camps. Depending on the race and political beliefs, some inmates were treated better than others. For example, Scandinavian inmates, who were members of the resistance, or who publically challenged the Nazis, were dealt with in a more positive manner than those who were labeled racially inferior. Certainly, they expressed alternative convictions, but they were considered to be Aryan. Some of these same prisoners gained favor with the SS guards in that they were able to inflict physical abuse on other camp inmates. At times, the SS guards were even shocked by the cruel behavior that they observed. This helped the Aryan prisoners gain status in the camp.

In the same manner, RS school survivors will attest that bullying was allowed and even encouraged on the RS grounds. Bullying and physical abuse towards younger pupils were permitted and the supervisors looked the other way when that happened.

Two survivors mention the presence of boys’ keepers in the school, whose roles could be compared to those of prison guards. Their role was not to support the students, but rather to keep them in line. They would often dole out physical punishment to those who did not comply with their demands.

One RS survivor remembers looking out her dormitory window and observing young boys on the playground who were kicked, beaten and thrown to the ground by these same boys’ keepers. Long after these events, one could still see that she was traumatized by the event as she cried during the course of her interview. That was her first experience witnessing abuse.

In the Nazi camps, inmates lived on a daily diet of approximately 200 calories. The morning meal consisted of a few slices of bread and potato soup. The lunch and dinner meals were more of the watered down potato soup. In addition, they were subjected to forced labour for roughly ten hours a day. Many survivors stated that they had to march five kilometers to the factory workshop and the same distance back to the camps. The average prisoner in a concentration camp lived a few months and died of starvation or was shot or murdered in another ways.

Similarly, RS survivors interviewed remember hunger as an unrelenting torment. They were fed watery tasteless porridge. To supplement their diet, some children killed birds and cooked them over an open fire. One RS survivor served as a waitress to the nuns and priests at the school. She, along with other children, served the authorities bacon and eggs for breakfast and other meals with chicken and various meats, potatoes and vegetables. As a child, suffering in hunger, she silently watched them enjoying their meals.

Lice, typhus, tuberculosis and other illnesses were rampant in the concentration camps and the SS guards were fearful of contracting the diseases. They used sonderkommandos to perform any work that required close contact with the inmates. The sonderkommandos were young men and women who were relegated to perform the dirty work for the Nazis. After a few months of working for the SS, the Sonderkommandos were systematically shot by the SS, as they had come to learn too much.

Likewise, lice, and other illnesses were mentioned by all the RS survivors. Some had never seen lice before they attended the school. Such illnesses were the result of overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions. Though one survivor remembers the school being very clean as the children were commanded to clean and tidy the School on a regular basis.

At the Nazi concentration camps, every morning there was a roll call. The inmates stood in line while a head count was made to ensure that no one had escaped the camp. The bodies of any inmates who had died during the night were dragged to the roll call and left on the ground. This ensured that they had not escaped when they did not answer to the call of their number. At the infamous Auschwitz camp, one roll call lasted eighteen hours while the SS ensured that no one had escaped. There was an enclosed standing area where the SS guard would wait during intemperate weather. At times, the inmates stood in the blazing sun or in outdoor temperatures of -20C.

Similarly at RS, a roll call was performed. The pupils would stand at attention in a military format and a head count was done. This was done to ensure that all were accounted for, and no that pupil had run away.

The Nazis utilized three different types of camps. The two of interest were extermination camps such as Treblinka (near Warsaw) and concentration camps such as Dachau (near Munich). At concentration camps, as mentioned previously, inmates were worked to death. When the Allies liberated the camps, they found many starving individuals too weak to move. At extermination camps, 99% of people were gassed and cremated within twenty four hours of arrival. After the Extermination camps had murdered the undesirables living in a certain area, the camp was closed and all buildings, gas chambers and crematoriums were destroyed by the Nazis. Treblinka was open for little over one year, and approximately 800,000 people were murdered. If one were to visit Treblinka today, there is very little left to see.

In the same vein, at RS school, some children died during the year and in many cases their parents were not informed. Parents only learned of their child’s death through other children who had returned back to the village during summer vacation.

Every day at St. Mary’s RS, the young children were awakened daily at 5:00 am to perform chores for up to two hours. Some of the chores consisted of sweeping the dormitory and playroom, cleaning the washrooms and taking the garbage to the dump. Saturdays entailed more detailed cleaning of the assigned areas such as the playroom or the living room. According to one survivor, the goal of this structured home cleaning was to produce a cheap labour force, thus providing the training need to perform menial tasks. Students were physically reprimanded if they did not finish their chores in the allotted time, or if the chores were not completed up to standards.

At Nazi camps, those who were chosen for work duty, had their heads shaved, and were given stripped pajamas to wear. They were given a cup for liquids and a bowl and spoon for food. They had to carry these utensils with them everywhere they went. Those who were assigned to work duty and not sent directly to the gas chambers were given a number that was placed on their clothing. In addition, depending on the type of prisoner they were deemed, a marking such as the Star of David for Jewish people, or an upside down black triangle for gypsies was put on their clothing. That number and identifying symbol were now their identity. They had to quickly learn German as the guards constantly barked orders to them in German. If they did not understand, or stood out from the others, they suffered unmentionable consequences, or were shot. As the prisoners worked a grueling work schedule, they would often look around them to see if a guard was nearby. If not, they tried to catch a few moments of rest as their days were long. If a guard was approaching, they hastily returned to their work and kept their head down. If another inmate was being punished, again they kept their head down and worked.

Similarly, RS pupils were given a number and that became their identity. On strict orders, they were to never to refer to each other using names or to speak in their language. They were commanded in English and had to do as requested or physical discipline awaited them. Because of their age, many pupils did not understand what was going on around them and just simply followed the crowd and did as the older students did. Learning English became an absolute priority.

In the Nazi camps, many inmates underwent pseudo-scientific experiments and were exposed to dangerous chemicals. The experiments are too disturbing to be mentioned on a high school web site.

One survivor of St. Mary’s recalls being instructed to apply a powder to her scalp and then wear a towel around her head for a full twenty-four hours. She asked the nurse what the powder was and she was informed that it was DDT. DDT is an insecticide that has been banned because it has been proven to be carcinogen.

Both the Nazi camps and RS were concerned with lice and often made first-arrivals shower and remove all their clothing.

At the entrance way to many camps was the infamous Arbeit macht frei, or translated, work will set you free. Other camps had the slogan Jedem das Seine, which is an idiomatic expression for everyone gets what they deserve. Today in Germany, these are still unmentionable German expressions.

There were over 200 interment, concentration and extermination camps used by the Nazi government. The largest of these were located in Poland. Some of the most famous camps are Auschwitz-Birkeneu concentration camp (located in southern Poland), Belzec Extermination camp (located in Poland), Dachau Concentration camp (located near Munich), and Mauthausen Concentration camp located in southern Germany.

Some of the Residential Schools in Northwestern Ontario are the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, (Kenora), the Fort Frances Indian Residential School (St. Margaret's Indian Residential School), the Kenora Indian Residential School, the McIntosh Indian Residential School, (McIntosh) The Sioux Lookout Indian Residential School (Pelican Lake Day School), the St. Joseph's Indian Boarding School (Fort William Indian Residential School) and St. Mary's Indian Residential School.

The similarities between Nazi camps and residential schools are numerous. The Nazis created the death camps to murder people who they thought were racially inferior. Canada created the Residential Schools to assimilate the Indigenous children (who were the future) into mainstream Canadian society. Both the death camps and the Residential Schools are a blemish in the history of Germany and Canada.