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The upstander

The upstander

[photo of Simon Li in a library]
Photo: Phoebe Liu

Simon Li is a public historian, researcher, and educator. Since 2016, he has been the director of education for the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre. The centre provides workshops, exhibits, and remembrance events that use the lessons of history to address anti-Semitism, discrimination, and genocide. Li works with educators in the Asia-Pacific region to provide training and classroom resources. He also works directly with survivors of genocides to ensure their experiences are not forgotten. He leads students to different killing fields to study genocide and its effects. A graduate of Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies in Jerusalem and a past visiting educator at Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Li conducts research on Holocaust and tolerance education in Asia. This summer, he will be a visiting lecturer at a number of Taiwanese universities, at the invitation of the Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation. Li will give talks on what it means to be an “upstander” – someone who intervenes on behalf of a victim – through the lens of wartime history.

Simon Li

Queen’s degrees

  • BA’04 (Political Studies, History)
  • MA’08 (History)


  • Editor-in-chief, The Empress, Queen’s Chinese-English newspaper
  • Editor-at-large, The Queen’s Journal

Influencers at Queen’s

  • Kim Nossal (Political Studies)
  • Emily Hill (History)
  • Andy Leger and Denise Stockley (Centre for Teaching and Learning)
  • Sidneyeve Matrix (Film and Media)

"By teaching war and conflict from a global perspective, it’s always my goal to help students to gain the skills, knowledge, and attitudes to stand up as global citizens and safeguard the values of social justice, mutual respect, and racial harmony,” says Simon Li. “I agree with June Callwood that ‘If world peace ever happens, it has to be built on knowledge.’”

On finding his calling

“While I had first read Anne Frank’s diary in grade school in Hong Kong, I first came to study the Holocaust with deeper reflections while taking an introductory course at the history department. The 100-level history course focuses on western civilization, in which I got a chance to explore issues of human nature, which then brought me back to the Holocaust. At the time, I wanted to explore what ordinary people would do when placed in extraordinary conditions, such as the Nanjing atrocities, the Rwandan genocide, and the Holocaust.

“Students start university with many expectations, but working as a research assistant for a professor’s book project as an undergraduate was never one of mine. It happened during my second year at Queen’s, after having taken a modern and contemporary Chinese history class with Professor Emily Hill. Emily assigned a task for me to dig through the U of T East Asian Library’s collection of the Chinese-language news archives in Shanghai, Nanjing, and Guangdong from the 1930s‚, as well as the municipal archives in Shanghai. This was for her book on 1930s China. This was the first time I came in touch with archival materials relating to the Second World War in China. Later on, I started reading historical materials relating to the Shanghai Ghetto and the Nanjing atrocities. This project was unlike anything I had ever done before.”

[photo of Simon Li at the gravesite of Oskar Schindler]
Simon Li at the gravesite of Oskar Schindler in Jerusalem. Photo: Stephanie McMahon-Kaye

On the role of the public historian

“It’s to focus on engaging communities in important historical conversations. I am particularly ascinated in the growing field of historical dialogue and how it reaches new generations while reflecting on how the meaning of the past changes with the passage of time.”

On the emotional part of his work

“As my work focuses on the educational use of survivor testimonies, I’m always moved by the survivors’ willingness to be interviewed and revisit the most horrific time in their lives for the benefit of younger generations. This must be anything but easy. But what an impact they have. Through these conversations they are opening our next generation’s eyes and giving them knowledge that is critically important.

“I truly want to thank the survivors, such as those from the Nanjing Massacre, the Holocaust, and the Cambodian Genocide, for their courage and willingness to give so much of themselves to us. With their painful testimony, consequences are much more personal and emotional, and it inspires thought and action among our youth. As the voices of the aging survivors diminish, I vowed to bring this history alive to our younger generations, to share the essential message that we cannot be silent bystanders and just watch.”

On the tools he uses to discuss genocide

“In my teachers’ training workshop, I cannot emphasize enough the pedagogical potential of motion pictures when they are appropriately contextualized and analyzed. While teaching the Holocaust, for instance,  newsreels, propaganda movies, and feature films produced and shown during Hitler’s rule do provide a wealth of evidence in regard to how the Nazis and the Allies perceived the Nazis’ threats and actions against the Jewish victims. Pedagogically, comparing films with the sources on which they are based can be a valuable learning exercise. I also once held an art contest, in which students listened to extensive oral testimonies from genocide survivors and created entries in art and film. Rather than simply repeating the testimony, students were challenged to truly connect with the survivor’s story and to find the aspect that speaks to them and that they want to share with others as messengers of memory.”

On finding the good in the world

“As a Holocaust and peace educator, it’s indeed essential not only to bring students safely in but also safely out of the Holocaust topic, by telling stories of resilience, triumph, and good deeds. It is my duty to talk about the good deeds and the power of one: one person can make an enormous difference in the world.”

[illustration of Queen's students in 1918 wearing army uniforms and Queen's students in 1968 at a peace rally