Toronto Holocaust Museum aims to keep survivors' memories alive

Holocaust survivor Howard Chandler looks at the We Who Survived interactive. (Photo by Vito Amati, submitted by Toronto Holocaust Museum - image credit)
Holocaust survivor Howard Chandler looks at the We Who Survived interactive. (Photo by Vito Amati, submitted by Toronto Holocaust Museum - image credit)

Toronto's Jewish community is marking the opening of the city's only dedicated Holocaust museum, created to help keep survivor stories alive and educate current and coming generations on the horrors of genocide and antisemitism.

Museum executive director Dara Solomon says not only will a trip to the museum help people learn about the struggles Jewish people went through during and after the Second World War, but the "vibrancy of Jewish life" that came before and eventually after it.

"Despite the tragedy of the Holocaust, Jewish life thrives in this city," said Solomon, noting survivors in Toronto have wanted to see such a space become a reality for the last 40 years.

"We encourage visitors to come to the museum and learn this history, do a deep dive into the study of the Holocaust so we can understand how important it is to stand up to hate."

Submitted by Toronto Holocaust Museum
Submitted by Toronto Holocaust Museum

According to Statistics Canada, over half of police-reported hate crimes motivated by religion in 2021 were against Jewish people. The group represents roughly one per cent of Canada's total population.

Holocaust survivor and educator Nate Leipciger says he hopes the museum helps to combat rising hate not only against Jews, but also against the millions of people fleeing their homes and struggling against oppression and persecution, such as Ukrainians fleeing their homeland due to Russia's invasion.

"And it is important to remember because it can happen again, and it's happening today," said Leipciger.

The galleries feature personal accounts from more than 70 survivors, including Leipciger. He says the museum's opening was a "landmark" in his life, and applauds its use of interactive audio, video and augmented reality technology to help reach the younger generation.

"It's very important for the young people to remember what happened or to learn what happened because they don't have the memory," said Leipciger.

The museum, created by the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation of Greater Toronto, highlights four main galleries: Jewish and minority persecution leading up to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party's control of Germany, community devastation once millions of Jews were brought under German control after the start of the Second World War, the survivor aftermath once the war ended and the eventual journey tens of thousands of survivors took as they came to Canada, in search of a new beginning.

Museum helps keep memories alive, visitors say

Along with the interactive galleries, the museum features original artifacts donated by Canadian survivors, including letters from death camps, prisoner uniforms and family heirlooms — many of which took about four years to curate, says Solomon.

Visitor Michelle Rose visited the museum Friday in honour of her grandmother, Anita Ekstein, a child survivor of the Holocaust. Ekstein came to Canada in 1948 with her surviving aunt Sala. Her mother was taken to the Belzec Killing Centre while her father was killed by other German authorities. Ekstein later went on to marry and have three children.

"It is incredibly humbling to see my grandma's artifacts here — to see her fake papers, to see her fake identity, to see her rescuer's papers, to see her diploma here. It is amazing," said Rose.

"We have been learning about the Holocaust through my grandmother since we could talk, and to have a facility here where we could come and you could actually interact with her without her being here is phenomenal."

Susan Goodspeed/CBC
Susan Goodspeed/CBC

Visitor Rafi Yablonsky says the museum is important for him to visit not only as a grandchild to Holocaust survivors himself, but as a way to combat rising hate.

"My takeaway was seeing life before the war, how normal it was. And you realize, wait, that's what life is like right now for me and how it can all, in a snap of a finger, disappear and go away," said Yablonsky.

"[It's] just something to always keep in the back of your head, when you see any hate or intolerance happening in your community, no matter who you are."

Province gives $500,000 to museum 

In attendance at the opening were Toronto Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce  and Federal Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendocino.

"It's critical that we have people from all across Ontario come by and take a tour and get a real sense of the atrocities that happened," said Ford, adding he toured the museum himself and found it "chilling, to say the least."

During his visit, he announced the province would give $500,000 to the museum to go toward educators, education programs, partnerships with community organizations and security.

"As time passes and the atrocities of the Holocaust grow more distant, it's never been more important that history lives on," Ford said.

Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press
Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Mendocino says the museum's opening — which the federal government also helped fund — is an important step in taking action against antisemitism and ignorance of the Holocaust, citing a 2019 poll that suggested one in five Canadians don't know what the Holocaust is and another that suggested half of Canadians can't name a Nazi concentration camp.

"We're here today because the horrors of the Holocaust are unique in human history and we must ensure that they are never forgotten," said Mendocino.

He also recounted the government's apology to the Jewish community five years ago, for turning away 907 German Jews seeking asylum in 1939. Of those, 254 later lost their lives in the Holocaust.

"We had one of the worst records in that moment of time in the world for accepting Jewish refugees, and we have to be sober about that," said Mendocino.

Lecce says he hopes the government can help turn things around with coming generations. This September, Ontario will make Holocaust education mandatory in Grade 6, to go along with the current Grade 10 curriculum covering Canadian history since the First World War.

"I'm hopeful about what is possible through education," said Lecce. "While there is sadness, there's great light in this darkness."

The museum, located at the UJA's Sherman Campus in North York, opened to the public on Friday.