History of the Holocaust Testimony Collection

Holocaust survivor testimonies were recorded in Vancouver beginning in the late 1970s through a series of initiatives by Dr. Robert Krell—Holocaust survivor, founding president of the Vancouver Holocaust Centre Society for Education and Remembrance and member of the UBC Department of Psychiatry—and the Standing Committee on Holocaust Education.

Holocaust commemoration began in Vancouver before the end of the Second World War, and has continued ever since, with participation and contributions from many local and national groups, organizations and individuals. (An excellent overview can be read in Holocaust Commemoration in Vancouver, BC, 1943–1975 by Barbara Schober.)

In 1975, Holocaust survivors and scholars with ties to the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Warsaw Ghetto Committee and the Jewish Historical Society came up with the idea of forming a committee with a mandate of Holocaust education. Three non-Jewish academics were engaged in the planning process: Graham Forst, then professor of literature and philosophy at Capilano College, William Nicholls, head of the Department of Religious Studies at UBC, and Robert Gallagher, instructor in the Department of Religious Studies at Capilano College worked with Dr. Robert Krell, a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, who had been hidden as a child during the war. Forst, Gallagher, Nicholls and Krell formed the Standing Committee on Holocaust Education, which operated in various levels of collaboration with the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Human Rights Campaign.

Forst, Gallagher, Nicholls and Krell launched an ambitious series of initiatives rooted in the Vancouver survivor community to document and provide access to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors who settled in Vancouver. Over the next several decades, these initiatives included annual symposia—educational conferences on the subject of the Holocaust—targeted at high-school students in the Lower Mainland, which continue today.

Other initiatives of the Standing Committee on Holocaust Education included the recording of survivor testimonies, initially supported by the departments of psychology and psychiatry at the University of British Columbia and, after it was formed in 1983, the Vancouver Holocaust Centre Society for Education and Remembrance.

After the opening of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) in 1994, VHEC staff took on the role of carrying out interviews with survivors and documenting their testimonies, primarily for use in VHEC teaching exhibitions. As of 2017, the Holocaust testimony collection contains the testimonies of more than 200 Holocaust survivors who settled in Vancouver, as well as testimonies of aid-givers, members of the resistance, liberators and military personnel who witnessed the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Holocaust survivor testimonies in the collection were recorded as part of several testimony projects undertaken in Vancouver. Projects include:
  • 1976–Present: Holocaust symposia
  • 1978–1982 and 1983–1993: Holocaust Documentation Project
  • 1995–1998: University of British Columbia Testimony Project
  • 1998: Broken Threads exhibition oral histories
  • 1999: Shanghai exhibition oral histories
  • 2008–Present: VHEC Testimony Project
  • 2010–2012: “Enemy Aliens” exhibition interviews and testimonies
  • 2014–2016: Digitization of the testimonies

Holocaust symposia

Symposia on the Holocaust organized by the Standing Committee on Holocaust Education have been held in Vancouver since 1976. Recordings of survivor testimony were not a part of programming in the first few years. But the organizers saw how students developed strong connections with the personal testimonies of survivor speakers and by 1981 they included audio-visual recording in symposium programming in order to preserve the experiences for future generations.

When Krell designed the Holocaust Documentation Project, he continued to emphasize the teaching function of survivor testimony, with high school students as the intended audience for recorded testimonies.
Availability and distribution:
The 1981 recordings, along with recordings from 12 subsequent symposia, are owned by the VHEC.

1978–1982 and 1983–1993
Holocaust Documentation Project

In 1978, Krell began recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors in the Vancouver area. Having been actively involved with the annual symposia on the Holocaust, Krell witnessed the impact of survivor testimonies on high-school students and was moved to initiate a testimony-recording project. Krell hoped that testimony recordings would also provide a way for Holocaust survivors to share their accounts of survival with their own children, the second generation.

Between 1978 and 1982, Krell recorded the testimonies of five Holocaust survivors, and of one Canadian liberator of a Nazi concentration camp. Two survivor testimonies (the first dating from 1979, the earliest in the collection) and the testimony of the Canadian liberator are available in the VHEC's Holocaust testimony collection.

In 1981, Krell took a break from his personal project and founded one of North America’s first national testimony-recording projects, with the support of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Pacific Region (CJC), with initial funding raised by Holocaust survivors. The testimonies recorded as part of Krell’s national project remain with the CJC. But Krell brought the experience he gained with this extensive testimony project to bear on his subsequent recordings, now housed at the VHEC.

