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Exhibit pays tribute to orphaned survivors rescued by Jewish Montrealers

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The rescue of orphaned children by the Montreal Jewish community after the Holocaust is depicted on a wall in Old Montreal
The rescue of orphaned children by the Montreal Jewish community after the Holocaust is depicted on a wall in Old Montreal

In the aftermath of World War II, almost a thousand Jewish orphans who survived the Holocaust were brought to Montreal and adopted by families in the community.

That little-known piece of the city’s history is now being told every night in Old Montreal as part of a spectacular permanent multimedia exhibition called Cité Mémoire, launched on May 18.

Every night after sundown until midnight, The Jewish Children’s Transport Train 1947 is one of 19 tableaux being projected on the walls of buildings throughout the historic district, as well as on the ground and even on trees in some places.

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These videos of three to six minutes duration are dramatic re-enactments of highlights of Montreal’s long history, as well as less familiar events and characters.

A free mobile application may be downloaded (in French, English, Spanish or Mandarin) providing dialogue and music to accompany each of the 19 tableaux at one’s own pace, or six suggested routes can be followed offering more in-depth narration.

Cité Mémoire is part of Montreal’s 375th anniversary celebrations and was supported by millions in funding from the three levels of government.

It’s described as the largest outdoor video installation in the world, with over 80 projectors bringing history to life.

The Jewish Children’s Transport Train is projected at 239 Notre-Dame St. W., a heritage building dating back to 1866, which was originally the Thomas Philippe Barron store and warehouse.

Cité Mémoire was created by two luminaries of theatre production in Quebec, Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, known for their technical wizardry, along with dramaturge Michel Marc Bouchard. All three are Order of Canada inductees.

The Jewish Children’s Transport Train features some 20 actors, including stage and TV veteran Ellen David, who voices the character Elsa, played by Marie-Eve Bertrand.

This touching scene is a veritable Babel, with voices in Yiddish, Polish, Hungarian, Russian and German heard from the children as they arrive in their new home.

Another tableau that reflects Montreal’s Jewish heritage is Suzanne, a star-crossed love story projected on the Clock Tower in the Old Port, set to the 1966 poem/song by Montreal-born Leonard Cohen.

Stories told range from the oldest (1648), about New France’s first executioner, to the burning of the parliament building in 1849 and legendary tavern-keeper Joe Beef’s funeral in 1889. Others include the transformation of the cityscape by anglophone builders in the late 19th century, Montreal’s reputation as a sin city in the 1940s with its bordellos, gambling dens and cabarets, and, during the same era, its openness of another kind: the breaking of professional baseball’s colour restrictions with the Montreal Royals’ hiring of Jackie Robinson.

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The starting point of the Cité Mémoire route, projected on the cobblestones of an alley off St. Paul Street, is inspired by an Algonquin creation myth. The route culminates with The Face of Montreal, which also serves as the exhibition’s logo: a panoply of hundreds of faces and poetic voices looming above Île Bonsecours, intended to reflect the city’s cultural diversity.

Four other tableaux are to be added next year, including one that traces Montreal’s history in 22 minutes – to be shown on the Palais de Justice.

The Cité Mémoire project has an educational component to encourage further exploration of Montreal history. The app offers the option of learning about more than 50 other points of interest in Old Montreal – a dozen featuring augmented reality – which can be used during the daytime. School projects and guided tours can also be arranged. For more info, click here.