Revitalizing Access: The Journey of Bringing the VHEC’s Legacy Collections Online  

An abundance of historical materials recounting the lives of Holocaust survivors before, during and after the Second World War can be found in the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre’s legacy collections. When the VHEC was first established, the local survivor community donated photographs, diaries, testimonies, ephemera, clippings, posters, identity and travel documents, correspondence and other documentary heritage items that bear witness to pre-war life, persecution, internment and migration to Canada and elsewhere.  

The Peterswald Kinderheim testimonies, recorded in Yiddish by Professor Shia Moser, are one such example. These small, lined notebooks record some of the first testimonies of child survivors of the Holocaust and were donated to the VHEC by Moser in the early ‘90s. The testimonies remained largely unexplored until the VHEC received grant funding from the Library and Archives Canada Documentary Heritage Communities Program (DCHP) to migrate legacy FileMaker Pro catalogue records into our new web-based CollectiveAccess database. Now these testimonies are just a click away.

[Testimony notebook of Alla Oppenheim], [1946]. Professor Shia Moser fonds, Student testimony, 1993.037.025.

Prior to this project, only a small percentage of the VHEC’s archival holdings were publicly available online. Information about these holdings was stored in an outdated FileMaker Pro database from the 1990s, which could only be accessed onsite by VHEC staff. This limited accessibility made it difficult for external researchers, educators and the general public to explore the VHEC’s extensive collection of Holocaust-related materials. Even internal staff unfamiliar with the software had trouble exploring the collection. We were determined to change that and enhance accessibility to Western Canada’s largest collection of Holocaust-related materials.  

To achieve this goal, we added new information about items and their donors to enhance the legacy catalogue records. We also wrote collection- and fonds-level finding aids to provide additional context and support research into aggregations of items from the same donor or family. Item-level data was standardized and migrated into the VHEC’s web-based content management system to improve accessibility. Translation, transcription and digitization of items supported this work.  

As a result, anyone with a computer and internet connection can explore photos, documents, and other historical artifacts that were previously only accessible to VHEC office staff. While working on this project, an intriguing finding was made regarding an item that was originally cataloged as correspondence. It turned out to be a marriage certificate: of Abraham Yakov (Jack Gardner), the son of Mosheh, and Chayah, the daughter of Yisrael. The couple was married on 30 Shevat 5705, which corresponds to Tuesday, February 13, 1945, shortly after liberation.  

Image is of a Ketubah [Marriage Certificate] from the Jack Gardner fonds.

[Ketubah]. February 13, 1945. Jack Gardner fonds, Foehrenwald (DP camp) records, 93.07.0064.

This vital piece of history may have stayed unnoticed and the item mistakenly cataloged as “correspondence” if not for the availability of funding for translation, description and digitization work. The marriage certificate offers a rare peek into the lives of Holocaust survivors and their experiences of rebuilding their lives after the war. It also serves as a testament to the resilience and hope of those who survived one of the darkest periods in human history.  

The thrill of new discoveries was not only felt by the VHEC archivists. Exhibit curators and educators used many of the newly described items to support exhibitions and educational programming. In Focus: The Holocaust through the VHEC Collection relied heavily on the new description and digitization work to find materials for display, including the Moser testimonies highlighted above and these photographs from the Bergen-Belsen DP Camp.  

Two photographs currently on display at the VHEC. On the left, Klara Forrai pictured at a demonstration at Bergen-Belsen, and on the right, is a group photograph with David Feldman in the back row, second from the left, in front of the camp’s gate.

Educational material created in support of the newly installed exhibition Age of Influence: Youth & Nazi Propaganda will rely on some primary sources described through the DHCP project, including a selection of white nationalist and antisemitic propaganda from Canada and the United States. 

Image depicts a Holocaust denial sticker created by Ernst Zündel. The sticker reads: “Germans! Stop apologizing for the things you did not do!” The sticker includes Zündel’s mailing address and an illustration of the German Reichsadler (“Imperial Eagle”).

