An Unforgettable Experience
The Montreal Holocaust Museum
The Jewish Press, NYC


I sat riveted on a wooden bench as I heard the account of an older woman. Her voice was shaky and tears welled in her eyes, as she described her loving family when she was a small child. She ended with, "It was all now like a dream."

An older gentleman from Greece spoke of his disbelief in being separated from his family in a matter of minutes, after arriving off a packed train car of 500 people. I could still hear the anger in his voice. He was in Auschwitz, the horrific Nazi concentration camp responsible for the extermination of millions of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals. He was one of the lucky ones, a survivor.
 
Eternal Light - Montreal Holocaust Museum Photo credit - Beverly Mann

Here at Montreal's 5,000-square foot Holocaust Memorial Museum, the only one of its kind in Canada, I spent nearly two hours wandering through some 450 original artifacts and 372 photographs documenting the Jewish life pre and post Holocaust and WWII. The Museum has been praised by the Quebec Minister of Culture as one of the 10 finest museums in the province.

The Museum's support and creation was the outcome of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center founded in 1979, Canada's longest standing memorial to the Holocaust and the only institution in the country dedicated to raising awareness about human rights through classes, educational outreach, and documentation of the Holocaust history.

This is the ninth year of the Center's Holocaust Education Series which presents eyewitness survivor testimonies, films, and lectures by noted scholars and humanitarians in both English and French. The events take place in such venues throughout the city as synagogues, churches, libraries, and bookstores. There is also an active Speaker's Committee of some 50 Holocaust survivors who visit public schools and universities throughout Quebec, Ontario, and Northeastern United States.

It was these actual accounts of the survivors woven throughout the Holocaust Museum that drew me into a world of both horror and hope. Opened June 2003, the exhibition portrays not just annihilation but resistance and courage.

My tour guide and Holocaust survivor, 83-year-old Olga Scher, was a 16-year-old girl hiding like Ann Frank with her family in an attic, never seeing the light of day. She was one of the fortunate ones who was never discovered and sent to a concentration camp and whose parents and sister also survived. Olga's memories of living in terror can still be seen in the intense look on her face, as she recalled her personal experiences.  
Survivor Olga Scher - Montreal Holocaust Museum
Photo credit - Beverly Mann

She told me how her father astutely got the family into hiding by paying a German family a fee to rescue them. Olga's family could only go to the bathroom during certain hours of the day -- not be seen by strangers. She recalled the time her father entered the bathroom when seen by a relative of the landlord. This incident almost cost the family their lives.

Olga's story is just one of many Jews who fled to Canada after the war. Montreal is home to the third largest community of Holocaust survivors in the world (around 8,000), after Israel and New York.

I had a stark introduction to the impact of the Holocaust, as I approached the entrance of the museum. In the center was an urn of ashes brought back from Auschwitz in remembrance to those who died. Above the urn flickered an eternal flame.

Olga and I continued our walk through two floors of photographs and relics, from the Star of David and the ID cards to the striped prison jackets worn by children and adults in the concentration camps.

I was then led to the documentary films of the actual footage of pre-Hitler times, from the demonstrations and chaos in the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles to the throngs of women and children carrying their few possessions into the ghettos established throughout Europe.

I asked Olga if it was painful to constantly relive this horror each time she accompanies people through the museum. Her answer: "It is a cleansing for me."

The final words, "To learn, to feel, and to remember," were inscribed in the foyer wall of the museum which I noticed upon exiting the building -- a stark reminder not only of the brutality of genocide that existed in the past but also in the present.

For further information on the Montreal Holocaust Museum, go to www.mhmc.ca The Museum is located at 5151, Cote-Ste-Catherine Road, 514-345-2605.

Hours:
Sunday 10 am - 4 pm
Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday from 10 am - 5 pm
Wednesday at 10 am - 9 pm
Friday 10 am - 3 pm
Closed for Sabbath on Saturdays

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