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Survivors’ belongings educate UQAM museum students

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UQAM students, from left, Anna Maria Vera-Jaramillo, María Juliana Angarita Bohórquez, Claire Liberge and Bachir Bensaddek examine an Auschwitz prisoner’s jacket with Luc Cyr.
UQAM students, from left, Anna Maria Vera-Jaramillo, María Juliana Angarita Bohórquez, Claire Liberge and Bachir Bensaddek examine an Auschwitz prisoner’s jacket with Luc Cyr

MONTREAL – While she was an inmate of Lippstadt, a slave labour camp in Germany during World War II, a young Hungarian Jewish woman clandestinely created a cookbook, collecting favourite recipes from her fellow prisoners.

Found out, it would probably have cost her her life. But she persisted, secreting old receipts from the factory she worked in to use as pages, as well as string to bind them.

In all, she collected about 200 recipes, which she carefully wrote by hand. Thinking about these delicious dishes probably helped her get through her 12-hour workdays, when she subsisted on 1,000 calories a day.

She buried the book and dug it up after liberation. It’s the only “souvenir” of the Holocaust that she kept and brought with her when she immigrated to Montreal.

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Edith Gluck’s cookbook is one of the many personal artifacts that Montreal survivors or their descendants have donated to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC) for display in its museum and for research.

For Gluck’s daughter, Shirley Rosenfeld, these yellowed, fragile pages represent her mother’s courage and the importance she placed on keeping her heritage alive under dire circumstances.

This story is told in a short video produced by Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) museum studies students, one of four so far made and disseminated on YouTube under the pilot project “Objects of Memory.” They are graduate students enrolled in a new master’s seminar called “Muséaliser les patrimoines sensibles,” which teaches how to curate sensitive or difficult histories.

The students, paired with mentors from the MHMC and professional filmmakers, delved into the museum’s artifacts and oral history collections. They did further research in local and international databases and archives, and interacted directly with the objects’ former owners.

Then they made documentaries of 2-1/2 to 4 minutes in length, combining archival imagery with original interviews with the donors.

The students were guided by videographer Luc Cyr, who made the 2010 feature documentary The Heart of Auschwitz, about the cloth, heart-shaped autograph book made by a woman in Auschwitz, which has become an icon of the MHMC’s permanent exhibition.

The partnership between the MHMC and UQAM is a natural one. The director of the graduate museology program, Jennifer Carter, is chair of the MHMC’s museum committee.

The three other videos focus on a prayer shawl, a prisoner’s uniform jacket, and the “people’s radio” the Nazis distributed free of charge to spread their propaganda.

The tallit was donated by Ann Cohen, granddaughter of Harry Cohen, who immigrated to Montreal from Poland in the 1920s. Already established here with a family (including Ann’s father), Cohen returned to his native land in June 1939 to see how relatives were faring as the Nazi menace grew.

After the Germans invaded Poland in September, he went into hiding with a Christian woman, but was caught and deported. He was never heard from again.

All his family received was a few traveller’s cheques and the tallit.

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The Romanian-born Louis Miller was 19 when he was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. The striped top of his uniform is the only thing he kept from that time – a symbol of his will to survive – and he brought it with him to Canada in 1948. After he died in 2009, his wife, Cecile, gave it to the MHMC.

The video about the radio includes archival footage of Joseph Goebbels’ speeches, with French and English subtitles. A 1938 model of the radio is housed at the MHMC.

In addition to providing training to a new generation of museum professionals who previously had little knowledge of the Holocaust, and educating the public via social media, the MHMC hopes the project will encourage other donations of objects related to the Holocaust or Jewish prewar life.

The goal is not solely conservation of evidence. The MHMC has found that the belongings of survivors who live or have lived in Montreal have a powerful impact on visitors.

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