Toronto Holocaust Museum is opening in a time of rising intolerance—with an emphasis on preserving the stories of survivors

Artifacts in the Toronto Holocaust Museum

The Toronto Holocaust Museum, which officially opens June 9, tells the story of the genocide and the rebuilding of shattered lives with an emphasis on survivors’ testimonies.

But it also has very few of the graphic, horrifying photos and films that were once the norm in Holocaust education.

“That is a real conscious decision. Best practices in Holocaust education today have determined that by being sad and horrified that learning actually shuts down,” said museum executive director Dara Solomon.

“We know that students learn when they’re able to ask questions in different ways and hear different kinds of answers. But when you’re just sitting in front of this horrible difficult content and then not given the opportunity to reflect, to talk—you’re sad, but you’re not necessarily learning and thinking critically. What we want is for students to walk out of here with curiosity about this period and wanting to learn more.”

Education is key to the new museum’s mission. Between 65,000 and 80,000 people are expected to visit annually, about 75 percent of them as school groups. The new museum replaces an older Holocaust centre, which saw, at most about 12,000 to 15,000 visits a year.

Starting this fall, Holocaust education will be part of the Grade 6 curriculum in Ontario. Solomon expects that in addition to the usual high school groups, younger students will come as well.

The museum opens at a time when intolerance is rising. Police and advocacy groups report annually that Jews continue to be the most targeted group in racist incidents. Meanwhile, the generation of survivors, whose first-hand testimonies were the core of Holocaust education, are passing away. The new museum was designed with both concerns in mind.

Learning about the Holocaust and the aftermath is part of the answer to combat antisemitism, although not the sole solution, explains Solomon.

“For young people to be introduced to who Jews are, who they were before the war, what happened to them during the Holocaust, why the Nazis targeted them and then this narrative of they are immigrants just like so much of our population, who came to Canada after surviving tremendous hardship—those are lessons that the students can really relate to and start to see the humanity in the narrative.”

Central to the museum are 11 life-size video monitors where visitors can hear more than 70 survivors speaking about their life before the war as well as their experiences in hiding, in ghettos and in concentration camps. More than 200 minutes of testimony have been curated in short clips lasting a minute or two, geared to audiences’ increasingly short attention spans.

The CJN visited the museum a few days before its official opening, while workers were still tinkering with displays and ensuring that all the video monitors were  working.

Solomon has been showing the museum to select guests before the official ribbon-cutting. She becomes emotional as she recalls the reactions of survivors, who were instrumental in building the original museum.

“We were founded by Holocaust survivors in the 1980s during a time of Holocaust denial and rising antisemitism and they found their voices to speak out against this,” she said.

 “Then they realized the importance of their narratives and the importance to start sharing their stories and they did that in the 1980s and it wasn’t easy and they worked for decades to share their stories with students and the public across the GTA, and them knowing that we’re going to continue this work after they’re gone is really important to them. Seeing them see it and come to life, has been really incredible.”

Survivors’ experiences are central to the museum. In the entrance hall, large banners hang from the ceiling with photos depicting everyday life in pre-war Europe. The first of the video monitors that visitors encounter is filled with survivors recounting their childhood memories of life before the war.

The message throughout the museum is clear: the Jews of Europe were ordinary people living their lives, when they were targeted for destruction.

“Not just learning about us as victims of the Shoah, but learning this full story is really important,” said Solomon. “If we just focus on people wanting to kill us, I don’t think that’s right message to counter antisemitism.”

Museum design firm Reich + Petch had visited the original Holocaust centre, which had survivor testimony at the heart of school visits and wondered how to replicate that experience.

“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,” senior architect Tony Reich said in a presentation about the new museum.

The 10,000-square-foot museum, located on the Sherman Campus, which also houses a community centre, theatre, daycare and other communal buildings, doubles the space of the old Holocaust centre which was on the same site. It had a budget of $30 million, which includes a $15 million endowment. The Azrieli Foundation contributed $12 million, and the federal government provided another $3 million.

The Toronto Holocaust Museum (Credit: Liora Kogan)

The museum is divided into four distinct halls: Persecution; Atrocity and Devastation; Liberation and Aftermath; and Life in Canada. The artifacts, many of which were donated by Toronto’s survivors, were carefully chosen to illustrate the narrative of the videos.

Among the most poignant of the objects are three tiny hearts crafted from bread. They were sent by George Brady’s mother, who was in a concentration camp, to her two children and a niece, who had not been captured at the time. George survived the war and eventually moved to Toronto but his younger sister died in Auschwitz (as did his parents). Her story was told in the award-winning children’s book Hana’s Suitcase.

Solomon says one of the most moving items for her are the yellow stars, which mothers would have had to cut out and sew onto their children’s clothing, marking them for persecution.

The collection includes letters sent to relatives to Canada, pleading for help to escape Europe; a Schutzpass, a protective visa issued by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, and a concentration camp uniform.

The most graphic pictures and detailed maps of ghettos and mass shooting sites are kept in drawers and hanging files, available for visitors to view, but often not visibly displayed.

In the last of the four galleries, dedicated to the lives survivors built after the war, often in the very neighbourhood where the museum is located, there are pictures of grandchildren, university diplomas and a massive cash register from a store. The pull-out drawers contain more difficult materials about the physical and emotional health problems survivors suffered. Another wall has documents about the postwar trials of Nazis in Germany where Canadian survivors testified.

Throughout the museum are displays that explain what was happening in Canada at the time. Residential schools, Canada’s enthusiastic participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the Christie Pits Riot are mentioned in the first hall, dedicated to the persecution of Jews before the outbreak of war.

The decision was made to tell a Jewish story of genocide, but to put it in a context that may be more familiar to students, says Solomon.

“The Jewish tragedy is the main tragedy that’s told here. We talk about the Holocaust as the genocide of six million Jews, but throughout the museum there are different areas where we explore what happened to the Roma and the Sinti… to the homosexuals that were targeted.”

“If you look around, this is a primarily a museum dedicated to the narratives of what happened to the Jews during this time. If you think about the students coming today, largely not Jewish, it’s important for them to see the whole history and to be able to relate it to as well by learning about these other victim groups.”

The museum took a few other departures from older Holocaust centres. In one corner are images and the testimony of the perpetrators of genocide. While many museums are loathe to give them the space, Solomon said it was important to highlight the very mundane lives of the murderers, who sometimes left killing fields and concentration camps to eat dinner with their own families.

Enclosed in the midst of the four galleries is a room with floor-to-ceiling images of a forest. The forest represents both the woods where survivors hid during the war as well as the sites where massacres occurred. In a museum filled with interactive videos and prompts, the room is deliberately free of technology. As visitors approach the walls, the panels darken and the names of those who died in the Holocaust appear.

The room is meant to be a contemplative space in the middle of what can be an overwhelming experience. Solomon said the inspiration for the forest room came from designers who were working during the early days of COVID lockdowns when people were finding solace by spending time in nature.

About 1,200 names, which had been part of the old centre, are on the walls, Solomon said.

“And that’s another learning moment. These names are just a tiny, tiny fraction of the loss.”