In 1983, Krell expanded his personal recording project, now called the Holocaust Documentation Project, by adding a staff team of Ernie Forrai, as project coordinator, and technical support from Colin Bryant, Brian McMahon and Chester Ptasinski of the departments of psychiatry and biomedicine at UBC. The recording team took on two more coordinators, Tamara Genesove and Jean Gerber, in the following years and they continued to interview survivors from 1983 to 1993. By 1993, the Holocaust Documentation Project included 111 testimonies.

Testimonies recorded between 1978 and 1993 are mostly two-hours long. They are divided into the telling of experiences before the war, during the war and after the war, a result of Krell’s assessment that most testimony recording projects of the era failed to give enough attention to survivor’s post-war lives, an essential and ongoing part of Holocaust history, and what Krell calls in his own testimony of 2011–2012, “survival after survival.” Giving equal attention to experiences before, during and after the war gives a more complete picture of how the Holocaust impacted survivors.

Availability and distribution:
Most of the testimonies recorded during this period were deposited with the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University as part of an agreement between the VHEC and Yale. The Holocaust Documentation Project team considered duplication a valuable security measure and an opportunity to make the testimonies accessible to a wider audience.   

In 1991 the accessibility to students, educators and researchers of the testimonies recorded under the Holocaust Documentation Project was further increased with the creation of education kits and associated teaching guides for ten of the testimonies (with another seven to follow) and in 1992 of the first volume of synopses of 105 of the recorded testimonies. Material from the testimonies became accessible to the general public through the publication of books, and articles published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry and the Israeli Journal of Psychiatry Related Sciences.
Holocaust Documentation Project (UBC)

The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre took on the activity of recording local survivor testimonies soon after its founding in 1994. From 1995 to 1998, the second iteration of the Holocaust Documentation Project recorded 20 testimonies, under the joint direction of Krell and fellow Holocaust survivor Dr. Peter Suedfeld of the UBC Department of Psychology, with coordination by Charlene Fell. This project was supported in part with funding arranged by the VHEC.

In addition to fulfilling the VHEC’s mandate to record survivors’ testimonies for educational purposes, the project contributed material for research led by Dr. Peter Suedfeld into how people lived prior to the Holocaust, how they survived during the Holocaust and how these experiences affected their lives after the war, with a particular focus on their relationships and outlook. Another phase of Suedfeld’s research project involved comparing the experiences of Holocaust survivors to those of Jews who lived outside of Europe during the Second World War.    

Availability and distribution:
Thirteen testimonies from the UBC Project were sent to the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. Eighteen of the testimonies were summarized and included in the Guide to Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies: Volume II produced by the VHEC in 2001. Findings from the research were published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development, the International Journal of Aging & Human Development, the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue Canadienne des Sciences du Comportement, the Journal of Genocide Research and Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and shared in lectures given as part of the Monna and Otto Weinmann Lecture Series at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies by Krell in 1997 and by Suedfeld in 2002.

Broken Threads exhibition oral histories

Between May and July 1998, the VHEC recorded interviews with five Holocaust survivors living in Vancouver who had ties with the pre-war German and Austrian clothing industries. Interviews were conducted as part of the research for the teaching exhibition Broken Threads – The Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry in Germany and Austria: From Aryanization to Cultural Loss, exhibited in 1999. In addition to exploring in detail the survivors’ experiences in the fashion industry, the growing restrictions on the participation of Jews in the industry in the 1930s, and the post-war efforts to receive reparations for the loss of pre-war business concerns, the interviews also addressed their Holocaust and post-war experiences more broadly.  

Availability and distribution:
Copies of the five recordings were given to the Jewish Museum & Archives of BC.
In addition to the quotations from the testimonies that were integrated into the Broken Threads exhibition panels, the testimonies were configured as written oral histories, four of which were presented in the exhibition along with artefacts loaned by the survivors.

Shanghai exhibition oral histories

Six interviews were recorded by the VHEC between May and July 1999 in conjunction with Shanghai: A Refuge During the Holocaust, an exhibition shown in partnership with the Chinese Cultural Centre. The testimonies include discussion of immigration experiences (the journey itself, expectations and adult lives in BC), as well pre-war, Holocaust and post-war experiences more broadly.

Availability and distribution:
Copies of the recordings were given to the Jewish Museum & Archives of BC.
Quotations from the interviews were used extensively in the exhibition, as well as in the accompanying materials for teachers and students. Segments from the oral histories also appeared in Zachor, the VHEC newsletter.

