Volume 55, September/October 2002
Ten Years of Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service
From Virtual Reality to Social Change
By Benedikt Breinbauer, Simon Niederkircher and Fabian Schroeder
In lieu of military service the three authors of the current article are participating as Austrian Gedenkdienst interns for the Kleinmann Family Foundation in the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal, Canada. This innovative and unique program was founded by Dr. Andreas Maislinger more than ten years ago in 1991. The three Gedenkdienst interns are involved in the establishment of the Canadian Jewish Virtual Museum and Archives. Their work includes examining and researching the contribution of Holocaust survivors to the Canadian community; digitizing documents, artefacts, and photographs; and developing as well as maintaining the website (http://www.cjvma.org). The virtual museum is supported by the Federal government’s Ministry of Canadian Heritage. This department is responsible for national policies and programs that promote Canadian content, foster cultural participation, active citizenship and participation in Canada’s civic life, and strengthen connections among Canadians. Naomi Kramer, museum curator, summarizes the museums goals: The history of Canadian Jews is not well known to the public-at-large. This history is particularly relevant in today’s Canadian mosaic with its many cultures, religions, and ethnic groups. Educational opportunities in the areas of tolerance, human rights, civil liberties, and Canada’s role as an internationally recognized leader and promoter of minority group rights are all gleaned from within the history of Canadian Jews.”
Fabian Schroeder is involved with the creation and implementation of the video conferencing program, which will involve students from his former high school, BG XIX, in Vienna. Drawing from material in the CJVMA, the program is designed to increase students’ awareness of children’s rights, minority and ethnic rights, gender and sexual discrimination and effects of immigration. This will also include a “virtual tour” of districts in Vienna where Holocaust survivors living in Canada had once lived. Canadian students will watch this tour via the Internet and partake of discussions with their Austrian co-partners. Simon Niederkircher hopes to convey the following lesson from Canadian Jewish history to the Austrian minorities and the public-at-large. This Canadian history provides a model of a minority group which worked loyally and assiduously to help build the country that had provided them with a home. The current Austrian interns, together with former intern Lothar Bodingbauer, have created a database which will enable Jewish communal organizations to share their holdings. Benedikt Breinbauer is confident that the participation of the Austrian government in this initiative will solidify and enhance the excellent relationship between Canada and Austria in the domain of cultural exchanges. Copyright © 1995-2002 Austrian Press & Information Service, Washington, D.C. and GlobeScope Internet Services.
Virtual’ Jewish museum launched October 10, 2002
By JANICE ARNOLD Staff Reporter
“The Canadian Jewish Virtual Museum and Archives (CJVMA), an ambitious project that aims to tell the history of the Canadian Jewish community online, has been initiated by Congregation Shaar Hashomayim with a major grant from the federal government. The project includes both a Web site (www.cjvma.org), aimed at the general public and in particular high school students, and a larger database for the use of any Jewish organization, synagogue or school in the country, which wants to digitally preserve its records or artifacts. Besides the Shaar, the founding partners are Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, United Talmud Torahs of Montreal, Centre Communautaire Juif, Communauté Sépharade du Québec and the Holocaust Literature Research Institute of the University of Western Ontario, which holds one of the largest collections of survivors’ testimonies outside Israel. CJVMA curator Naomi Kramer said the intention is to make the project as national as possible, and interest has been especially strong in smaller communities that do not have the resources to digitize their holdings. “We hope it will raise awareness of the need to document materials that are often left to gather dust in basements, or worse, thrown out,” she said. “[The Shaar] encourages all organizations and individuals across Canada to participate in the creation of this communal archive,” says synagogue president Mel Hershenfield in the CJVMA’s brochure. “Databases that speak the same computer language and that have the option to be published on the Internet will enable us to preserve and record our history while building the future.”
Currently, about 1,000 archives are online. They have been scanned page by page or, in the case of objects, accompanied with known information. Under another major heading, Vignettes, is an eclectic mix of stories related to the Canadian Jewish experience. The content of these two major headings are linked so that if a user wants to understand a record or artifact from a historical or personal perspective, they can do so with a click of the mouse. The long list of searchable categories includes expected headings, such as anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, religion, education, immigration, philanthropy and volunteerism, as well as topics such as entertainment, sports, military and politics. The site is fully bilingual. A third heading, Albums, which is still being developed, will provide in-depth background information, through bibliographies, online texts and pedagogical resources. It will also be a video-conferencing site for the twinning of Canadian and Austrian high school students who want to talk to each other about such common issues as human rights, immigration and prejudice. A fourth heading, Links, has connections to other Jewish virtual museums in the world. The CJVMA, which will be officially launched at the Shaar Oct. 15, is not a conventional history; information is not presented in chronological order nor is it, by any means, comprehensive. Kramer said it has avoided “the great man, great events approach” to history, and instead aims to “relate economic, social and cultural factors surrounding historical events.”
The site does not have the kind of information sought by genealogists: birth, marriage and death records. As it is for the use of everyone, basic traditions and customs of Judaism are explained.
The project began modestly last year when the Shaar decided to move its museum upstairs to the lobby. Kramer, who previously worked at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC), was hired to go through the congregation’s huge collection of items, many of them valuable, and display a selection of them. Kramer was also asked to establish a database of the synagogue’s vast records accumulated over its 156-year history.
Coincidentally, Heritage Minister Sheila Copps announced an over $500-million grant program for Canadian culture, which included digitization projects, Kramer said.
Last February, the CJVMA received a $181,000 grant towards the project’s $330,000 start-up costs. A second application has been made to see the project through to April 2004, she said.
The stories told through the virtual museum were built around what papers and artifacts the founding organizations provided, plus other supplementary materials from, for example, the Canadian Jewish Congress and Jewish Public Library archives, as well as outside sources such as the National Archives of Canada and the CBC.
The latter turned up a 1945 recording of Georges Vanier, then Canadian ambassador to Paris, talking about his visit to the liberated Buchenwald concentration camp.
With news of the CJVMA spreading, individuals are starting to come forward with personal memorabilia they would like recorded. One example is a 100-year-old shochet’s knife brought in by a woman. David Mendelson contributed a musical tape of his late father Nathan who was cantor at the Shaar. The tape has been incorporated on the site with a series of photos of him
Working with Kramer on the technical aspects are three young Austrian men, Benedikt Breinbauer, Simon Niederkircher and Fabian Schroeder, who have volunteered to come here under a program called Gedenkdienst. This allows young Austrians to work in Jewish communities abroad for a 14-month period in lieu of performing military service.The database was created by Lothar Bodingbauer, a former Gedenkdienst intern at the MHMC. The CJVMA has a historical, literary and advisory review board chaired by Carole Rocklin, among whose members are academics and community leaders.”