Winnipeg’s Freeman Family Holocaust Education Centre re-opens after a major renovation to engage younger visitors

Belle Jarniewski points to a pass issued to a Winnipeg Holocaust survivor by Raoul Wallenberg, at the Freeman Family Holocaust Education Centre, Winnipeg. (Credit: John Longhurst)

After being closed during the pandemic for renovations, Winnipeg’s Freeman Family Holocaust Education Centre, a program of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, is reopening on Jan. 25.

The renovation, which cost $213,000—with funding from various levels of government, foundations and private donations—will help the centre engage younger people better.

“We wanted to make it more engaging for younger people who are used to using screens for educational purposes,” said Belle Jarniewski, executive director of the Heritage Centre.

The “big ticket” item that will help the centre accomplish that is an interactive table that tells the stories of some of the more than 1,000 survivors who made Winnipeg their home after the war.

Through the table, visitors can scroll through stories and click on various items to learn more about survivors, and the Holocaust in general.  

“The best thing about it is we can add to it, and update it, without needing more space,” Jarniewski said.

  • Take a 15-minute audio tour of the redesigned museum with The CJN Daily

Along with the new interactive table, Winnipeg’s centre will provide access to the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation database of Holocaust survivor stories—over 55,000 in all, including from Canada.

“That’s not here yet,” she said. “Supply chain issues. I hope it arrives by the time we officially open.”

The new technology will also help the centre display more items—with over 70,000 photos, plus bound volumes of newspapers, recordings, boxes of documents and artifacts, there’s no way to display them all in the 1,100-square-foot room, Jarniewski said.

“There’s so much we can’t physically put on display,” she said.

A key part of the renovation is a new display about Jewish life before the Holocaust. Located at the entrance, it features pictures of people on vacation, at home and work, on the beach, at the zoo and skiing.

“We wanted to show the diversity of life, the lives they lived, and what was lost,” she said.

The renovation also gave Jarniewski an opportunity to update the way it shares the “how, who, what and why” of the Holocaust.

“We wanted to showcase the best practices in museology and ways of talking about it,” she said.

The rise in antisemitism around the world also prompted the centre to be more explicit about that topic, she said, noting there are also displays about the history of antisemitism in Canada.

That includes a poster from Quebec in the 1920s that encouraged people in that province not to buy from Jewish businesses—to spend their money in stores owned by Christians.

“Things like that are surprising for young people, who see Canada through the lens of welcoming refugees and multiculturalism,” Jarniewski said. “Many don’t know that history.”

Visitors will also see names of survivors who made Winnipeg their home scroll alphabetically across a wall, one after the other, before blurring to yield a fresh set of names.

For Gustavo Zentner, president of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, having a revitalized centre for Holocaust education in Manitoba is important.

“It is incumbent upon us as the Jewish community to preserve and honour the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, individuals who each had lives and stories of their own,” he said.

“Through these efforts, their stories will be presented in a way that will make them easily accessible and perpetuated well into the future.”

Added Elaine Goldstine, CEO of the Federation: “Sharing the stories of survivors, many of whom are no longer around to tell their stories, requires new, fresh approaches… We know that Holocaust education is paramount in combating antisemitism, particularly among young people.”

The re-opening will feature presentations by Irwin Cotler, Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism, and Peter Flegel, executive director of Canada’s Anti-Racism Secretariat.

The presentations start at 7 p.m. at the Berney Theatre at the Asper Jewish Community Campus, with an opportunity to visit the Education Centre after.

Attendance at the re-opening is free, but people should register by contacting the Heritage Centre at [email protected] or by calling 204-478-8590.