VHEC Testimony Project

In 2008, the VHEC received funding from Anita Shafran, Zev and Elaine Shafran and Rabbi Yosef Wosk for a renewed testimony recording project. Between 1999, when the previous testimonies were recorded, and 2008, recording technology had advanced considerably. The VHEC Testimony Project (under project coordinator Toni-Lynn Frederick) employed high-definition digital video to record the testimonies of survivors who had not previously been interviewed, as well as to re-record survivor testimonies using modern standards and technology.

The testimonies recorded as part of the VHEC Testimony Project of the 2000s include survivors’ pre-war, Holocaust and post-war experiences, though often focusing more on survivors’ wartime experiences than in previous recording periods. Discussion covers themes of pre-war life, moments of transition, deportations, arrival at a camp or ghetto, camp or ghetto life, resistance, hiding and liberation. The interview questions also address photographs or other artefacts that the survivor has chosen to bring to the interview.

Availability and distribution:
Since 2008, portions of testimonies have been used for tours and for exhibitions mounted by the VHEC, targeted at the general public and students.

“Enemy Aliens” exhibition interviews and testimonies

Between March 2010 and March 2012, related to the exhibition “Enemy Aliens”: The Internment of Jewish Refugees in Canada, 1940–1943, the VHEC, with Vera Rosenbluth as lead interviewer, recorded interviews with 16 refugees from Nazi oppression who had been interned in Canada during the Second World War.
Interviews focus on the internees pre-war, wartime and post-war lives. Interview questions included: “What was the role of Judaism in your family?”; “When and how did your family leave for England?”; “Describe camp conditions”; “Did you have the feeling that the Canadians expected to receive dangerous war criminals?”; “How do you think now about the internment experience?”; and “What meaning does recording your stories now have for you?”
Availability and distribution:
VHEC staff and an advisory group composed primarily of the interned men’s children spearheaded efforts to use testimonies in the “Enemy Aliens” exhibition. The intention was to use the internees’ personal narratives to engage viewers with Canada’s exclusionary immigration policies and wartime measures, and associated questions of xenophobia and identity. Parts of testimonies were integrated into the physical exhibition, the travelling version of the exhibition, as well as in the bilingual “Enemy Aliens” online exhibition.

Digitization of the testimonies

Between 2014 and 2016, analogue master tapes in the testimony collection were digitized and catalogue records with time-coded summaries of testimony interviews were produced to enhance their accessibility and usability.

A web-based resource called Primary Voices: Teaching Through Holocaust Survivor Testimony was produced as a portal for educators and students to engage with the testimonies. The site incorporates excerpts from testimonies into thematically-organized lessons and activities, usable in classroom settings or independent research projects. This resource fosters inquiry-based, personalized and technology-enhanced learning techniques.

The digitized testimony collection is catalogued and searchable on the VHEC's online collections database, bringing together catalogue records describing the VHEC's museum, archival, library and testimony holdings.
Visitors to the online collection may browse or search the testimony catalogue records, view related holdings in the collection, watch excerpts of the testimonies (where available) and select testimonies that they wish to view in full at the VHEC premises. The testimony projects described above are also represented in an interactive timeline.

The VHEC continues to record the experiences of local survivors through its long-standing Testimony Project and supports survivors as they share their first-person accounts at symposia, commemorative events and other outreach engagements. As the community of survivors shrinks, the preservation and accessibility of these testimonies supports the VHEC's mandate as a teaching museum that fosters human rights, social justice and genocide awareness through education and remembrance of the Holocaust.

Many individuals, organizations and government agencies have contributed volunteer time, expertise, guidance and financial support to the projects described here. Without them, these projects would not be possible and the VHEC would be unable to carry out its mandate of preserving survivor testimony for the purpose of educating present and future generations on the effects of the Holocaust.

The VHEC would like to acknowledge the support of the following organizations that provided financial and material support for the projects described here.

BC Heritage Trust
BC Antiracism and Multiculturalism Program
Canadian Heritage Information Network
Canadian Jewish Congress, Pacific Region
Department of Canadian Heritage, Museums Assistance Program
Government of Canada Job Creation Project
Government of Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada
Government of Canada, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism
Hampton Fund
Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia
Koerner Foundation
Oasis Foundation
Anita Shafran
Zev and Elaine Shafran
Province of British Columbia
University of British Columbia, Department of Psychiatry
University of British Columbia, Department of Psychology
University of British Columbia, Knowledge Network Facilities
VanCity Savings
Vancouver Holocaust Centre Society donors
Rabbi Yosef Wosk
Young Canada Works (sponsored by the Department of Canadian Heritage and the National Trust for Canada)

Special thanks to Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre volunteers.
Special thanks to survivors and their families for their involvement.