[Holocaust denial sticker]. October 17, 1994. White nationalist and antisemitic propaganda collection, 1996.029.009.

We have also seen increased engagement from the public. The Eckville student visit collection was donated to the VHEC by Estelle Jacobson in 1996 and described and digitized as part of the DHCP project. The collection documents a May 1983 visit to Vancouver by six former students of the infamous antisemitic teacher and mayor James “Jim” Keegstra from Eckville, Alberta to attend the annual Symposium on the Holocaust at UBC. Author and filmmaker Hart Snider happened to briefly meet some of Keegstra’s former students as a kid when they visited his Jewish summer camp, inspiring his graphic novel and film The Basketball Game. His perspective on the brief meeting was filled with fear and wonder about the potentially antisemitic visitors. Four decades later, the newly described collection helped Hart find “solace in the fact that the openness and kindness of the Canadian Jewish community helped [the students] to learn and feel welcome.” Read more about Snider and his work in the most recent issue of Zachor. Overall, the multi-year project has been a significant undertaking, but its successful completion will undoubtedly benefit scholars, educators, and the public for years to come. With the improved access and more user-friendly system for navigating and exploring these records, we can gain a deeper understanding of the experiences of Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees in Canada during the Second World War and preserve their stories for future generations.

[Thank-you letter from Lorna Tink]. [after May 26, 1983]. Eckville student visit collection, 1996.057.016.

Overall, the multi-year project has been a significant undertaking, but its successful completion will undoubtedly benefit scholars, educators, and the public for years to come. With the improved access and more user-friendly system for navigating and exploring these records, we can gain a deeper understanding of the experiences of Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees in Canada during the Second World War and preserve their stories for future generations.  

At the upcoming AABC/ARMA Joint Conference on April 28, VHEC collections staff Shyla Seller, Caitlin Donaldson, Chase Nelson and Amanda Alster will reflect on this project’s contributions, challenges, and the work and resources required to make a project such as this one successful.

Access the full list of collections digitized and described by this project here:

RA053: Ronald Brown Second World War memorabilia collection 

RA056: Michel Mielnicki fonds    

RA058: John Rodgers photograph collection    

RA059: Theresienstadt memorabilia collection   

RA060: Professor Shia Moser fonds 

RA061: Reisman family fonds  

RA062: Duifje and Albert van Haren fonds 

RA063: Collection about Elisabeth Berger, Lucie and Eugen Grabowski 

RA064: Indersdorf Children’s DP Centre photograph collection 

RA065: Frank A. Abbott photograph collection  

RA066: John F. McCreary Bergen-Belsen photograph collection  

RA068: Sigmund Muenz ‘Enemy Aliens’ ephemera collection   

RA069: Paul Heller collection  

RA070: Gunter Bardeleben fonds  

RA072: Sarah Rozenberg-Warm fonds  

RA073: Liberation photograph collection  

RA074: Eckville student visit collection  

RA075: Frances Hoyd fonds   

RA076: Eisler, Galperin family collection  

RA077: Paulina Kirman collection     

RA078: Leon and Esther Kaufman fonds  

RA079: Dr. Dina Golovanevskaya fonds  

RA080: Collection of Nazi German legal documents   

RA081: Collection of Nuremberg Trial documents   

Dr. R. Walter Dunn notebook collection  

RA084: White nationalist and antisemitic propaganda collection  

RA085: Survivor and witness testimony collection  

RA087: Bronia Sonnenschein collection

Additions and updates were made to these collections below:

RA002: Jean Rose fonds   

RA007: von Baiersdorf, Reif family fonds   

RA019: Hilary and Harrison Brown collection 

RA021: David and Regina Feldman fonds 

RA023: Teitelbaum, Buckman family fonds 

RA025: Jack Gardner fonds 

Finding aids and related authority records created as a part of this project were uploaded into community partner portals, such as MemoryBC to expand their reach and discoverability. 

