Sunday Interview – Belle Jarniewski

Today’s guest is a wonderful woman I have known since Junior High. I am very proud to call Belle my friend. Although she is an extremely busy woman, she was gracious enough to spend some time with us talking about a cause near and dear to her heart. Along with her work with the Manitoba Holocaust Heritage Project and the Freeman Family Holocaust Education Centre of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, she compiled and edited documents and personal histories in a book called Voices of Winnipeg Holocaust Survivors (under her married name of Millo) If you didn’t see Friday’s Review, you can check it out here). Without further ado, please welcome her to my blog.

Belle Jarniewski

Hi, Belle! I am so glad you found the time to talk to us, today. To begin with, since my readers don’t know you as well as I do, would you please tell them a little about yourself?

Well… I was born and raised in Winnipeg, the child of two Holocaust survivors. That in particular was the reason I became involved in all of this. My own parents both lived through such tremendous tragedy and trauma and yet had the courage to start life anew. Both of their stories are in the book. My father was the only survivor of his entire family, including his first wife and child – whom he never saw, as his wife was pregnant when he was mobilized into the Polish Army. All were murdered by the Nazis. My mother was a survivor of Auschwitz. When I was growing up, people didn’t really talk about this. For one thing, growing up in River Heights, I didn’t know any other kids whose parents were survivors – for whom this reality was their family history. The survivors themselves didn’t really begin to speak publicly in large part until the 1980s. By then, my mother had already passed away. My father died in 1983. However, they had both spoken about their experiences ever since I could remember. My father wrote his wartime memoirs in 1946. I felt that somehow I owed them a debt for having been brave enough to have had children after having actually witnessed children murdered in front of their eyes.

I attended Ramah Hebrew School for elementary school, then JB Mitchell, Grant Park and Vincent Massey. I have a B. Ed and a Cert. Traduction. I have taught French and been a translator from English to French. Since I became involved in the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre, and took over as Chair in 2009, that has pretty much taken over most of my time and I have not been working as a translator, anymore. We have been involved in some fascinating programmes, that I will mention further, below. I have just been accepted as a candidate in the Master’s programme at the University of Winnipeg in the MA Theology. I’m very excited to go back to school – part time, of course!

I don’t know how you’ll find the time, but good luck with your courses! 🙂

When and how did you first get involved in the Manitoba Holocaust Heritage Program?

Originally, I was asked to transcribe some questionnaires. You see, the MHHP was a project that began about 20 years ago. Questionnaires were sent out to survivors or their descendants to fill out. Now, the project was originally to be a data base for researchers. For some reason, nothing was done with these questionnaires and photos (which some of the respondents had sent in) and they just sat around collecting dust. That’s when I joined the committee. The DVD also then sat around. So…

They decided to create a book like Voices? 🙂

One day, one of the survivors said to me – “The DVD is sitting around. Nothing has been done.”  He also indicated that he had participated in Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project but felt that not enough people could see these tapes. Even his own family watched it once and that was it. The tapes – there are several thousand of them – are a very important video recording of survivors’ stories. However, he was right – they are expensive to acquire – so students, for instance, would not have access to them. He asked me, “What if you took those questionnaires and turned them into a book?” Without really thinking it through, I said yes.

That was quite the undertaking! How long did it take to acquire the information and compile it all?

From that moment on, it took about two years. The first thing I did was send out a letter to about 150 people – all the people who had originally completed the questionnaires as well as others in the community of whom we knew were survivors. We published ads as well, indicating that I was going to write this book. I wanted everyone to have a chance at giving me their complete story as opposed to just the questionnaire. There were some who had already, sadly, passed away and so, if I couldn’t find someone in their family to help me, then I included the questionnaire only. In the end, I had 73 stories – some of which had never been told to anyone before – even family members. There were also wonderful photographs, which truly portrayed a world lost. I really worked night and day on this for two years. It consumed my life. Many times, I was working with people who were dealing with a story that was several decades old. They needed to remember dates, places, etc. so I often had to do a lot of research – with databases, or even calling the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem in Israel for help. I also hoped from the beginning, to get the book into Manitoba schools. Therefore, I made sure to add footnotes that would explain historical and Judaic terms.

When it was launched, there was extensive media coverage and you were right in the middle of it. What was it like to present this tome to the world?

It was an extraordinary experience. It is really only as time goes by, as well, that I am realizing that I was lucky enough to have had the honour to have completed this project. When I receive letters from as far away as Poland and Holland, it’s truly gratifying. When I hear the book mentioned at the funeral of one of the people of whom I wrote – that means so much to me. The book was placed in each and every high school in Manitoba. That means that students will have access to all these very important stories which took place all across Eastern and Western Europe. The stories are all so different – some of the survivors were in concentration camps, others were hidden, others still were partisans. Many of the survivors in question were the same age as the students. In fact, some of our survivors were among the 1000 orphans that Canada accepted after the end of the war. They were all teenagers. I can only imagine how this must affect a student when he or she is reading it and imagining the same experience.

