One of the displays in the exhibit Canada Responds to the Holocaust, 1944-1945, at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre until March 31. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
Canada Responds to the Holocaust, 1944-1945, opened on Oct. 16. The exhibit, said Nina Krieger, executive director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, at the event, “is the first major project of its kind, examining the encounters between Canadians and survivors of the Holocaust and the evidence of Nazi crimes at the end of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath.”
The VHEC commissioned the original research and writing under the direction of Prof. Richard Menkis and Ronnie Tessler, which includes a companion school program. “Students and other visitors will engage with a number of media elements in the exhibit,” said Krieger, giving the example of a tablet with survivor testimony, various interviews and other audio and video material.
The centre also commissioned a comic book by Colin Upton to accompany the exhibition, called Kicking at the Darkness, which will be given to every student participating in the school program, and is available to others for a suggested donation of $5.
Krieger thanked contributors and funders of the exhibition. She then introduced Menkis, an associate professor in the department of history at the University of British Columbia, and Tessler, a documentary photographer and a project consultant and editor for cultural arts groups, who also happened to be the first executive director of the VHEC, in 1990.
“Canada Responds to the Holocaust is a challenging exhibition,” began Menkis. “And it’s challenging, I think, for two reasons. First of all, because liberation is a complex phenomenon. Superficially, one might think, with liberation, of being free and being happy but, in fact, in the words of one of the Dutch survivors, it was, ‘not an undiluted joy’; to be free but then to be trying to look for family and the like. This exhibition very much tries to convey how complex liberation is.
“It is a complex phenomenon for three reasons,” he said. It is complex because, as the liberators (the soldiers) were in Europe, they were moving through new locations and coming up with new experiences. As well, liberation is the interaction between groups, each with their own assumptions and lived realties. And, finally, liberation is complex because of the disbelief at what had happened, and the difficulty in communicating what had been witnessed.
In addition to the voices of some of the survivors, the exhibit follows a number of different Canadians across Europe, including army chaplains, notably Samuel Cass. It also follows the First Canadian Army.
“Only three of the Western Allies had field armies on D-Day: the Americans, the British and the Canadians,” said Menkis. “The First Canadian Army was comprised of two corps,” he explained, but, also, “within the Canadian Army, as was the case with other armies, there were a variety of groups, such as Polish units as part of the Canadian Army, and there were Canadian units who were in, for example, the British army, which is why they are going to figure in Bergen-Belsen.”
The exhibit follows journalists, especially Matthew Halton, but also other CBC and Radio Canada journalists. “Moreover, we look at and follow the reactions of official war artists, official photographers and film crews and, finally, for the postwar period, we look at international agencies, such as the United Nations relief organization and the American Joint Distribution Committee,” said Menkis.
Using maps, archival photographs, news footage and video clips of interviews, Menkis touched on the highlights of the exhibit. He spoke of survivors coming out of hiding, of Canadians’ arrival at Vught, in the Netherlands, a camp that had been abandoned – the cover of Upton’s comic book is of this encounter – and Canadians’ reactions at Westerbork transit camp, also in the Netherlands. While outwardly appearing more well than other survivors, the 900 prisoners at Westerbork had experienced continual fear of being on one of the weekly deportations to an extermination camp.
A number of Canadian soldiers had been at Bergen-Belsen before they arrived at Westerbork, explained Menkis. “The effect of Bergen-Belsen was searing, and it affected, in some complicated ways, how the soldiers and others would view Westerbork,” he said, before sharing a quote from survivors Walter and Sara Lenz: “Shortly after the Canadians arrived it became clear that something was bothering them. They asked a number of questions that made little sense to us at the time, Why were we so well fed? Why were we not sickly, on the verge of death?
“In fact, as cruel as it may sound now, I had the feeling that our liberators were in a sense let down, for as we soon learned, they had steeled themselves for … another Bergen-Belsen.”
