Fifty years after the Second World War, Montreal Holocaust survivors and witnesses are delving into painful memories, in video testimony at McGill.


by Howard Bokser

Freda Schipper sits in her comfortable suburban Montreal home, offering coffee and cake to a visitor. It is May 1995, exactly 50 years after the end of the war in Europe. In that time then, Freda left her native Poland and with her father emigrated to Canada; she married Mendel Schipper, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor whom she met in Montreal; they had three children, Hyman, BSc'76, MD'82, PhD'82, Sandra, BSc(OT)'79, and Saul, BCom'82; and they settled into what any observer might call a normal middle-class life. Though not outwardly discernible, the scars from Freda Schipper's wartime experience left an indelible mark: her mother, sister and three brothers all perished in Europe, as did 81 others from Freda's extended family.

Freda and her family were, of course, all Jews. From 1939-1945, as the Nazis waged war on two fronts, they were carrying out a systematic genocide of Gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners and Jews, the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem, as they called it. In 1946 the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry concluded that 5.7 million European Jews (although other tabulations since have arrived at figures slightly higher or lower), out of 11 million, lost their lives due to the Final Solution, or, as it would become known, the Holocaust.

Freda's story, along with more than 100 moving, often harrowing testimonies of Montreal-area Holocaust survivors and witnesses, has been recorded by Living Testimonies, McGill University's video archive for Holocaust documentation. Yehudi Lindeman, 57, Living Testimonies' director as well as Associate Professor of English at McGill, laments, We've never been able to get the testimony of perpetrators.

Among her many stories on her video testimony, Freda Schipper explains how she hid for 21 months under a haystack in a barn, in a dugout the length and height of a bed. Her father and older brother had been in Russia when the war broke out; only her father would survive. Freda is one of the few survivors of a Nazi-led death march of 30,000 Jews to the Sobibor (Poland) concentration camp in 1942. Her mother and three younger siblings died in Sobibor, but as a healthy teenage girl, Freda was sent back to a labour camp near her hometown of Horodlo. In October 1942, at age 17, she learnt that all the Jews in the camp would soon be killed. She fled to Katerina and Matvei Budniewski, a Catholic couple she knew, and they took her in despite the fact it was a crime to hide Jews. The Budniewskis had been married for 10 years but had no children. Freda remembers, I said to them, `I don't know if I'll survive, but in this night because you're taking me in, I'll pray that you should have a child.' Four months later, Katerina became pregnant.

For almost two years, Freda did not step outside even once. Matvei Budniewski slipped her notes, gave her food and water and cleaned her bed pan. Through a small crack she could see out and had just enough light to read and write. Freda kept a diary (tragically stolen after the war), wrote poetry (which she was able to save), taught herself to read and write Russian, and prayed. Mr. Budniewski found a Jewish prayer book in a ditch and gave it to me as a birthday present, says Freda, who remains a devout Jew. I never lost my faith. After the Germans retreated, on July 23, 1944, Freda emerged. She recalls the day: At dawn, it's impossible to describe such quietness, like nothing's alive except the birds. . . . A while later, Mr. Budniewski came and told me I'm free. . . . In the evening he took me to the house, and for the first time I held their little girl, who was already a year old. Freda lived with the Budniewskis covertly for another year; Jews still remained in danger. In July 1945, she found out her father had survived the war as a refugee in Siberia. Months later they had an emotional reunion. Freda says, I didn't recognize him. He had lost all of his teeth. He didn't recognize me either. Together they made it to an American-run displaced persons camp in Germany, then to Canada. Although able to enjoy her family life in Montreal, Freda had nightmares. I developed a phobia, she says. I'm afraid to be closed or locked in.

The Budniewskis have since died, but Freda corresponds with their children (they later had a boy), who live in Wlodzimierz, Russia, and sends them gift packages. Freda regrets more were not like them. I don't blame the people who didn't take in Jews for hiding there was much danger, she says. I just blame those [civilians] who helped the Nazis to kill.

Of the more-than-250,000 Holocaust survivors in the world today, about 7,000 live among Montreal's Jewish community, which numbers 100,000. Most are now in their seventies or eighties, creating a sense of urgency to record their stories before time runs out. As well, the 1980s saw the rise of the neo-Nazi movement in North America and Europe, giving a platform to Holocaust deniers such as Ernst Zundel. A CBC Journal story reported this year that access to the Internet has given the movement a new vehicle to disseminate their views. But Lindeman says, I believe that the Holocaust deniers, almost without exception, are acting in bad faith. Many of them have ties to Nazis, to neo-Nazis or former Nazis. He adds, with only a hint of gratification, I think their movement has backfired. Much more Holocaust testimony is being collected now than before they started.

