Transcript of Treasures Revealed episode 14
Théo Martin (TM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Théo Martin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.
Welcome to Treasures Revealed!
In this podcast series, we’ll be showcasing certain items in the Library and Archives Canada collection. Each episode, we’ll speak to a LAC employee and highlight an item that they consider a real “treasure” in our collection.
They may be rare items, perhaps unusual or valuable, or items with historical significance. Perhaps they will have a compelling or interesting story to go along with them. More importantly, all of them will showcase our vast and rich collection that is the shared documentary heritage of all Canadians.
Now, on to…Episode 14, “Raczyński's Note.”
Michael Kent (MK): My name is Michael Kent. I’m a senior librarian within the Special Collections team at Library and Archives Canada. My main responsibility is curating the Jacob M. Lowy collection of rare Judaica, and I’ve been with Library and Archives Canada now for about five years.
TM: That was Senior Librarian Michael Kent, our guest on today’s episode of Treasures Revealed. Michael is the current curator of the Jacob M. Lowy room, a self-contained collection housing over 3,000 rare and unique items dating back to the 15th century. In 1977, Jacob M. Lowy donated this collection of Hebraica and Judaica to LAC, on the condition that it be kept together as a distinct collection and that it have its own dedicated curator.
In January 2021, Library and Archives Canada announced the acquisition of one of the earliest sources about the Holocaust to reach the Allies during the Second World War.
Here’s Michael to tell us more about this treasure….
MK: The treasure we’re talking about today is a short pamphlet called The Mass Extermination of the Jews in German-Occupied Poland. It really is a short report; it’s 16 pages. And it’s a mid-war publication. So, we believe it was published in early 1943, though it’s mainly based off an address given to the Allied governments in December of 1942. The content of the report is information provided by the Polish government-in-exile, specifically about the ongoing murder of Jews by the German government at the time.
As such, it’s actually, to our knowledge, the first official reporting of the Holocaust and one of the earliest sources of information about the Holocaust to reach the West while the Holocaust was happening. It includes information about the Warsaw Ghetto, as well as concentration camps, such as Treblinka, Bełżec, and Sobibor. And, in addition to being delivered to Allied nations, this report was published so there could be wider reach amongst the populace of Western, English-speaking nations, and it did actually attract some media attention at the time, in 1943.
TM: Do we know who produced this report?
MK: There was a range of people involved in producing it. Obviously, being a government publication, it was delivered as an address originally by the Foreign Minister of the Polish government-in-exile, though the main person responsible for delivering this information to the government-in-exile was a fellow by the name of Jan Karski, who is just such a phenomenal person in, I think, you know, world history and in the Second World War.
He—I mean, his story—he was smuggled twice out of Poland, the first time in 1940 and the second time in 1942, to deliver information to the Polish government-in-exile. In preparation for his second trip in 1942, he twice smuggled his way into the Warsaw Ghetto to collect firsthand information about what was happening there. And he visited certain other transportation camps that were bringing people to death camps. And, by some accounts, he might have gotten in to see the Bełżec death camp or he might have gotten to see a transportation camp to Bełżec... But somebody who collected first-hand information about what was happening in Poland and then went through the long journey of being smuggled out of Poland to deliver this information.
TM: This document contains Raczyński's Note by Edward Bernard Raczyński, Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Polish government-in-exile. The note was originally addressed to Allied governments on December 10, 1942. The report is based on intelligence provided by the underground Polish Home Army’s Jewish Affairs Bureau and through the Polish underground resistance, through their courier, Jan Karski. This document details the systematic mass murder of Polish Jews and reports on deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to concentration camps, including Treblinka, Bełżec and Sobibor. Karski, who twice infiltrated Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto and witnessed the transport of Jews to death camps, was nonetheless often met with skepticism regarding his reports of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews.
This document was the first official report to inform governments and the general public in Allied countries on the Holocaust.
We asked Michael how LAC came to acquire this 16-page report.
MK: We are regularly contacted by antiquarian book dealers, and one of these book dealers reached out to us, letting us know that he had this report for sale. So, in that regard, discovering it was available was a straightforward task. I was aware of this report coming out for sale last spring, and it took us some time to coordinate the whole process of finding the donor and having it donated and brought to Library and Archives Canada.
The donor himself, he’s from Toronto, and he is the child of a Holocaust survivor, and his mother, this survivor, lost both her parents to the Holocaust, so, someone to whom the Holocaust was a major, personal event that impacted his family. And, when he found out about this report and its importance to understand the history of the Holocaust, but also asking critical questions about what did the Allies know and when, he thought it was important to acquire this item to be preserved in the national collections, so that all Canadians who have a chance to learn the lessons from this report and ask those questions…
TM: Why would Library and Archives Canada seek to acquire this treasure? Is this report important to Canadians?
MK: There’s a few reasons. If I start, sort of, on a more narrow perspective, when we look to our mandate, we look to preserve any and all works that help tell the story of Canada. And there’s no denying that World War II was a significant event in world history, but also Canadian history. Canada being one of the most important Allied nations of the war, I think it’s important for us to ask some critical questions about what Canada knew in the war and how Canada acted.
We also start thinking about Canada as a nation of immigrants and, post-World War II, people coming to this country and how things like the Holocaust impacted them. For instance, approximately 40,000 Holocaust survivors actually settled in Canada after the war, and them and their descendants have had a huge impact on Canadian society. So, we really saw this as an important item to do with World War II and the Holocaust and recognizing that World War II and the Holocaust are significant events that impacted Canadian history.
If we start thinking a little more philosophically about our mandate, I believe we play an important role as a memory institution in preserving history, and we’re living in a period of time where knowledge about the Holocaust is declining significantly. In 2019, the Azrieli Foundation released a report that indicated approximately 15 percent of Canadian adults and about one in five, 22 percent, of Canadians under the age of 34, either hadn’t heard about the Holocaust or were unsure if they had heard about the Holocaust. Not an insignificant amount of people. So, recognizing that, we feel that we’re at a time when we need to do a little more work across the board in remembering our history and not falling into some of the traps that led up to the Holocaust.
TM: As Micheal says, many people feel that more effort is needed to remember the importance of historical events, and he feels that this pamphlet can help in doing that. We asked Michael why he considers this item a treasure.
MK: Back in 2018, I had the opportunity to chaperone a trip called “March of the Living,” where I took a group of local high school students for a week-long visit to Poland to visit the death camp sites related to the Second World War and sites related to Jewish history in Poland. And we did this trip in the company of a Holocaust survivor. And it was a very moving experience to learn about Auschwitz and the horrible things that happened there from somebody who was actually in Auschwitz and survived Auschwitz. And that gave me a real appreciation of the horrors of the Holocaust and the importance of remembering it.
And then I see reports like this and I hear about the efforts of people like Jan Karski, who during the war were actively trying to inform the Allies, inform the West, about what was happening, and were met with disbelief and, in many cases, inaction. And I think this makes us reflect critically on what did the Allies know, when did they know it, and how did they choose to act. And it gives us a deeper understanding of the complexities of the Holocaust.
TM: As one of the first sources of information about the Holocaust to reach the Allies during the Second World War, this document holds an important place in the history of the conflict. Particularly, this document answers questions about what and when the Allies knew about the Holocaust. As Canada was one of the leading Allied nations during this period, these questions are important to our own understanding of the Holocaust and our country’s role during the war.
Thank you for being with us. I’m Théo Martin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank-you to our guest today, Michael Kent.
The music in this episode was provided by Blue Dot Sessions.
This episode was produced, engineered and edited by David Knox, with additional editing and sound design by Tom Thompson.
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