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.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 Information about these holdings was stored in an outdated FileMaker Pro database from the 1990s, which could only be accessed onsite by VHEC staff.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.
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.
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.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. 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:
Additions and updates were made to these collections below:
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.