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April 12, 2001 Holocaust memoirs given a Net presence




Kurt Jonassohn and Mervin Butovsky

Kurt Jonassohn and Mervin Butovsky

Photo by Vincenzo D'Alto


by Sigalit Hoffman

Retired Concordia professors Mervin Butovsky (English) and Kurt Jonassohn (Sociology) have given Canadian Holocaust survivors the rare opportunity to see their memoirs published and posted on the Internet.

“I tried many commercial publishers, but nobody was interested,” said Romanian-born Holocaust survivor Marcus Lecker. “It seemed that the subject was considered obsolete.”

Butovsky and Jonassohn began in 1995 to collect, edit and place the unpublished memoirs of Canadian Holocaust survivors in Concordia’s Archives. They also added a list of keywords and an abstract to the manuscripts they had collected to facilitate future research.

Two years ago, they received grants from Concordia’s Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies and from the Jewish Community Foundation that helped them publish the collected narratives.

So far, they have sent 27 individual memoirs, ranging from 15 to more than 200 pages, to Canadian university libraries, Holocaust museums and research centres in the U.S., Israel, and England, as well as to their authors. In addition, the memoirs are posted on the Internet, making them available to a wide international readership. The project is ongoing and the professors will continue publishing other testimonies they receive.

Jonassohn decided to take on the project because he knew how difficult it was to find a publisher willing to bring out the testimonies.

“I was aware of the fact that there are people who have written accounts of their wartime experiences. Even if they intended to make these autobiographies public, it was very difficult to find a publisher,” said the co-founder of Concordia’s Montreal Institute of Genocide Studies. “We wanted to assure the preservation of these important documents.”

Butovsky added that every story told by a victim bears witness to the 20th century’s darkest hour.

“Our understanding of the period will have to depend on the revelations of individuals who have left a record of their experiences. In most cases, too, the authors are the only survivors of an extended kinship or community group, so the memoirs serve as acts of commemoration.

“One writer reports that on the day the transport from Hungary delivered her to Auschwitz, she lost 234 members of her extended family. Her memoir is their monument.”

Jonassohn was particularly pleased with the responses they received after posting the testimonies on the World Wide Web.

“Normally, when you put something in the library or on the Internet, you don’t know if anyone reads it, but a number of people have been in touch with and said, ‘I was on the train with Mr. X. Could you put me in touch with him?’”

“Another memoir that was recently published testified to the death of a man, which proved sufficient, after years of delay in the courts, to expedite the transfer of some property to his family in Paris.”

The professors agreed that current events gave the project a sense of urgency. “Many of the contributors said that they are compelled to pick up their pens because of the Holocaust deniers in Canada,” Butovsky explained.

Jonassohn added, “From the teacher’s point of view, you hope that by teaching about genocide and the Holocaust, you can prevent it from happening again.”

Although Marcus Lecker wants the world to know what happened to him during the Holocaust, he also has a very personal reason for writing his memoir. He hopes that one day, he will be able to tell his grandson about his experiences.

“Eventually, if I live, I’ll encourage him to read it, so he will know how to behave in the world.”

The memoirs are available at the following sites: www.migs.org.