Sunday, June 28, 2009

Thank you, Canadian Jewish News!

Azrieli Foundation publishes 2nd set of Holocaust memoirs
By JANICE ARNOLD, Staff Reporter
Thursday, 18 June 2009

Gathered on stage at the launch of the second series of Holocaust memoirs published by the Azrieli Foundation are, from left, Lynda Kraar, who read from her late mother Ann Szedlecki’s book; Jean-Claude Guédon, reader for author John Freund, far right; and authors Alex Levin and Paul-Henri Rips.
[Robbi Cohen, R.B.C. Productions photo]

MONTREAL — The manuscripts of memoirs by Holocaust survivors living in Canada are being rescued from oblivion under a project sponsored by prominent real estate developer David J. Azrieli, a Polish-born survivor himself.

The project solicits these writings, edits them professionally, translates them if necessary, publishes them as high quality books, and distributes them widely free of charge across Canada, without any cost to the author.

The second series of memoirs, launched in Montreal on June 7 at a gala evening, reflects the widely varying experiences of European Jewry during World War II.

The authors’ origins are in Poland, Belgium, Germany, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, and they endured the war in ghettos, in concentration and labour camps, hiding with non-Jews or in the forest, or by fleeing to the Soviet Union.

The latest series consists of eight books (one title is available in English and French), and brings to 15 the number of different volumes the foundation has published since the project was launched in 2005.

The new books are Album of My Life by Ann Szedlecki; Under the Yellow & Red Stars by Alex Levin; A Drastic Turn of Destiny by Fred Mann; La fin du printemps by John Freund; Objectif: survivre by Tommy Dick; the Joint Memories from the Abyss/But I Had a Happy Childhood by father and daughter William Tannenzapf and Renate Krakauer; and Paul-Henri Rips’ Matricule E/96 and E/96: Fate Undecided.

All have covers of sepia-toned photos of the authors as children or young adults, trimmed in blue. The texts are illustrated with other pictures, and inside each back cover is a map by leading British Holocaust historian Martin Gilbert showing the estimated number of Jews murdered in each country during the war.

Excerpts from four of the books were read. Linda Kraar read from her mother’s book Album of My Life, which Szedlecki completed shortly before her death four years ago.

Born in the poor tenements of Lodz, Poland in 1925, Szedlecki went to the Soviet Union with her older brother to escape the Nazis, ending up in Siberia, where she recalls hunger, fear and loneliness, as well as the friendships and kindness of strangers. Her brother was falsely accused of spying and sent to a hard labour camp for 2 1/2 years, where he contracted tuberculosis and died at age 23. Szedlecki was sent to a labour camp as a punishment for taking three days off work after her brother’s death. All of her family would perish in the Holocaust. She married soon after the war and the couple immigrated to Canada in 1953. She had her own ladies’ clothing store for 25 years in Toronto and was an active community volunteer.

Rips’ idyllic childhood as the son of a diamond merchant in Antwerp, Belgium came to an abrupt end with the Nazi invasion when he was 10. He posed as a non-Jew, attending a school in an old castle. Rips narrowly avoided blowing his cover when the Gestapo came for an inspection, and again while in a transit camp. He immigrated to South Africa after the war, and came to Canada in 1997 to be with his children.

Levin, who is from a Polish village near the Soviet border, hid in the forest as a child with his brother after his mother and younger brother were killed. He remembers the constant fear and hunger, but also the routine and sense of camaraderie with others running for their lives. After liberation, he was sent to the Soviet Union as a war orphan and became a military cadet and then an engineer. Since coming to Canada in 1975, he has been a developer and builder.

Freund, born in a town south of Prague, was deported to Terezin, the “showcase” concentration camp, at age 12. A year later, he was transported to Auschwitz where he spent four months, until he and the other surviving inmates were ordered on a death march ahead of the advancing Red Army.

The excerpt from La fin du printemps was read by his friend Jean-Claude Guédon, and described that terrifying journey that only ended when U.S. troops found the starving marchers.

The memoirs project is run by the Azrieli Foundation, in association with York University’s Centre for Jewish Studies. Foundation chair and executive director Naomi Azrieli, David’s daughter, said the project so far has gone a long way towards its goal of bringing personal accounts of the Holocaust to a broad audience, especially a younger generation. These stories often have a greater impact than history texts, she said.

The first series, released in 2007, was well received by libraries and schools and the public.

“I am humbled by the response, from across the country, from people of different origins, who have written to us in French and English, that they are amazed by the stories. Libraries have told us how valuable the books are to their collections, and in schools, the books have been used in history, literature and civics courses. One grade 11 Ontario teacher assigned the reading of the whole first series to her students.”

She read a letter from one student, a girl who said she could identify in many ways with the author, that her close family life was much like hers, but she did not know if she would have the courage to continue on the way she did.

The evening’s guest speaker was Nechama Tec, the author of the 1993 book Defiance about the Bielski brothers, partisans who saved 1,200 Jews by sheltering them in the Belorussian forests. It was the basis of the Hollywood movie of the same name last year.

Tec, a retired sociology professor at the University of Connecticut, was born in Lublin, Poland in 1931, and survived by posing as the niece of a Catholic family.

The event, hosted by television and radio personality Sonia Benezra, opened with the singing by Sharon Azrieli, another daughter of David, of the Yiddish song Dort Baym Breg Fun Veldl (At the Edge of the Forest), a song about the partisans’ heroism, accompanied by violinist Deborah Kirshner.

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