We Will Be Remembered: How the Toronto Holocaust Museum Sets to be a Lasting Legacy

“The Holocaust, for me, never ended. It is here. The trauma is still here.” 

Nate Leipciger was liberated from Dachau 78 years ago, after six long years in Sosnowiec Ghetto and various concentration camps. His words carry the weight of wounds that do not heal with the passing of time. They flow through generations. “I still suffer post traumatic stress. My children inherited it and so did my grandchildren,” he shared with me from inside Toronto’s new Holocaust museum.

At 95 years old, Leipciger has been a Holocaust educator for decades and his family follows in his footsteps. Passionate first-person accounts like Leipciger’s, stating how the Holocaust remains a formidable foe and isn’t just an event relegated to the past, are needed more than ever as harmful narratives from revisionists, deniers, and racists grow more present in our political discourse. The most important thing we can do to curtail such efforts, Leipciger believes, is to tell the truth about the Holocaust and “not to change the reality.” Revisionists are more dangerous than deniers, he said. 

The Toronto Police Service reported that in 2022 the Jewish community, which is only 3.4 per cent of the city’s population, accounted for 26 per cent of reported hate crimes. That’s why testimonies from Holocaust survivors are needed to educate society at large, as it gives insight into the enduring role history plays in our present and future. But with more survivors getting older and passing, how can we maintain the impact their first-hand accounts hold to engage and educate? This was one of the concerns that ignited the transformation of the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre into the Toronto Holocaust Museum (THM), now located on the Sherman Campus in the Sheff Family Building. 

When designing the new space, one of the key focuses was making the experience enticing for children. The old museum hadn’t reached its full potential in this area, noted Tony Reich, co-founder of Reich&Petch and the lead designer and architect on the project.

In 1985, Leipciger and other survivors founded the education centre, but as time went on the space didn’t use innovative or immersive tools to create an integrated and seamless experience. During their research process, Reich and his team visited and attended one of the classes and noticed that after survivors gave a short talk, the children didn’t seem interested in the other activities they were presented with.

“Kids like to create and be participants, and not just be observers. A lot of it is around encouraging creative skills or role playing, imagining other worlds.” Preserving the testimonies of the survivors is essential and is of the greatest importance, said Reich, but from what he told me, I gathered that they needed visitors to have more to do and needed them to want to do more. And because of the lack of education many folks in Canada have on the Holocaust, capturing the attention of the museum’s target audience was and is essential.. 

In 2019, the Azrieli Foundation and the Claims Conference conducted a study examining Holocaust knowledge and awareness in Canada. Some of the most startling findings reveal that 52 per cent of millennials cannot name one concentration camp or ghetto, 22 per cent of millennials haven’t heard or are not sure if they’ve heard of the Holocaust, and that nearly 57 per cent of Canadians say fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust than they used to. With these statistics, THM will have an important role to play in educating our community.


I spoke with Leipciger and Reich on June 8, when I, along with other media outlets, had the privilege of visiting the museum ahead of its opening. Everyone gathered in the Azrieli Legacy Hall where, under banners of pre-war life, Dara Solomon, executive director of THM and the Ontario Jewish Archives, shared that once we stepped inside we’d find a space “designed to inspire visitors to think deeply about our violent history and make connections between the Holocaust, world events, and contemporary Canadian life.” 

When entering the museum you’ll pass through a 40-seat theatre as victims of the Holocaust brandish the screen. The melancholy expressions immediately hit you with all that was lost and taken from them. The banners hanging in the sky seem like a dream. And the swift contrast between life before and during war emphasizes all that was lost. This is exemplified when the next first thing you see are survivors looking right at you. Though I don’t mean in the flesh. 

Photograph courtesy of Vito Amati for the Toronto Holocaust Museum.
Photograph courtesy of Vito Amati for the Toronto Holocaust Museum.

Leipciger along with other survivors were interviewed and recorded so their testimonies could live on large screens situated on several floor to ceiling panels. “This whole idea was to create a legacy. Personal recollections, almost like you’re meeting them, talking to them, one-on-one like in real life,” said Reich. With the touch of your finger, you can begin to explore their histories. 

“Many of these people did not talk about it for a long time. They just didn’t want to. It was too painful,” continued Reich, whose grandmother perished in the Holocaust. But the old museum’s history of an education program and a “need to tell the stories to the outside world, prompted a lot of survivors to open up and decide they should devote the latter years of their life to education. This is an education centre, it’s not really a museum. It’s all about getting stories out there.”

Including stories about what was happening in Canada at the same time. On the back of every testimony station in each of the open-concept galleries, there is a “Meanwhile, in Canada” panel. Featured incidents range from the Christie Pits Riot, to the moment when the Canadian Olympians vied for Hitler’s autograph at the 1936 games in Berlin, to a quote from then prime minister William Lyon Mckenzie branding Hitler a pleasant and appealing fellow after their meeting. Rachel Libman, the museum’s chief curator, stresses that showing what was happening at home and abroad gives the average visitor, who may not have any relationship to Jewish people and may not know European history, a gateway to understanding through a place they do know, Canada. 