I know there are more holocaust survivors in Winnipeg than the over 70 individuals & families represented in this book. Have more people come forward to talk about their experiences since the book came out? If so, will there be a second volume to include them, too?

There are some who have come to me to say that they would have liked their or their parents’ stories in the book but for some reason didn’t know about the project. We will have to see about adding stories if we go for a second printing.

What have you done in this field since the book came out?

What our organization does on an ongoing basis is to bring students to our Centre (The Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre at the Asper Campus) to hear firsthand presentations from survivors. These presentations are absolutely free of charge. We also hold a symposium once a year at the University of Winnipeg for grades 9-12 where we welcome up to 2000 students from all over Manitoba. We have a guest speaker in the morning and different programmes each year in the afternoon. Often, the morning speaker is a survivor from outside of Winnipeg who is used to speaking to large groups. However this year, we brought in Father Patrick Desbois from Paris, France who together with his organization Yahad-In Unum, has been identifying the locations of mass graves of Jews and Roma in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union since 2004. He is able to do this by interviewing the remaining witnesses. He was a tremendously powerful speaker. This year, we recorded the symposium and uploaded it onto Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VoyprDPOuQ4


And part two at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcuTPJiZGOU

The following day, both Father Desbois and Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire spoke to the greater community on the subject of indifference. That was an incredible experience! 

Last year, together with the Ridd Institute for Religion and Global Policy of the Global College, UW, we brought in an exhibit from Dachau called Names Instead of Numbers which told the individual stories of inmates of Dachau concentration camp. The exhibit took place at Westminster United Church. It was a wonderful interfaith project. Docents from both communities participated. My father, incidentally, was liberated from Dachau at the end of the war.

If someone wanted to learn more about the Holocaust and its survivors, what are some resources you would recommend?

If you go to our website at www.ffhec.org and go to the Symposium Guide – there is an extensive suggested list of books and videos that I have compiled – as well as great information for any educators out there.

Are there any media sites you would like to share?

Same as above – but especially the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum site: http://www.ushmm.org
And Yad Vashem’s site: http://www.yadvashem.org

Do you have anything else to say before we say goodbye?

The Shoah is a narrative of individual human stories and it must become part of our entire human narrative. The tragedy of the Shoah must become a narrative belonging to all of humanity. For if not, we take the terrible risk that one day far off into the future when the survivors, the second generation and even the third generation are gone, the Shoah will become but an anomaly of history. We cannot allow that to happen. The Shoah most tragically is a human story. If we don’t hear that it IS a human story, then we will not have learned.

Thanks, Belle, for doing this. BTW, how have book sales been, so far?

Terrific! We printed 1600 books and have about 300 copies left!

That’s wonderful! For anyone who is interested in purchasing Voices of Winnipeg Holocaust Survivors, it can be found at McNally Robinson Booksellers, www.ffhec.org, or in person at the Jewish Heritage Centre (143 Doncaster Street, Winnipeg, open Mon. – Thurs. between 9:00-4:00) All proceeds from the purchase of the book go towards Holocaust Education.   

I would also like to encourage you to check out the Youtube videos of this year’s symposium that Belle mentioned above. Although both parts are fairly long, the stories Father Patrick Desbois has to tell about his research is definitely worth the time and you’ll get to hear Belle’s introduction, too. 🙂

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10 comments on “Sunday Interview – Belle Jarniewski

  1. Even reading this I am moved to tears. In some strange way I count myself “lucky” that I have been aware of these horrors for the whole of my life. It must never be forgotten and thank heavens there are people brave enough to collate and handle this material, I know I couldn’t do it but someone must. Thank you for being one of those someones Belle and thanks for this interview.

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Diane. I consider it to have been an immense honour and privilege to have been entrusted with these stories. In a world where people continue to deny that this occurred while our survivors are still alive, I can only imagine what it will be like when they are no longer with us. it’s so important that we have there stories. Yesterday, I read an essay by a young student who had gone to Poland on the March of the Living last year and who had been personally subject to very clear incidents of antisemitism from young Poles. I found this so disheartening. Education and dialogue are the key to combatting this senseless hatred.

    • That is very disheartening, Belle. Yes, we must all do our part to educate our youth. Hatred is a learned behaviour, so we must teach them about peace and tolerance so these horrendous acts will stop.

  3. What would our community do without your continued hard work to ensure the stories of the Shoah and its atrocities are heard? I am continually grateful for what you have done belle as are many many others. Kol ha’kavod!

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