Why is every Holocaust museum in Canada undergoing a massive overhaul right now?

A rendering of the mezzanine of the Toronto Holocaust Museum scheduled to open in 2023. (Credit: Reich and Petch International)

Every Holocaust museum across Canada is currently in the middle of extensive rebuilding or renovation projects this winter. In all cases, the work is spurred by two sobering trends: aging survivors and an escalation of antisemitism and Holocaust denial.

The generation of survivors, whose powerful testimony was once the centrepiece of museum visits, is fading. And even those who were keen to continue speaking with schoolchildren have seen their visits curtailed by COVID-19.

Dara Solomon, executive director of the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto, said her roster of 50 to 60 Holocaust survivors has dwindled to just a few who are still able to come and share their personal stories with students.

At the same time, Holocaust distortion has become widespread and pervasive. The idea that rabid anti-vaxxers would liken mask mandates and vaccine passports to the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear in Nazi-occupied Europe would have been unthinkable in pre-pandemic times.

“We need to teach our community to be able to identify when they’re seeing Holocaust myths and distortion, as well as teach the teachers how to teach that. You see things in classrooms where, unfortunately, students are not getting the strongest understanding in Holocaust education,” Solomon said.

“We have to protect the facts. We have to be a space where this is the definitive history of the Holocaust.”

Survivors were the driving force behind the construction of Holocaust centres and museums, as they sought to preserve and explain their experiences to the larger community. Today, museums stand in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, all within Jewish communal buildings.

Currently, every museum is planning a renovation or undertaking an entire rebuild. Montreal’s project is the most ambitious, with the purchase of a new site close to other museums and in what was a traditional Jewish immigrant neighbourhood. Toronto is rebuilding in a new Jewish community centre near where it has always been located. Winnipeg is overhauling its current exhibits, while Vancouver is poised to make big changes as its Jewish community centre goes through a major expansion.

In Toronto, modern media fills the generation gap

In Toronto, museum designers started the redesign process (pre-COVID) by tagging along with a school group that visited the museum and heard a survivor speak.

In a webinar produced for Holocaust Education Week, Emilio Genovese, senior exhibition designer at Reich + Petch Design International, said they realized a Holocaust centre is different than a typical museum or gallery.

“It’s a collecting museum, but it’s not collecting tangible objects—it collects stories. And these stories are unique thumbprints that can never be excavated or discovered ever again,” he said.

Architect rendering of Toronto’s new Holocaust Museum (Credit: Reich and Petch International)

Tony Reich, senior architect at Reich + Petch, pondered the same problem. “The presentation by survivors had incredible impact on the children. You could actually hear a pin drop in the room. We thought, ‘How can we replicate this when survivors are not with us?’”

He added, “The goals were to make the stories come alive in the same way as they do when a face-to-face person is presenting. We realized this is going to require the most up-to-date and effective media we can possibly provide in the centre.”

In Toronto’s museum, scheduled to open spring 2023, the answer lies in modern technology. Visitors will start by watching a film that details the richness of European Jewish life before the war and sets the stage for the horrors of the Nazi era.

In the galleries, 75-inch monitors, as tall as an adult, will feature survivors telling their stories.

Toronto has “an embarrassment of riches” when it comes to recorded survivor testimony, Solomon said. The museum, like others across Canada, has been recording survivors for years and recently finished a film shoot that will be part of the introductory movie. Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation, founded to record survivors’ stories, has testimony from about 1,500 Canadians as well.

Some artifacts, especially those with a particularly compelling story, will also be on display. A Torah that was thrown out of a burning synagogue on Kristallnacht, rescued by a priest who gave it to the late Rabbi Gunther Plaut, will have a prominent place in the gallery.

Architect rendering of the Toronto Holocaust Museum, featuring a Torah scroll savied during Kristallnacht. (Credit: Reich and Petch International)

The new museum also picks up where the old one left off, telling the story of liberation and the lives survivors rebuilt in Toronto. Guided visits will conclude in a library, where school groups and others can discuss contemporary antisemitism and other forms of hate and the relevance to their own lives.

The project is expected to cost around $27.5 million. Of that, $15 million is budgeted for an endowment to sustain the museum and the technology, while $12.5 million is for building costs. The Azrieli Foundation has pledged $12 million for the project.