In the past decade, about 6,000 video testimonies have been recorded around the world at similar facilities such as Toronto's Holocaust Centre and at the University of British Columbia. Yale University's Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust History began in 1981 and remains the most extensive collection of its kind with about 3,000 tapes (Living Testimonies provides Yale with copies of all its tapes). Montreal's Holocaust Memorial Centre started its own video project in the fall of 1994. Living Testimonies is affiliated with Yad Vashem the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem and with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

Steven Spielberg, whose interest in the Holocaust was sparked while filming the acclaimed Schindler's List (1993), in 1994 created the Shoah Visual History Foundation in Los Angeles. In true Hollywood fashion it will be the biggest and most advanced video-recording facility for survivors, aiming to make thousands of tapes worldwide by 1998. Although McGill currently receives no funding from them, Lindeman hopes for some future partnership with the Spielberg group, which has already raised U.S.$20 million towards a goal of U.S.$60 million, to be partly used to transfer existing video archives from ephemeral 3/4 inch U-matic tapes to a longer-lasting digitized format that is yet to be developed.

Lindeman himself is a child survivor of the Holocaust. Born in the Netherlands in 1938, his parents sent him (he was an only child) away from Amsterdam in 1942 to be hidden, and he spent the next three-and-a-half years on rural estates and farms, usually along with several other Jewish children. After the liberation of the Netherlands, Lindeman was reunited with his mother, who had survived by hiding and living as a gentile (his father did not survive). My memory of that time consists of flashbacks and images, Lindeman says. The memory of his youth went psychologically underground, never thought of or dealt with for over 40 years, common among child survivors. Lindeman explains that what occurs is a kind of collusion between one who wants to tell the story and doesn't have an audience and one who would like to hear the story but doesn't know how to ask or really doesn't want to hear. For the two to come together, apparently 40 to 50 years had to pass. He acknowledges that although he didn't realize it at the time, his own past assumed an important role in my psychic disposition. I remember when the terribly repressive regime was in power in Argentina, the women of the Plaza de Mayo had daily vigils for their husbands and fathers and brothers who disappeared, and that triggered something very deep inside me, and I'm sure that has to do with my own state as a child survivor.

Lindeman attended the University of Amsterdam. He went on to earn his PhD in comparative literature at Harvard, then arrived at McGill in 1971. In 1986, Lindeman saw Shoah, French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann's documentary of the Holocaust. Later that year he attended a con- ference in Israel on literary instances of trauma and bereavement. Although the conference was not specifically about the Holocaust, the participants kept referring to that event. Lindeman's consciousness awoke.

In 1989 Lindeman's growing passion led him and Rabbi Ayla Grafstein (who now lives in Phoenix, Arizona) to film the pilot video for Living Testimonies. Lindeman says, McGill became the home even though Living Testimonies wasn't obviously academic, but had a strong community side to it. The University provides Living Testimonies with office space and some support towards its annual budget of about $11,000 the balance of the funding is private. The Department of English and the faculties of Arts and Graduate Studies and Research allow Lindeman to dedicate time to the project. Most of the videos are filmed at McGill's Instructional Communications Centre, which donates 20-25 percent of the studio time at no cost. Those interested can view VHS copies at the Living Testimonies office. The video testimonies are each about two hours long, although some run up to six hours. Each video costs about $400 to produce, and approximately 40 videos are completed yearly. The interviews are conducted by Lindeman and a team of volunteers.

Freda Schipper first heard of Living Testimonies when Lindeman spoke at her synagogue. Unlike many others, Freda had never shied away from telling of her experiences. Her son Saul, a Montreal lawyer, says, My mother has taken it as a personal quest to see that her family and her town's memory survives. Growing up, we always knew the stories. Yet when Freda and her father came to Canada in the late 1940s, even those in the Jewish community were not receptive to her stories. No one asked one word. We were outcasts. Lindeman confirms that the Jewish community was not open to the new immigrants at first. Freda says they were accepted in time, but still, few were interested in her tale until Living Testimonies. The decision to recall the events for a few hours in front of the camera was not easy. As Yale University's Lawrence Langer writes, when giving testimony a person can move into deep memory, re-experiencing the emotional trauma. Says Freda, It took the guts out of me.

Surrounded by scholarly texts, peering out a large window overlooking McGill's downtown campus, Hans Mller, 76, a research librarian and professor of Scandinavian literature and Danish language, is clearly at home in his office in the McLennan Library. He is also what Living Testimonies terms a witness to Hitler's reign. A university student in Copenhagen at the time of the German invasion, Mller retells Denmark's war history in his video testimony. The Danish government agreed to work with the Nazis a policy of collaboration but insisted on several conditions, including that its Jewish population not be touched. By late 1943 the pressure from the Danish people to break with the Nazis became too great and the government ended its cooperation; the Nazis immediately sought to round up the Jews. Mller recounts how in a few short weeks the Danish people, from the parliament and the pulpit on down, helped 7,000 of the country's 7,500 Jews to escape via sea routes to neutral Sweden. Of the 480 people who were sent to death camps, most survived due to the bombardment of red tape documents to be filled, letters of protest by the Danish government to the Germans.

With Germany as their neighbour, the Danish people understood the German mentality well, says Mller. He recalls how the Danes would have fun with the German soldiers' lack of sophistication, for example, their not recognizing the name of a great 19th century Danish philosopher: A German officer stopped a Danish taxi [which was carrying an escaping Jew]. `Who's' that?' asked the officer. `That's Kierkegaard,' replied the driver. The officer responded, `OK, you can go.'