Noting that this was not just a view expressed years later, Menkis presented an excerpt of a letter Cass wrote to his wife on April 24, 1945: “I spent a good part of the day with our people [Canadians] at Camp Westerbork.… Everything looks so good on the surface…. With the papers full of the cannibalism of Belsen, it is almost a shock to find a camp where the survivors are all well and the physical surroundings good. But you can’t see the fear that people lived through every moment of their existence, nor can you see the 110,000 Jews who were herded like cattle on the transports.…”
While some people believed that things could return to the way they were before the war, that was not possible. A number of Jews felt they could not stay in Europe; they saw it as a graveyard, with no future. Many Jews looked to Palestine, but not everyone agreed with that. Menkis gave the example of Vancouver aid worker Lottie Levinson, who saw nationalism as the cause of what had happened and couldn’t understand why others would see Zionism as the resolution of the issue. “So, different approaches to what Jewish life would be,” said Menkis.
In the last part of his presentation, Menkis screened a video clip from an interview with war artist Alex Colville, which included some of the images he had drawn at Bergen-Belsen. Menkis also played an audio clip of an interview with Maj.-Gen. Georges Vanier, who went to Buchenwald shortly after its liberation with a group of U.S. congressmen. In his remarks, Vanier – one of the few Canadians who advocated for the acceptance of refugees before the war broke out – specifically referenced Jews as being victims, whereas most reports did not.
Rather than simplify this complex story, Menkis said that he and Tessler “chose to keep as many voices and perspectives as possible. Some of them may be uncomfortable to hear or see, but we wanted to do justice to the bewildering and poignant encounters of the time.”
When Tessler took to the podium, she explained, “The inspiration for Canada Responds to the Holocaust, 1944-1945, dates back to 2005, the 60th anniversary year of V-E Day, Victory in Europe Day. For that commemoration, Richard and I developed a CD for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre that teachers could use in one classroom session. Compact and tightly constructed, the themes were presented in short, crisp slides characteristic of PowerPoint presentations.
“The CD was a multi-media production – which the exhibition has retained. Along with text in point form, we included photographs, excerpts of articles, newsreels, eyewitness testimonies and art by Canada’s official war artists. Since that time, the 70th anniversary of the Second World War has passed and new research has been published, allowing us to expand and enrich the information that was in the PowerPoint.”
Many steps were required to “keep this complex story coherent,” said Tessler.
“The exhibition began with a year of research in archives across Canada, the Netherlands, Israel, the United States and Britain, and with locating the support material,” she said. “We were fortunate in this phase to have a good working relationship with several researchers and archives in the Netherlands. On the home front, we had access to the VHEC collections, and the assistance of a student intern.
“The next step was to arrange this mass of material into an easily readable and chronological narrative. In whittling down the accumulated information, it was essential not to lose sight of the historical overview. By including testimonies and other media, we could add individual, and sometimes opposing, perspectives on the events being portrayed. By adding photographs, the viewer gains a sense of place and time.
“The exhibition format also allowed us to display material objects,” she said. “For example, the Shalom Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion loaned the V-E Day edition of the Maple Leaf, a newspaper printed for the Canadian Forces, with the word ‘Kaput’ covering the front page. Dr. E.J. Sheppard of Victoria, one of the first soldiers through the gates of Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands, loaned his battle uniform, pocket diary and a topographical map he carried in his tank that day.
“One of the most symbolic and touching objects in the exhibition is the yellow Jood star a newly liberated Jewish prisoner insisted on giving Sheppard in gratitude.
Another moment that gives pause is witnessing the large number of letters reproduced on a pillar in the gallery. Written by individuals and organizations seeking friends and relatives, they are but a smattering of the letters existing in just one archive in Montreal.”
The exhibit also includes “an antisemitic pamphlet printed in the Netherlands, and a 1943 poster ordering those with Jewish blood where, and when, to register with the authorities in The Hague … one of the most haunting objects in the exhibition is a facsimile notebook containing the weekly lists of deportees from Westerbork in the Netherlands to extermination camps in Poland: 100,657 people between July 1942 and September 1944 were, in most cases, sent to their deaths.”
Tessler thanked the many people who helped bring the exhibition to fruition, including Upton, who created the 24-page Kicking at the Darkness with the input of students in Menkis’ UBC course on Jewish identities in graphic narratives, and Canadian war historian Mark Celinscak, on whose research the section on the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was based. She also thanked all the VHEC staff and Public, the design studio that designed the exhibition.
Canada Responds to the Holocaust, 1944-45, is at the VHEC until March 31.