Holocaust Learning Centre opens May 2 in a newly designed space

April 2024
Wendy Schneider

A precious family photograph, a teenager’s  passport, a yellow star, a grandfather’s concentration camp uniform—mementos from a painful past, previously tucked away in a drawer, a closet or a basement, have been entrusted by their owners to the Margaret’s Legacy Holocaust Learning and Jewish Advocacy Centre, which opens its doors on May 2. Fully integrated into a new multi-functional space at JHamilton, the Centre will soon host Hamilton area students, teachers, politicians and representatives from different religious communities to learn, reflect and talk about the ultimate consequences of antisemitism, hate  and intolerance. 

The Margaret’s Legacy Holocaust Learning and Jewish Advocacy Centre is a joint project of the Hamilton Jewish Federation and Margaret’s Legacy, a Holocaust education initiative founded in 2008 by Danna Horwood rooted in the wartime experiences of her grandparents, Arthur and Margaret Weisz. 

The Centre’s core exhibit interweaves Nazi propaganda material from the Harriet Smiley Memorial Holocaust Collection, donated to Federation last year by former community member Madeleine Levy, with the wartime stories of Horwood’s grandparents, Hungarian Holocaust survivors Arthur and Margaret Weisz. Also on display will be Second World War artifacts donated by local survivors and a memorial area that honours those survivors and their family members who perished, as well as victims of the Oct. 7 massacre.

Occupying a place of honour in the new space is the Delaware Avenue JCC Holocaust memorial sculpture by Irish Canadian artist George Wallace, commissioned in the mid-1960s by a group of Hamilton Holocaust survivors. Subsequently moved to the Lower Lions Club Rd. JCC in Ancaster, the sculpture was lying nearly forgotten in a storage facility when Hamilton Jewish Federation CEO Gustavo Rymberg first discovered it in 2017. Ever since, he’s been determined to see the sculpture, along with other Second World War memorabilia, and local archives related to this city’s rich Jewish history find a new home. 

“All these archives were in basements, in houses, who knows where. Suddenly they’re going to be here telling a story,” he says. “I think it’s important for Hamilton to keep these archives alive. I hope that after the opening we’ll have more people coming, ready to share their artifacts with us.”

Rymberg is particularly proud of the multi-functionality of the new space, which can be opened to include a 240-seat auditorium or divided into smaller areas for workshops, programs or small community events or rented to other community organizations. 

Education is at the heart of the new centre, and Rymberg proudly notes that Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre assisted in the development of its core exhibit and associated curriculum. “This is not going to be a museum, where you come, see and leave,” said Rymberg. Instead, he sees it as offering an entry point towards understanding what precipitated the largest and most deadly genocide in human history.  “Our Centre is going to be a place to learn and have conversations based on personal histories, artifacts and documentation.” 

Included in the exhibit is a panel that highlights the wartime experiences of other local Holocaust survivors, Ernie Mason, Nadia Rosa, the late Sam and Anna Szpirglas, and Stanislaw Przedborski, grandfather of local real estate agent Yolanda Czyzewski-Brague, who was incarcerated at Auschwitz and Dachau as a Polish political prisoner.

Ernie Mason, together with his mother and a younger brother, were saved by Swedish diplomat and humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg. “I believe what is happening here is a wonderful thing,” he told the HJN. “It’s something that is needed and people like Wallenberg have to be put on display.”

Sam and Anna Szpirglas, both sole survivors of their immediate families, gained entry into Canada under the Tailor Project, an immigration program that brought more than 2,000 displaced people, more than half Jewish, from Europe to Canada in 1948 and 1949 to work in the clothing industry. Speaking on behalf of his siblings, Abe Szpirglas and Carol Burke, Larry Szpirglas said, “What really was important to us was that this it was going to be a learning centre ... Especially in our current situation we can see that a lot of education has to happen.”

Nadia Rosa, a child survivor of the Holocaust, spent the war years in hiding with her mother and grandparents until being discovered by the Gestapo and sent to Theresienstadt. “The effect on children my age was very strong and we never got over it ... We never expect a good outcome for anything,” she told the HJN. Rosa, a co-founder of Federation’s Holocaust education committee who has dedicated much of her life to educating others about the Holocaust, donated her yellow Star of David to the centre. 

Yolanda Czyzewski-Bragues was raised by her grandparents in a home that was often filled with both Jewish and non-Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. “I didn’t grow up with stories like Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood,” she told the HJN. “They were my grandfather’s stories of survival.” 

Czyzewski-Bragues’ donation to the new centre was the Dachau prison uniform her grandfather was wearing upon liberation. “We share a common history. It’s important that young people learn their history,” she said. “They’re facing a lot of propaganda right now and a learning centre where historical facts have come together is probably the best way to educate the next generation.”

Arthur and Margaret Weisz’s daughter Janet, born after her parents’ arrival in Canada in 1956, says her niece has done something very important in supporting this Holocaust Learning Centre in her parents’ memory. “I have to give great kudos to Danna for making this happen. This is an absolutely wonderful tribute to my parents. We need to educate our youth because there are far too many people out there who don’t believe what happened,” she said.

Weisz says she feels fortunate that her parents were forthcoming about their wartime experiences and that they never lost hope “that one day they’d find family and friends and get back to some sort of normal life.” 

“It’s remarkable what these survivors who came out of the camps did for their kids, their families, and for our world. It wasn’t accidental in my mind that they survived. There was something inside of these people that drove them to stay alive.”

Tom Weisz said that lies told enough times become the truth. “If somebody repeats something negative about somebody, that’s what they know, even though they don’t know these people at all. Hopefully, Margaret’s Legacy will be a place where people can go and learn about these things and that will result in some positive things in the future.”

The Margaret’s Legacy Holocaust Learning and Jewish Advocacy Centre opening will take place on May 2—a morning event that will include a dedication and mezuzah hanging by local survivors, and an evening gathering, to which donors and dignitaries will be invited. A larger community event will take place on May 6 in commemoration of Yom HaShoah.