Hidden documents connect us to a concentration camp survivor
At first glance, the tiny brown-paper books look completely ordinary. Opening them, you find their small pages filled with penciled text, smudged from handling and the passage of time. A reader with a knowledgeable eye might discern that they are written in Polish. Told that they date from the Second World War, the picture may start to become clearer.
The tiny volumes, written and carefully concealed by their author, are in fact cookbooks and a diary kept at great personal risk by a female prisoner sent to the Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbruck and finally the Kleinmachnow concentration camps during World War II.
These fragile slips of paper are documents that form the basis of a case study on camp prisoner Irena Matusiak, contained in the first module of The Virtual Museum of the Holocaust and the Resistance, recently launched by McMaster University Library. Funded in part by a generous gift from benefactors Monte and Madeleine Levy, the Virtual Museum will eventually consist of five modules that, together, tell some of the horrific and heroic stories of the Holocaust and Resistance, connecting us to that time and reminding us of the great human cost.
The first module focuses on the experience of Jews, political prisoners, and other persecuted groups in the many concentration camps, transit camps, and prisons located throughout Nazi-controlled Europe. It consists of a series of case studies that weave together letters and first-person accounts from archival collections in the Library’s William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections with clips from oral histories in the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive and narrative text that interprets and contextualizes these rich primary sources.
Additional modules will roll out over the next year and include: Module 2: World War, 1939-1945, Jewish Underground Resistance collection; Module 3: Allied and German propaganda distributed by air drops and shelling; Module 4: The Underground Resistance in Europe; and Module 5: Nazi culture, the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism.
To read the case study on Irena Matusiak, and the other case studies, please visit library.mcmaster.ca/archives/virtualmuseum. To see the original documents, stop by the Division of Archives and Research Collections on the Lower Level of Mills.
Related story: "Tiny Holocaust diaries major find". The Hamilton Spectator, November 9, 2012.