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Canadian Scholar Collects Rare Accounts of Holocaust

A Canadian university has become the home of a rare collection of eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust.

The University of Western Ontario’s recently established Holocaust Literature Research Institute is unlike most other Holocaust libraries around the world because it specializes in eyewitness accounts rather than documentary or historical sources, says Alain Goldschlager, who assembled the collection of about 750 published eyewitness accounts.

Goldschlager, a professor in the university’s French department, was born in Belgium in 1946, a time when survivors were just starting to pen the first and most potent wave of Holocaust literature, he says.

“I found that there’s no library that is really making a systematic effort to collect these books, not even Yad Vashem in Jerusalem or the Weiner Library at Tel Aviv University,” he says.

“All these places have a quantity of eyewitness accounts,” he says, adding that there is a lot “that nobody has ever attempted to collect in a systematic way.”

“Many of the smaller works were published at authors’ expense and never properly distributed,” he says.

Goldschlager has searched second-hand bookstores and synagogue libraries in North America, Europe and Israel for rare, published works for the collection. He also seeks to add to an annotated bibliography, which now contains about 2,000 titles.

Some books, such as a trio of Yiddish-language survivor accounts apparently produced by a small Argentinean publishing house in 1946, are so elusive that they are seemingly unavailable commercially and cannot be found in libraries.

Goldschlager says he found a reference to them in one bibliography six years ago, but has not been able to locate any copies.

“These are the testimonies of people who were just out of the camps, written in Yiddish,” he says. “They are so precious and valuable.”

Some of the most powerful accounts were written in Yiddish, he says. “People were more at ease to tell their stories in Yiddish because that’s the language in which the events happened to them.”

Many early eyewitness accounts published between 1946 and 1953 seem to make more fundamental statements about the authors’ experiences in the Holocaust than a second wave of such works published after about 1980, Goldschlager said. Relatively few such works were published between 1954 and 1977.

“In most of the early accounts, the author is saying, `What I’ve lived is too heavy a burden. I have to tell the world. And I write also to honor the people I have lost in the Holocaust, being family and friend,'” he says.

In contrast, many later authors were apparently motivated by a perceived need to counter the work of historical revisionists, to strengthen Jewish identity and to leave a permanent record for their descendants.

“There is a kind of programmatic element to the later works,” Goldschlager said. “The later authors want to educate their grandchildren, which is quite different from the earlier authors who were saying, `I have to tell it, I can’t bear it in my soul.'”

Goldschlager, a specialist in semiotics, which he defines as the science of signs, arrived in Canada in 1969. He made a detailed academic study in the mid- 1980s of the anti-Semitic political discourses of key figures of the Nazi, Stalinist and Vichy regimes, as well as of Adrian Arcand, the Quebec Journalist who headed a fascist movement in the 1930s in French Canada.

Because of his academic familiarity with hate literature, Goldschlager was recruited as an expert witness for the prosecution during the trial of Toronto- based Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, who had known Arcand and had inherited his library.

Although he was never called to testify, Goldshlager said attending the trial made him recognize the tremendous importance of first-hand accounts in countering the claims of Holocaust deniers. He began collecting the books in 1989, shortly after the trial ended.

“Keeping the memory alive means keeping the books alive, too, because many of them might disappear,” he said. “Everyone assumes that because something is published as a book, the memory is saved and it will end up in a library. That is simply not true.”

He added that “there were many books that couldn’t be traced or were already lost.”

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