Mller originally became aware of Living Testimonies through an article by Lindeman that appeared in 1992 in Fontanus, the magazine published by McGill Libraries and edited by Mller. The humble Mller downplays his own role in the evacuation of the Jews, but he does report that his family, who were Lutheran, often housed escapees on their way to the north. He himself was active in the resistance, as a courier for the Danish underground and publisher of illegal newspapers, which countered Nazi propaganda by culling news off the BBC airwaves. Mller, who came to Canada in the mid-1950s, only began talking and writing of his wartime experiences in 1983, the 40th anniversary of the Danish break with Germany. I had suppressed it for nearly 40 years, he says, because we wanted to get on with life after the war.

Minna (Friedland) Aspler, 75, laughs at her own chutzpah while recalling her stories in front of the video camera. Shortly after the end of the war, while living in a displaced persons camp in Germany, she married Canadian Moses (Mo) Aspler, BA'33, who was undersecretary of the camp, and returned with him to Montreal. Today Minna has two children, Fanya and Carl, BSc'69; her husband died in 1981. Years ago, Carl audio-recorded his mother's stories hoping to someday write a book. Unlike other survivors, Minna relates that when she came to Canada in 1946 one of the first refugees from Europe to arrive people wanted to hear her story and about the plight of the refugees remaining in camps in Europe.

In her video testimony, Minna describes how she posed as a gentile in Warsaw during the war, and participated in the Polish Warsaw uprising in August-September 1944. She was once thrown in jail, had several narrow escapes from the authorities, cut her feet and knees so many times fleeing from the Germans that she earned the nickname Crazy Maria. She couldn't let her guard down for a moment: if her Jewish identity became known, she would be sent to the camps or shot. She remembers covering herself every night with a blanket, repeating I am not Jewish. She laughs, It's hard to believe the danger we were in. It's like fiction when I talk about it now. Minna becomes somber, however, when recalling the last time she saw her mother, June 22, 1942. She was still living in the Jewish ghetto but working alongside gentiles in the city courthouse. At the end of that day she planned to leave for the gentile side of Warsaw and find a new identity. My mother walked with me to the courthouse [where I worked], then she took out some old family jewelry and gave it to me and ran away. I couldn't even kiss her. She soon lost both. The jewelry was stolen during the uprising; Minna's mother, father and only brother were murdered by German soldiers.

Those who have testified at Living Testimonies thus far have been mostly Polish, then Hungarian, Rumanian, French, Dutch, Belgian and a few from Germany. The centre is now trying to be more targeted in its approach, looking, for example, for those with experiences from the Netherlands and Belgium and the Lodz (Poland) Ghetto. Living Testimonies also has 20 hours of interviews with Sinti (German Gypsy) survivors, recorded in Germany in 1991, which was partly funded by the German government. More than 250,000 Gypsies lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis.

Watching a Living Testimonies video is heart wrenching. And the reaction is deep. Yet, what is the significance of these testimonies and of preserving the memory? The late Italian writer and concentration camp survivor Primo Levi wrote, The entire history of the `millennial Reich' can be reread as a war against memory. Lindeman says, The Germans from the beginning used euphemisms such as `special treatment' for sending people to the gas chambers. They didn't want to just destroy the Jews, they wanted to destroy Jewish memory. In that sense, there rests on the shoulders of these survivors the burden of that denial to undo that. Dutch writer Etty Hillesum, who was killed in Auschwitz but whose diaries lived on, wrote, One always has the feeling here of being the ears and eyes of a piece of Jewish history. In another letter, she said, As we have no graves for those who perished, our memories are their only graves. Renata (Skotnicka) Zajdman, a Holocaust survivor and volunteer interviewer, didn't speak of her experiences for 30 years. By keeping silent, she says, we were killing the victims a second time.

Carrying on the memory of those who died adds to the collective memory of the Jewish people, notes Yale's Geoffrey H. Hartman, and allows them to transmit the meaning of intensely shared events in a way that does not have to be individually struggled for. The passing of the memory, therefore, gives identity to the Jewish community. But it also serves by educating a new generation, as writer Michael Berenbaum says, partly in hope of transforming the future by sensitizing those who shape it.

The testimonies themselves carry weight, as does the act of viewing them. Lawrence Langer argues that the notion that those who have not experienced such traumatic events cannot understand them underestimates the sympathetic power of the imagination. Annette Wieviorka of Yale writes that testimony has changed direction, that its purpose is no longer to bear witness to inadequately known events, but rather to keep them before our eyes.

These theories, reports Lindeman, are recent. They say that the transmission of the event from inside the head of the survivor, often sitting there for 50 years, needs to be told to a witness, not to a parent or brother or child but to a stranger. Reread The Ancient Mariner: he grasps a man on the way to a celebration and says, `I must tell my story.'

At McGill, Living Testimonies has allowed the storyteller and listener to finally find each other.