The memorial room is flooded with light. A vibrant forest dresses the walls with around 1800 names of those who died in the Holocaust. Deciding how to honour them gave Reich the most trouble because what he did to the space needed to be simple, profound, and important. I told Reich that placing the names against trees, rather than on tiles as was done in the previous space, breathes life into each soul and their memory. However, Reich stated that the room has “two modes. It has that alive mode. But then deep in those forests is another story of the Holocaust. A lot of people perished in forests not in camps. Many were just taken out to the forest and shot, buried.” 

And then, next door, there is the “Life in Canada” gallery. A favourite of Hannah Schacter, THM’s program and curatorial associate, because “we cover how the survivors rebuild their lives in Canada. Emphasizing the resilience and strength that they had.”

The contrasting and contradictory emotions gleaned from how the space is designed is what, I think, makes the experience a layered and unique one. If you were to stand in the middle of the room you could be adjacent to the memorial room and the “Life in Canada” gallery and a survivor’s testimony, experiencing all at once different aspects and consequences of the Holocaust. 

The rest of the museum is a small free flowing space and is packed with information that you may not get through on your first visit. But what you will take away is that the Holocaust doesn’t live in one pocket of space and time. That is possible because the team who imagined, built, and curated it wants you to think and dig into the complexities of the human experience by showing how resilience, loss, suffering, and joy can coexist.

Photograph courtesy of Orly Zebak.
Nate Leipciger in the memorial room. Photograph courtesy of Orly Zebak.
Photograph courtesy of Vito Amati for the Toronto Holocaust Museum.

I was standing in the centre of the exhibit and experiencing this feeling when I was speaking to Leipciger. He looked around at the survivors on the screens, continuing to tell a part of his testimony to me, when he said “he can see how they, like him, still suffer. It comes back at the most unsuitable moments.”

What you will not find in the museum are videos of Hitler or a design built with the intent to tell the story of the Holocaust chronologically. Reich wanted to focus the experience around emotive stories told through various mediums including video, archival documents, and augmented reality. The only place you’ll find a chronological overview is on an intuitive touch screen that takes you through the different time periods showing the spread of Nazism. There’s a lot of information presented on those slides but it is not a dominating presence. It hangs out in the corner. “The client [the UJA] said we want kids to pick and choose. Let them choose. If they want to learn about how survivors came to Toronto, go to the end room. It doesn’t matter what sequence.”

With kids as the target audience, the museum is designed to be immersive and tactile. The first step was to create drawers and compartments kids could pull and slide open that contain extra information or archives tucked under glass. With over 40 years in the industry, Reich knows that “kids love opening and looking in and seeing what’s there. You have to actually explore a little bit.” 

And they took it even further by employing augmented reality. With an iPad in hand you can chart additional courses for yourself by choosing other stories to follow and discover. You’re in charge. If you decide, for instance, to tap on Fagie’s story, rain will begin to appear in the “Atrocity” gallery as you view the “In the Kovno Ghetto” chapter. In June 1941 her family was forced to move to the ghetto and in the one suitcase she was allowed to bring, she added the Shirley Temple doll that was her most prized possession. And that doll sits animated, whole and broken, on the floor before you. 

The scene from “In the Kovno Ghetto” chapter. Photograph courtesy of Orly Zebak.
Photograph courtesy of Vito Amati for the Toronto Holocaust Museum.

Incorporating augmented reality is quite experimental and has hardly been done, reflected Reich. But the coolest benefit of using this technology is “that the information feeds back to the educators through a server and they can actually find out what the kids are interested in and not interested in. So they can change the programs.” Ensuring that the museum will be able to see firsthand what kids and guests of all ages are connecting with and adapt to fit their needs for years to come.  

I believe that this museum will leave an impression on all who visit. The teams involved have built it with great affection, respect, and love for the survivors and their families, those who perished, even the educators, students, and visitors. I cannot claim to know such things of course, but when I turned to face the brutalist back wall of the theatre and the questions splayed there, I cared to stop, look, and ask myself, “How could the Holocaust happen?” “Is justice possible?” and “What can we learn from the Holocaust?” I imagine folks of all ages will also stop to ask these questions because it is a space that awakens curiosity and reflection. And that’s all Reich could hope for. 

“[These questions] are what we want people to really think about when they leave. These are important questions you should ask yourself because there are so many things happening in the world that you know about. Is it important to protect democracy? Some people don’t think so these days.” 

I began our trip to THM with a quote from Leipciger that set the tone of what to expect to find upon entering. And I leave you with a striking sentiment he shared to Solomon, during their discussion in the hall, to carry with you as we all find ways to work toward a better future. 

“My solution to the problem [of prejudice] is acceptance, not tolerance. Tolerance is a negative aspect because it says I’ll tolerate until you become like me. That’s not right. I think we have to accept, mutually accept the way we live, the way we believe, the way we dress. Accept our differences; understand each other’s differences fully. Not only to study your own history but also the esteem of other minorities in our country.”

Header image design by Orly Zebak. Photographs courtesy of Vito Amati for the Toronto Holocaust Museum. 

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