A new exhibition at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Center reveals what members of the Canadian military encountered when they fought in Belgium, Netherlands and Germany in the final years of World War II, coming to the aid of survivors, helping prisoners and orphans, and documenting what they saw.
Through photos, artifacts, newsreels, radio, oral testimony and documents, viewers of Canada Responds To The Holocaust get a better understanding of the expectations, relationships and challenges that came with liberating Europe from Nazism and coming to the aid of the survivors from September 1944 to May 1945.
“To the best of our knowledge, it’s the first time the story of the earliest Canadian encounters with survivors of the Holocaust and the evidence of the devastation of European Jewish life is being told in a public forum,” said Richard Menkis, a Vancouver historian who researched, directed and wrote material for the exhibition with Ronnie Tessler.
The idea started as a 2005 CD-ROM to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the end of the war. “Ronnie and I applied for funding for a CD-ROM that teachers could use on this topic,” Menkis said. Last year they approached the VHEC about turning the CD-ROM into a larger exhibit, now on display through March 2017. The project’s second stage took significantly more research and funding, and included hiring researchers in The Netherlands.
Menkis and Tessler strove to challenge their viewers to acknowledge the complexity of the relationship between Holocaust survivors and their “liberators.” For example, after Canadian forces liberated Westerbork, they were shocked because the survivors they saw looked nothing like the images they’d seen from Bergen-Belsen. Quotes by a survivor and a Canadian chaplain, Rabbi Samuel Cass, describe their confusion at encountering relatively healthy people at Westerbork.
A diary excerpt from Hans Bial, dated April 17, 1945, mentions that Canadian soldiers were trying to romance the women there. “When the weather is nice, the Canadians are lying in the grass…They are only interested in the girls,” he wrote.
Many prisoners wanted to leave Westerbork in the weeks after liberation, but were told they had to stay for a while longer, particularly stateless Jews, mostly German Jews who had come as refugees. Naturally, some resented the “liberators” who kept them at the camp.
But there were also moments of hope. Cass, a Toronto-born rabbi who worked in Vancouver before joining the Canadian army in 1942, conducted Shabbat services for 500 newly liberated prisoners at Westerbork on April 20, 1945, in Yiddish and English. “For them, my presence and my address was the final evidence of their liberation,” he wrote in a letter to his wife.
Canadian soldiers also assisted at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after its liberation in April 1945. There they encountered some 60,000 prisoners and 10,000 unburied dead. Members of the Canadian Army film and photography unit documented the crimes to provide historical evidence for use in postwar trials and to reveal the atrocities.
John Proskie, a squadron leader from Edmonton, wrote how there was “apparently no marked line drawn between the living and the dead. A certain proportion of the population is beyond any hope of being saved.”
Later, Bergen-Belsen became the largest displaced persons camp in Germany, and another Canadian squadron leader, Ted Aplin, was on hand to help deliver clothes, food and supplies, and arrange transport of orphans to England. “Our national conscience cannot rest easy until this is done,” he said.
Visitors can use an iPad and headphones to listen to oral testimonies of Canadians and Jewish survivors as they view various panels. The first-person accounts bring to life the confusion of the period, as survivors struggled to reconcile themselves to a new life without their family members.
“Our hope is that this exhibit will travel across the country,” said VHEC executive director Nina Krieger. She said it was designed to travel, and the travelling version will be bilingual. “It has national resonance, because it features testimonies and interviews with Holocaust survivors who settled in communities across Canada.”