Harry Cohen was a hardworking Canadian immigrant....
In 1939, Cohen travelled back to Poland to help settle family business affairs. While there, he suffered the horrific bad luck of being stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time as Poland was invaded by Germany. His exact fate remains clouded in mystery, but he is assumed to have died at Auschwitz. Against all odds, his prayer shawl survived and found its way back to Canada, to Harry Cohen’s son, and to its permanent home at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.
This exhibit did an excellent job of explaining the political mood of the time – the fresh memories of the horrors of World War I, the dread of being entangled in another war, and the overarching fear of admitting refugees. The reasons behind war and conflict are often complex and confusing but the Centre did an admirable job of explaining things in a detailed, yet easy to understand, manner.
Two other displays from this section of the Centre were particularly moving, as they both focused on children. One display spoke of how Polish children whose physical features resembled that of the Aryan ideal were forcibly removed from their families and were relocated to Germany. The other focused on how the Nazis were pioneers in the field of targeting children through propaganda and even invented board games to teach children about stamping out undesirables.
Despite the overwhelming sadness of the displays, there were several times when I felt inspired by the stories of kinship, friendship, community spirit, and resilience. A series of videos that document the experiences of those living in Jewish ghettos included testimony on the power of the arts and drama on maintaining morale and boosting spirits. And miraculously, a tiny, bright pink, silk covered, embroidered, heart shaped book is made by Auschwitz prisoners to celebrate the birthday of their friend, Fania.
I would highly recommend a visit to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre to anyone wants to gain a better understanding of the history of the city and their families. Montreal’s character and spirit owes much to its multicultural population and their diverse background. Spending time at the Centre feels like you are spending time in someone’s living room – the stories are that personal, that intimate, that compelling. You really walk away feeling like you have spent time talking one on one with people who are both survivors and proud Montrealers. It is at times a sobering and chilling collection of stories, documents, and artifacts but the presentation is clear and well curated, balancing sadness and despair with courage and hope. I hope to go back and spend even more time among the stories and I would encourage any visitor to the city to do the same.
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My visit to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre was sponsored by Montreal Tourism. This did not affect my review and all opinions remain my own.