Grappling with Winnipeg’s fascist past

In Winnipeg, the budget is considerably smaller, but the need to refresh the gallery is just as great. Belle Jarniewski, executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, estimates it will cost about $200,000 to update their Holocaust Education Centre, which offers teacher training and tours for school groups.

The overhaul will allow the centre to modernize its exhibits. For example, older displays use the word “gypsy”, now seen as a pejorative term by the Roma community. Jarniewski also wants to display more artifacts, all of which have been donated by Winnipeg residents, and focus on survivors’ resilience.

She also wants to draw attention to the antisemitism of the 1930s and ’40s in Canada. The centre has an extensive digitized collection of newspapers, including original copies of the Canadian Nationalist, a pro-Nazi, pro-fascist paper from that era.

“Here in Manitoba, fascism was very popular. Those are really fascinating pieces,” she said. “I don’t think in Canada we have reckoned with our history of antisemitism quite yet. I think we try and ignore it.”

The museum is also grappling with the loss of several active Holocaust survivors. Two of its remaining speakers are over 95, while a couple have said that as they grow older, the emotional cost of recalling their experiences had become too great for them to continue, she said.

Jarniewski, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, now gives presentations that incorporate her own parents’ experiences, and she has found a few other survivors’ children willing to join her.

She also intends to add an interactive table to the museum, where maps and recorded survivor testimony would be available at the touch of a button. A similar device is being used at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, in Winnipeg, where Jarniewski has seen how popular it is.

An $80-million migration in Montreal

On the other end of the spectrum is Montreal, where an entire museum is being built from the ground up. The new building, unlike its predecessor, will not be located on a campus with other Jewish communal buildings, but instead downtown, near Montreal’s other museums and close to what were Jewish immigrant neighbourhoods.

The museum has long since outgrown its home in a Federation building, where there was no room for classrooms or temporary exhibitions, said Sarah Fogg, head of communications for the Montreal Holocaust Museum.

An international competition to design the new building has just been launched, so it’s too early to know exactly what form the galleries will take, but the new building is slated to have research facilities, an educational wing and a memorial garden.

The 45,000-sq-ft museum, opening 2025, will cost about $80 million, which includes a $15-million endowment. The Azrieli Foundation has pledged $15 million for the project and the provincial government has indicated it will provide funding as well, Fogg said.

The new building promises to be a “game-changer,” with 100,000 visits forecast per year, up from the 20,000 annual visits the current site saw pre-pandemic.

“It’s an awesome opportunity to make something that’s so significant in terms of Holocaust education and remembrance and the legacy of human rights from the Holocaust, but also to create something that’s unique in Montreal and to contribute to Montreal’s leadership and architecture,” Fogg said.

Modern technology will be incorporated to preserve survivors’ testimony. While survivors have met virtually with school groups during the pandemic, and hopefully will meet again in person, Fogg said, the museum also has 850 recorded testimonies.

The new site will also feature Dimensions in Testimony, a project by the USC Shoah Foundation that lets people pose questions that prompt real-time responses from pre-recorded video interviews of survivors. The first one to be filmed in French, in partnership with the USC Shoah Foundation and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, will be hosted at the Montreal museum.

Vancouver focusing on humanity “in times of moral crisis”

Planning is still in the early stages for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, which is poised to move into a new space, as the Jewish community campus, where it is currently located, redevelops and expands. But a formal announcement has not made yet, said executive director Nina Krieger.

Visitors explore the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. (Photo supplied by the VHEC)

The VHEC, like the Canada’s other Holocaust centres, is racing to collect not just testimonies of survivors, but also documents, artifacts, photographs and other primary sources that tell the story of the Shoah.

An expanded gallery will not only allow the Vancouver museum to display more of its growing collection, but also provide a space to discuss larger ideas, Krieger said, such as the dangers of propaganda and the role bystanders play in society.

“These fundamental questions about human behaviour in times of moral crisis that emerge from studying the Holocaust, they are so relevant considering how we act or don’t act in response to present-day social justice issues,” Krieger added.

Demand for anti-racism and anti-hate education, through the lens of the Holocaust, has grown tremendously. Before COVID, between 2018 and 2019, visits to the VHEC increased by 50 per cent. The centre engages with about 25,000 students a year, both in the museum and in classroom visits.

“We’ve also seen, as all the other centres have, an increase in the relevance of our missions, which fundamentally speak to the dangers of antisemitism, racism and hate unchecked,” Krieger said.

“Global trends and trends in our own backyard have made our work more relevant than ever.”