Holocaust learning centre in the works

July 2023
Wendy Schneider

Gustavo Rymberg was not sure what he was looking at when he first came across the welded steel sculpture of two figures framed by barbed wire lying on its side in a JCC storage facility.  The Federation CEO was being shown around that day by former JCC president Lowell Richter, who told him the sculpture was a memorial to victims of the Holocaust that once occupied pride of place at the Delaware Avenue and Lower Lions Club Road JCCs.  Rymberg was taken aback.  “This cannot be here,” he said. “We have to find a place for this.”

Rymberg would have to wait another four years before seeing the fulfillment of that intent,  but his vision will finally become reality in the spring of 2024 with the opening of the Margaret’s Legacy Holocaust Learning Centre. The new centre is a result of a confluence of factors that unfolded within the space of the last year.  The first was Federation’s hosting its inaugural international conference on antisemitism last November, an ambitious year-long project for which Rymberg collaborated with global leaders in Holocaust education Yad Vashem, The Claims Conference, the Azrieli Foundation, and other organizations at the forefront of the fight against antisemitism.  

The second factor was former Hamilton resident Madeleine Levy gifting Federation with the Harriet Smiley Memorial Holocaust Collection, named in memory of her mother. In viewing the collection of antisemitic books, posters, pamphlets, magazines, and other items that track the Nazis’ rise to power, which had been previously on loan to McMaster University, Rymberg found an eery similarity to the antisemitic tropes widely circulating today on social media. 

The educational potential for a display of this archival material was enormous, and, with renovation plans for JHamilton in their early stages, he knew just who to approach. 

At the funeral of her grandmother in 2009, Danna Horwood’s 11-year-old daughter asked her mother why she didn’t know anything about her grandparents’ Holocaust stories. That was the impetus behind Horwood creating Margaret’s Legacy, as a way to memorialize the Second World War experiences of her grandparents, Arthur and Margaret Weisz.  

Since then, the non-profit has developed an innovative, multidisciplinary approach to teaching middle school students about the Holocaust. Horwood spent three-and-a-half years doing presentations in schools around the area about her grandparents’ lives, but the pandemic got Horwood thinking about a permanent space, where teachers and students could visit to learn the lessons of Holocaust.

Horwood told the HJN that she and Rymberg had many discussions over the years “about something that people could come to and where could that be.” So, when Rymberg approached Horwood and her father, Tom Weisz about providing seed funding for a Holocaust learning centre, the answer was an enthusiastic ‘yes.’  

In June, Rymberg received the additional good news of a $250,000 grant from the Claims Conference, an international organization that supports projects which promote Holocaust education, documentation and research. 

With seed funding in place, the next steps fell into place quickly. An architect was hired to design the centre, which will include both core and rotating exhibits, and a multi-purpose auditorium that can seat up to 300 people. The renovations, scheduled to begin this fall, will also include a community kosher kitchen.  

Working with Margaret’s Legacy, Federation put together a committee of educators who will be responsible for curriculum development and hired a curator/researcher tasked with integrating the Harriet Smiley material with Arthur and Margaret Weisz’s wartime experiences. 

Curator Cory Osmond, 28, who holds a master’s in political science from the University of Toronto, has spent several summers studying the Holocaust in Poland, Berlin and Vienna.  In designing the core exhibit, Osmond will work in consultation with the Yad Vashem International School of Holocaust Education, which will also assist with curating temporary exhibits on the wartime experiences of other local Holocaust survivors.  

What most excites Rymberg about the project is the opportunity to work with Yad Vashem on the exhibit, curriculum development and professional training for teachers interested in deepening their understanding of the Holocaust. He has no doubt that the centre will become a hub for smaller communities throughout the region that lack the resources that the centre can offer. 

Those resources will include survivor testimonials and Second World War artifacts, which Rymberg sees as critically important for future generations who will never have the opportunity to hear directly from a survivor. “We expect everyone visiting our centre will gain a better understanding of the dangers of hate and prejudice, and have a comprehensive educational and emotional experience,” said Rymberg. 

Rymberg used the occasion of Federation’s Annual General Meeting on May 30 to officially unveil plans for the new centre and publicly thank Danna Horwood and Margaret’s Legacy for their shared commitment to Holocaust education, remembrance, and combatting antisemitism. Those in attendance responded with enthusiastic applause.
An emerging line of research in Holocaust education involves exploring how historical and cultural traumas affect survivors’ children for generations to come. Holocaust researchers called this phenomenon “intergenerational trauma,” an area of particular interest to Horwood.

“I see the centre as an opportunity for people from different backgrounds to relate to the Holocaust’s impact on future generations,” said Horwood, going on to describe how students during her presentations were most engaged when she spoke about the effects of her grandmother’s trauma on other members of the family. “So many kids are suffering from anxiety and depression,” she said. “I want to bring in experts who can talk about this.”

As for the memorial sculpture, Rymberg has learned that it was commissioned by a group of Hamilton Holocaust survivors in the 1960s as a memorial. The artist, George Wallace (1920-2009) was an Irish-Canadian artist who specialized in printmaking and sculpture and taught at McMaster University. “It was always my dream to have a special place for that statue,” Rymberg told the HJN. A dream that is finally coming true.