Reflections on Profound Losses

A Message from VHEC Executive Director Nina Krieger

Survivors of the Holocaust are central to the VHEC’s mission and to the impact of many of our educational programs. A small and exceptionally dedicated group of survivor speakers share their eyewitness accounts of loss and survival with audiences at our annual and district-wide symposia, at the Centre, in classrooms and at commemorative and community programs.

This week, the VHEC community is mourning the passing of three of its longstanding Holocaust survivor speakers.

On April 21, Belgian Holocaust survivor Alex Buckman z’l passed away in Warsaw, Poland while participating in the 2023 March of the Living. As a tireless speaker and a longstanding president of the Child Survivor Group,  Alex’s impact on the VHEC, the audiences we serve, and the local survivor community are immeasurable. Our deepest sympathies go out to Alex’s wife, Colette, son Patrick, and to the entire Buckman family.

Alex Buckman, 2022

Alex was four years old when his father handed him over for safekeeping to Mademoiselle Andrée Geulen, a 20-year-old teacher in a Brussels school, one of the Righteous Among the Nations, who also saved hundreds of other Jewish children during the Holocaust. Both of Alex’s parents were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Alex wrote about the significance of his relationship to Mademoiselle Andrée in the Spring 2022 issue of Zachor.

Alex was adopted by his aunt, Rebecca Teitlebaum, a survivor of Ravensbrück concentration camp. In his video testimony, Alex describes how Rebecca and other women in her barracks recorded, in secret and at great personal risk, recipes from memory in a handmade book. Alex donated Rebecca’s recipe book to the VHEC so that it could be preserved and support learning over time, and it is currently on display in the exhibition, In Focus: The Holocaust through the VHEC Collection.

When he spoke to students, Alex would share a copy of his aunt’s recipe for gateau à l’orange (orange cake) with audiences. Over the years, Alex and the VHEC received countless letters about the significance of the act of baking Rebecca’s cake. CBC featured this story in a documentary in 2017.

Alex’s passing comes days after the loss of two other VHEC Holocaust survivor speakers, David Ehrlich z’l on April 10 and Louise Stein Sorensen z’l on April 19. Our heartfelt condolences to David’s sons Perry, Brent and their families, and to Louise’s sons Andrew, Edward and their families.

Child survivor Louise Sorensen shows her mother’s identification card marked with a ‘J’.

A child survivor from Holland, Louise was a longstanding outreach speaker, a founding member of the Vancouver Child Survivor Group, a participant in the multidisciplinary Gesher Project, and served on the VHCS Board for a decade.

Louise was also a generous donor to the VHEC’s collection; her materials are described and digitally available here. A compelling speaker, Louise would wear a heavy coat and turn her back to the students as they entered the classroom in which she was about to speak. When the teacher introduced her, she would turn around and reveal the yellow Star of David patch sewn onto her coat. The students’ attention was assured from the outset.

Born in Gherla (now part of Romania) in 1926, and one of the war orphans that came to Canada in 1947, David Ehrlich was a captivating speaker, who travelled across BC to share the story of his survival of Auschwitz, the death march, and Mauthausen concentration camp. David was motivated to begin speaking when Jim Keegstra made headlines with his teachings in Alberta that denied the Holocaust. Likening Holocaust denial to a second attempt at genocide, David was determined to counter antisemitism and distortion of history with his testimony.

David Ehrlich, 2007

David spoke with a humanity and charm that will be remembered by all who had the privilege of hearing him. I am one of these former students, who participated in a breakout session with David at the Annual Symposium on the Holocaust many years ago.

Alex, Louise and David are Life Fellows of the Vancouver Holocaust Centre Society, an honour bestowed by the Board of Directors for outstanding contributions to our mandate.

At this difficult time, the VHEC is here to support the survivor community in navigating these profound losses. We will always be grateful to Alex, Louise and David for all that they contributed to advancing learning and understanding about the Holocaust and its legacies, and about the possibility—the necessity, even—of resilience, compassion and hope in its aftermath.

May their memories be for a blessing and a source of courage and inspiration to us all.