Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Stories, worn toys mark Holocaust museum Add to ...

Musia Schwartz's commitment to the new Montreal Holocaust Memorial Museum is quiet, yet passionate and purposeful.

The 73-year-old Holocaust survivor wants visitors to come in large numbers to take in the first-hand accounts and artifacts collected from the thousands of Jewish immigrants to Montreal who lived the horrors of the Second World War in concentration camps, in ghettos or in hiding.

And she wants them to do so without reservation.

"We're all hoping people will come without fear," said Schwartz, who joined about 300 survivors Tuesday for a special preview of the museum, which officially opens June 30.

"People feel it will be depressing and it is not, ultimately, depressing. Ultimately, the survivors are not victims. There's a certain triumph in you being able to tell the story and bear witness. It's like the albatross."

Schwartz's own story of triumph began in Lwow, Poland, where she and her parents were forced to live in a ghetto. By 1942, when ghetto residents were being transferred to death camps en masse, Schwartz's father was able to buy his 12-year-old daughter a birth certificate that identified her as a Catholic named Helena Gorska.

It was the last time she saw him. He, like her mother and other relatives before him, was likely taken to a nearby concentration camp run by Nazi Germany and killed.

"Of course, I had the full picture of the horror surrounding me," Schwartz said. "But my internalizing of it was limited by the fact I was surrounded by love and I was with my parents. So the true cataclysm really began when they were gone."

At the end of the war, Schwartz was one of about 25,000 Holocaust survivors who moved to Montreal.

The Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, which houses the museum, estimates as many as 8,000 Holocaust survivors are still alive in Montreal, making the population the third largest in the world after Israel and New York.

The $5-million museum project, funded with government grants and private and corporate donations, expanded and improved on the centre's previous exhibit of Holocaust artifacts.

The most emotional moment of Tuesday's sombre ceremony came as several survivors who first brought ashes to Montreal from the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1979 placed the urn in the museum's Memorial Room.

With their arms wrapped around each other, some wiping away tears, they officially dedicated the site to the memory of the six million Jews killed during the war.

For Aba Beer, who lost his entire family in a Nazi concentration camp, dedicating the ashes he "dug out with his own hands" to the museum was an important commemoration of a horror he still has difficulty articulating.

"It takes a poet to describe it, I don't have the words," the 81-year-old Beer said.

"Those ashes represent my whole immediate family -- my father, my mother, my sister, everything that I had."

The vast majority of the museum's 400 original artifacts have been donated by Montreal-area survivors or their descendants, executive director Ann Ungar said.

"Each yellowing photo, each disintegrating letter, each fraying note, each delicate object, tells of lives lived and legacies lost," Ungar told a news conference held earlier in the day.

The personal touch permeates the entire 450-square-metre museum.

There's the worn plastic doll that was a lifeline for Thea Borcszuk-Slawner after her father gave it to her in the ghetto. There's a childhood rattle and storybook that were all Miriam Gruenfeld had with her when her parents sent her to England at the age of 14.

And there's Sonia Aronowicz's tattered, bloodstained checkered blanket, which she used to cover herself as she was marched from a concentration camp in Poland to Germany near the end of the war.

Schwartz's contribution is her own story, which she narrates on video at the museum.

She talks about how she lived out the rest of the war in Warsaw working odd jobs as a mother's helper and a maid's assistant, always looking over her shoulder wondering if someone had discovered her true identity. Unlike many others, Schwartz was unable to donate any artifacts to the museum.

"I was running and working place to place," Schwartz said. "I tried to keep a diary and never managed to salvage that. I cut my braids, which were very precious to me, but I couldn't salvage that because of the constant dislocation."

She even had to hand over her fake birth certificate when she became a Canadian citizen.

Curator Yitzchak Mais said the museum is designed to reflect Jewish culture and history in Europe before the war, the political context and events and horrors of the war itself, and how those survivors who immigrated to Montreal rebuilt their lives.

Some of the exhibits highlight how many countries, including Canada, did not fully realize, or ignored for years, the atrocities the Nazis perpetrated.

"Our point is not to stir up antagonism," Mais said, "but to raise people's awareness and consciousness about what might have been able to be prevented if the world would have taken a stronger stand."

Ungar and others have billed the museum as "Canada's first world-class Holocaust museum" dedicated solely to that subject.

A national human-rights museum to be built in Winnipeg will include a 1,200-square-metre Holocaust gallery. The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa has promised to seek a dedicated Holocaust gallery, which would touch on all forms of racism and discrimination.

Marvin Tanner, president of the memorial centre, said it's more important than ever to have a site dedicated to remembering this specific tragedy.

"In this global climate of rising anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, we believe this museum will not only serve as a powerful tool in raising awareness, but it will also expose anti-Semitism for the cancer it is," Tanner said.

Schwartz chooses to tackle such challenges by touring schools and sharing her memories, as painful as it is. While she doesn't dwell on it, the spry, retired schoolteacher is well aware of the toll age is taking on the number of survivors able to tell their stories first-hand.

"If I had not been there, someone could try to throw me a curve and say it was Jewish conspiracy," Schwartz said. "But not to me can you say that. But someone who is removed by a generation is not going to feel as certain on their ground. They need the support of the documents, of the centre."

The Montreal Holocaust Memorial Museum is at 5151 Côte Ste-Catherine, in the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. For more information, call (514) 345-2605.

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular