Harry Cohen was a hardworking Canadian immigrant....
Harry Cohen lived a spirited, but rather ordinary life as a Jewish Canadian immigrant in 1930’s Montreal, doing his best to get by and teach his children the value of hard work. He traveled the back roads connecting Ottawa and Montreal and knew them like the back of his hand. As a poultry re-seller, he made the rounds for fresh chickens from the rural farmers to resell in Montreal’s Jean Talon Market. His legacy should have been one of farming or real estate or perhaps industry but instead Harry Cohen has the tragic distinction of being the only Canadian killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
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.
The journey of Harry Cohen’s prayer shawl is just one of the hundreds of moving stories that have been collected, protected, and shared at the museum. These stories are the foundation on which it was dedicated and built. The combination of videotaped stories of Holocaust survivors, short films narrating select topics relating to World War II, and displays of unique artifacts makes for comprehensive and emotional visit.
The Centre takes you on a chronological journey of Jewish religious, cultural, and family life - both in Montreal and from countries where future Montrealers grew up. Slowly, it introduces the visitor to the quiet, steady rise of antisemitism and anti-immigration sentiment in Europe and in Canada.
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.
One of the most striking items on display was a 1932 German presidential election ballot listing Adolf Hitler as a candidate – and on this particular ballot we can see a vote was cast in his favour. The resemblance to the type of ballots used today served as a stark reminder that the Nazis' groundswell of support happened via the same democratic process we base our freedoms upon today.
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.
The second area of the Centre directly addressed the Holocaust and, once again, heavily incorporated the recorded testimony of survivors who had made their way to Montreal after the war. It’s in this part of the exhibit that visitors will find Harry Cohen’s prayer shawl, as well as many other unique mementos of the war.
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.
Only a small portion of the Centre’s collection is on display and visitors can access much more online, either through the website or by downloading an app to accompany the visit. One story not to be missed is how the same group of girls conspired to make Fania a birthday cake.
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.
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