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Montrealers tell their stories of atrocities faced

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Frank Chalk and Nolsina Yim participate in the launch of the public phase of Montreal Life Stories. [Nicholas Kanhai photo]

MONTREAL — The common experience of mass atrocity suffered by the Jewish, Rwandan, Cambodian and other communities living in Montreal is the subject of a yearlong exhibition at the Centre d’histoire de Montréal in Old Montreal.

We are Here: Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide and Other Human Rights Violations, which opened March 8, is part of the culmination of a five-year oral history project based at Concordia University and funded by a $1.5-million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Some 90 Holocaust survivors or their descendants, as well as Sephardi Jews of North African origin who were persecuted under Nazism or displaced by post-World War II events, were interviewed on camera. The interviews are being edited into short stories to be disseminated via the Internet and other public means.

In addition, 470 videotaped testimonials collected by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC) since the 1970s are to be transferred to digital format and included in the database of Montreal Life Stories, as the project is called.

In total, about 500 new interviews were conducted with members of communities with tragic pasts. The message is ultimately hopeful because, for the most part, the subjects rebuilt their lives in Montreal and are interested in ensuring that younger generations are aware of their past.

The project is a collaboration between the university and the community. More than 150 academic researchers and non-university-affiliated people took part. Eighteen organizations were partners in the effort, including the MHMC and Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (Agence Ometz).

The goal of the We are Here exhibition, which continues until April 14, 2013, is to make it known that there are survivors of extreme violence or rights violations in other places who are “now part of our collective story.”

Through videos, photos and personal objects, a sampling of these diverse stories is told. There’s a picture of the Jewish infant Max Beer with his parents taken in a displaced persons camp in Europe in 1948 alongside a toy giraffe that belonged to Paul Tom, who was born to Cambodian parents in 1984 in a refugee camp in Thailand.

Montreal Life Stories principal investigator is Concordia history professor Steven High, who is the Canada Research Chair in Public History.

“Our project makes use of a humanistic approach,” he said. “We let people define themselves. Montreal Life Stories demonstrates how important it is to go beyond studying communities to making them partners in the research.”

The stories recorded have also been the subjects of artistic works, films and performances. Teaching materials are being developed.

Another Concordia history professor, Frank Chalk, founding co-director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies and a member of the project’s co-ordinating committee.

The project has provided an opportunity for the Jewish community, which has long experience in Holocaust documentation and education, to mentor other communities with fewer resources or expertise in sharing remembrance.

The exhibition is on the top floor of museum, which on its lower two floors relates the city’s social history. Its director Jean-François Leclerc believes We Are Here fits in well with the institution’s mission to show “how the history of the people who inhabited and still inhabit Montreal has created the urban environment, left their imprint, and defined the identity of the metropolis.”

Since January, Montreal Life Stories has benefited from the expertise of professor Henry Greenspan of the University of Michigan, an expert in genocide testimony, who is spending four months at Concordia as a Fulbright scholar.

His research is on how survivors of different genocides can work together to make their oral histories known beyond their own communities.

Greenspan is also a playwright whose Holocaust-themed drama Remnants has been staged across North America, Europe and Israel.

In addition to the exhibition, more than 50 events are being held at a dozen venues throughout March, including a four-day conference at Concordia.

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