'I knew it was important the moment I saw it," said Alex Buckman, referring to the small notebook he found in a drawer in his aunt Rebecca's apartment in Ottawa. It contained about 100 recipes written in French on lined, brown paper. The book was more than 50 years old, the recipes were mostly for splendid desserts -- Gâteau aux oranges, Sabayon italienne, Gâteau neige, Soufflé à la confiture. But it was neither the age of the recipes nor their grand style that made the book so special. It was their provenance: Rebecca Teitelbaum had created the book while she was imprisoned for 17 months at Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany during the Second World War.
Cold, famished and depressed, the women in the camp found solace in remembering and sharing their favourite recipes from home. Teitelbaum, who worked in an office in the camp, was able to steal some paper while on the night shift. She then wrote the recipes down -- since most of the women were from Belgium, she used French. Later, the prisoners comforted themselves by reading the book aloud to each other.
It seems paradoxical that the women would want to think about dishes they could not have. As Buckman said, however, "it was a way for them to escape the actual location for a few minutes, to dream of better times, to put some beauty into their lives. It was also a way of affirming who they were, both culturally and individually. And it was an act of resistance." Teitelbaum could have been killed for taking paper from the office, for keeping a notebook of any kind. But the book was so important to her that she even traded food for a needle and thread to sew its pages together. A small number of similar books were written by women in other camps including Theresienstadt and Mauthausen. But only a few have survived.
Teitlelbaum's recipe book is one of a collection of artifacts on display at a new show called Fragments which opened last week and runs through April 14 at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. They are documents, photographs, letters and objects of various kinds that survivors of the Holocaust managed to preserve and bring with them when they immigrated to Canada.
This exhibition is occurring at a particularly febrile time in the history of the Holocaust, and not just because of the presence of Joerg Haider's Freedom Party in the new Austrian government, the libel trial in Britain of Holocaust denier David Irving, or the debate over the merits of the films Life is Beautiful, Mr. Death and Train of Life. The Holocaust -- an event which some have deemed to be all but inexpressible in its horror -- has been undergoing a kind of commercialization, particularly in the last 15 years. Recently, for example, a postcard written by Anne Frank before the Second World War and her death in a Nazi camp was sold at an auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars to a museum in Los Angeles.
Fifty-five years after the liberation of the death camps, the relative scarcity of these Holocaust objets and the creation of Holocaust memorial centres in cities like Washington, Berlin and Jerusalem have created tremendous pressure for authentication. The Vancouver education centre, for instance, includes a counterfeit Star of David armband in its current exhibition. Roberta Kremer, director of the VHEC, says the armband, found in an antique store in Bellingham, Wash., with other seeming Holocaust "memorabilia," has been artificially aged, probably with shoe polish. Moreover, authentic Holocaust artifacts are rare and those not in institutions are usually in the possession of survivors or their families.
Competition for authentic artifacts also has become a fact of life. Rebecca Kremer was disturbed when she read a column by the prominent Toronto rabbi W. Gunther Plaut in which he appealed to the readers of Canadian Jewish News to donate Holocaust artifacts to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. "The survivors in Vancouver are part of this community," she argues. "They have made unique contribution to it. If these things go out of the country, it diminishes our sense of Canadian history. Many survivors also have descendants in this community, children and grandchildren. If they come here and want to see the actual material, it can -- and should be -- available for them."
Alex Buckman had no idea of the existence of Rebecca Teitelbaum's recipe book until he stumbled across it three years ago, even though he described his relationship with Aunt Rebecca as being a close one. When he asked her why she had not told him about it, she replied: "I didn't think anybody else would be interested in it."
Buckman now knows first hand that is not true. Last year, while attending an international child-survivors conference, he was approached by representatives from both Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, now the world's largest, and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. They urged him to donate the recipe book to them. Buckman eventually decided to donate it to the centre in Vancouver, where he lives.
Elliot Dlin, a director of The Valley of the Communities, one of the sites at Yad Vashem, who is currently writing a doctoral dissertation at the University of British Columbia, admitted that the quest to acquire Holocaust objets is "on the edge of bad taste. Sometimes people put prices on items, and there are negotiations and deals." Still, Kremer would like other survivors to do what Alex Buckman did -- donate locally rather than to the large Holocaust museums outside the country. One of the reasons she decided to mount Fragments at this time was, in fact, to encourage just this. "We have a relationship with many of the survivors. We know their story. They've given us their oral testimony."
The artifacts in Fragments are displayed in simple cases, with supporting text and explanatory photographs. Roberta Kremer observes that "Holocaust tourism" is not necessarily "Holocaust education. Just what "Holocaust education" is or should be, will probably be debated for a long time. But it must at least partly consist in an instilled receptivity to the powerful narratives of the Holocaust, something which Fragments clearly succeeds in arousing.
On view are a simple metal cup and a cheap dark spoon, bleak, ugly things issued to those who seemingly had been stripped of all other possessions.
Counterpoised to these, a handmade tiny mirror, comb and ring are a miracle of vanity. A boy working in a Krupp slave-labour camp manufacturing bullet covers gave them to Sarah Rozenberg-Warm, who worked beside him in the camp. Although she, sadly, no longer remembers his name, the ring is inscribed with his initials ("JN").
Besides the notebook of Rebecca Teitelbaum, there's one written by Shia Moser who taught Yiddish in a Polish orphanage in Peterswaldau after the war. "The children had experienced so much tragedy," he explained. "I thought that their memories should be preserved." He talked to the children after his classes and recorded what they told him about their families and all that had happened to them.
In December, 1999, Jack Kuper, a Toronto filmmaker, came to the VHEC to research a documentary. There, he found a photograph of the Polish war orphans from Peterswaldau and recognized the place. Then he asked how they had come by the picture. He was told that Shia Moser, who had taught at the orphanage had donated it. Staff at the VHEC were also able to tell him that Moser was alive and living in Vancouver and, though 93-years-old, in good health. Kuper remembered his teacher vividly but had never known what happened to him. A meeting was quickly arranged. It was highly emotional. Moser was astonished by the turn of events. He had never known what happened to any of his orphans either. Fragments runs to April 14 in the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre at 950 West 41st Ave., Vancouver. For information, call 604-264-0499.