The Mohawk College auditorium was filled with 1,000 students, whose rapt attention was focused on the diminutive man on stage, his passionate words and dramatic gestures punctuated by a series of slides projected on to the massive wall behind him. The occasion was the Student Symposium on the Holocaust, offered annually by the Hamilton Jewish Federation, and the speaker was Dennis Nash. I marvelled at his mastery at bringing the horrors of the Shoah to a level to which his audience could relate, and I wondered to myself, who is this man?
Dennis Nash, now 72, and retired, is many things. A teacher of the deaf, a convert to Judaism, and an expert in Holocaust education. He also happens to be Wayne Gretzky’s favourite elementary school teacher.
Nash was born and raised in Hamilton to a family with immigrant roots. His maternal grandfather, who immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine and spoke seven languages, wanted nothing to do with religion. Years later, Nash realized this may been connected to the fact that when his grandfather was younger, Jewish boys from the age of 12 were drafted into the Czarist army for 25 years. Nash’s mother used to talk about her mother making latkes and washing her hands three times, which may have come from a Jewish handwashing ritual.
When Nash was in his early 20s, he converted to Judaism with Rabbi Baskin.
“He said, ‘Sometimes, there are Jewish souls out there that are searching … they just haven’t found their place, and maybe this is your place,’” says Nash.
That conversation was all Nash needed to begin attending Shabbat services for the next five years. In 1977, he was officially converted.
Eventually Nash married, he and his wife agreeing to raise their two sons in both the Jewish and Catholic religions. But when he was sitting in church with his son one day and heard a priest say that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, he knew he couldn’t keep silent.
“Father,” he said to the priest afterwards, “you just said it was the Jews that killed Jesus, and they’re to blame. Is that correct?” When the priest answered in the affirmative, Nash took his son and left. A few years later, when the same scenario took place at a different church, Nash had had enough. He called up Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz, who told him, “Dennis, once a Jew, you’re always a Jew. Welcome back.” Nash’s marriage ended shortly after.
While all this was unfolding in Nash’s personal life, he was enjoying professional success as an itinerant teacher of the deaf for Hamilton’s Catholic school board. One day in 1993, the head of the Catholic board asked Nash whether he’d like to sit on a committee that had been created by three women from the Jewish Community Centre to bring Holocaust education to Hamilton high schools. Thus began Nash’s long working relationship with Nadia Rosa, Bev Lasky and the late Moura Wolpert, the driving force behind what would become an annual symposium on the Holocaust for Hamilton area high school students. Nash vividly recalls the early years, when the event took place McMaster University.
“We had students sitting in the aisles … it was just overwhelming the response we had.”
It’s unlikely that Nash could have imagined that first year, that he would be the symposium’s keynote speaker one day, which he was, in fact, on two occasions. But there’s no doubt that this period marked the beginning of what Nash describes as a calling.
“Getting into Holocaust education was something that I had to do, because when I presented, I felt so much passion and I wanted to relate that,” he said.
In 2007, Nash took part in a three-week course at Yad Vashem, a life-changing experience that inspired him to create a workshop called, “How to teach the Holocaust in 100 minutes.” The workshop included step-by-step lesson plans for Grades 7 - 12, a DVD that highlighted the five systematic steps employed by the Nazis against the Jews: legalization, isolation, starvation, transportation, and extermination; and suggestions for how to engage students in critical thinking about racism and intolerance in general. When his Yad Vashem colleagues learned about the workshop, they invited Nash back to Jerusalem the following summer to give his presentation to 800 educators from around the world.
Of all his many accomplishments, there’s one that lights him up the most these days, one that’s captured in a video made in 2017 of a surprise visit Wayne Gretzky made to his elementary school. The three-minute clip opens with Gretzky chatting from the backseat of a car. “I’m going to my grade school and I don’t think anyone knows I’m coming,” he says, adding, “My brother tracked down an old school teacher who I loved, Mr. Nash, and he’s coming today, too.”
Nash’s first job after graduating teacher’s college was teaching Grade 7 and 8 at Greenbrier Public School in Brantford. The year was 1973.
“You’ve got this kid Wayne Gretzky,” he remembers other teachers telling him before the school year started. “This kid is really good in hockey but if he misses doing his homework, comes in late or tired, you tell the parents what the expectations are.”
Nash recalls not wanting to hear anything from other teachers about students. He wanted to find out for himself.
The Greenbrier Public School gym was filled with students the day that Wayne Gretzky strode in to surprise them and his former teacher. As soon as he spotted Gretzky, Nash bounded up to him to say hello, but Gretzky had other ideas. He hugged Nash and introduced him to the awed students.
My first love was hockey and baseball, not school,” Gretzky told them. “Mr. Nash was the first teacher that let me do a book report on Gordie Howe. So, I got to do a story on somebody I loved. I read the whole book, he gave me an A, and that kind of changed my whole life in school.”
Gretzky went on to tell the students another favourite memory about the epic three-hour ball hockey games he and his classmates would play with Nash on Friday nights. When it was Nash’s turn to speak, he held up a wooden trophy Gretzky had made for ball hockey championships, which he affectionately called the “Nash Cup.”
Somehow, Nash had the foresight to ask Gretzky to sign the bottom. “He was so humble, he didn’t want to sign it,” Nash told the students, turning the cup upside down and showing them what just might be the oldest autograph Wayne Gretzky ever gave.
Years later, Nash tried to return the trophy to Walter Gretzky. “Dennis, I can’t do that,” he told Nash. “Wayne made that trophy for you, and that trophy will always be what keeps the Nash family and the Gretzky family connected.”
And that’s why the Nash Cup remains one of Dennis Nash’s most prized possessions.
Above: Dennis Nash gives the 2007 keynote address at Federation's annual High School Symposium on the Holocaust.